Icons are sacred images that remind us that God is the true source of all life and Creation.
Icons are sacred images traditional to Eastern Churches. They have a shared history in both Catholic and Orthodox faiths. Icons depict Christ, the Mother of God (Theotokos), angels, saints and holy people, and events from Holy Scripture. The use of iconography originates from the early centuries of the Church.
More than decoration and far beyond the classification as religious painting or art, icons and iconography serve an intrinsic role in the transcendent and mystical approach at the core of Eastern Christian theology, prayer, hymns, and liturgy. It is the entire Eastern Christian approach that distinguishes iconography from all other forms of visual art used as embellishment in church architecture.
This is often difficult to grasp because many of us are accustomed to seeing religious art as another form of art and not much more than what is visible at the surface level. In most religious painting, for example, the artist interprets and may unintentionally transpose personality to the finished work. A typical church mural painted to fill a space may in addition to the depiction, reveal the individual qualities representative to that specific artist. Iconographers on the other hand make an effort to follow set and traditional designs of the subjects they depict, and will rarely deviate. The goal is not to create something unique. The intention in iconography is to emphasize the inherent spiritual and prayer-based foundation of an otherwise earthly creation. The goal is in symbolizing and creating a bridge to the what is intangible, to what is holy, and to all that is heavenly.
In the mystery of the Incarnation, of God taking human nature in Christ Jesus — one of the core beliefs that defines Christianity — Christ Himself becomes the Icon of our living God.¹ For more on this relationship between the Incarnation and iconography visit the page on this site explaining the Icon of the Sign.
Basic to iconography is the presence of ordered symbolic elements. God created order out of chaos. In the beginning stages of how an icon is created, it is the same. Every aspect of the process requires attention not just to technique, but with respect to the holiness of creation.
The form that many, though not all icons take is often referred to as the “Byzantine style”. This is a general term characterizing the style commonly seen in most Eastern churches that has often become a standard.
One of the formats in iconography is use of flat perspective as opposed to linear, spatial perspective (the technique that makes images on a flat surface look three dimensional and realistic). Iconography does not attempt realistic portrayal at all, and in fact intentionally distorts certain features to show what is most significant.
For these reasons, the technique of iconography is not a casual engagement or one necessarily for personal artistic expression. In fact, the nature of iconography as sacred art was not fully recognized outside of Eastern Churches until recently. Interest in iconography has grown substantially, and with this is the need to preserve its traditional spirituality, in contrast to promoting it as a novel form of religious art. Icons created as such often lack the qualities and purpose for which iconography exists.
Icons are usually created by devout persons, often religious or monastics, or those who are immersed in the depth of the spiritual practices found in Eastern Churches. They approach writing an icon in the manner of a spiritual discipline in depicting a chosen subject or biblical event. This is why the visual form of icons does not vary in form and style, although the quality may vary based on the skill of the iconographer. Icons are the visual equivalent of holy scripture in the sense they illuminate beliefs, inform, and are a path to spiritual insight. Icons are never signed by an iconographer because they are not personal works of art.
Frequently described as “windows to heaven”, icons serve to elevate one’s awareness to all things Divine. They are very much like many sacramentals in the Catholic Church – a means of setting our hearts and souls towards relationship with God . The whole intent of icons is to draw the viewer closer to a desire for holiness (Theosis) and to the mystery of all that is God. When we venerate icons, we show respect and honor to the figure in the icon or acknowledge the sacred value of a depicted event.
When we pray before an icon, we are not worshiping the icon itself which is a material object, but we have a means to help us be prayerful, and to grow in our understanding of the actual reality of the figure in the icon or the event. In turn, the presence of icons in our church remind us of the holiness of and respect we have for God’s “house” and for the presence of God, most blessed Theotokos, and all the saints as we participate in the Divine Liturgy. Icons in our homes, such as an icon corner, remind us of our homes as an extension of the Church and of our personal call to lead a life of faith.
God created both the visible and invisible world. Our visible world of human experience is through the senses. Icons have a way of connecting us to what lies beyond what we see only with our eyes. As we visually see the glory of God evidenced in the beauty of life and creation, including through iconography, our faith — our personal relationship with God requires that we see in other ways also.
¹ Colossians 1:15