Skip to comments.What Are Icons? A Practical Guide [Catholic/Orthodox Caucus]
Posted on 12/04/2008 5:02:57 PM PST by Salvation
What Are Icons?
A Practical Guide
by Mike Sullivan
Editors Note: The following article was written to accompany CUFs 2008 calendar, which features icons from Annunciation of the Mother of God Byzantine Catholic Church in Homer Glen, Illinois. To order a copy of the calendar, visit www.emmausroad.org.
What are icons? In Eastern Christian heritage, icons are sacred images of Christ, Mary, and the saints, or of events in salvation history such as the Nativity or the Crucifixion. The very word icon comes from the Greek word for image.
To people unfamiliar with icons, including many Western Christians, icons may initially seem weird, unappealing, or even disturbing. They dont look quite right. Their silence and stillness is demanding, untame, and even terrifying. But with education and experience, people grow to appreciate and love them.
Icons are more than decorative art or educational illustrations. Icons are theology in color. An icon is a place to receive grace through faith, a sacramental: Its purpose is to transport us into a transfigured world, to plant that transfigured world within us, to bring us face-to-face with a living presence and change us (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 16671679).
Iconography is rooted in the Incarnation. St. Paul wrote that Christ is the image [literally, icon] of the invisible God (Col. 1:15). In former times, wrote St. John of Damascus, God, who is without form or body, could never be depicted. But now when God is seen in the flesh conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see (cf. Catechism, nos. 11591162).
The First Icons
Ancient Christian traditions tell us the first icons were not made by artists. According to Eastern tradition, Jesus pressed His face to a cloth, creating an image of His face to be sent to King Agbar of Edessa. Many icons now depict this holy napkin. According to Western tradition, a woman offered Jesus her veil to wipe His face on His way to be crucified, and an image was likewise made on the cloth. She has been named for the event: Veronica, meaning true icon.
Eastern and Western traditions further suggest that the first painted icon was made by St. Luke, who knew the Mother of God.
In the eighth century, a controversy over icons arose in Byzantium. Iconoclasts (icon breakers) denounced Christian iconography, appealing to the commandment You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth (Deut. 4:8). Christian defenders of iconography, like St. John of Damascus, countered their claims with arguments from both Sacred Scripture and Church tradition. The Seventh Ecumenical Council, Nicea II, concluded the dispute by saying that iconography confirms that the incarnation of the Word of God was real and not imaginary.
In order to understand the discipline of iconography as it has developed, especially in the Christian East, it is helpful to be aware that icons are said to be written rather than painted. The first step to contemplating an icon, therefore, is being able to read it.
If you have ever seen more than one icon depicting the same subjecttwo icons of the Nativity, for exampleyou probably noticed that they looked basically similar. People who make icons follow patterns and templates of icons that have been used in the past, copying the shapes and colors.
This seems strange to modern Westerners thinking that the value of art is based on originality. But the established patterns are a highly developed language. Like a spoken language, the forms will naturally develop over time, but very slowly and in small ways, so they remain recognizable and communicate effectively over long periods of time.
An iconographer is not trying to express his own ideas and feelings, nor reflect the fashions of his day, but to follow St. Pauls words when he spoke of the Gospel: I delivered to you . . . what I also received (1 Cor. 15:3). The iconographer sees himself more as a messenger than a composer, and for this reason many icons are unsigned.
When an iconographer begins his work, the darkest color usually goes first. As he continues, the layers of paint get lighter and lighter, and the last color is white. The progression from dark to light represents the transfiguration of the person or event in the uncreated light of God, so the whole icon appears radiant.
There are few shadows in a traditional icon, and none underfoot. Christ and His saints are the source of light in an icon, not lamps or the sun. Sunlight marks the progression of time on earth, but the people and scenes depicted in an icon have eternal significance. Halos are not circlets or discs of gold atop saints heads, but circles of Gods uncreated light radiating from the faces of the holy.
An icon may depict a moment in salvation history, but the event is depicted without time, and with minimal scenery. The icon of an event presents the intersection of that historical moment with eternity, reminding us NOW Christ is born, NOW Christ is risen.
The first thing most people notice about icons is the strange perspective: There is something just not right about it. In realistic paintings, distant objects appear smaller, as they do when you look down the street. Somewhere very far away, everything comes together into a vanishing point.
In icons, the opposite is true. The perspective of the scene is usually reversed, so the farther away something is, the bigger it appears. Icons are not badly drawnthis is intentional. It means the transfigured reality we are looking into is much bigger than the world in which we are now standing. In fact, you, the viewer, are the vanishing point! The icon is simultaneously welcoming us into a larger reality and telling us Christ must increase, I must decrease.
Body language is significant in icons. A hand is raised in question, cheeks touch in a kiss, bodies slump in sorrow (see the crucifixion icon in CUFs Icons: Windows to Heaven calendar, September), palms of the hands are held up in prayer (orans). The most important hand gesture is the blessing hand, in which fingers spell the initials for Jesus Christ in Greek (IC XC). Jesus, the Apostles, and many bishops and famous preachers are depicted using this gesture (see Christ the High Priest, July). When it is turned out, the hand extends a blessing or preaches the Gospel. When turned inward, toward the heart, it means, The kingdom of God is within you.
The faces of Christ and His saints always face forward, with either the whole face or at least three-quarters showing. The holy ones face us and look into us; they are present to us. To truly meet a person, we must look into his eyes. Saints are never shown in profile, because it is said that profile is the beginning of absence. Only the people sinning, like Judas, are shown in profile. Sin is not a reality the iconographer wishes to make present.
The faces and features of people in icons are proportioned in a particular way. They are not photographic portraits, though each person has unique and distinguishing characteristics. The windows to the soul, the eyes, are large; the ears that listened to the Gospel and now hear our prayers are long; the mouths are small and peacefully silent. These features represent the inner person.
What to Wear
Clothing is symbolic. The Mother of God wears clothes and colors befitting the imperial court. The Apostles are dressed as patricians, not fishermen. Angels wear the clothing of guardians and viceroys. Bishops and deacons wear appropriate vestments. Nearly all the saints wear stately clothes, with some notable exceptions. John the Baptist (known as the Forerunner in the East) wears his biblical camel fur. St. Mary of Egypt is nearly naked in rags, as in her amazing life story. The Magi wear Persian clothes to show that they are from the East.
People hold distinctive and symbolic objects. One of the most common is an unrolled scroll with one of the saints most famous quotes. This is an ancient precursor to the speech balloon, still used in modern cartoons (see Aprils icon: Jesus Appearance to St. Thomas). Doctors like Sts. Cosmas and Damien hold flasks, medicine boxes, and spoons. Soldiers and angels may carry lances and swords. Church founders and patrons hold models of the churches they established (such as Sts. Peter and Paul in the June icon). St. Cyril holds a copy of the alphabet he created for the Slavs.
Some features are truly unique. Only Jesus has a cruciform halo. Only Mary has stars on her forehead and each shoulder, referring to her virginity before, during, and after Jesus birth (see the Platytera icon, May). Only John the Forerunner, among humans, has wings signifying his angelic ascetic life.
A few people in icons are not people, strictly speaking, but personifications. At the bottom of a Pentecost icon, a crowned man holds a protective mantle. He is the Cosmos personified, to show that Pentecost changes the whole world forever. In the Resurrection icon, a withered old man sometimes lies beneath Jesus feet, beneath the broken doors of Hades. He is the personification of Death, now conquered.
Settings are minimal, but almost always meaningful. Adams skull appears under the Crucifixion, being redeemed by Jesus blood (see the crucifixion icon, September). The house and rocks at Mamre in the Old Testament Trinity icon (cf. Gen. 18:115) represent the city and wilderness; the tree signifies both the tree of Jesse and the Cross. Rock formations bow toward Christ. Everything is necessary to the scene and timeless.
More than Art
Because iconography is not merely art, Eastern Christians never treat icons as mere art. The iconographer is delivering the Gospel, in visual form, as he received it. The icons themselves are powerful sacramentals, intended to transport viewers into a transfigured world, to plant that transfigured world within us, to bring us face-to-face with a living presence and change us. For this reason, icons are viewed and handled with prayer and profound reverence. An icon of Christ is handled and kissed as reverently as if it were Christ, because the icon is a window making Him present to us.
Mike Sullivan is president of Catholics United for the Faith and publisher of Lay Witness and Emmaus Road Publishing. He contributed to the most recent volume of the best-selling Catholic for a Reason series: The Mystery of Marriage and Family Life.
Post your favorite holy icon if you wish.
My favorite are nativity woodcarvings. This is from Oberammergau, home of some of the world's finest woodcarvers.
Modern day iconoclasts (atheists) want to forbid these from being displayed in the public square.
What are they afraid of?
You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth (Deut. 4:8)
This has often confused me as an artist. Often artist in one way or the other try to create a likeness of the world or of God whether it be in words or in a recreated image. Also my husband and I have many crosses, amazing icons, pictures of Jesus and Mary . . . we love them and they are often reminders of Jesus and Mary's commitment and in the case of the icons that I have a reminder of the beauty of Mary and Jesus and their light by an artists portrayal and love for their subjects. Thoughts?
Yes. Exactly this is how I see it and how my soul has always seen them as you mention overall in your post. Great overall information. I will think of this and refer back to it often.
I found a nicer, larger version of the first one but just could not get it to embed no matter what I tried.
Nativity of the Lord
The Synodikon of the Holy Fathers of the 7th Ecumenical Council which Orthodox Christians recite in unison on the Sunday of Orthodoxy:
“As the prophets beheld, as the Apostles have taught, as the Church has received, as the teachers have dogmatized, as the Universe has agreed, as Grace has shown forth, as Truth has revealed, as falsehood has been dissolved, as Wisdom has presented, as Christ awarded, thus we declare, thus we assert, thus we preach Christ our true God, and honor His Saints in words, in writings, in thoughts, in sacrifices, in churches, in Holy Icons; on the one hand worshiping and reverencing Christ as God and Lord; and on the other hand honoring as true servants of the same Lord of all and accordingly offering them veneration.
This is the Faith of the Apostles,
This is the Faith of the Fathers,
This is the Faith of the Orthodox,
This is the Faith which has established the Universe.”
Every Orthodox child (and adult) knows this synodikon and every Orthodox child knows and loves his/her icons. We live with them; they are a part of our lives and in many ways define who we are.
This icon is quite faithful to the traditional iconography established for the Nativity of Christ. Important features of this composition include:
Mary (usually disproportionately large) as the central figure, resting on a bier
Joseph, usually tempted by the devil (an old man with a cane), but sometimes facing a shepherd
- Baby Jesus swaddled in his cradle, shown in a cave
- Two servant women preparing to wash or washing the baby
- Angels, the messengers of God
- The Magi bearing gifts
- The shepherds, announcing the good news
- A few farm animals.
I would add that the Ox and the Donkey are traditionally shown based on "The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib: but Israel hath not known me, and my people hath not understood" (Isaiah 1:3). Jesus's crib, or the manger, is often, and also in this icon, shown to suggest a coffin, since Christ baby was born to die. The naturalistic detail of women washing baby Jesus is there to instruct us of the fully human nature of Christ coexisting with His divine nature, signaled by the realistic circumstances of His birth. Incidentally, it is not uncommon to see the same person, in this case, Jesus, portrayed several times in the icon, as here, once asleep in the manger and the other time being washed.
This is the oldest icon of theNativity I know, it is probably Coptic. Note that most of the canonical elements are present here as well, and the composition is very similar. I don't see the Satan temping St. Joseph, although his posture indicates doubt (iconographers are generally reluctant to show Satan anyway). An element not in the previous Russian icon is the ray of divine power descending from heavens and touching the baby; the Christmas Star is incorporated in the design.
The third icon among our examples, St. Nicholas the Miracleworker, with Scenes from His Life, also comes from Sinai, but it is a later work, from the end of the twelfth or the first half of the thirteenth century. The saint is an amalgamation of two St. Nicholases, a bishop of the fourth century and a pious monk of the sixth. By the twelfth century St. Nicholas has become one of the most beloved and popular saints, not only in the Byzantine Empire but in Russia and the West. He was considered the patron of sailors, seamen, and fishermen, scholars, students and teachers, merchants, traders, marriageable maidens, bankers, and even robbers and thieves. Hagiographical icons of the saint presented in the middle his bust (in Russia, also his standing figure) and a selection of episodes from his life and from his posthumous miracles framing the central image. The icon shown here includes 16 episodes, from the saint's birth to his death. The monumental character of the central panel is softened by an addition of interesting decorative details. The hair and the beard of the saint are fancifully outlined by flowing white curls and the crosses on the saint's omophorion show intricate design. Next to Nicholas' head are two small figures: on the left Christ with a Gospel book, and on the right the Virgin with an omophorion. These two figures allude to the story of the saint's presence at the First Ecumenical Synod in Nicaea in 325. According to the story, Nicholas, angered by the blasphemous words of the heretic Arius against the Holy Trinity, slapped him on the face. For this, he was put in prison and his bishop's attributes, the Gospel Book and the omophorion, were taken from him. However, at night, Christ and the Virgin appeared in his prison cell and returned the Gospel book and the omophorion to him, forcing Emperor Constantine to free the saint and reinstate him as a bishop. In Russia, St. Nicholas became the most popular saint of all, depicted in literally thousands of icons, ranging from simple busts to very elaborate hagiographical icons with more than forty border scenes.
I encourage anyone interested in iconography to browse this source.
Thanks for posting this.
I had that problem too. That’s why I had to just link one.
I recall touring St. Petersburg, a large Russian Orthodox. There is an Icon that is beleived to have saved the city during WW2. While surrounded by the Germans, the people would pray and the priest would carry th icon around the city.
Even after 80 years of brutal repression by the communists, it is faith in Jesus Christ that stands th test of time.
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