The traditional icon is a stylized religious picture that is usually painted on a wood panel in egg tempera. Icons depict Christ, the Trinity, St. Mary, other saints, and events in the gospels and lives of the saints. Icons have been used in both eastern and western churches. Icons were painted or placed on the walls of churches and on interior beams and screens. They were also displayed in private houses and at wayside shrines.
The oldest extant icons date from the fifth century. The Seventh Ecumenical Council of 787 determined that the use of icons is supported by the Incarnation, in which the Word of God united to created human nature and thus to matter in general. That Council also taught that the honor given to an icon passes to that which it represents. The eastern churches developed the icon tradition extensively. In the west the tradition was eclipsed by the Renaissance and other artistic movements. However, offshoots of the icon tradition in the west include the use of stained glass windows and the illustrations in manuscripts and liturgical books. Today there is a revival of the use of icons in the western churches, including the Episcopal Church.
Glossary definitions provided courtesy of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY,(All Rights reserved) from “An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians,” Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, editors.