I've always been an admirer of art. The icon pictured here hangs on my bedroom wall. I bought it at the local Eastern Orthodox church's annual festival a few years back. I have a couple of other small icons as well, beautiful icons of the creation.
Mark at Pseudo-Polymath has been discussing icons, among other things. Protestants have not disowned religious art completely, but religious art certainly holds a much smaller place in Protestantism. Each of the different major groups in Christianity have different artistic styles for devotional artwork. Protestants seem to specialize in pastel pastoral scenes. Roman Cathlolics tend to specialize in the bare-chest/heart revealed artwork. And here I will give the Eastern Orthodox their due, I think they do the best at sacred visual art. They show little interest in realism; the holy cannot be directly drawn so realism does not help in representing it. But icons have been made of nearly every major scene in the Bible, carefully crafted so each color, each hand position, each element of the picture carries theological weight. The various elements of the drawing have been discussed and studied and have taken traditional forms over the centuries. The traditional forms are well-developed so that if you see Peter in one icon, you can easily recognize Peter in the next icon, even when drawn by another artist in another nation in another century. This allows a tremendous community and rich tradition within the artwork that is not really available when each artist re-imagines what each person looks like or how each building might have looked. This standardization has freed the artist from decisions about such details and allowed the artist to focus on communicating the holy. Some of the Eastern Orthodox icons are breathtakingly beautiful. And the range and variety of icons available is extensive. If you had to find Protestant renditions of every major scene in the New Testament, it might take some time and still be incomplete; for those you did find, the representations of certain people might not be recognizable from one artist's conception to the next. If you had to find Eastern Orthodox renditions of every major scene in the New Testament or likely even the entire Bible (along with parables and picturesque sayings), you could contact any of the major carriers of icons and place your orders and hope you had enough wall space for them all. The breadth of material covered is impressive.
I'm aware of the objection that Eastern Orthodox icons show no innovation in style, that they do not allow the artist much range or freedom, that the basic forms and even the representation of certain scenes may not have changed for a thousand years. To me, that's almost like complaining that the Psalms are poems that rely heavily on standard themes and internal parallelism; that's half their charm and all of their claim to unity. It's what creates the artistic impression of belonging to a set, representing a single vision of the world where they communicate with each other, grow and build from each other, each forming the background to the next. The unbrokenness of the tradition and style across many nations and many centuries has been the key to creating that unique richness of the icon tradition.
Icons and Devotion
I find icons useful in devotions in the same way that visualizing a scene from Scripture can be useful in devotions. A good set of icons can easily serve as a Bible for someone who cannot read or who does not have a Bible immediately available. They can serve as a focus for pondering Scripture, for meditating, for prayer. The "prayer" part may make some people uncomfortable. On occasions when I look at an icon while praying, I'm certainly not praying to the icon; the icon is simply useful in helping me focus on prayer. Neither would I choose to look at an icon while praying every time that I pray. It's simply helpful, an aid to devotion. And when visiting sites around the confessional Lutheran blogroll, I notice a good number of other Lutherans showing their appreciation for Eastern Orthodox icons.
Icons and Veneration
I've been to Eastern Orthodox worship services where the icons are venerated. That is to say, a line forms and each person is expected to join a line and kiss the icon. As a visitor, I've always been free to pass. And looking in from the outside, it feels as if here the Eastern Orthodox may have crossed a line. It's not the line of idolatry; they do not honor the pictures in their own right, but as visually helpful stand-ins for the realities they represent. The icons are not idols and are not used as such. The reason that I dislike the veneration of icons has nothing to do with any suspicion of idolatry. No, the reason that I dislike the veneration of icons is that it takes something which probably should be an acceptable practice (someone honoring the memory of one of the apostles by venerating their icon) and turns it into a commended practice, something very close to obligatory. There is a suspicion among the Orthodox that those who do not use icons in some sense dishonor the Incarnation in which the Word of God condescended to become visible and therefore representable in art. While it is probably helpful to almost any Christian to see icons, it does not follow that it is helpful to everyone to venerate icons, less still that it should be required. And there is an unfortunate after-effect to the ancient disputes over the place of art in the Christian community. If a thing has been disputed and has fought for acceptance, it is common afterwards that this view sees itself as "defeating" the alternative. A view which once fought to be permissible, after earning its rightful place, now increasingly sees itself as mandatory and obligatory. That is the perception I have of Eastern Orthodox veneration of icons, of a practice whose hard-fought fight for acceptance has eventually been interpreted as a something close to a mandate.
Icons and the Church Universal
If you have ever been inside an Eastern Orthodox sanctuary, you will have seen that each church has a collection of icons from the large and prominently-displayed ones of Christ to less large but still prominent ones of the apostles and the holy family and John the Baptist, and on to other icons representing the prophets of Israel and other people who have a key place in the history of the church. In such a setting, it is far easier to remember that we are part of a larger community, that there is an unbroken chain from Abraham, from Moses and Isaiah and Jeremiah, through Christ, to Peter and James and John, and down to our age. It is easier to remember the whole sweep of church history, the great cloud of witnesses, the saints triumphant, when it is represented before your eyes with the exact point of calling it to mind. In such a setting it is much easier to recognize ourselves in living community with the church universal, in fellowship with the believers of all ages.