What do Icons Mean?

by OCP on January 25, 2012

in Articles,Featured Article

Michael Goltz


Visit the Website of Michael Goltz Iconography here

The very meaning of the icon has as its foundation the incarnation of
Our Lord Jesus Christ. “And the word was made flesh and dwelt among
us” (John 1:14). Christ is “the icon of the invisible God” (Col.1:15),
and the transfiguration on the mount offers support of this (Matt.
17:1-13). It is because Christ became man and allowed man to glimpse
on the divine glory of Heaven that we are able to write icons and
venerate images of Christ, the Theotokos and the Saints. If Christ had
not become incarnate, and had not revealed to us his transfigured
glory on the mount, it would be impossible to depict the spiritual
realm of Heaven in icons. Precisely because of the incarnation and
transfiguration, everything in the icon is represented in relation to
Divinity. As you will see this impacts all parts of the icon, from how
the face is painted, to the robes, to even the “scenery” of the festal
icons. While the incarnation is the basis of iconography, the icon
itself in its role as a window into heaven, affirms the incarnation
and speaks of God’s great mysteries. The chief task of the icon is to
proclaim the wonder and mystery of Christ, the Theotokos and the
saints, and yet at the same time, to remind us they were human like we
are, and to call us to the same spiritual perfection which Christ’s
incarnation allows us to seek. All naturalism, whether it is spacial,
figural or proportional, is set aside and man, landscape and
architecture are shown in a transfigured state.

One of the first things which I discovered about icons before
converting to Orthodoxy is that icons are initially not easy to see.
At first they appear distorted and unreal, almost impressionist or
surreal, full of symbolism. In our society with its western art, we
are very concerned with what something immediately says to our
external, empirical senses. Society’s concern is with beautiful
people, homes and cars, and it is not concerned that often under all
this “beauty” lies death and internal corruption. Contrary to the way
our society sees things, the icon is not meant to excite our external
senses. It is not painted to depict the mundane everyday life, but
rather the spiritual realm. It is written as a “window into Heaven,” a
physical means which allows us to gaze into the invisible spiritual
reality. The simplicity of the icon is not meant to stir your emotions
but rather to quietly invite you to leave the world for a moment and
guide every emotion toward the contemplation of the Divine. To Achieve
this level of spiritual communion, one must quietly, prayerfully and
patiently gaze on the image. It is the way to prayer, and the means of
prayer itself.

The communion which the icon calls us to is achieved through a
symbolic language which the icon uses. In order to convey this
symbolic language the clothing styles, colors, gestures, architecture
and human form in the icon are fixed. The painting of iconography must
not be based on artistic speculation, emotion or abstract ideas
because the icon depicts the mystery of Heaven. Rather, it is based
soundly in the teachings of the Orthodox Church. To depict these
teachings requires much study, meditation and attention to details, as
well as artistic skill and an understanding of Orthodoxy. The
iconographer must understand what parts of the icon he can adjust
using his best artistic skills and what parts of the icon he ought to
leave intact. How can someone who has no knowledge of Orthodoxy depict
what is inherently Orthodox? The style of iconography is not meant to
hold the painters of icons hostage to one particular style of
painting, but rather to liberate them and allow for the continual
painting of orthodox icons and defend against theological and
iconographic heterodoxy. It is also there to liberate Orthodox
Christians. One of the beautiful things about iconography is that an
Orthodox Christian upon seeing an icon of Christ, the Theotokus, any
of the more popular saints or a feast can instantly recognize the icon
as such. This is not the case in western art. The way western artists
have depicted the Theotokos, for example, has changed with each period
of art and with each artist. Michael Quenots book “The Icon, Window on
the Kingdom” has a wonderful illustration which depicts just this.

In order to allow for this language of iconography to be understood,
certain meanings are ascribed to the subjects of the icon. People of
importance in icons are often depicted as larger than other people in
the icon and are always indicated by name on the icon. In icons of
single saints, the saint is also ususally depicted with the instrument
of his or her salvation. Bishops are usually depicted wearing
episcopal robes, whether monastic or liturgical, holding the gospel
and giving a blessing. The blessing hand is formed in the monogram of
the name of Christ, ICXC, just as an Orthodox Priest blesses. The
evangelists are depicted holding the gospel, St. Paul the epistles,
and great spiritual writers a scroll with one of their more noted
writings. Martyrs are depicted holding the crown of martyrdom, the
cross or the instrument of their martyrdom. St. Andrei Rublev, the
great Russian iconographer of the fifteenth century, is depicted
holding the icon of the Trinity which he painted, and which the
Russian church sees as the standard for all other icons. The subject
in the icon is usually depicted looking straight at you, or at a 3/4
angle. Only when the person depicted in the icon has not yet achieved
the spiritual perfection of Heaven are they depicted in a profile.
Icons gaze into eternity, and yet while focused on the divinity, the
transfigured icon is not avoiding the earthly realm but rather gently
addressing it and calling it to be transfigured in Christ as well.

The physical features of the icon are also very important in conveying
this symbolic spiritual language. The subject of the icon is a person
transfigured by the love of Christ and thus the light of the icon is
interior, not exterior as in other forms of art. Because of this the
areas of the robes and skin which stick out the most have the
brightest highlights. The forehead on many icons is often high and
convex, to express the power of the spirit and wisdom. Ascetics, monks
and bishops are given deep wrinkles in their cheeks. The nose of the
icon is long and thin, which gives it a sense of gracefulness, it no
longer smells the odors of the world, but rather the sweet incense of
Heaven. The lips of the icon are closed expressing true contemplation,
which requires total silence. The eyes are large and pronounced,
gazing into Heaven. While the physical features of the face are
spiritualized, they still retain a likeness to the saint depicted.
Thus the face of St. Peter is different from that of his brother
Andrew and from that of St. Paul. The hands are either holding the
instrument of the depicted saint’s salvation, raised in a work of
mercy, or giving a blessing. The blessing hand, when depicted, always
blesses with the fingers formed in the monogram of the name of Christ,
ICXC, the way an Orthodox priest blesses. The feet, if depicted, walk
in the way of God. The halo symbolizes the Divine light which radiates
from the person who lives in close communion with God.

As important as the physical features of the icon are the colors which
are used to depict the subject. Before I go on to discuss the meanings
which are often associated with the colors in iconography, I must
first address the use of color itself. Many people think the colors of
the icon have some deep theological meaning to them, and that they
must be set in stone. This may or may not be the case, depending on
which iconographer you speak to. There are definite psychological
meanings which colors have, and there are certain colors which are
generally used to depict certain ideas in icons. However, iconography
while being a sacred art, is still art. The fathers of the Church were
traditionalists, however, they were not stagnant traditionalists.
Iconographers in the past have painted certain icons in certain colors
because it was theologically correct to do so as well as visually
appealing. The iconographers job is to depict an icon which is both
theologically correct and in good artistic taste and visually
pleasing, and the necessity of good artistic taste often has a role to
play in what colors are used in the icon. I recently began painting an
icon of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus which is an icon of seven young
soldiers sleeping next to each other in a cave. In painting this icon
it was necessary to plan out the colors of the robes of the soldiers
in order to make sure there was artistic harmony and balance to the
icon. It would have been visually unpleasing to have two of the
soldiers in one corner of the icon wearing red and to have no red
anywhere else on the soldiers robes. This artistic harmony, for lack
of a better phrase, is as important to the icon as the theological
orthodoxy of the icon. A visually unpleasing icon can be as disturbing
as a theologically incorrect one because it draws attention to what
should not be important, namely the skills of the iconographer, and
draws attention away from what is most important, namely the message
which the icon is there to convey.

Having said this about icon colors and artistic harmony let us now
discuss the meanings commonly associated to colors. Gold is used to
depict divinity as it is a rare and precious metal, when light strikes
gold it gives a radiance which most closely reflects uncreated light.
Gold leaf, or a golden color of paint is used for the halo. White,
like gold, is used to depict uncreated light, as well as physical and
spiritual purity. Christ’s robes at the transfiguration and from the
resurrection on are painted white, or sometimes gold. The color blue
is used to depict transcendence, truth and humility. A famous icon of
St. Ignatius of Antioch depicts the saint wearing a deep blue robe
with a blue background. The color serves to remind us of the great
spiritual truths which St. Ignatius taught us. Red is the color of
blood, martyrdom, youth and beauty, but also the color of sin and war.
Martyrs are often depicted wearing red, or as the case with the famous
Russian icon of St. George with a deep red background. In one icon the
Prophet Elijah is depicted wearing a red robe with a red background
because he was taken up to Heaven in a chariot of fire. Christ’s outer
garments are blue and his under garments are red to symbolize that he
is divine while being filled with humanity. The Theotokos’ outer
garments are red, or a deep earthen tone, while her under garments are
blue to symbolize that she is human while filled with divinity. Green
is the color of the plant world and thus is used to denote spring time
and revival. The first icon which I painted was the Angel Gabriel, who
is depicted with a green robe, as he was the bearer of the message of
the incarnation to Mary. The meaning of the color brown in icons can
only be attained in connection with the rest of the icon. The rocks
and buildings themselves have no meaning, but only have meaning in the
larger context of the icon. Finally, black is the color of death, and
the renunciation of earthly values. In the icon of the Last Judgement
the damned are painted black as they have lost all hope of salvation.
On the icon of the Cross, the cave under the cross is black which
denotes death and despair, as are the caves on icons such as those of
St. George and the Prophet Elijah. Monks are depicted wearing black
robes as the black symbolizes the monk’s renunciation of all that is

The “scenery” in the icon has its meaning in the larger context of the
icon as well. Architecture and landscape serve only to tie the icon to
a specific event in time. I recently painted for my wife an icon of
the Wedding Feast at Cana for our wedding. The feast took place in
doors, but in the icon it is shown with the building in the
background. This is enough to convey to the viewer of the icon that
the feast took place indoors. The icon of the Baptism of Russia has
churches and buildings in the background, as well as physical scenery
and many faithful depicted in order to convey the historical idea of
where and when the event occurred. With the icon of Elijah in the
dessert, it is enough to have Elijah sitting in front of a cave to
convey the idea of Elijah’s presence in the cave. The same is true
with the Nativity icon, and with the cave where the serpent is in the
icon of St. George. The mountains and buildings in an icon such as
that of St. George are there to give context.
The iconography of our Orthodox Church, with all of it’s symbolism and
spiritual meaning, is central to the Church’s teaching. People are
greatly influenced by what they contemplate, and so the Church in its
love for its faithful has given us iconography in order to help us
contemplate God. As a teaching tool, the Church has elevated
iconography to the same level as the scriptures and the cross. What
the Gospels proclaim with words, the icon proclaims visually. That our
churches are full of icons is no coincidence, no fluke of artistic
taste. The iconostasis is not there to just look pretty, but rather it
plays a dual role. While the iconostasis does function to separate the
altar from the faithful and the rest of the church, at the same time
it acts as a bridge between the faithful and the eternal heaven. The
saints and angels depicted on the iconostasis are there to remind us
that we are not praying alone and in vain, but that we are surrounded
by the saints and the heavenly host at every liturgy. They also call
us to a deeper love and commitment to God. They instruct us in our
faith and remind us that we are not the first to walk the sometimes
hard, sometimes lonely road of faith. Icons are not only present to
the faithful every Sunday at Divine Liturgy but they are also given as
gifts to the faithful at very important times in their lives. When I
was chrismated many ago, Fr. Basil Stoyka gave me two icons, one of
Christ and one of the Theotokos. Icons are also given at weddings, for
a person’s feast day and an icon of the cross is placed in the tomb
with the faithful when he/she leaves this world. In these ways the
icon plays an integral role in the lives of the faithful.

The spiritual language which the icon speaks can best be depicted only
by a practicing Orthodox Christian. The ancient rules of iconography
suggest that an iconographer needs to work at praying while working at
painting the icon. Removing the icon from prayer, the icon becomes a
mere work of Byzantine style art. There are those who are not Orthodox
who attempt to paint icons with no intentions at all of ever becoming
Orthodox. Some of their “icons” are technically quite good but when
you take a deeper look at them they are missing something. What they
are missing is the knowledge, experience and love of Orthodoxy the
practicing Orthodox Christian will have. A non-Orthodox Christian who
begins to authentically study iconography, it’s language and
spirituality will be drawn to Orthodoxy. They will learn of the
Orthodox Church’s teachings through the painting of the icon, will
learn of it’s rich and abundant history and tradition, will learn it’s
spirituality while praying with the icons and will experience the
Heavenly beauty of the Divine Liturgy while having their icons
blessed. If they are open to the work of God they will become Orthodox
or they will merely remain a painter who depicts something which he
can not understand. This is inevitable for icons are inherently

Having discussed this language of iconography we see that everything
in the icon points to the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. In the
past four years of painting icons, studying them and praying before
them I’ve come to the personal revelation that it is indeed the
contemplation of the Divine which is the goal of the icon painter as
well as that of the faithful praying in front of the icon. I have
painted many icons, prayed before many more, and in doing so have been
brought to a much deeper love of Christ while at the same time my
humble talents were being used to manifest the incarnation. And yet, I
am not the first to come to this conclusion. The Orthodox Church, in
its sincere love for its faithful has for centuries pointed this very
fact out. To man, God is a mystery, and the Church in its wisdom and
love for man has given us the icon to help us gain a glimpse of


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