A Brief Introduction to Icons

“Beauty will save the world,” declares the narrator in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. This is no Keatsian claim that “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ — that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” It is, instead, an Orthodox theological claim rooted in icons. Also in the same novel we hear it said that “there is only one face in the whole world which is absolutely beautiful” and that “the Incarnation [is] the epiphany of the Beautiful One.” Icons seek to portray this beauty of God in Jesus Christ and his saints. “What the Gospel proclaims to us by words,” declared the Eighth Ecumenical Council of 869-70, “the icon proclaims and renders present for us by color.” The icon is built on a theology not of representation but of presence: God’s own splendor radiates through the icon, confronting the worshipper with the experience of Uncreated Light; it is not an image that one looks at in order to discern an earthly representation or imitation of the Holy. 

As such, an icon is the virtual opposite of a painting. The latter is an expression of the artist’s own subjective perspective on the world, an attempt to portray or reflect the visible universe as he sees it. Even cubist and abstract expressionist works are still paintings in this sense. An icon, by contrast, is the product of a long Tradition that has little to do with the artists’ own genius or ideas, their intuitions or emotions, their creativity or imagination. It is based on carefully proportioned geometric lines, on symbolic gestures, on fixed color correspondences—all of which have been elaborately laid down over centuries of practice. These sacred canons serve as guides and safeguards to guarantee both spiritual continuity and doctrinal unity. As the Council of Nicaea decreed in 787: “Only the technical aspect of the work depends on the [iconographer]; its design, its disposition, its composition depend quite clearly on the Holy Fathers [i.e., the theologians and bishops of the church].” 

This means that icons have comparatively few subjects: the patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament; the evangelists and apostles of the New Testament; the angels and archangels; the saints of all ages; John the Baptist and the Virgin Mother (Theotokos: the Bearer of God), and especially Christ himself. Yet the Holy Trinity is rarely portrayed, since neither the Father nor the Spirit became incarnate. In addition, icons depict the various feasts of the church year, from the Nativity of John the Baptist to the Raising of Lazarus. The Twelve Great Feasts receive special attention: four for the Mother of God (the Nativity of the Virgin, the Presentation of Mary in the Temple, the Annunciation, and the Dormition (Mary’s passage into eternal life via sleep rather than death); six for Christ (the Nativity, the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, his Baptism or Theophany, the Transfiguration, the Entry into Jerusalem, and the Resurrection from Hell, whose doors He breaks down, pulling up the blessed dead with him); plus two devoted to the Ascension and Pentecost, with the Exaltation of the True Cross also observed in some traditions. 

Already by the fourth or fifth century, these iconic subjects and models had become fixed: the posture of hands in supplication, the martyrs holding a cross, the proper clothing and the specified colors. The most famous of the iconographic manuals was set down by a monk of Mount Athos named Dionysius of Fourna in the 17th century. Yet iconographers are far more than servile copyists: they seek rather to perfect the art forms that have been established by their carefully crafted attention to all the details of the artistic process. For example, there are four major iconographic representations of the Mother of God: enthroned, praying, showing the way, and having mercy. But there are more than 230 variants on these four basic themes. The iconographic possibilities are thus vast and rich. Yet iconographers seek no fame for themselves. On the contrary, since all true inspiration comes from the Holy Spirit, they will not sign their name to their icon—or at most they will inscribe it “by the hand of.” Icons are often said to be written rather than painted. Anonymity is the great goal, enabling both the iconographer and worshippers to experience the holiness that radiates from the icon. They elicit prayer and adoration and exaltation, without our asking, “Who made this?” Icons thus belong in churches and homes, where they serve as an indispensable means to devotion, rather than in museums where they would be exhibited for aesthetic purposes apart from worship. 

Through the 11th and 12th centuries, icons were as prevalent in the Western as in the Eastern church. There are splendid examples found in the Romanesque art at Chartres and in much of France, but also in Ireland, Spain, and Italy. Yet the great humanistic renascence of the Italian 13th century—led by Cimabue and Giotto and Duccio in the arts, by Thomas Aquinas in theology, by Dante in poetry—marked the gradual eclipse of Western iconography. The arts now become obsessed with three-dimensional perspective, with natural light and shadows, above all with the realistic portrayal of people. No longer is sacred art oriented entirely toward the faithful gathered for worship, but also for wealthy patrons who began to use it for the decoration of their palaces. Religious paintings come thus to have their own lives, freed from the world of the devotion, and thus as important for the secular realm as for the church. The flat two-dimensional art of the icon, with its deliberately stylized portraiture, was increasingly regarded, already in the 13th century, as too unworldly and thus as “unreal.” Within just two more centuries, there arose a new obsession with realistic anatomical detail, with colors true to their surroundings, and thus with the humanity as much as the divinity of religious subjects depicted in art. Raphael and da Vinci, Titian and Bernini are among the obvious names. Their Madonnas are often gorgeous and sensuous women, utterly human figures rather than the exalted Mother of God depicted as the most beautiful and pure of all women. In the East, for example, the Virgin’s hair is never exposed but always covered. Michelangelo’s David, in its celebration of the naked human form as beautiful in itself, is perhaps the ultimate example of a Western non-iconic work of art. 

Nowhere is the division between the icons of the Eastern church and the art of Western Christianity more evident than in Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. The great German artist of the 16th century seeks to portray the brutal subjection of the One who assumed our human nature. He is a man abandoned by God, his hands and fingers stretching upward in a cry of utter dereliction. His lacerated body is limp with the weight of dead flesh, as his ashen corpse seems already to be decomposing. The three Marys are staggered by their grief, as the Holy Mother almost collapses. Mary Magdalen’s golden tresses perhaps recall her (unjust) reputation as a prostitute. John the Baptist, though already beheaded, returns to point away from himself, making clear that Christ alone takes away the sins of the world: “May He increase and I decrease,” the Forerunner declares. The emotional power, the theatrical subjectivity, the dramatic intensity of this painting— all these things are all unmatched. Yet the Isenheim Altarpiece also raises fundamental questions and doubts: Is this crucified man truly God incarnate, or is he an utterly wretched creature? Is this divine victory or human defeat? 

In The Idiot, Dostoevsky has his Christ-like hero named Myshkin express great horror at a far more grimly realistic crucifixion by Hans Holbein. Holbein’s Christ is so cadaverous that his eyes are already glazed over with the obliteration of death and his navel protrudes as if he were a mere animal carcass. In fact, Holbein used a corpse found floating in the Rhine River as his model. Hence Myshkin’s fearful exclamation: “Why, that’s a painting that might make some people lose their faith!”  

So does the deranged Ippolit, another character in the novel, offer a similar comment in his suicide note:

Looking at that picture, you get the impression of nature as some enormous, implacable, and dumb beast, or, to put it more correctly, much more correctly, though it may seem strange, as some huge engine of the latest design, which has senselessly seized, cut to pieces, and swallowed up–impassively and unfeelingly–a great and priceless Being, a Being worth the whole of nature and all its laws, worth the entire earth, which was perhaps created solely for the coming of that Being! The picture seems to give expression to the idea of a dark, insolent, and senselessly eternal power, to which everything is subordinated, and this idea is suggested to you unconsciously. The people surrounding the dead man, none of whom is shown in the picture, must have been overwhelmed by a feeling of terrible anguish and dismay on that evening which had shattered all their hopes and almost all their beliefs at one fell blow. They must have parted in a state of the most dreadful terror, though each of them carried away within him a mighty thought which could never be wrested from him. And if, on the eve of the crucifixion, the Master could have seen what He would look like when taken from the cross, would he have mounted the cross and died as he did? (446-7

The iconography of the East, unlike that of the West, creates crucifixions that reflect neither sadness nor abandon, neither despair nor disappointment, but rather the great nobility and purity and incorruptibility of Christ’s soul. It is chiefly His divinity that is made evident in his dying. His death is not a sign of failure but of the ultimate victory. In a true icon of the crucified Christ we can discern also the glorified Christ of the Resurrection, even the kingly Christ of the Ascension. Such icons seek not our emotional and subjective identification with the Suffering Savior but rather our spiritual and objective experience of that which is neither tangible nor visible: the Defeat of Death. Indeed, the Orthodoxy liturgy contains this magnificent affirmation: “Christ is Risen from the Dead. By His death He has defeated death and restored life to those in the tombs.” 

The most famous of all Byzantine icons, at St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai from the 6th century, envisions Christ as the Pantocrator, the Maker of All Things.

It cannot be denied that this icon is based on Roman imperial portraits. Yet this is no Caesar; this the Christ. Note that the fingers of his right hand offer blessing in the Byzantine fashion: the first two fingers joined and raised to recall both his human and divine natures, the other two fingers joined to the thumb to form the sign of the Trinity. Consider also that the right side of his face is not shadowed, indicating that in becoming human he also retained his divinity. The left cheek, by contrast, is darkened with judgment, as the slightly raised brow may suggest. His eyes are also decidedly asymmetrical. They are often said to represent Christ in his human (right) and divine (left) nature. His right one grips the worshipper with commanding clarity, looking straight ahead, glowing with mercy. Yet the left eye is slightly darkened, perhaps even bloodshot with the burden of judgment. It is also skewed slightly to the left, as if to indicate that he indeed “sits at the right hand of God the Father,” making intercession for the entirety of humankind. 

Christ is often enthroned between celestial hierarchies to emphasize his divine majesty. His head is usually surrounded by a nimbus bearing within it a cross, which is usually inscribed with the Greek words ‘ο ‘ϖν, meaning, “I am [Who I am],” or else “the One.” The Pantocrator holds the Gospels with his left hand, and usually the Bible is opened to such a passage as “I am the Light of the world,” or “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Christ wears a red robe or tunic, called a chiton, covered with a cloak of dark blue or green, the royal colors reminding us of his two distinct natures, as the red of his divinity lies beneath the blue/green of his humanity, though the two are fully integrated. And always there are the letters IC XC (the abbreviation for Jesus Christ in Greek: Ιησους Χριστος). So do icons of the Virgin always contain the letters ΜΡ θΥ (the abbreviation for Mother of God in Greek: Μητηρ θεου). 

The aim of such icons is to reveal, to our unspiritual and earthly eyes, the invisible and spiritual reality of the eternal world that everywhere envelopes and transcends us. This desire to spiritualize the human world means that realistic proportions and perspectives are abandoned. The size of a person in an icon is usually determined by their importance and significance. A person standing in the background can thus be larger than a person in the foreground. Heads and haloes often overlap, for depth is of no real importance. The Incarnation has overthrown all ordinary dimensions and perspectives. Indeed, everything in the icon takes place in the forefront. The Western notion of perspective, rather than transforming nature, seeks often to replicate the created order. The vanishing point of a Western realistic painting is thus situated behind the picture, as our eyes forward so as to master the whole scene. In an Eastern icon, by contrast, the disappearing point it is situated in front of the icon in an inverse perspective. The focus point thus moves out away from the icon toward the beholder, as the figure of the icon comes forth to meet the viewer. “The result is an opening,” declares Michel Quenot (in The Icon: Window on the Kingdom [St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1991]), “a radiating forth, while the vanishing point in an ordinary painting results in a convergence that closes up.” Far from being an imitation or reproduction of the physical world, John of Damascus declares that an icon is an apocalypse, a revelation of what is otherwise hidden. “Its power,” writes Paul Evdokimov, “is maximal by reason of its opening upon the transcendent that has no image. The gaze thus purified and made attentive can descend, scrutinize and reveal the interior of the soul” (Ages of the Spiritual Life [St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998]: 194). 

Physical beauty as conceived in the West is utterly unimportant in Orthodox icons; in fact, the human body almost disappears. It is the human face that matters, for it reflects the image of God in us, our capacity to become ever more like God by participating in his triune life. For the Eastern church, our souls are made evident in our faces. “When souls start to break down,” wrote Nicholas Gogol, the 19th century Russian novelist, “then faces also degenerate.” This is a frightening truth, given the increasing vacancy of the human visage in our time. We seek, of course, to prettify our countenances by means of teeth-straightenings, orifice-piercings, face-liftings, and assorted cosmetic applications. Yet if St. Thomas (following Aristotle) was right to say that “the soul is the form of the body,” then we must ask whether these visage-alterations are also secret confessions that, as bodily slaves to self-serving desires, we are becoming soulless and thus faceless. 

The iconic faces of Christ and all the saints, by contrast, are given a full frontal and unimproved rendering. Only those who have not attained holiness are shown in profile, and such malefactors as Judas are often shown in a ghastly silhouette. The frontality of the deified iconic figures attracts the worshipper, by contrast, opening their inner life to us. The overall anatomy is thus subordinated to the head, in deliberate disproportion to the rest of the body. Torsos and limbs are cloaked beneath garments that are not meant to drape human bodies but to transfigure the tangible world, to reveal both bodies and souls that glimmer with translucent light and color. “The folds of their clothing,” writes Quenot, “do not express their physical movement, but rather the spiritual movement of the entire person.” Whenever the body is shown partially naked, as in Christ’s baptism, it is rendered with a deliberate lack of naturalism in order to stress the theophany that occurs there, the divine disclosure evident in the transformed body. There is also an ascetic solemnity to the icons. The joy of the Kingdom that they announce also must take into account the sin and tragedy of human life, the darkness and suffering which the Light must overcome. There are virtually no shadows in icons, for the illumination of darkness is their essential aim. Albert Raboteau describes their spiritual tonality as “a sorrowful joy.” 

The eyes of an icon-figure are often unnaturally large, to signify the great glory they have seen. Sometimes the eyes are lusterless to signify that the holy ones see the spiritual and not only the physical world. More often they burn with intensity and confidence, revealing the great dynamism of their interior life. This often makes them frighteningly fierce. The forehead—even of the infant Christ—is usually convex and quite high, bulging with great spiritual wisdom and power. The cheeks and foreheads of most icon faces are marked with the deep crevices of suffering known to ascetics, monks, and bishops. The iconic nose is always thin and elongated, giving nobility to the face, indicating that the saint no longer detects the scents of this world but instead the sweet odors of Christ and the life-giving breath of the Spirit as they gush forth from a throat and neck that are disproportionately large. The mouth, as the most sensuous of organs, is always finely and geometrically drawn to eliminate all sensuality. The lips remain closed in the silence of contemplative wordlessness. A small mouth also indicates, according to Cyril of Jerusalem, that “the body no longer needs earthly nourishment because it has become a spiritual wonder.” The ears are often invisible because they no longer hear the sounds and sirens of the world but are wholly attuned to the commandments of God. An energetic chin, a sign of great courage against fierce opposition, can often be seen beneath a bushy beard. 

Such iconographic abandonment of naturalism in portraying facial features emphasizes a serene detachment from mundane excitements. The saints are those who, by way of the visible world, have seen and known the hugely more important realm of the invisible. Rather than being despised, the five senses serve as the doors and windows of the soul. The icon is not the image of a disincarnate world, therefore, but rather the revelation of a world transformed, transfigured, and rendered transparent and transcendent by a spiritualization that embraces the entire cosmos. Hence the invitation of Abba Bessarion, a desert saint who lived at the end of the fifth century to see in a new way—to behold the world not with mere optical sight that scans surfaces but with transcendent vision that penetrates invisible distances and depths. “Although blind toward the end of his life,” Quenot writes of Bessarion, “his eyes seemed to be extremely large and transparent. Shortly before dying, he told a young novice who had come for spiritual direction that a monk ought to become like the cherubim and seraphim: Holos Ophthalmos: All eye!”

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Ralph Wood, Ph.D
Ralph Wood, Ph.Dhttps://blogs.baylor.edu/ralph_wood/
Dr. Ralph C. Wood is the Baylor University Professor of Theology and Literature.