Should Orthodox Christians Get Their Icons Blessed?

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It is no secret that icons are an important part of Orthodox faith and worship, covering the walls and ceilings and iconostases of our parishes, and most Orthodox Christians have at least a few icons at home. It also is no secret that the Orthodox Church practices blessings throughout the Church year—we start with the blessing of the waters at Theophany, and then we take that water and bless all sorts of other things, like our homes, each other, fruit, and even our cars.

In the past few centuries, it has become increasingly common to have icons blessed by a priest or bishop, either having them sprinkled with holy water or anointing them with Holy Chrism. Some pious believers will even refuse to display an icon in their homes until it is blessed, and I have even seen Russian icons come in the packaging “pre-blessed”! I’ve been told by a few Greek and Antiochian friends that icons may be taken behind the iconostasis and kept there for 40 days to bless them. For so many people, this is a special event, and a comfort.

It is as if the icon goes from profane to holy through the act of blessing. Last year, Fr. Steven Bigham addressed this issue head-on in the Orthodox Arts Journal, and I’ve seen the article making its rounds the past few weeks. Titled “Does the Blessing of Icons Agree with or Contradict the Tradition of the Orthodox Church?,” Fr. Steven’s article addresses the issue clearly and fully, sweeping history for a clear and definitive answer. The article begins with this paragraph:

Orthodox Christians routinely have their icons blessed by a priest or bishop. Bishops often anoint them with Holy Chrism. There are even special services for blessing different kinds of icons: of Christ, of the Mother of God, of feasts, etc. Most people would never imagine putting an unblessed icon in their houses; it would be a kind of sacrilege, but once the icon is blessed — whatever its subject, taste, canonicity, etc. — many think that what was a simple picture before the blessing becomes an icon after, because of the blessing. It becomes at least a “better” icon. Being only a “profane” image before, it becomes “holy” after, because it has been blessed. Very few Orthodox would question this practice which they feel is legitimate, traditional, and totally in agreement with Church Tradition. I hope to show that despite the widespread habit of blessing icons, this practice is not in agreement with Church Tradition, and that it is in fact contrary to it and based on a theology of the icons that is foreign to Orthodoxy.

The strongest argument seems to be the historical evidence. Put simply, Fr. Steven argues, there is no written evidence of icon blessings in the Orthodox Church until the 17th century. It does not exist.

Bolstering his case, Fr. Steven quotes a long section of the Second Council of Nicea. At one point, Nicea II explicitly argues that blessing icons is unnecessary:

[M]any of the sacred things which we have at our disposal do not need a prayer of sanctification, since their name itself says that they are all-sacred and full of grace…. When we signify an icon with a name, we transfer the honor to the prototype; by embracing it and offering to it the veneration of honor, we share in the sanctification.

He also addresses St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite, who commented, “The holy icons do not need any special prayer or any application of myron (or chrism),” going on to strongly claim that introducing icon blessing into the Orthodox Church was due to Roman Catholic influence. “Do you see that the prayer which is read over holy pictures is a Papal affair, and not Orthodox: and that it is a modern affair, and not an ancient one?”

The skinny: icons are blessed already because of the figures depicted, and confirmed by the name of the saints on the images. Once an image is distorted or abolished, it returns to its former state of being simply wood and paint, and we dispose of them by reverently burning them. At the end of his article, rather than create another issue for people to argue about or fuss with their bishop or priest over, he suggests a workable solution to this innovative practice would be to replace the icon blessing with an icon dedication ceremony.

Read the whole thing here.

22 comments:

  1. At one Orthodox Church, the priest just place the icon in the sancuary for one divine liturgy service and you were good to go. Not sure why you would need myron (or chrism) when you could use just the same type of oil used for unction. If you could place that type of oil in a spray can, the priest could come to your house and just spray on the oil and get the icon corner done fairly quickly. Unction in a Can ™

    1. I wonder to what extent this might play straight into the hands of the Rev. Mr.Steven Wedgeworth – about our “worshipping” of icons.
      Because, you see, if we have them blessed, then obviously,— oh my yes! — obviously! we regard them as holy, and therefore to be worshipped.
      I somehow think he has forgotten the response of the people just prior to the Communion Hymn in the Liturgy of St.John Chrysostom – One is Holy.
      one is the Lord Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.
      Just “One” that is, Mr. Wedgeworth, not a bunch of icons!

  2. “The skinny: icons are blessed already because of the figures depicted, and confirmed by the name of the saints on the images.”

    This makes sense, to me. Also, what about the person making the icon? If they are Orthodox and praying while they make this image I feel it would be blessed by their prayers and God’s inspiration to make the icon.

    I have obtained several prayer ropes that were made by nuns and believe they are blessed, as the nuns pray when making ropes and they are made in a monastery.

    I did have one of my ropes blessed, by my Priest, because it was actually made by non-Orthodox folks. It was beautiful, but I just felt safer knowing it was blessed by the Priest as opposed to not knowing what the artist was thinking or doing when they made it.

    1. Without commenting on your particular experience, I would very much be hesitant to believe that a prayer rope made by someone who is not Orthodox is “unsafe.” If someone’s intentions, thoughts or acts could make a prayer rope unsafe, I don’t see how they might not also make my Toyota unsafe or my coffee also unsafe.

      I believe that all creation is blessed. Certain things are consecrated to be set aside for particular purposes, but such blessings and consecrations aren’t magical wards that defend against evil.

      Anyway, I don’t intend this comment as a rebuke. I just wanted to draw out a bit of the ramifications of a theology that would require something to be blessed in order to be made safe.

      1. Father Andrew, I’m sorry to say I don’t agree with your view on asking or rather not asking the blessings for icons or even your Toyota etc. I expect a little more from you, maybe if we asked our beloved monks on Mount Athos about this subject would help us understand the power of blessings.

        God Bless You Father, and please keep an open mind to the power of prayers and the asking of blessings.

        An Orthodox4life

        1. Here are the views I expressed in the comment you said you disagreed with:

          1. We do not live in a world where every physical thing is spiritually “unsafe” unless a blessing has been said over it.
          2. All creation is blessed.
          3. Blessings and consecrations aren’t magical wards that defend against evil.

          So, what you are saying is that:

          1. Everything in the world is “unsafe” until a blessing has been said over it.
          2. All creation is not blessed.
          3. Blessings are consecrations are magical wards that defend against evil.

          It should be noted that I never said anything about not believing in the power of prayers and asking of blessings. (I’m a priest, you know.) What Athonite monks have to do with any of this, I’m not sure.

          Just as a data point, I should note that, when I took my Toyota out for its initial test drive, I did not make the dealer wait while I said a prayer of blessing over the vehicle. (Perhaps surprisingly, it did not explode, and we did not get into an accident. Nor did Marilyn Manson even come unexpectedly through the speakers of the radio.) I did later bless the car with holy water after I bought it, but not because I thought it was dangerous before.

    2. That is interesting – I think I read a quote from Elder Paisios stating that our spiritual state, our prayers (or lack thereof) can actually leave an influence in objects that we create. I do not know if this is a widely held belief or not, or if those objects can then have an influence – it might sound like paranoia to some, but I have had some worries in the past over what spiritual influences may or not have gone into the production of certain objects in my home. So, yes, I blessed them with holy water – not sure if it was necessary or not. I don’t want to descend into superstition, and it may be due to my still growing understanding of our faith and my own blindness in the spiritual world. Recently I have been focusing more on the truth that the Holy Spirit is everywhere, pervading all things, and putting my trust in God, regardless of what spiritual storms may be brewing around me unseen.

  3. I think the article overstates it’s case – while I agree that the question of “must” an icon be blessed is addressed, it goes beyond the presented evidence to therefore claim icons “should not” be blessed.

    I think it’s clear that it should be said that an icon is an icon, blessed or not. A blessing is neither necessary nor sufficient to “turn on an icon” or make something into an icon. Anyone who says otherwise should be corrected.

    However, at the same time, we have many things blessed as a pious practice. I see no reason this should be made to stop in the case of icons. As an example, many Orthodox wear a cross. This cross is still clearly a cross without a blessing, and yet we often have them blessed regardless. Similarly, I believe, with icons.

    1. Since Jamey isn’t a presbyter, I don’t think this really applies to his argument. Certainly wise priests, such as Fr. Andrew, would likely never refuse to bless an icon or cross if requested to do so, but they also wouldn’t/shouldn’t inform or command their parishioners to perpetuate an unnecessary tradition.

      1. I should have been more clear, when I said “his article” I was using in the same sense as Jamey, and referring to the linked article.

        The linked article goes well beyond Jamey’s discussion with the strength of its assertion, stating that (summarizing with the selective quotes for brevity) :

        “I hope to show that despite the widespread habit of blessing icons, this practice is not in agreement with Church Tradition, and that it is in fact contrary to it and based on a theology of the icons that is foreign to Orthodoxy.

        So, if my analysis is correct, we must simply recognize a very bizarre phenomenon: a practice… in fact contrary to the Tradition of the Orthodox Church…. Is this situation surprising? Tragic yes, but surprising? No.

        Therefore, it can only be CATASTROPHIC when the iconographic tradition of the Orthodox Church departs from its own sources; it can only be a pollution of that tradition and of the revelation itself. But as we have seen, there have been voices crying in the wilderness.

        If all Orthodox agree that it is always necessary to defend Holy Tradition against corrupting influences, then we must make sure that what we defend is in fact part of that Tradition.”

        Sorry for the long quoting, but I just want to be clear that Fr. Steven clearly calls the practice of blessing icons tragic, catastrophic, and corrupting.
        I’d agree, as I said, that icons don’t require a blessing but differ in that I think they may be blessed. Jamey’s article seems to talk more about this (the question of must an icon be blessed), although the title indicates the question under consideration is “should”. Semantics maybe, but important logically and to be clear what we’re saying.

        Hopefully I’ve done my best to charitably present what I’m trying to get across.

  4. Thank you so much for this article! I was somehow under the impression that icons really properly *should* be blessed – really, frankly, like, they *must* be blessed, and also the crosses we wear, etc. And blessed by the priest, not by our own sprinkling of holy water. Recently my priest told me that this is a relatively recent practice, having our icons blessed at church – this article further clarifies the issue.

  5. I’ve heard that in the Greek practice, they “Church” an icon by placing it on the altar during at least one liturgy. The Slavic practice of blessing icons is I think not inappropriate, and the services express the theology of the Church regarding icons. And so I bless icons, because the service books of the Russian Church say to do so. However, I would not treat an icon that had not been blessed as if it was not already holy just by virtue of the image on it. That is why in pious Russian practice, we burn any icons printed on paper, rather than throw them in the trash. With all the Orthodox junk mail that includes such images, this means keeping a burn pile, or container, and doing so several times a year.

  6. Some very odd arguments expressed here. If we “should not” bless icons, why bless anything at all? The Priest sprinkled water on me at the Theophany service on Sunday. Should he not have bothered? Conversely, why go to the other extreme – that I was “not blessed” by my faith before the water hit me?

    Analysing what Priestly blessings “do” instead of simply experiencing them and seeking to acquire the Spirit from them seems like an awfully “Latin” way of looking at things. Or am I out of place to say so?

    Why not get icons blessed if we seek the Holy Spirit through them?

  7. Question: what about having an icon image printed from a site or something and then putting it in a frame? Would that still be considered an icon?

    1. Yes, it is holy because “When we signify an icon with a name, we transfer the honor to the prototype,” as quoted from the council above. So we should reverently burn even printed icons when we dispose of them. Framing them is perfectly acceptable. In fact, I’ve seen a number of churches use large format printed icon cards for their festal icons, and simply rotate them within the frame. An icon is an icon is an icon.

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