Introduction Symbolism
  Theology of Icons Kinds of Marian Icons
Veneration of Images
  Technique Bibliography

The Divine Wisdom, End of the 16C,
Novgorodian School


In early Christian centuries a variety of mediums were used for icons: marble, ivory, tapestry, mosaics, gold, silver, enamel, terra cotta. Most commonly, however, icons are painted on a wood panel, which is prepared with a layer of gesso, covered with canvas, then a series of layers of glue and powdered chalk, and finally polished. The outline of the picture is traced with a stylus or, in Russia, sketched in red paint. The background is painted first, often with gold leaf, or a neutral color. Silver or red are not uncommon either. The figure is painted with tempera of mainly earth colors, painted in several thin layers. When completed it is sealed. The icons of antiquity almost never dried, thus collecting dust and smoke from burning candles and incense which blurred the image and added to its mysterious effect.

Reverse perspective, a method of structuring the figures according to (unseen) geometric outlines, arranges the lines of perspective towards the viewer in order to draw him/her into communication with the persons in the icon. The divine is expressed through circular structures and the earthly domain by rectangles. Usually there is a cross underlying the structure and the figures are arranged symmetrically so that the focal point is Christ or the Mother of God.

Icons ignore time and space. Rather the value of a subject determines its size and position in the general layout, with the possibility of portraying simultaneously scenes that historically took place in different times and locations. For example, in the icon of the Nativity, the main scene of the birth is in the center. Around it are smaller scenes of related events of the early life of Jesus. The importance of a figure will determine its size in the icon, so that one can quite literally speak of spiritual giants.

An absence of movement or shade gives the effect of freeing one of anything that would distract from communion with the divine. There is never a source of natural light, for God is the light of the transfigured world. To give the effect of divine light radiating out from within a person, the face is painted dark and then layer by layer, lighter. Accents in clothes are done with white or gold, rather than dark shades of color.

There are three main schools of icon styles:

1) From Constantinople with characteristics of asceticism and royal grandeur. Russian art belongs to this category.

2) From Macedonia which portrays more roundness in form.

3) From Crete which used subdued colors and whose subjects have elongated features.

The Resurrection
Icon of the Visitation by Three Magi
to the Christ Child
, 13C.

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Mother of God Miroschskaja
with Prophets,


Icons have a sort of shorthand in symbols that remind the viewer of fundamental beliefs. The name printed on an icon not only signifies the presence of the person portrayed, but also is a seal of holiness and blessing. The pose of an icon usually shows the subject looking into the eyes of the viewer with a serious, matter-of-fact expression, since one tried to portray the spiritual, not human qualities of the saints. On the other hand, if a person stands in profile, it indicates one who is not open to the divine or has not yet reached holiness. When a hand is raised in blessing with the last two fingers touching the thumb, one is reminded of the divine and human natures of Christ.

When the blessing shows the ring finger touching the thumb, the Trinity is called to mind.

Color, as the expression of rainbow light, is very symbolic in iconography. GOLD, color of the noonday sun, reveals the divine light which permeates all of the transfigured world and is the color for Christ himself. It is most commonly used as the background of an icon, creating a space that is out of the dimensions of this world. WHITE represents the light, the eternal, those who are penetrated by the divine light, and purity. It is the color of the Father because he was never incarnate but always invisible. BLUE is the color of faith, of transcendence, humility, the mystery of divine life. Blue and white are the colors of the Virgin Mary who is detached from this world and centered on the divine. RED signifies youth, beauty, wealth, health, love, and war. It is the color of the Holy Spirit, of sacrifice and of altruism. On its other side it can express hatred, pride or hell. PURPLE is both royal and priestly. GREEN, derived from plants, symbolizes spiritual regeneration, peace and calmness, and is often used for the prophets and of John the Evangelist who herald the Holy Spirit. Pure YELLOW stands for truth but pale yellow for pride, adultery and betrayal. BROWN is the tone of the earth, the transfigured land, or as in the case of monks' habits, shows a slow death to the world, like decaying leaves. BLACK is the denial of all light so it suggests chaos, anxiety, and death, but in contrast promises the coming light and new creation. The damned are painted black and sometimes demons.

Categories of saints are distinguishable by their clothing, objects in their hands, and age. Evangelists wear tunics and display their books. Bishops, dressed in liturgical vestments hold a book or scroll. Monks are clothed in a habit and stand straight and disciplined like columns. Soldiers might be in a position showing movement, clad in military uniform and carrying weapons. Bishops and monks are portrayed well advanced in years; soldiers, doctors and women are young. Individuality of particular male saints is indicated by the color, length and style of hair and beard.

Women are usually indistinguishable except by the name written on the icon.

Spiritual wisdom and the power of the Spirit are detected in the large forehead, and the overall slender appearance reveals fasting and asceticism. The figures are abstract and unnatural to remind us that on our own we do not approach God, but that he takes the initiative to draw us to himself. The light in an icon seems unrealistic because it comes from within the holy person, revealing the transfiguration of man.

St. Nicholas
St. Nicholas
Example of Iconostasis Icon
This article was written by Sr. Marcia Vinje for a Mariology course at IMRI.
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