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October 15, 2009

The Corruption of Orthodox Iconography

By John Sanidopoulos

"They shall not profane the holy things of the people of Israel, which they offer to the Lord." - Leviticus 22:15

Orthodox Christians hold their iconography to be sacred and should treat them as they would the one depicted. For this reason we bow to them, kiss them, pray before them and we would even suffer and die for them as was done during the period of Iconoclasm.

Last Sunday (October 11) we not only celebrated the Sunday of the Seventh Ecumenical Synod which is a celebration of the Orthodox doctrine of iconography, but also that of the Miracle of the Icon of our Lord Jesus Christ in Beirut. If there is one lesson we should learn from these two commemorations, it is how to properly treat an icon.

There is a massive corruption of Orthodox iconography going on in our days that most of us are guilty of taking part in through one way or another. The ways this is done are many. Below I offer a few examples. I'm probably going to have many who disagree with some of my views below, but they are just my own personal opinion to uphold the sacred value and reverence of Orthodox icons.

Mass Produced Icons

In our modern era, with computer programs and machinery that allow for great mass production, icons have severely been cheapened to the point where most Orthodox must confess that they have been iconoclasts themselves unwittingly.

For example, when I was a child my parish would post a colored icon on the cover of our weekly parish bulletin and yearly calendar, which they still do. Usually the bulletin would advertise the goings on of the parish for that week and on the back there was a short description of the icon. Because the contents were exclusive to the week, I can almost guarantee that the bulletin everyone in my parish received made its way into the trash if not right away then surely by weeks end. I know ours did. During social hour I would see some on the floor and people stepping on them, or on the tables and people using them as place mats for their coffee and pastry. By the time we were done with them, these icons were stained, ripped and trashed without any regard for the one depicted.

As I got older I began to reflect on these things. I believed it was inconsistent for me to venerate icons in my church and burn my oil lamp and incense before my personal icons, while I mistreated the mass produced paper ones which only served a temporary purpose. After all, there are many reported miracles of copies of icons as well as their originals. I thus began a personal revolt at this point. Every time I received something with an icon on it that was to be discarded, I set it aside and before discarding I would cut out the icon and keep it near my other icons. If some were ripped I put them aside and respectfully burned them at a certain point, as the canons advise. This is something I would encourage everyone to do as well to preserve the sacred nature of the image, tedious as it may seem.

Photoshopped Icons

It used to be that iconographers would keep a fast throughout the period when they painted icons and they would unceasingly pray due to the sacred nature of their work, and this in turn would sanctify the icon and gain the approval of the one depicted. Today with photo editing programs and the simple click of a button we can do what we want with ease to corrupt this sacred art. There is a blasphemous trend today to photoshop icons. It seems only the non-Orthodox are doing this to make some sort of a cultural or political statement, such as when Harry Potter and Barrack Obama were photoshopped onto what was an image of Christ. Before the trend catches on I would advise Orthodox Christians to abstain from this practice for whatever reason.

Icon Jewelery

I wouldn't say all icon jewelery is bad. For example, an icon pendant or even a button pin is fine. Some however go too far and it seems to me that they are only made for sellers to make a quick buck. For example, I've seen icon earings and bracelets. The former aren't seen so much but the latter have become a popular trend among Orthodox. Members of my own family wear them and not too long ago I went to eat at a local restaurant where the hostess was a Greek Orthodox widow who wore an icon bracelet on each wrist. What I find improper with the whole thing is that it is usually worn as a sort of good luck charm, and every time they drop their hands on a table they smash the icons as well. Pendants and button pins can be properly treated, but I see no point in earings and bracelets which are more fashion statements than anything. It is a fashion trend that has sprung from Orthodox, even the non-practicing, who wear prayer ropes as bracelets - as if everyone is a practicing hesychast!

Icons on Accessories

To make a quick buck retailers and vendors have also resorted to putting icons on various accessories. Again, some I think can be used properly but others are not only improper but pointless. Of the many that I find to be improper are icon cookie stamps, candy moulds, business cards, key chains, mousepads, mugs, and a few others. Why would you want to eat something with an icon on it? Or print an icon on something someone is going to surely discard? Or treat an icon the way you treat your keys? Or roll your computer mouse all around it? Or use your lips on an icon not to kiss it but to drink coffee or soda from it? Before we buy such things we need to first think how we are going to treat these icons and if it falls in line with the way icons should be treated.

Purchasing Corrupt Icons

Yes, there are corrupt icons out there. Some icons are painted by schismatics that we should avoid purchasing as much as possible. Others are outright heretical and blasphemous.

The group that produces the so-called Monastery Icons are one which all Orthodox should avoid. Not only are they terrible pieces of art, but this group is a New Age cult that does not paint icons in a traditional manner nor do they treat them so. In their worship they mix Hindu rituals with Christian ones. For further reading on this heretical group, see here, here, and here.

Following the tradition of Monastery Icons, there are questionable icon sellers who are non-canonical or not recognized by other canonical Orthodox Churches, such as St. Isaac the Syrian Skete, and there are many non-Orthodox iconographers out there who have produced icons of people that are far from being saints and deserve iconographic depiction. Some may have been great political leaders or heros, but the deified and grace-filled depiction of these personages is improper and should not be purchased by Orthodox Christians. One such group of many is the Episcopalian Grace Cathedral who paint icons of literary figures and civil activists. Others may depict pop culture personalities.

Commissioning Corrupt Icons

The commissioning of icons for a sacred purpose is a good thing. Sometimes however we let our passions get in the way. For this reason we must be very careful when we commission icons to make sure it falls within the boundaries of a traditional format. The sacred art of iconography is not about producing original works for the sake of beauty or art, but as a means of sanctification. What we choose to sanctify however should be carefully chosen. For example, depicting the Theotokos over a soccer field to celebrate the winning of the 2002 Euro Cup is a bad idea, in my opinion.


In so many ways within our contemporary society even the most devout Orthodox Christians have lost a sense of what is sacred. The examples above are just one way this is done. For the most part, I'm sure it is not the original intention of anyone to corrupt Orthodox iconography. Most have probably never even considered it. Since I have considered it I thought it was my duty to enlighten others and hopefully we can give greater consideration to what is holy in our lives and the means through which we can be sanctified by them or even, for that matter, be corrupted by the improper use of them.