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Since ancient times, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has had a rational for the veneration of Icons. Icons were known to have been venerated by the Jews prior to Christianity. As told in the Old Testament, God Himself ordered Moses to make a picture of the ‘Cherub’, on the Ark of the Covenant. (Ex. 25:19, 37:7; 1 kings 6:23 1 kings 6:2-17; Ezek. 9, 3, 10:3: Eno. 14, 11). These pictures of the ‘Cherub’ are drawn on the Covenant because the Ark of the Covenant is the manifestation of the glory of God. The picture of ‘Cherub” too, is the symbol of the ‘Cherub’ who carry the throne. The picture is in the form of cocks with their wings spread out. Icon making has a historical basis in the Church. As is known in church history, the first Christians maintained and spread their faith by digging holes, carving rocks, making caves and catacombs for preserving their materials and protecting themselves from enemies. In these catacombs, they used to collect the relics of their martyrs and pray and teach. During these times, people started joining their congregation. Since they had no freedom of movement and could neither find nor produce books, they resorted to teaching by using parables from the Bible in pictures such as:

  • A shepherd carrying his sheep to show that Our Lord and Saviour Eyesus Christos would save those who die believing in Him and that He is a king and a trusted shepherd.

  • Others started their pictures from stories of the Old Testament. For example, they drew how the first persons, Adam and Eve, were tempted by the serpent. (Gen. 3:1-7).

  • They drew a devotedly praying believer to depict Noah in his ark (Gen. 7-1-24).

They also depicted the story of the New Testament as follows:-

  • The annunciation of St. Gabriel to Our Holy Mother Virgin Mariyam

  • The birth of Our Lord and Saviour Eyesus Christos in the district of Judea; in the city of David in Bethlehem in a place called ‘Efrata’. The wise men paying homage and presenting gifts to the baby Eyesus Christos, who was born in Bethlehem.

  • The Baptism of the Lord and His teachings for three years and three months along with the miracles that He performed.

  • The first miracle performed at Cana in the district of Galilee.

  • The Lord’s crucifixion, death, resurrection, ascension and His second coming.

  • Our Lady with her beloved Son and on the left Isaiah pointing towards her, saying, ‘behold! The Virgin will conceive a child and will give birth to a Son.”

Pictures like these are found in the ancient Christian hiding caves and these were utilized to teach religion. On the other hand, there are many stories and oral traditions about the Lord’s picture. One of the narrations is Apostle St. John. The Evangelist John drew the Lord as he say Him on that Friday. The voice from the icon was heard as saying, “as the Jews, crucified me bare in Jerusalem, will you crucify me for the second time in Rome?” Immediately, he drew him wearing a purple raiment (kelemeda). This was the beginning of this type of pictures. After finishing the picture, John the Evangelist kissed the picture and his lips remained stuck to it. All these miracles were performed by the picture. The picture of Our Holy Mother was first drawn by the Evangelist Luke. The prayer and hymn books of our churches also state that the picture of Our Lady was drawn by the Evangelist Luke.

“Salutations to your icon as Luke one of the wise evangelists drew it by his hand” (Melkea Seil – a hymn about the Icon, Synaxarium of October 22, E.C.)

In the Church, an icon conveys two types of messages. One is to teach those people who are unable to read the miraculous stories of the Holy Scriptures and the other is to learn about the lives, devotions and struggles of the martyrs and also to subdue the carnal temptations and overcome evil spirits and also to honour the righteous and through the pictures show love and honour to those represented in the icons. To pray before an icon is to seek grace, bounty and intercession from the saint or angel represented in the picture. To venerate and kiss an icon is to express one's love and respect to the one represented in the picture. This is a tradition that has been practised by the Church ever since its establishment. The Church believes and teaches that we should say grace, give honour, bow, Kneel down and beseech for mercy through the consecrated icons of the Trinity, Lord, Our Holy Mother, Angels, Saints and Martyrs.

“I bow down before your icon and I submit to the icon of your Son, Our Holy Mother Virgin Mariam the mother of God.” (Melka Seil – Hymn of Icons)

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