Sacred art as a form of prayer was a subject explored in our Good Catholic’s digital content series School of Prayer. This series talked about the tragic heresy known as “iconoclasm” which reared its ugly head in the 8th and 9th centuries. It was a heresy declaring that it was wrong for Christians to use man-made images as objects of Christian devotion.
The proponents of this heresy insisted that those who used art for prayer were “image-worshippers” who violated God’s commandment against idolatry. In response, the Church defended the use of sacred images as part of the Christian tradition, and encouraged Christians to venerate them.
Iconoclasm means “image-breaking,” and this is exactly what the iconoclasts did to Christian images. Churches adorned with historic and beautiful artwork depicting Jesus, Mary and the Saints, biblical scenes, and the truths of the Faith were stripped or defaced of their artistic treasures en masse. Since Christian churches were filled from wall to ceiling with sacred images, this heresy had a devastating effect on the devotional life of Christians…
The Church formally condemned iconoclasm as a heresy at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 A.D. This Council declared that the Christian tradition of sacred images is inspired by the Holy Spirit, and that by their use the faithful receive many benefits… The Church’s teaching (as defined at the Council) is that holy images help guide, teach, and increase our faith. They also raise our hearts and minds to the eternal things of God so that we can pray more easily. Contemplating holy images reminds us of our call to holiness and our duty to offer unceasing prayer to God.
—School of Prayer
Icons are a means by which the Church leads her faithful to a life of prayer. Today icons are seen in many churches around the world, and can be venerated in the home as well. The truths of the Christian faith are transmitted through them by a specific and regulated way of painting. In the Eastern Catholic tradition, icons are described as being “written” (as though they were a language) and not merely “painted” as a form of art. Each symbol and color has a special significance that is intended for prayerful contemplation, allowing the icon to serve as a window to heaven.
To pray before an icon is to have a mystical encounter with God through the image or person depicted. That is one reason why our homes are wonderful places to display icons. The Eastern church developed a beautiful custom in which families turned a corner of their home into an icon corner.
Father Joseph Matlak explains:
For Christians, the corner of a house is a reminder of Jesus Christ, ‘the cornerstone.’ Arranging such an icon corner in a home truly consecrates a place for God in the life of the family. A family prays together and grows together in virtue in the presence of these icons.
—School of Prayer
If you are interested in creating your own icon corner, some stunning ones can be found here: Catholic Icons
Do you have a favorite icon? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!
If you’d like to learn more, you can sign up for our digital series here: School of Prayer