What Do Icons Mean?

007-Trinity-icon-hospitality-AbrahamThe following, which I have edited, was written by iconographer Michael Goltz. It explains some of the theology of the icon, its use, symbolism, how/why characters are portrayed, etc.

The iconography of our Orthodox Church, with all of its symbolism and spiritual meaning, is central to the Church’s teaching. People are greatly influenced by what they contemplate, and so the Church, in its love for its faithful, has given us iconography in order to help us contemplate God. They are also teaching tools.  What the Gospels proclaim with words, the icon proclaims visually.

The very meaning of the icon has as its foundation the incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ. “And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Christ is “the icon of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), and His transfiguration on Mount Tabor offers support of this (Matt. 17:1-13). It is because Christ became man and allowed man to glimpse the divine glory of heaven that we are able to paint icons and venerate images of Christ, the Theotokos and the saints. If Christ had not become incarnate, and had not revealed to us his transfigured glory on the Mount, it would be impossible to depict the spiritual realm of Heaven in icons.

Our theology impacts all parts of the icon, from how the face is painted, to the robes, to even the “scenery” of the festal icons. While the incarnation is the basis of iconography, the icon itself, in its role as a window into Heaven, affirms the incarnation and speaks of God’s great mysteries. One great task of the icon is to proclaim the wonder and mystery of Christ, the Theotokos and the saints, while reminding us they were human like we are, and calling us to the same spiritual perfection which Christ’s incarnation allows us to seek. All naturalism, whether it is spacial, figural or proportional, is set aside and man, landscape, and architecture are shown in a transfigured state.

One of the first things which I discovered about icons before converting to Orthodoxy is that icons are initially not easy to see. At first they appear distorted and unreal, almost impressionist, full of symbolism. In a society more familiar with western art, we are concerned with the response of our external, empirical senses. Yet the icon is not meant to excite our external senses. It is not painted to depict the mundane, everyday life, but rather the spiritual realm. It is painted as a “window into heaven,” a physical means which allows us to gaze into the invisible spiritual reality. The simplicity of the icon is not meant to stir our emotions but rather to quietly invite us to leave the world for a moment and guide every emotion toward the contemplation of the Divine. Icons assist us in prayer as well as we gaze upon them quietly and patiently.

The communion with the Divine to which the icon calls us is achieved through a symbolic language in which clothing styles, colors, gestures, architecture and human form in the icon are fixed. The painting of iconography must not be based on artistic speculation, emotion, or abstract ideas but soundly on the teachings of the Orthodox Church. Depicting these teachings requires a studious understanding of Orthodoxy, meditation, attention to detail, and artistic skill. The iconographer must understand what parts of the icon he can adjust using his best artistic skills and what parts of the icon he ought to leave intact.

In this language of iconography, certain meanings are ascribed to the subjects of the icon. People of importance in icons are often depicted as larger than other people in the icon and are always indicated by name on the icon. In icons of single saints, the saint is also usually depicted with the instrument of his or her salvation. Bishops are usually depicted wearing some episcopal designation, holding the gospel, and giving a blessing. The blessing hand is formed in the monogram of the name of Christ, ICXC, just as an Orthodox priest blesses. The evangelists are depicted holding the gospels, St. Paul the epistles, and great spiritual writers a scroll. Martyrs are depicted holding the crown of martyrdom, the cross, or the instrument of their martyrdom. St. Andrei Rublev, the great Russian iconographer of the fifteenth century, is depicted holding the icon of the Trinity which he painted (and which some regard as the standard for all other icons). The subject of the icon is usually depicted looking straight ahead, or at a 3/4 angle. While the saints gaze into eternity – focused on the divinity – the transfigured person is not avoiding the earthly realm but rather gently addressing it and calling it to be transfigured in Christ as well.

The physical features of the icon are also very important in conveying this symbolic spiritual language. Because the subject of the icon is transfigured by the love of Christ, the light of the icon is interior, not exterior as in other forms of art. Thus, the areas of the robes and skin which protrude the most have the brightest highlights. The forehead on the subject on many icons is often high and convex, to express the power of the spirit and wisdom.  Ascetics, monks, and bishops are given deep wrinkles in their cheeks. The nose of the subject is long and thin, which gives it a sense of gracefulness; it no longer smells the odors of the world, but rather the sweet incense of Heaven. The lips of the subject are closed, expressing true contemplation which requires total silence. The eyes are large and pronounced, gazing into Heaven. While the physical features of the face are spiritualized, they still retain a likeness to the saint depicted. Thus the face of St. Peter is different from that of his brother Andrew and from that of St. Paul. Their hands are either holding the instrument of their martyrdom or giving a blessing [Paul is sometimes depicted with a sword since he was behead, and Peter with keys]. The feet, if depicted, walk in the way of God. The halo symbolizes the Divine light which radiates from the person who lives in close communion with God.

Colors used to depict the subject are of equal importance, though less standardized by rules. Iconographers in the past have painted certain icons in certain colors because it was theologically correct to do so as well as visually appealing. The iconographer’s job is to paint an icon which is theologically correct, in good artistic taste and visually pleasing; good artistic taste has a role to play in what colors are used in the icon. Artistic harmony is as important to the icon as theological accuracy. A visually unpleasing icon can be as disturbing as a theologically incorrect one because it draws attention to what should not be important, namely the skills of the iconographer, and draws attention away from what is most important, namely the message which the icon should convey.



Gold is used to depict divinity, as it is a rare and precious metal; when light strikes gold it gives a radiance which most closely reflects uncreated light. Gold leaf or a golden color of paint is used for the halo. White, like gold, is used to depict uncreated light, as well as physical and spiritual purity. Christ’s robes at the Transfiguration and following His resurrection are painted white, or sometimes gold.

The color blue is used to depict transcendence, truth and humility. A famous icon of St. Ignatius of Antioch depicts the saint wearing a deep blue robe with a blue background. The color serves to remind us of the great spiritual truths which St. Ignatius taught us.

Red is the color of blood, martyrdom, youth and beauty, but also the color of sin and war. Martyrs are often depicted wearing red, or, as is the case a famous icon of St. George, with a deep red background. Christ’s outer garments are blue and his under garments are red to symbolize that He is both divine and human. The Theotokos’ outer garments are red, or a deep earthen tone, while her under garments are blue, symbolizing that she is human who bore the Divine.

Green is the color of the plant world and thus is used to denote spring time and revival.

Finally, black is the color of death, and the renunciation of earthly values. In the icon of the Last Judgment the damned are painted black, as they have lost all hope of salvation. On the icon of the Crucifixion, the cave under the cross is black, denoting death and despair. Monks are depicted wearing black robes as the black symbolizes the monk’s renunciation of all that is vain.

That our churches are full of icons is no coincidence, no fluke of artistic taste. The iconostasis does not serve aesthetic purposes only. While the iconostasis does function to separate the altar from the faithful and the rest of the church, it also acts as a bridge between the faithful and the eternal heaven. The saints and angels depicted on the iconostasis are there to remind us that we are not praying alone and in vain, but that we are surrounded by the saints and the heavenly host when we worship together. They also call us to a deeper love and commitment to God. They instruct us in our faith and remind us that we are not the first to walk the sometimes hard, sometimes lonely road of faith. Icons are given as gifts to the faithful at very important times in their lives — baptisms, chrismations, weddings, for a person’s feast day. An icon of the cross is placed in the tomb with the faithful when he/she leaves this world. The icon clearly plays an integral role in the lives of the faithful.

Everything in the icon points to the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is indeed the contemplation of the Divine which is the goal of the icon painter, as well as that of the faithful praying in front of the icon. I have painted many icons, prayed before many more, and in doing so have been brought to a much deeper love of Christ while using my humble talents to manifest the incarnation to others. The Orthodox Church, in its sincere love for its faithful, has for centuries provided us with icons that we may come to a deeper understanding of God. To man, God is a mystery, and the Church in its wisdom and love for man has given us the icon to help us gain a glimpse of Heaven.

SOURCE: http://www.antiochian.org/Orthodox_Church_Who_What_Where_Why/What_Do_Icons_Mean.htm

2 thoughts on “What Do Icons Mean?

  1. Hello
    I am an artist who uses plaster. I have been inspired by paintings on church walls that have been covered by whitewash. I feel that contact DNA and moisture from our breath is also embodied within the church walls. I have been tother Tretyakov Museum and was interested in Icon painting. I am interested in what you wrote here.
    The saints and angels depicted on the iconostasis are there to remind us that we are not praying alone and in vain, but that we are surrounded by the saints and the heavenly host when we worship together.

    My understanding was that in Icon painting, the material, the pigment, the wood is transformed into the essence of the Saint. I feel that I have misinterpreted this and was hoping you could take the time to explain whether the material is transformed.
    With best wishes
    Matt Phelps

    1. Hello Matt,

      You got this part right: The saints and angels depicted on the iconostasis are there to remind us that we are not praying alone and in vain, but that we are surrounded by the saints and the heavenly host when we worship together.

      However this part isn’t: My understanding was that in Icon painting, the material, the pigment, the wood is transformed into the essence of the Saint.

      The presence of our Lord or a saint can be manifested through the icon, but that’s totally different than the wood/paint being transformed into the essence of the saint.

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