An icon is the representation in art of Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary, angels, saints or other sacred subjects for the purpose of veneration and also instruction but it is more than this. ‘It is a sacramental medium, a meeting point between the divine uncreated light and the human heart. Its visible created beauty is a luminous epiphany, a ‘place’ of manifestation, where prayer gains access to the uncreated beauty of God’s grace and truth. It beautifies the Church and in a way proclaims the Gospel to the senses. The use of images in general in the Church is an extension of the Christian understanding of the Incarnation in which Christ took on our human nature and became one of us. Icons draw the mind and heart to the invisible realities which they depict.
This was a key principle in St. Bernardine of Siena’s preaching of the Holy Name of Jesus and his invitations to the faithful to venerate the Holy Name. Many of his religious contemporaries opposed his methods and accused him of heresy. However, in his own defence St. Bernardine said regarding the image of the Holy Name, that it’s not the ‘carving or the colouring or the sweetness; not the sign but the thing signified , for the Name of Jesus means for you the Saviour, the Redeemer, the Son of God.’ He emphasised that it was not the emblem in itself that mattered but the thoughts that it aroused. He was cleared of the charges of heresy and his Holy Name apostolate continued to spread.
The Council of Trent would later affirm the appropriateness of the veneration of images as well as the fact that the reverence accorded to sacred images passes to that which they represent.
An icon is usually painted on a wall, a partition or a wooden panel. Icons are much more popular in Eastern Christianity.