Our churches have icons, and our people have icons in their homes. However, depending on the Church, they will be emphasised more or less. Copts and Ethiopians have icons, and their churches sometimes remind me structurally of Byzantine churches to an extent, iconostasis and all. Armenians, Syrians, and Indians tend to emphasise icons less, and may not have as many icons in the church--
I think that our Oriental Orthodox relaxed approach to Icons is problematic. Since we do not have any systematic and unified dogma about Icons, other than that we can use them, I think that we are a bit vulnerable to the cultural and hence theological influence of western imported paintings. If we do not explicitly state what we stand for then our chances for falling for trends and innovations is multiplied.
Icons are not simply nice paintings or pictures. It is true that it is liturgically important for the Church to look heavenly and beautiful and good Icons are an important part of that. It is also true that in Christianity Icons have always had the function of teaching orthodox principles by visual means (in the beginning because books were not available in big numbers and even if they were most people couldn’t read).
For instance: traditionally, when children are taught mistere sellasie
(the Mystery of the Trinity) it is taught using the Icon of the Trinity (from the Church in Lalibela and based on the three Old Men that visited Abraham). It is supposed to be painted with them all sitting on the same throne and all holding one globe to show that they are all united in their authority and their Godhead. But what is signified when someone loosely paints the Icon and has them all sitting on different chairs and doing different things? Worst still, what does it mean when the painting is a western import with an old Father, a young Son, and a bird Holy Spirit (even if that was one of the earthly manifestations of the Son and the Spirit)?
I have no quarrels that Michelangelo’s paintings are fine pieces of art and in some cases are inspiring (and Mel Gibson’s incorporation of that scenery into “The Passion” was another brilliant accomplishment); but what role do they have in an Orthodox Church? Are they not better suited for ones private collection or home decoration?
Byzantine Orthodox seem to be very clear that you do not show the vital organs of Christ on any Icons. So what good is it doing us when we allow Italian imported paintings of Christ with an exposed heart, with piercing vines wrapped around it?
It is disheartening to see some of our Churches in America totally without traditional and theological Icons and in their place a bunch of Renaissance paintings that one of the Deacons picked up at the flea market!
I am not complaining about “Pews vs. No Pews” or “Torch and Candle vs. Electric Light”—to the contrary theologically orthodox and consistent Icons are life or death. You let heterodox concepts creep into the Iconography you end up with heterodox beliefs.
In Ethiopia there is a special review board that reviews tapes of Orthodox “Music” before they are released to the public. If the theology and the hymnography are Orthodox then the stamp of approval of the Church is given, if not then it is not. Obviously our fathers understand that modern egocentric Protestant music is not healthy for Orthodoxy. Plus the danger of someone being intrigued by that snappy Protestant gospel music that you can dance to and wishing to incorporate it into traditional Orthodox music is too great to ignore.
Is Iconography any less important than music? If not then why have we not acted?
To the very least our Bishops should get together and ensure that we all commit to guard the theological expression of our traditional Icons and move away from flea market imports.
The necessity of a firm theology on Icons is not just to defend Tradition against the mumblings of Protestants and Islam. It is also to ensure that non-orthodox concepts do not creep into the Church and the role of Icons in Christian praxis remains solid. Otherwise we have “art for art’s sake” and not Orthodoxy.