The Beauty of Icons: A Practical Guide


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 don't 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. 1667-1679).

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. 1159-1162).

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 "con-firms that the incarnation of the Word of God was real and not imaginary."

Language Barrier

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 subject—two icons of the Nativity, for example—you 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. Paul's 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.

Writing Icons

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 God's 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."


Changing Perspective

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, every-thing comes together into a "vanishing point."

In icons, the opposite is true. The perspective of the scene is usually reversed, so the farther away some-thing is, the bigger it appears. Icons are not badly drawn—this 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 CUF's "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, be-cause 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 saint's most famous quotes. This is an ancient precursor to the "speech balloon," still used in mod-ern cartoons (see April's 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. Adam's 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. 18:1—15) 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.

Article used with permission from Catholics United for the Faith.

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