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In a discussion on imagery and icons, the Orthodox Study Bible says:

Every image, or icon, of Christ has significant theological content. For it proclaims anew the Incarnation of God, who "became flesh" for our salvation (Jn 1:14). Recognized icons of our Savior, prayerfully made, provide us with inspired, trustworthy representations of Him. [page 92; bold added]

This seems to suggest that some images, fulfilling certain criteria, are "recognized" to be accurate representations of Jesus thanks to special information given directly by God to the artist. If so, this idea of "inspiration" would address the anti-icon argument that all "images of Jesus" are false because nothing is known about his appearance.

I'd like to know two things: is my understanding of "inspired" here correct? And how does an image become "recognized" in Eastern Orthodoxy? More fully stated:

  • In Eastern Orthodoxy, are some artists understood to have received special revelation from God that allows them to create accurate images of Jesus?
  • In Eastern Orthodoxy, how is an icon "recognized" as inspired? Is it the action of some ecclesiastical body, and what criteria are applied in making the decision? Can new images be "recognized" today?
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This seems to suggest that some images, fulfilling certain criteria, are "recognized" to be accurate representations of Jesus thanks to special information given directly by God to the artist.

There are no specific criteria that I am aware of. Furthermore, I think it is correct to say that we Orthodox do not necessarily believe that the images presented in icons are physically accurate, nor do we believe that the iconographer receives some special revelation ("information").

I think the right way to understand icons is that they are a visual expression of theology, using the medium of an image rather than the printed word. This expression may be quite simple. An icon of a particular martyr may do no more than remind us of the existence of that martyr and perhaps cause us to recall what he or she did in their life. In the tradition of the Church, the Samaritan woman at the well was called Photina and she was martyred by the Emperor Nero in Rome. Her icon is clearly unrealistic (e.g. the well probably wasn't in the shape of a cross), but her image with the well and Christ reminds us who she was and perhaps causes us to recall something of the Gospel account.

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On the other hand, the icon of Christ's Descent into Hades is quite complex. To his left and right are Adam and Eve, who have been awaiting him since Creation. Below His feet is a skeletal figure, representing Death or Satan, reminding us of what is written in Hebrews: Through death He might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil. The presence of David and Solomon on His left remind us of His genealogy. Other versions of this icon have other details. It is literally a visual sermon.

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In Eastern Orthodoxy, are some artists understood to have received special revelation from God that allows them to create accurate images of Jesus?

No, I would say that no artists are understood to have received special revelation. We do not believe that certain persons receive new revelations (a belief, for example, of Ted Cruz' particular Christian confession). As I state above, icons do not purport to present necessarily accurate images.

In Eastern Orthodoxy, how is an icon "recognized" as inspired? Is it the action of some ecclesiastical body, and what criteria are applied in making the decision? Can new images be "recognized" today?

The Eastern Orthodox Church has no central authority. There are Church canons that date back to the 8th century, but they deal with refutations of heresies and with maintaining the good order of the Church. There are no criteria and no decisions. Any recognition is spontaneous, by the Orthodox faithful (saints are recognized in the same way, not through any central committee decision, as in Roman Catholicism). To my knowledge, however, no iconographer undertakes painting an icon without a blessing from his "spiritual father" (usually a priest or a Church hierarch) and no iconographer undertakes painting an icon without first undergoing a very intense period of prayer and fasting. This has been the tradition of the Orthodox Church since the earliest icons were painted, probably in the late 1st or early 2nd century.

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