An introduction to icons

In February 2006, an illustrated slide lecture on icons and iconography was given by Dr. Irina Iazykova at the inaugural meeting of the Anglican-Orthodox Educational Centre, operated from St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Moscow. One of her students, Julia Melnikova, kindly did the translation and obtained permission Dr. Iazykova to publish it here. Ms. Melnikova is a student at the Biblical-Theological Institute in Moscow (or BBI), the library of which is also currently housed in St. Andrew’s with the help of a grant from the Society of St. Alban and St. Sergius. I am informed that that “the target audience was the proverbial educated layman, and in particular Anglicans with a limited idea (if any) of what icons mean to the Orthodox.”

Dr. Iazykova teaches at the BBI (and elsewhere) and is the author of two works on the subject of icons, including Se tvoru vse novoye: ikona v XX veke (Behold I make all things new: icons in the twentieth century), which has been translated into Italian, faccioand has also contributed two chapters to A History of Icon Painting. In addition to her work in iconography, Dr. Iazykova holds a PhD in cultural studies and, I am told, is an excellent song writer!icon painting

Two notes: as a professional educator myself, I am very aware of trying to pour the proverbial gallon into a pint pot. Just try giving a lecture on the entire Reformation, from Luther to the Edict of Nantes, in fifty minutes. Dr. Iazykova faced a similar challenge in this lecture, and allowances must be made for a necessary brevity. The colors of icons, for example, do often have symbolic or theological significance; however, they are a bit more fluid than Dr. Iazykova’s lecture indicates. Thus the blue and red of Christ (indicating his divine an human natures) sometimes shade off into green and brown. The reader more familiar with icons should therefore make allowances for the limited time Dr. Iazykova had for her lecture and the necessary lack of nuance that such circumstances inevitably require. Dr. Iazykova has given an excellent introduction to this fascinating subject, but it is of course only an introduction, and those with an interest should continue to pursue it in such easily accessible works as ouspenskyThe Meaning of Icons by Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky or Truetskoi’s Icons: Theology in Color.

I received the text of Dr. Iazykova’s lecture translated by Ms. Melnikova with notes indicating where certain slides were shown, but not the slides themselves. I have tried to provide illustrations according to those notes as best I can; however, the reader should know that a) these were not necessarily the pictures originally shown by Dr. Iazykova and b) they are not always icons of Russian origin (although that in itself should not make a crucial difference). Therefore any inappropriate choices in this matter are to blamed on me and not Dr. Iazykova.

Further editorial note: all of the images below come through just fine on my Macintosh using Firefox. If you see blanks on your computer, this means that images would not or could not come through for whatever reason.


interior chramaIcons are essential for the [Eastern] Orthodox tradition. One cannot imagine an Orthodox church or an Orthodox Christian’s home without icons. In birth, death, marriage, at the commencement of any work, or when they travel – throughout their life, Orthodox Christians are accompanied by icons.

Russia accepted Christianity in the 10th c. from the Byzantine Empire. Along with the faith, the Russian nation took in the vast tradition of Orthodox art which by that time already had a thousand-year history of its own. In the Orthodox tradition, the icon does not just act as an element of interior decoration. It is what is called a «window into the invisible world», a sermon, a prayer—«theology in colors». Understanding this art requires knowledge of an artistic and symbolic language of the icon that is different from the language of any other art. In our talk this evening I want to introduce you to the language of the icon.

The Russian word «icon» comes from the Greek word eikon, «image». As the Bible tells us, God has no image, and thus cannot be portrayed. But God endowed all things with their images at creation. All of God’s creation is like a ranking or ladder of images which reflect each other like mirrors and in the end can be traced back to God as the «proto-image» (archetype) of all.

What do we know about God? That he is One, Eternal, Invisible, and Incomprehensible. How is it possible to create an image of One who cannot be seen and whose mystery cannot be comprehended? This is why in the Old Testament God commands us not to make any images of Him (Exodus 20:4). If, after all, we want to somehow portray God, the most honest method would be to leave the page blank.

lifegiver St. John in his Gospel writes: «No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known» (John 1:18). Jesus Christ slightly lifts the veil off the mystery of the Invisible God. «The Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth, and we have seen His glory» (John 1:14), John says. Jesus Christ, the Word incarnate, is the true Image of God.

But man is also an icon, the image of God. Holy Scripture says God created man in his image and his likeness (Genesis 1:26-27). But after the Fall, being removed from the source of Being, man stopped being the perfect mirror of God’s glory, God’s icon—or rather, in his sinful state man is now like a painted-over and darkened icon that needs to be cleaned and restored. mother and child In every man God’s image is hidden, not always seen clearly, and even often distorted. In the face of Christ we see the undefiled image. We can also find His features in the saints that followed Christ. Long before the art of iconography emerged, St. Paul called his followers, «My children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you…» (Galatians 4:19). That is what according to Christian ascetics is the supreme art—revealing the image of God in us. The Church Fathers taught that the purpose of life is not just self-perfection, developing one’s natural abilities, but the uncovering God’s true image in us.

pokrov on nerlNature also reflects the Supreme Image. Nature is God’s icon, because creation testifies of its Creator. That is why the Church Fathers said that God gives man two books of knowledge, the Book of Scripture and the Book of Creation. The first book reveals to us the Savior’s mercy, and the second one reveals the wisdom of the Creator. But nature as icon reflects the Creator to a lesser extent than man. Holy Scripture tells us that «the world lies in sin» and «the present form of this world is passing away.» (1 Corinthians 7:31). winter church

hagiasophia Finally, the last step of the ladder is the icon as a work of art, or speaking more broadly, as all human creative work. Ideally, anything man creates should become a reflection of divine glory. But only the icon is consciously directed at this, presenting to use the image of Jesus Christ, who revealed the Father to us. All other images are directly connected with the icon of Christ. Icons of the Virgin Mary represent the One through whom the Word of God came into the world.

our lady of the sign

antony An icon of a saint does not just represent an outstanding or famous person, but someone in whom the light of Christ has shown forth, someone who followed Christ and became like Him. «Imitate me, as I imitate Christ,» Paul says, stressing that he is an example and a true image of a Christian for all of us.

palm sunday Narrative icons depict events in which Christ was glorified. This could be a Gospel story or an episode from a saint’s life or from Church history.

luke iconographer An iconographer creating an icon appears at first glance very much like a painter. But this is not quite true. A painter creates his own world, his work is his own, individual creation, an act of self-expression. An iconographer in an icon does not express his own vision but rather what the Church teaches. This is why iconographers in ancient times never put their names on icons.

luke An iconographer is more like a Gospel writer: these men did not make up the text, as does someone creating a novel or a story; they wrote down what the Church retained as revelation about Jesus Christ, His life, message, death and Resurrection. In ancient times, icons were called «Gospels in colors», while the Gospel was called «an icon in words.» «As writing to the ear, so silent painting reveals through images», Saint Basil the Great said. Pope Gregory the Great (Dialogos) called church art «the Bible for the illiterate,» because those who can’t read can easily learn the Church’s teaching through images.

The icon is more like a book than a painting. It contains the Good News, the message. This message is communicated not by letters and words, but by images and colors. To communicate the Gospel, the Church developed the iconographic canon. It took shape gradually over centuries, growing out of doctrines and theological reflection. The iconographic canon is a symbolic language with its own rules, which I want to turn to now.

The image in the icon at first appears unusual, even distorted—everything here is different from the world around us. An icon cannot be realistic, or more precisely, it cannot be naturalistic, because it represents the other world, the world of the age to come. An icon is an image of the Heavenly Kingdom, of which Paul says «What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him» (1 Corinthians 2:9). This is the supreme and transfigured reality that can be conveyed only with symbols and signs.

A sign, a symbol, a parable – the Bible often uses this way of communicating the Truth. Prophets used the language of parable and symbolic poetry, and Jesus spoke in parables. A symbol helps us to see further and deeper than everyday reality. The first Christians, even before they had churches, used symbolic images, out of which the art of the icon later developed. catacomb In the Roman catacombs, on walls and sarcophagi we find pictures: a fish, an anchor, a ship, a bird holding an olive branch, a vine, a monogram of Christ, etc. They reflected the central concepts of Christianity. For instance, the Greek word «ichtus», fish, was interpreted as an acronym for Jesus Christ God Son Savior. The anchor is a sign of hope, and the bird symbolizes the human soul.

The first icons emerged soon after the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D., when the Emperor Constantine granted Christians religious freedom. The first icons were realistic and resembled portraits. But very soon, the naturalistic manner was replaced by symbolism and the images became less «flesh-like» and more ethereal, emphasizing the primary importance of the spirit in humans, their bodies serving only as a shell, a fragile vessel (2 Corinthians 4:7).

discus Christianity was born in the world of antiquity ruled by the principle of a «sound mind in a sound body». This ideal is most vividly reflected in Ancient Greek art, which glorified athletic beauty. In Late Antiquity, philosophers believed the reverse, that «the body is the soul’s prison» and the «soul is trapped in the body like a bird in a cage».

Christianity confronted these extremes with its own anthropology, expressed by St. Paul: «Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you» (1 Corinthians 6:19). (John the Baptist). The body is thus not denied but is given the functions of a container for the most precious of contents, the Holy Spirit. In an icon, the human is usually represented as a combination of external frailty and internal power: «God’s power is made perfect in weakness» (2 Corinthians 12:9)

The spiritual content of the image is most fully expressed in the representation of the face, lichnoye. The face is the most important part of an icon. vernicle In iconographic technique, the work stages are divided into lichnoye (a sort of combination “facial”/“personal”) and dolichnoye (“extra-facial”/“non-personal”) stages. The dolichnoye material is created first – the background, landscape, architecture, garments, etc. Then, at the very end, to complete the image, the iconographer creates the face.

The eyes are most important for the face. As Russians say, «The eyes are the mirror of the soul». angel eyesAnd our Savior says in the Sermon on the Mount, «The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light» (Matthew 6:22). That’s how the ancient iconographers understood eyes — as reflections of a person’s inner life, which is the light.

But the lichnoye (“facial”/“personal”) part is that which represents the whole person. So, apart from the face and the eyes, the iconographers also place the hands in this category. This is why the gesture is so important in the icon — the Savior’s blessing, the prayerful gestures of the hermits, the gesture of Archangel Gabriel passing the Good News to Our lady or the gesture of Our Lady as she responds to this News.
annunciation lamentation
Emotions in the icon are not expressed by faces, which are presented in a calm, dispassionate manner, but by gestures of sadness, joy, despair, peace.

paul The object depicted in the saint’s hands is very important. It is a sign of his ministry and glorification. St. Paul, for instance, is usually depicted with a book in his hands because he preached the Gospel.

st peterSt. Peter is shown holding keys, which are the keys to the Kingdom of God which he received from the Savior (Matthew 16:19). The martyrs are represented holding crosses as a sign of being crucified with Christ. The prophets hold scrolls of their prophecies.jeremiah St. John of Kronstadt is depicted with the Eucharistic Cup, kronstadtbecause he constantly reminded his flock that taking communion is central to Christian life.

The way a person is represented on an icon is different from his picture. An icon is not a portrait, but the image of the transformed flesh.

Realistic art, for instance, is said to try to present a person just as he is. pushkinBut in fact any art only represents an image, the way the artist perceives it, or the way society wants to see it. Alexander Pushkin looked at his portrait painted by Orest Kiprensky and said «I see myself as in a mirror, but the mirror flatters me».

christ icon The iconographer is not trying to present a person as he is in earthly reality. The icon is a conditional portrayal, a generalized one. The icon of Jesus Christ is not His portrait but his image, not only because no one knows exactly what the Savior looked like, but because it is His glorified image, an image in the radiance of Divine Glory. The Gospel says that the disciples did not recognize Christ after His Resurrection, because His appearance had become different, not what they were used to seeing.

theotokosThe essence of the Savior’s person is revealed in symbolic details — the halo with a cross, a sign of His glory and at the same time of His sacrifice on the cross—and in the blessing gesture and the Gospel. We also see that His garments have two colors, red and blue. This is because Jesus Christ is both God and Man. His human nature is symbolized by the red tunic (the undergarment), and his Divine nature is symbolized by the blue himation (the upper cloak). For Our Lady the colors are reversed: the undergarment is blue and the cloak is red. This is because Christ is God who became Human, and Mary is an earthly woman who became the Mother of God.

  • basilgeorgeThe bishops are portrayed in robes decorated with crosses (Greek polystavrion), signifying that they carry the cross. The martyrs wear red cloaks because red is the color of blood and of sacrifice.

  • crucifixionmary egyptIn certain cases, the body on the icon may be painted naked. For example, Christ in the passion scenes and on the cross appears naked. Ascetics, hermits, stylites, and God’s fools (“Fools in Christ”) are often depicted naked because they have removed their old garments and presented their bodies «as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God» (Romans 12:1).

    presentationThe representation of a person in the icon is most important, and everything else conforms to it. Architecture, landscape — hills, trees – all of this symbolically designates the environment and is offered in the most conventional and symbolic manner. If an iconographer, for example, needs to show that the events in question are taking place inside a building, he throws a decorative cloth (velum, Latin for sail) over the architectural elements depicting the exterior of a building.

    In icons, bodies have no shadows because they are in the light and the light is within them. There is no external source of lighting in icons; light radiates outward from within. An icon is composed using light over light. ascensionThis is primarily expressed by the golden background that symbolizes the radiance of Divine Glory, in which the saints abide. Sometimes gold is replace with symbolically related colors – red, symbolizing the fire of the Spirit, green – also the color of the Spirit and the color of hope– or yellow, a direct substitute of gold.

    Apart from the background, light is conveyed in spots of light flashing on everything – the faces, the garments, the hills and everything around. This is uncreated light, divine energies which transform the world.

    Light influences colors, so ancient icons were bright and joyful. Icons grow dark with time under the effect of candle and lamp soot in churches. But underneath the accumulated black layer, we usually find bright, saturated colors. St. John of Damascus said «Color in painting leads to contemplation and, like a meadow delighting the eye, secretly pours divine glory inside my soul».

    resurrectionThe most common colors are red, blue, green and yellow. Black is very seldom used in icons. There is no room for darkness in the transformed world because «God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.» (1 John 1:5). Black also has a symbolic meaning. It is used to portray hell, the place where there is no light. But we see that hell has already been defeated by the Risen Christ.

  • An icon is always news of the Resurrection, a message of Christ’s victory. Even the Crucifixion, the most dramatic episode of Christ’s earthly life, is portrayed in the light of the Resurrection. dionysus crucifixionChrist in the icon of Dionysius (the Dionysus crucifix from the pavlo-Obnorskeyeo monastery) is calm, light, and even joyful. The Savior’s death of the Cross is at the same time His victory over death. Resurrection follows after the Cross, and the joy of Easter shines through the grief and suffering, giving them radiance. On the cross, Christ shines with light and love; He extends His hands to embrace all humanity.

    Space and time in the icon are arranged by their own rules, which are different from those of our world. The icon is composed from the perspective of eternity, and therefore it combines events taking place at different times. transfiguration2The past, present and future apparently come together in time: for instance, in the Transfiguration icon we see how Christ ascends the mountain with his disciples, is transfigured there and comes down form the mountain again. The icon, like a roll of film, unwinds to show different fragments of being. Or rather it is made like a scroll that unfolds in time and space.

    Another example is the Christmas icon, which also overlays episodes that happened at different moments in time and in different places: the Christ child’s birth, the Good News announced to the shepherds, the journey of the magi. All of them seem to flow into each other, forming a single composition. The space is built according to the principle of a scroll that is unfolded in space. christmasBut the scroll also unwinds in time: Christ’s Birth is the beginning of the Savior’s earthly life. Yet we also see the sign of the end of his earthly journey. The cave symbolizes both the Christmas cave and the cave of the Lord’s grave. The swaddling clothes of the Child remind us of the funeral shroud which will embrace the Savior’s Body after He is to be removed from the cross. And the angel inclining over the cave reminds us of the angel who will proclaim Christ’s Resurrection.

    The world in the icon is unusual, as if turned inside out and overturned before us. There is no illusion of depth here. The image is focused in the foreground; it is coming at us and all objects are turned facing the viewer. Researchers call this method of arranging a space «reverse perspective» (as opposed to direct perspective), though it would be better to call it “symbolic perspective”. Direct perspective (which emerged in art during the Renaissance) ranks objects in space from large to small, according to their distances from the viewer. All lines converge in the vanishing point on the horizon. This point shows that the created world is finite. In the icon, on the contrary, all objects are drawn in the same size; and the space does not narrow but expands because the world of the Kingdom of God is infinite. The lines converge not on the plane of the icon, but in front of it, where the viewer is, in the heart of the praying person. This point signifies the place where two worlds – the human and the divine, the seen and the unseen – meet. «The icon does not depict anything, it reveals to us the Kingdom of Heaven,» says an outstanding modern iconographer Archimandrite Zinon. The icon does not tell us about God, it puts us face to face with God’s mystery.


    Andrei Rublev’s Trinity, for example – based on Genesis chapter 18, Abraham’s hospitality – is not a simple illustration of Sacred History; it leads us into the mystery of the Triune God, the mystery of the salvation of every one of us. That is why Father Pavel Florensky, the great 20th century Russian Orthodox theologian, scholar and art historian, could allow himself (and share with us) such a remarkable impression of this icon, writing that “Because Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon exists, we know that God exists.”


    One Response to “An introduction to icons”

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