Icons, which depict holy people or events on wooden panels or walls hold an important place in Orthodox worship. They do not purport to illustrate a scene as in a photograph, but rather to portray the subject to bring the worshipper closer to its presence. The worshipper may show veneration to the subject by kissing and prostrating himself or herself before it, in a sacred time and space inspired by the icon, which is sometimes believed to have miraculous powers.
Icons are to be found on the iconostasis, a screen with three doors that separates the sanctuary from the nave of the church. The central door gives onto the altar and sanctuary, where, part of the service is performed out of sight of the congregation. The most outstanding figures on the iconostasis are often the icons of Christ, the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist. In order to emphasize the identity of Jesus as the Son of God, Byzantine icons bear, around Christ’s head, OON, the Greek equivalent of the letters YHVH, considered sacred by the Jews.
Early Christianity was opposed to depiction of Christ and the Saints, and rejected the idea that these were sacred. Between 730 and 843, there was a period of iconoclasm, when the Byzantine Emperor officially banned the use of icons, as part of the movement against idolatry, based on the second of the Ten Commandments listed in the Old Testament, which prohibits the making or worship of any graven image or likeness of a living creature. During this period very many icons were destroyed. Those who approved of images maintained that since God gave Jesus a material form as a human, images and illustrations were permissible, and they insisted that icons bore a symbolic value. The prohibition was lifted and replaced several times until 843, when it was permanently withdrawn. So icons were once more in use, gaining due respect and today, this withdrawal is celebrated at an Orthodox religious festival.