There are Protestants today that continue to insist that venerating icons, kissing them or even praying before them, is a form of idol-worship or idolatry. Well, there is nothing new under the sun….
The issue of whether we should or should not venerate icons goes back almost 1300 years. It was a huge controversy in the 8th and 9th centuries, which started in the year 726 (under Emperor Leo II) and lasted for about 120 years. During that time, countless holy icons and images were smashed, defaced and destroyed by those who believed them to be idolatrous. They were called “Iconoclasts” or “icon-smashers.” Many of those who defended the use of icons, known as the “Iconodules” or “venerators of icons” were persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, and even put to death.
The Iconoclasts may have been influenced by Jewish and Muslim ideas (who reject the use of images in worship). It is important to note that in 723, three years before the first outbreak of Iconoclasm in Byzantium, the Muslim Caliph Yezid ordered the removal of all icons within his dominions. However, Iconoclasm was not totally imported from outside. Within Christianity itself there were circles who were opposed to the use of images in prayer or worship, believing them to be a form of latent idolatry.
The Iconoclast controversy ended in 780, when the Empress Irene official suspended the persecution of iconodules. To clarify the position of the Universal Church on the use of icons (images, etc), she convoked the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which took place in the city of Nicaea (not far from Constantinople), from September 24 to October 13, 787. There were 350 bishops in attendance.
On the issue of venerating holy icons (images), the Fathers (Bishops) of the Seventh Council clarified the position of the Universal (Catholic) Church and promulgated the following declaration:
“As the sacred and life-giving cross is everywhere set up as a symbol, so also should the images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the holy angels, as well as those of the saints and other pious and holy men be embodied in the manufacture of sacred vessels, tapestries, vestments, etc., and exhibited on the walls of churches, in the homes, and in all conspicuous places, by the roadside and everywhere, to be revered by all who might see them. For the more they are contemplated, the more they move to fervent memory of their prototypes. Therefore, it is proper to accord to them a fervent and reverent adoration, not, however, the veritable worship which, according to our faith, belongs to the Divine Being alone — for the honor accorded to the image passes over to its prototype, and whoever adores the image adores in it the reality of what is there represented.”
In other words, whenever we kiss or venerate an icon of Jesus or a cross with love, Jesus immediately receives our kiss and the warmth of our love. The same applies to icons of Mary and the Saints.
I do not worship matter, but the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who through matter effected my salvation… —St. John of Damascus
Concerning the charge of idolatry: Icons are not idols but symbols, therefore when an Orthodox venerates an icon, he is not guilty of idolatry. He is not worshipping the symbol, but merely venerating it. Such veneration is not directed toward wood, or paint or stone, but towards the person depicted. Therefore, relative honor is shown to material objects, but worship is due to God alone. We do not make obeisance to the nature of wood, but we revere and do obeisance to Him who was crucified on the Cross… When the two beams of the Cross are joined together, I adore the figure because of Christ who was crucified on the Cross, but if the beams are separated, I throw them away and burn them. —St. John of Damascus