Icons Images and Idols
The representation of gods, saints, and heroes, of mythic events and of formative historical events, has been a widespread phenomenon in the history of religion. Conventional notions suggest that some religions, for example Islam and prophetic Judaism, are aniconic, meaning that they are against the use of idols or images. At the iconic end of the spectrum we find Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism, traditions in which images articulate, order, and fill the sacred spaces of both temple and home. Scholars who adopt such a schematic approach place Protestantism, Vedaism, and ancient Buddhism toward the aniconic end of the scale and Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and the religions of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome toward the iconic end.
The historical study of religion, however, has shown that the understanding and use of images have been complex and have shifted in emphasis in various periods. Hinduism and its daughter Buddhism both appear to have started out without the use of images and grew into iconic faiths over many generations. The phenomenological study of religion shows that the veneration of images by a devout woman or man may vary, even dramatically, from what is said about the importance of the image or even about its sacred character. Theravada Buddhists, for example, may say that the image of the Buddha is simply a "representation" and that the historical Buddha died like any other person and is therefore obviously not present in any way in the image. Yet, they bow with reverence and make offerings to statues of the Buddha even if they encounter them in unexpected places far outside the traditional environment of the sacred. In a given tradition at any given moment, one often finds that the attitude toward images runs a remarkable spectrum of belief. Among Orthodox Christians entering a church for the Divine Liturgy on a Sunday morning, there will be many who take candles to the front of the church and offer them in memory as they pause to pray before the icons. Some will speak of the icon as miraculous while their neighbor will note its pedagogical role as a visual scripture or hagiography and others will say the icon is a "window of divine grace" or, in the case of the icon of Jesus Christ, an "embodiment of God" and witness to the Incarnation.
The image may also be understood as divine. Stilpo, a fourth-century- B.C.E. citizen of Athens, was banished for teaching that the Greek sculptor Phidias's statue of Athena was not a goddess, and the ninth-century South Indian mystic Andal is said to have married an image of Vishnu and miraculously been absorbed into the God's embrace. Images may become divine when they are initiated in and through a ritual. When images arrive for installation in Hindu temples they are initiated through the ritual of prana partista, and the "breath of God enters them" never to be removed. In ancient Egypt the high priest would enter the temple chamber in the morning ritual and take the statue of the god from its resting place, clean, clothe, and feed the deity and then retire from this most holy place until the following morning.
Perhaps one of the most widespread practices is the use of images as a focus for veneration with a clear sense that they function as a reminder of the deity's characteristics, inviting one to offer both one's struggles and joys, concerns and thankfulness, through prayer, meditation, or devotion. For the devotees the image is a way of engaging the holy. This, of course, makes the image sacred but not in and of itself a deity.