Holy Icons: Theology in ColorHome > Sacred Art > Holy Icons: Theology in Color
Sacred Art Journal Volume 15 Number 1; Spring 1994 – Page 5 – 12
Theology in Color
by Dennis Bell
President, St. John of Damascus Association
Holy icons cannot be isolated from the rest of liturgical tradition and studied in terms of simple aesthetics. They must remain in the context of liturgy, theology, spirituality, hymnography, and architecture. All these facets of Orthodoxy augment and supplement each other. What the hymn says in words and music, the icon says in pictures.
The criteria used in evaluating liturgical art cannot be simply personal taste, pure aesthetics (“does it look nice?”) or even authenticity or age, but rather how well does it convey the TRUTH?; revealed Truth, unchangeable and eternal: that in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity was united to human nature, thus making salvation possible by breaking down the wall of separation between God and man, and “opened to us the doors of Paradise.” As St. Athanasus put it, “God became man, so that man could become God.” As a devotional object, the icon is an integral part of Orthodox Liturgy, and expresses Orthodoxy in its totality.
What exactly is an icon? “Icon” is a Greek word meaning image. This word usually invokes a negative response in light of the Second Commandment’s prohibition against idolatry: “You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness of anything that is in the heaven above, or that is on the earth below,” and again, “All worshippers of images are put to shame who make their boast in worthless idols.” (Ps 97:7) But it was not against His peoples’ making images that God directed this command, but against Idolatry, to which they were prone. God did command the making of various other images, for instance, the images of Cherubim to be placed upon the Ark of the Covenant. Solomon also included images (in pure gold) of Cherubim, palm trees, open flowers, bulls, and lions in his Temple. The faithful did not confuse them with God— these images, were not idols.
The reason the Old Testament prohibited images of God was that no man had ever seen God. “The Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire; you heard the
sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice. (Deut 4:12) And, “No man looks on the face of God and lives.” (Ex 33:20). Moses only saw His back, while hiding under a cleft in the rock. (Ex. 33: 21-3)
But, with the Incarnation, everything is changed. There occurred a decisive and eternal change in the relationship between God and man—between God and all material creation.
The Word became flesh—God robed Himself in the garment of humanity. Jesus Christ became “the icon of the invisible God.” (Col 115) The Old Testament prohibition against images is now revoked, as St. John of Damascus explains in his first oration:
God, Who has neither body nor form, was never represented in days of old. But now that He has come in the flesh and has lived among men, I (can) represent the appearance of God.
So we now represent the appearance of God on earth. The Apostles were privileged in that they were able to see Christ with their own eyes. In the Gospel of Matthew, the Lord calls His own disciples blessed:
Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Amen, I say to you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.
We also long to hear, and to see, what is possible for us. We still are able to hear the Lord’s words from listening to Scripture, and we are still able to see His image by gazing at His icon.
There are those today who would echo the argument of the eighth century iconoclasts that it is impossible to depict Christ, since either we represent His divine nature (the incarnate Word of God), or we portray His human nature (the man, Jesus) distinct from His divinity. But the Council of Chalcedon makes a very clear distinction between nature (physis) on one hand, and person (hypostasis) on the other. When we represent our Lord, we do not represent His divinity or His humanity, but His Person, which inconceivably unites in itself those two natures, “without division, and without confusion,” as the Chalcedonian dogma defines it.
Those outside the Church who observe Orthodox faithful venerating icons would still feel they have claims against us on the grounds of idolatry. We must clarify a few terms. The Greek fathers understood the distinction between proskynesis (veneration, bowing down) and latreia (absolute worship, adoration). Veneration is due to kings, ancestors, elders, and fellow humans. There are many scriptural examples of veneration (Abraham to the sons of Hamor, Jacob to his brother Esau and Joseph, Joshua and Daniel venerated the angel of God). Worship (adoration) is due to God alone. We worship God; we venerate icons.
Icons deliberately avoid a realistic natural look, but symbolize the transfigured, resurrected body of Christ and the saints.
An icon, however, is not simply a holy picture; it does not portray a physical reality—a photographic reality—or worse, saccharin sentimentality. It rather portrays a spiritual reality—the transfigured image and likeness of the one portrayed—the deified image of the one who has returned to the original state of man’s nature before the fall—before the distortion of the Image of God in which man was created. But it even goes one step further—the icon depicts humanity deified— become one with God. It reflects the twofold dispensation of salvation: the Incarnation (the entry of the Holy Spirit into created matter) and Transfiguration (the subsequent sanctification of that matter).
Icons deliberately avoid a realistic natural look, but symbolize the transfigured, resurrected body of Christ and the saints. The glorified body, as St. Paul says, is not like the earthly body; it is a “spiritual body.” (1 Cor. 15:44) In this respect, the icons may appear “unnatural” (the nose is too long, the eyes too large, and so on). But if it appears unnatural to us, we are reminded that in God, the order of nature is overthrown: the bush burned, but was not consumed; Israel passed through the Red Sea, but the sea remained impassable; the Virgin gave birth, but remained a virgin (these are all “types” of Biblical figures in scriptural reading, as opposed to literal or figurative interpretations; Adam and Jonah, for example, are “types” of Christ.)
Just as Moses’ face shown brightly following his encounter with God on Mt. Sinai, and Christ radiated Divine Light on Mt. Tabor during the Transfiguration, so saints depicted on icons also radiate the uncreated light. The challenge for the painter is to illustrate this inner glow – the light source of an icon is internal, not external.
The glorified body must glow through the drapery of the figure’s robes. And the hand, in giving a blessing, does not cast a shadow on the area behind it, but actually enlightens this area. There are no shadows in icons.
The icon, then, is a window into heaven, allowing us to see the deified state. What is “natural” here, may not be “natural” there. Architectural representations are not always accurate, for instance. Windows, doors, walls, are not always in their proper places, and pillars may land on open areas, appearing to be suspended in space. Architectural scenes indicate that an event has taken place indoors—icons are never “shown” from inside. And yet the building becomes no boundary for the holy event; it recedes into the background.
Another technique used to testify to the reversal of nature is inverse perspective. In normal perspective, the viewer’s eye is drawn to a vanishing point created by a convergence of lines, which tends to give a third dimension to an otherwise two-dimensional surface. In figure 1, our eye is “forced” to travel down the road to the point where it disappears on the horizon a point “within” the frame of the picture. In an icon, the vanishing point is within the spectator himself, in front of the panel (figure 2). The icon, in effect, is looking at us! Not only are icons our windows into heaven, but also serve as heaven’s windows to earth.
An icon, then, has a sense of “otherworldliness,” un-natural, not of this world. We know that in seven out of eleven post-resurrectional appearances, Christ was not immediately recognized: Mary mistook Him for the gardener; the men on the road to Emmaus didn’t recognize Him until the “breaking of the bread” (which of course is interpreted in a eucharistic sense.) He appeared through closed doors, but was not a ghost. He remained flesh and blood, but “deified” flesh and blood.
There is some logic to an icon, however. The face, for instance, is proportional, based upon “moduli” measured in nose-lengths. The entire body is based on “face-lengths,” each of which is equal to three “nose-lengths.” An icon conforms to its prototype, and cannot reflect only the imagination of the painter. The iconographer is not an artist who is “expressing himself,” but rather struggles to crucify his own ego to become completely transparent to God, through humility becoming an instrument of God’s revelation.
There is a tradition that the first icon was made by Christ Himself. According to the History of Evagrius, a king from Edessa, Abgar, a leper, had heard of the healing power of Christ, and sent his ambassador Ananias to him asking for his prayers. Because of the crowd, Ananias was not able to get close to the Lord, and had to content himself with sketching him from a distance. Christ, realizing the poor man’s predicament, took a linen cloth, pressed it to His Face, and gave it to Ananias, promising to send one of His disciples to Edessa after His Ascension. Disappointed, Ananias returned home and presented the linen to the king. The impression of Christ’s Face was clearly visible, and the king was cured from his leprosy. This Shroud is referred to as “the Image-made-without-hands.” A western version often referred to as “Veronica’s Veil” and having been adopted as the Sixth Station of the Way of the Cross, has a maiden wiping the brow of Christ with a veil as He climbs towards Golgatha, and the impression of His Face remained imprinted. Historically, though, we know of no Veronica. The term comes from two words: Vera (true) icona (image). Vera icona. Veronica.
St. Luke is credited with painting the first icon of the Virgin Mary. This achievement was accomplished while Mary was yet living, and Our Lady was said to have stated, “My grace and power are with this image,” obviously enduring to serve future generations of Orthodox faithful.
Once a painter leaves the Tradition,… all kinds of problems arise.
The type of icon of the Theotokos painted by St. Luke is referred to as “Hodighitria,” which means “She Who Points the Way.” Both the Virgin and Child are turned full-face toward the spectator, and her hand, pointing to the Christ Child, emphasizes His divinity.
Another image is the type “umilenie,” or “Our Lady of Tenderness,” which represents the mutual caress of Mother and Child, and is the image of a mother who suffers deeply for the inevitable suffering which awaits her Child. The Vladimir Mother of God is perhaps the most famous of this type.
Traditions early established important characteristics of saints depicted on icons. We can trace portrayals of St. Peter, for instance, back to a fourth century glass from the catacombs, and even earlier to a Roman medallion of the second century. In each case, his distinguishing features remain virtually unchanged: curly hair, a forelock, and a rounded white beard. Paul and Andrew have similar early prototypes. Many others, that set the course of iconography, have probably been lost to us.
Colors, poses, and inscriptions are usually dictated by tradition to conform to the original, although it is still possible, to detect eras, periods, places, styles, and even individual hands (although iconographers never sign their work). Bishops are shown in vestments of their office. Martyrs are often shown in red robes, and may carry a cross. (The means of their martyrdom are not depicted—we care not about their particular means of suffering, but their victorious deification.) A white veil denotes chastity. Prophets will usually carry a scroll. Warrior saints will often be shown in armor. (As an aside—St. George rides a white horse, St. Demetrius rides a black one, although often other “unnatural” colors will be used.) Kings, Queens, and Princes are shown wearing crowns.
The Church stipulates that icons be painted “as they were painted by the ancient and holy iconographers.” Imitation is not a bad thing, but is to be desired: Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” wrote St. Paul. To be an Image (icon), it must be an image of something, necessarily a copy. The iconographer is literally an “Icon-writer,” and should make the same effort at accuracy as a monk copying the text of the Gospel. There is a close relationship between calligraphy and icon-writing.
Iconography is one of the Traditions of the Church, as are three immersions in Baptism, praying facing the east (awaiting the dawn of the eighth day, the day of recreation), the manner of receiving the Holy Eucharist, etc. St. Paul tells us: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” (2 Thess 2:15). And again, in I Cor 11:2, “I commend you because you remember me in everything, and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you. (The Traditions he speaks of pre-date his own conversion. He was glad to receive them and pass them on, unchanged.)
Once a painter leaves the Tradition, and goes off on his own, all kinds of problems arise. If it is possible to distort truth in words, how much easier is it to distort truth through images? One temptation Eastern Christians face is the western, or Italian Renaissance, influence. The danger of accepting western art into the Orthodox Church is that it does not represent deification. The West understands sanctified man as a vessel which contains created grace, much like a glass which contains water. The Orthodox icon presents sanctified man entirely transfigured from within, deified by the grace of God, much like an iron horseshoe which radiates heat and light after being taken from the blacksmith’s furnace. The icon, then illustrates transfigured, or deified, humanity: man in the image of God. Western religious art emphasizes the humanity of Christ, particularly His human suffering, and invokes the emotions and senses of our human nature. The Italian “holy picture” shows God in the image of man!
Holy icons cannot be isolated from the rest of liturgical tradition and studied in terms of simple aesthetics.
During the 1700s, Peter the Great, and after him, Catherine the Great, attempted to bring Russian social, military, and artistic standards up to par with their western counterparts. They sent their most promising artists and musicians abroad to study in Italy and France. Some of this art began to infiltrate the church as painters lost sight of the theological significance of the holy icons. Much of the sacred art brought to America during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reflected this period of “western captivity,” and it has only been since the middle of this century that the Church has been sincerely seeking to return to its traditional form of iconography.
The Sunday on which we celebrate the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” actually commemorates, not a military or political victory, but the restoration of the holy icons into the Church, in 843, following a century of struggle against the iconoclast heresy. This celebration occurs on the first Sunday of Great Lent, as we deny ourselves in order that God may make perfect His image in us. The feast-day hymn clearly expresses the Church’s understanding of icons:
O Mother of God, the Indescribable Word of the Father took flesh through you, and therefore became describable; and penetrating with His divine Beauty the impure image of man, He restored it to its pristine state. As we confess our salvation we depict it in word and icons.
This hymn is addressed to the Theotokos, the Mother of God, who is the icon of the Church. The confessing of the Incarnation is possible only if we also confess Mary to be the Mother of God. And to deny the icon is to deny the Incarnation; to deny the possibility of the Holy Spirit’s dwelling within created matter.
If Mary is the icon, or image, of the Church, the Church herself is the icon of the Kingdom of God. The Church, as the Ark of Salvation, is built according to the plans of the Tabernacle of Moses, and the Temple of Solomon. It faces east, towards paradise, awaiting Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, the Orient from on High, and awaiting the dawn of the Day without end.
The sanctuary represents Heaven, the “Holy of Holies” reserved for the High Priest (the clergy); the nave, deified earth, represents the “Holy” of the Tabernacle, for the royal priesthood (the laity); and the narthex, or vestibule, represents unredeemed creation, the world.
Between the Altar and the Nave, between heaven and earth, is an icon screen called the iconostasis, through which the clergy (representing Christ) pass, uniting heaven and earth. Contrary to popular belief, the icon screen is not meant to separate the altar from the nave, but serves as the horizon point which connects heaven and earth. During the Liturgy, the faithful may contemplate these windows into Heaven. The arrangement of icons on the iconostasis is rather standard: On either side of the Royal Doors are icons of Christ and the Theotokos. On the deacons’ doors, either sainted deacons or perhaps archangels.
Beyond that are icons of St. John the Forerunner (the Baptist) and the patron saint of the church. Above the Royal Doors is an icon of the Mystical Supper. The row of icons above this is called the Deisis (Christ surrounded by interceding saints). If there are additional rows, they may contain festal icons (feast days of the Church, including the Annunciation, Nativity, Transfiguration and Ascension.) Above that, Old Testament prophets, and finally a top row may contain Old Testament Patriarchs.
The icons around the Royal Doors are images occupying space, but represent the movement of the present through time: the icon of the Theotokos represents Christ’s first coming as Immanu-El, son of the Virgin (past event in history); the icon of Christ on the right represents His coming in Glory (in the future); while on the Altar table in the middle, between the past and the future, Christ is with us presently, now, in the Eucharist. The icon, like the Eucharist, is a continuous reoccurrence of the Incarnation—the descent of the Holy Spirit into created matter. So the Theotokos occupies the space immediately above the Altar, receiving the Holy Spirit from above, uniting it to human nature from below. Also pictured in the Sanctuary are the Church Fathers, authors of the Liturgies, hierarchs, deacons, concelebrants, and the Communion of the Apostles.
Inside the dome, which represents the vault of Heaven, is the Pantocrator (Ruler of the Universe)—the Head of the Church, announced by the prophets, established by the apostles (below the dome) and supported by the four Evangelists, who spread the Good News to the four corners of the earth (in the pendatives). The pillars of the Church are the martyrs, hierarchs, and ascetics. The walls depict important events in the New Testament (the Sermon on the Mount, Entry into Jerusalem, parables, and miracles). At the back of the Church is depicted the Last Judgement—the beginning of the age to come. The Church is an icon of the Body of Christ. It is the Kingdom of Heaven as it already exists on earth, and anticipates its coming in Glory.
Humanity was created in the image of God, and so we are all living icons. We are created in His image, with a free will to choose or reject, to love or ignore, but we are called to transform, that image into His likeness, (2 Cor 3:18), His perfection, realized by effort and sacrifice, fulfilled by grace, but not without the free will of man. When we strive with all our power towards the beauty of the likeness, divine grace enables us to attain it. God desires that we become through grace what He is by nature. This is a dynamic task to be accomplished, not one of passive “faith alone.” One will (God’s) for creation; two wills (ours, with God’s) for deification. Finally, we are challenged to search out and discover the image of God in our fellow man.
Why do we use icons? The Church does not “use” icons; they are central to its life, a part of its faith. The icon serves as an intermediary: we venerate an icon, and our prayers rise to the prototype depicted; the icon participates in the holiness of its prototype, and through the icon, we do also, through our prayers. The Church recognizes the monastic life as the “ideal” example of Christian living. The monk, who has given up the vanities and values of the world, represents man’s reaching up to God. The icon represents God’s reaching down to man. So a monk, venerating an icon, exemplifies the closest degree of union between God and man, save for the Eucharist and the Incarnation itself.
In Orthodox tradition, every family has a prayer corner, no matter how humble or sublime the residence, where the family gathers for prayer. The family becomes a “miniature church;” as St. Paul says, with the father as head, as Christ is of the Church, but willing to sacrifice Himself for her. (Eph 5:23ff)
The icon also has a teaching role; it shows theology in color. St. Basil the Great says that icons are the books of the illiterate. “We comprehend through our physical ears, spiritual words. Contemplation with our physical eyes likewise leads to spiritual contemplation.” What does an icon tell us? We know that it reveals Divine Truth. We can examine other teaching aspects of the icon. An icon of a saint, for example, will often have scenes from his life depicted around the border. At no time, however, is a saint depicted in profile. Profile is the beginning of absence.
Festal icons convey the same theological and dogmatic truths as the liturgical hymns for the feast. Compare an icon of the Nativity with the feast day kontakion:
Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One and the earth offers a cave to the
Unapproachable One! Angels, with shepherds, glorify Him! The wise men journey with a
star! Since for our sake the Eternal God was born as a little child!
A verse from the Christmas Stichera gives even greater detail:
What shall we offer Thee, 0 Christ, Who for our sakes hast appeared as man? Every creature
made by Thee offers Thee thanks. The angels offer Thee a hymn; the heavens, a star; the
magi, gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, its cave; the wild beasts, their manger:
and we offer Thee a virgin mother. 0 Pre-eternal God, have mercy upon us!
Further examination and comparison of festal icons with their liturgical hymns would reinforce and demonstrate the consistency and inseparable relationship between iconography, hymnography, and liturgy. How is an icon made? First of all, the painter himself undergoes extensive preparation. There is a spiritual discipline to which the iconographer must submit. Once he has received the blessing from the bishop to undertake the ministry (usually only after years of technical and spiritual training icon painting cannot simply be a secular “hobby” with a religious theme. It is a serious calling and vocation within the church, as is ordination to the priesthood.) The iconographer then receives the sacraments of confession and communion, and enters into a period of prayer and fasting, asking prayers of intercession from the saints he is about to portray. Even the paints and brushes are customarily blessed before work begins, as are the materials used in the icon.
The painter will begin with a non-resinous wood (birch and linden are favorites), and traditionally a groove is cut across the back of the panel, and a strut inserted to prevent warping.
St Luke is credited with painting the first icon of the Virgin Mary.
The panel is sanded, and perhaps a recessed area is routed out of the middle, leaving a natural “frame.” Loose linen is then glued to the front of the board, and a substance called gesso is applied. Gesso is a mixture of alabaster or chalk and rabbit skin glue. Several thin layers are necessary to cover the grain in the wood. The board is then “wet-sanded” to achieve a perfectly smooth glassy surface to serve as a ground to hold the paint.
A drawing may be done on a separate sheet of paper, and later transferred to the prepared panel. With a sharp etching tool or scriber, the sketch is “inscribed” into the gesso, so that the lines will still be visible after the base colors are applied. A skilled iconographer may “write” the outline directly on the panel, or may lay out the figure in ochre with a wider brush, then refine the drawing with finer sienna lines. The first colors to go on are all dark “base” colors. An iconographer begins with dark background colors, and works his way to the lighter ones, much like a spiritual pilgrim who begins his journey in the darkness and comes to the light. Flesh tones begin as a dark olive color; even white begins as a shade of tan.
The pigments used in iconography originally were colored pigment powders mixed with egg yolk (“egg tempera”), which allows for “layering” of successive translucent coats of brighter colors, one on top of the other, forming a barely perceptible “relief” or sculpture, wherein the highlighted areas (i.e. the tip of the nose) would actually be “higher” than the rest of the area around it. It is interesting to note that even when oil painting was introduced in Western Europe, the Orthodox rejected its use as not being compatible with the aims of iconography—oil paint produced a “sensuous” characteristic, and did not lend itself to the “layering” method.
There is a tradition that the first icon was made by Christ himself.
After the iconographer colors in all open areas, he then recreates the lines that were etched in by the scriber, using black, brown, or a dark shade of the base color. Then the painter develops each color by overpainting increasingly lighter values of each hue, concentrating the light to restricted areas in order to achieve the “glow” that indicates theosis, or sanctity. After the flesh tones and clothing has been modeled and highlighted, the background and halo are primed for gilding. Gilding is accomplished by applying an adhesive called sizing (gold size) to the area to be gilded. This is then covered with thin sheets of 23 karat gold leaf. The excess gold is then removed, and the surface burnished (often by rubbing it with a hound’s tooth).
After lettering and labeling, the icon is varnished and allowed to dry. Originally, olipha (boiled linseed oil) was used to protect the icon and enrich the colors, but its tacky surface would collect dust and carbon from the burnt oil in the vigil lamps, and the surface would become darkened. Today, it is much more efficient to use a polyurethane varnish, which also
prevents the colors from fading.
And finally the icon is finished, ready to be blessed on the altar, and to assume its role as a channel of divine grace between Heaven, and earth.