The Icon of the Eastern Orthodox Church – Research Paper
Objectively speaking, an icon is a two-dimensional work of art found in the Eastern Orthodox religion, often portraying religious figures such as Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and various saints. Obviously, icons (sometimes spelled ikons) are revered in this tradition, but their precise significance is often hard to understand.
The very concept of religious images is, in fact, a broad area of concern, one that did not begin even with Christianity (Gerhard 8).
However, the case within this specific tradition is a very unique one. In Eastern Orthodoxy, icons are religious works of art, which, although possessing a long history and complexity of manufacture, are centrally concerned with portraying a symbolic message and serving as a tool of worship rather than exhibiting any aesthetic value.
The origin of religious concern for representative images does not lie with the Eastern Orthodox faith, nor did it begin with Christianity at all. The Mosaic law of Judaism contained a tenet which read, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4). Although the English translation appears quite clear, in ancient Judaism, this commandment was a constant subject of argumentation, as many interpreted the word “image” as closer to “idol” than any literal image (9).
The developing Christian world, however, was nurtured in a land influenced by more than Jewish tradition. The Greek attitude toward images and even image worship was quite favorable. Paintings and statues of their mythical gods and heroes covered classical Greece, while even Rome adopted the Greek imagery into the culture of its own people (12). In addition, the Syrian civilization introduced to the Mediterranean world its own artistic style of frontal poses and large facial features (Cavarnos 14). Israel, the birthplace and location of the ministry of Jesus, was the cradle of Christianity and was centrally Jewish, which usually rejected images unconditionally. However, Christianity was quickly becoming an expanding church, and its increasing acceptance forced Christians throughout the Old World to evaluate their stand on representative images (Gerhard 14).
Among the Orthodox tradition, there exists a legend of the first icon, which began with Christ. John Stuart explains:
Tradition has it that Abgar, King of Edessa, who was afflicted with leprosy, heard tell that Christ could restore him to health. He accordingly sent one Ananias as an ambassador to Palestine with instructions to find Our Lord and return with him to Edessa. When Ananias finally caught up with him, Christ was addressing a great throng of people. Being unable to approach nearer, Ananias began to sketch the face of Christ, although needless to say, with very little success. But Christ was aware of what Ananias was doing. When he had dismissed the crowds, he took a piece of linen; soaking it in water, he pressed it firmly to his face and then handed it to Ananias. When the latter had taken the towel into his hands, he saw that Christ’s features were clearly imprinted upon it.
Christ declined to go to Edessa but promised to send a disciple after his death. And Edessa was to become, in fact, the first Christian state. Meanwhile, Ananias was instructed to take the towel to King Abgar, as a substitute for Christ’s presence. (31)
Eventually, with the increasing influx of complete Mediterranean culture in the Christian world, images gained greater acceptance. In the Byzantine area (the region around Constantinople named for the old name of the city, Byzantium), the Christian imagery was mostly affected by the Hellenistic (Greek and Roman) and Syrian culture (Cavarnos 14).
The central Hellenistic influence in Christian iconography was the art of mosaics. Early Christians used this technique to decorate the walls, floors, domes, etc of their churches. Syrian art effectively gave rise to the use of frescoes in Christian churches. The third type of icon—the panel icon—is the most widely used in Russia and most other regions of the Orthodox faith. It consists of a picture painted on a chalk-covered wooden panel treated with an egg solution, or tempera (17).
The actual process of creating a panel icon is very complex. First, the icon-maker must go search for the correct type of wood. Cypress was used in Greece; birch and oak were often sought after in Russia, as well as was a good, sturdy pine from Siberia (Gerhard 208). After carving the panel into the correct size and shape with an axe or two-handed plane, it is stored away to remove its moisture. This process normally takes five or six years. After this period, gesso, or chalk, is ground onto its surface to prepare the panel for the next step. This step involves the draughtsman, who sketches the basic outline of the picture in charcoal. When this is completed, he removes the charcoal and paints the outline in a black-colored paint. After the fundamental outline of the image is complete, the surface is gilded with an egg-paste mixture to prepare it for the actual pigmented paint (Stuart 42).
On the icon, the first sections painted are the background (such as buildings and nature) and the clothing of the subjects involved. Normally, gold ornamentation follows, which involves painting on sticky resin followed by the application of light gold sheets, after which the sheets are polished. Next, the icon-painter begins painting the subjects’ faces. These comprise the most precise skill on the part of the painter, who must endow the faces with the very spirit and life force of the subject in the picture. A layer of varnish, normally comprised of linseed or olive oil is applied. Finally, it is transported to a church for a blessing (Gerhard 210). The icon is then complete.
The Byzantine art style is fundamentally different from the classic western style of realistic sketches and Renaissance-type paintings. The icon painter, as a member of this Byzantine tradition, approaches art with symbols in mind, rather than a realistic concept of some natural object (Stuart 25). Much like a Chinese calligrapher wanting to depict a tree in a work of writing composes a specific character meaning “tree,” rather than drawing any actual tree that he may see or conceptualize, the icon painter creates specific symbolic paintings that illustrate the various religious ideas wishing to be expressed.
Truly, iconography is more concerned with symbolism than physical appearances. The object of an icon is to capture the spirit and meaning of what the image is trying to portray. Constantine Cavarnos maintains that “True iconography is intended to take us beyond anatomy and the three-dimensional world of matter to a realm that is immaterial, spaceless, timeless—the realm of the spirit, of eternity. And hence the forms and colors are not those that one customarily observes around him, but have something unworldly about them” (38). Indeed, these metaphors elicit associations and can give an extended message than what is possible in a work concerned with physical beauty and perspective exactness.
It is of importance to note that the colors used in an icon are metaphorical rather than actual; icon colors often do not follow the color patterns in nature. Rather than making sure all the colors are in harmony with natural appearance, the icon painter will seek a harmony with the spiritual message in his art. Colors are very important for this harmony; each color symbolizes an aspect of the icon and gives a special meaning. For instance, deep red and royal purple are symbolic of the blood of Christ and are often used for the shoes of royal figures. Blue represents heaven and the ethereal. The greens and browns are usually used in familiar manners, representing the earth and vegetation—a reminder of our existence on this earth. From scarlet red comes vigor and vitality, a color used for the blood of martyrs and the cloak of St. George. Orange-red symbolizes the purification of the spirit. White suggests purity and colors the garments of Christ and his angels (28).
To give a specific example of the abstract nature of icon art, the faces of the characters depicted always are turned facing the viewer—the person giving their respects and their prayers. This rule holds true regardless of the character’s perspective position in their environment (Upensky 60). In fact, not only are the heads facing the viewer, the important figures in the image have their entire body turned outward in this manner. The rest, the less important, are normally subject to the laws of three-dimensional perspectives. Additionally, where those significant figures are generally depicted as stationary, the rest are again interacting with their environment and are often moving (65).
Superceding the hassle over the concern of the icon complying with the “hows” of natural laws and perspectives is the concern of why the natural laws work. This question of “why?” has always been a consideration for Byzantine religious artists. They do not comply with the classic paintings—those that depict photographically accurate settings; again, icons portray the religious nature and symbolism of their scenes (Stuart 36). A naturalistic painting may show Saint Peter as tall and powerful, completely in perspective with his environment, but an icon will depict him in an unrealistic-looking but completely symbolic and explanatory setting.
Icons may be placed in any location, such as a home or shop, but the central location where they are situated is, of course, the church. When one enters an Orthodox church, immediately noticeable is the iconostasis—a giant screen, composed of wood or marble, that supports the panel icons. On top of the iconostasis is a large cross with the figure of the crucified Christ. In Eastern Orthodoxy, there is great significance given to the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, whose icons are placed on the iconostasis to the right and left of Christ (Cavarnos 23). In most church buildings, icons cover most of the interior. As mentioned before, each icon portrays a religious message. When all the icons are displayed, the composite of the images inside the church gives the building an entirely new symbolism. The church is, in effect, a microcosm for the universe, where the iconographic messages reveal the universal plan of eternal salvation (Stuart 38).
During church services, the icons are ritually given respect. The deacon of the church wields a censer and directs it toward the icons. This indicates to the congregation that they are to contemplate the icons and understand that the saints painted on the icons are participating in the service in a similar manner as the worshippers themselves (33).
Icons in the Eastern Orthodox tradition serve several primary purposes. Most apparent to outsiders is their aesthetic value. They embellish and amplify the beauty of a church. Secondly, they instruct their faithful members in matters of doctrine, many times employing symbols that effectively surpass written doctrine (Cavarnos 30). Icons also remind these members of their faith. Their powerful message serves to remind and awaken the faith of the members of the church. In almost every instance, a saint or holy figure is portrayed on the icon. This serves to set an example for the members of the Eastern Orthodox faith. The righteous individual on the icon gives them a model with which to pattern their lives. This person on the image causes the member to be stirred up in faith and righteous zeal (32).
Surpassing all other purposes, the icon is a conduit for prayer and worship (Stuart 29). Each member of the congregation is allowed to light a candle, come to an icon, and make the sign of the cross. They then will reverence the icon with a kiss and say a prayer (Ugolnik 45). The Eastern Orthodox Church makes it very clear, however, that its members are not worshipping the icon, but giving it “honorable reverence.” Worship is due only to God, and the icon is a medium through which that worship may be expressed (Cavarnos 33).
This worship is the ultimate fulfillment of Byzantine iconography. Even with its extensive history and stunning methods of artistry, the sacredness of the icon surpasses all aesthetic and external value. The symbolism of the holy icon is truly the center of Eastern Orthodox worship. It allows its members to transcend their visible physical reality and enter into the ultimate reality, where spiritual truth is juxtaposed with material truth (Stuart 39). It allows one to comprehend the mutual dependence of matter and spirit and truly gives a perspective of far greater significance than the visible temporal universe that one is commonly allowed.
Cavarnos, Constantine. Orthodox Iconography. Belmont, Massachusetts: The Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Science, 1977.
Gerhard, H.P. The World of Icons. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1971.
Stuart, John. Ikons. London: Faber and Faber, 1975.
Ugolnok, Anthony. The Illuminating Icon. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989.
Upensky, Boris. The Semiotics of the Russian Icon. Lisse: The Peter DeRidder Press, 1976.