St. Athanasius on Icons

St. Athanasius the Great ca. 297-373

We, the faithful, do not worship the icons as gods. By no means as the pagans, rather we are simply expressing our relation to, and the feeling of our love toward, the person whose image is depicted in the icon. Hence, frequently when the image has faded, we burn it in fire, then as plain wood, that which previously was an icon. Just as Jacob, when dying, bowed in worship over the head of the staff of Joseph [cf. Heb. 11:21] not honoring the staff, but him to whom it belonged, in the same manner the faithful, for no other reason, venerate [kiss] the icons, just as we often kiss our children, so that we may plainly express the affection [we feel] in our soul. For it is just as the Jew once worshipped the tablets of the Law and the two golden sculptured Cherubims not to honor the nature of the stone and gold, but the Lord who had given them. (39th Question to Antiochos, PG 94.1365.)


  1. Could you explain the practice of censing icons? How does that work with the understanding of St. Athanasius?


  2. St.Athanasius says that the Orthodox practice is analogous to Jewish usage of the Cherubim:

    And he shall take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before the Lord, and two handfuls of sweet incense beaten small, and he shall bring it inside the veil and put the incense on the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is over the testimony, so that he does not die. (Leviticus 16:12, 13 ESV)

    The Old Covenant priest’s vision was obscured by the cloud of incense and the Mercy Seat between the Cherubim was empty. On the other hand, in the New Covenant the image has been restored and revealed in Christ: Head and Body. When the censer is turned to icons and the people, it testifies to God’s dynamic revelation of His image within them (theosis). Incense also symbolizes the grace of the Spirit, intercessory prayers and the unity of the heavenly and earthly.

  3. Thanks for your question Russ!

  4. Thanks for this site. I am wondering in one’s spiritual practice if it is hubris (or something akin to hubris) to raise people in our historical lives to the level of icon. My father recently passed and I am considering looking into an iconographer in the Toronto (Canada) area to paint an icon of him in a canoe in Northern Ontario.

    I have an M.Div from a Jesuit seminary and an M.A. in religion from U. of Toronto and so I was drawn to think through the implications of what Athanasius says here, especially regarding the approach of honouring of the icon a la one’s children.

    Ken Craig

  5. Ken,

    Thank you for visiting us. You should speak to your spiritual father about this issue since this is a subject that lay bloggers are not qualified to address.

    in ICXC,

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