Icons are images depicting our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, His Blessed Mother, the Bodiless Powers (Angels) and the saints who have glorified God down through the ages. Most commonly they are painted on specially prepared boards, but other media, such as mosaics and metal engravings, can also be employed.
The very first icon ("The Icon-Made-Without-Hands") was miraculously imprinted on a cloth by our Savior Himself. The first hand-painted icons were executed by St. Luke the Evangelist, with the Mother of God herself as his living model. Used in the Church's worship from the beginning, they are to be found on the walls of the Catacombs of ancient Rome.
The icon is no mere decorative embellishment or instructional aid, but rather a "window to heaven," a glimpse into the spiritual world where the saints and angels dwell. The person depicted on the icon is truly present in a mystical way. Thus, the icon is a conveyor of grace, a link between heaven and earth. Occasionally an icon is revealed as miraculous, often exuding a fragrant oily substance (myrrh). Many have received miraculous healings after praying before such icons.
The veneration of icons is not an option for the Orthodox Christian. Rather, it is an essential component of the Church's theology. Because Jesus Christ truly took human flesh, the formless God taking on form, so it is now possible to depict the image of our God and Savior Jesus Christ and those holy men and women in whom He dwells. To deny this is to deny the dogma of the Incarnation, which is the foundation of our Christian Faith.
A good iconographer is not merely an accomplished artist, but is more importantly a pious Orthodox Christian who prepares for his work through prayer, fasting and a profound reverence toward the holy. He is a faithful participant in the Mysteries (Sacraments) of the Church. It is also essential that he submerge his personal creative impulses in order faithfully to convey the forms of traditional Orthodox iconography.