Icons are incredibly important to the Orthodox Church tradition. When you first see an icon, you may be drawn to the colors and shapes. You may think it’s a “nice picture”, and purchase one to hang in your home. But icons are much more than a work of art. Their purpose is to communicate the word of God and deepen the daily prayer life of a Christian.
Icons are commonplace in Orthodox Church tradition. But for those of us who don’t know much about icons, they can be shrouded in mystery. Here are eight facts about icons to help you grow in understanding about them.
1. Icons aren’t drawn, they’re written
Although icons are typically thought of as art that is painted, the Orthodox Church emphasizes that icons aren’t painted or drawn, but instead they’re written. Each paint stroke represents a prayer that the writer of the icon has prayed.
2. Icons have high foreheads and long noses for a reason
The physical features of the person depicted in the icon are symbolic of their spirituality. In icons, people’s foreheads are usually higher – this conveys their spirituality and wisdom. Monks and holy people are often given deeper wrinkles to symbolize their knowledge. The nose of the subject is often exaggerated, which reminds the viewer that the saint’s nose is attuned to the incense of prayers rising to Heaven. Lips are often closed, which reminds the viewer of the importance of total silence.
3. The preparation to paint an icon is important
When an icon was created, there were steps for preparing both the materials and the iconographer himself. A properly-made icon was created from paint mixed with baptismal water. The artist was to fast and abstain from pleasures like feasting, drinking, and dancing. Before the icon was written, a prayer for enlightenment was prayed:
“O Divine Lord of all that exists, Thou hast illumined the Apostle and Evangelist Luke with Thy Holy Spirit, thereby enabling him to represent Thy most Holy Mother, the One who held Thee in her arms and said: The Grace of Him Who has been born of me is spread through the world!
Enlighten and direct my soul, my heart and my spirit. Guide the hands of Thine unworthy servant so that I may worthily and perfectly portray Thine Icon, that of Thy Mother, and all the Saints, for the glory, joy and adornment of Thy Holy Church.
Forgive my sins and the sins of those who will venerate these icons and who, kneeling devoutly before them, give homage to those they represent.
Protect them from all evil and instruct them with good counsel. This I ask through the intercession of Thy most Holy Mother, the Apostle Luke, and all the Saints. Amen.”
4. Icons in churches can be found in the iconostasis
Icons are placed in different parts of the churches, but the most important icons are found on the iconostasis – a large screen that separates the altar from the body of the church. The screen reminds those in the church about the separation between Heaven and earth.
The icons that you’ll normally find on the iconstasis will honor Christ, Mary, John the Baptists, and other saints. The iconostasis has three doors that lead into the sanctuary of the church. The largest door is called the “Royal Door”. Only the person who represents the Redeemer can enter and exit through the door, bringing the Bible and the Eucharist out from the sanctuary. Bishops enter through the Royal Door at any time; priests and deacons enter through that set of doors only at specific times during the services when the Gates are open. Everyone else enters the sanctuary through the side doors.
5. All icons are written anonymously
Icons are written on many subjects, but one thing you will never see in an icon is the signature of the artist. Every icon that is written is created anonymously, for the glory of God. Icons from history are identified to a particular artist through their icon writing style – clothing, color choice, etc. The closest thing to a signature you may find is the phrase, “Written to the Glory of God by the hand of (the first name of the artist)”.
6. Colors are richly symbolic in icons
Icons are painted in bright colors and metallic golds. Just as words convey a certain message, colors in icons are used to express ideas. For instance, gold is used to help the viewer feel the presence of God, a symbol of His divinity. Purple calls to mind royalty, and is often used to depict Mary as the Queen of Heaven. Red is the color for passion, love, life, and the Resurrection. Martyrs are depicted in red, and a red background reminds the viewer of the eternal life that is to come.
7. Children are depicted as miniature adults in icons
When Christ is depicted as a child, icons show him as a miniature adult. He is wrapped not in swaddling clothes, but in the robes of a teacher and philosopher. In icons, children are always depicted as a miniature form of the adult they will grow up to become.
8. Hands gestures in icons are important
If you’ve ever looked at an icon, you’ll notice that the hand gestures of the people depicted are exact and unique. “Each gesture has a specific meaning, but it’s no wonder we can’t always understand them: they’re “written” in Greek!” writes Daniel Esparza. The Romans and Greeks had a complex hand-gesture language, which was well known and used regularly back in the day.
In an icon of the Annunciation, Gabriel’s hand is raised in the same way a Roman would raise his hand before making an important announcement. Christ’s hands are usually raised in a blessing, which is the same way a Byzantine Catholic or Orthodox priest blesses the parish in the liturgy.