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by Joan Cole

Home About Christ Mary Festal Men Saints Women Saints Angels History Contact Us

"In calling to mind the saints and their struggles, an Orthodox icon does not simply represent the saint as he appeared upon the earth. No, the Orthodox icon  depicts his inner spiritual struggle; it portrays how he attained to that state where he is now considered an angel on earth, a heavenly man. This is precisely the manner in which the Mother of God and Jesus Christ are portrayed. Orthodox Icons should depict that transcendent sanctity which permeated the saints."

Saint John of San Francisco

What is an icon?

Icons are not merely pieces of art, but an intrinsic part of the Christian worship since the beginning of the Christian church. Along with the Holy Scripture, the icons are instrumental for the transmission of the Christian tradition and faith throughout the ages. Icons are the reflection of God that has become man. The Holy Spirit speaks to men and women through the icon images, that complement the written words of the Scripture. Anywhere an icon is placed, a place of worship and prayer is established, because the icon is not merely and image, but a window through which we are able to see, with our physical eyes, the Kingdom of Heaven, and the realm we connect with spiritually. It is important to remember that the icons are all about the holy and the sacred; the icons are theology in images and color.

For the Orthodox Christian, the icon is not an esthetic object of study. The icon is meant to transfigure and to inspire the person to prayer and contemplation. The icons purpose is to transport us beyond the material world, and to show us the greatness and perfection of the Divine reality, normally is invisible to us.

The icon is not meant to be a sentimental piece. It represents biblical events and characters. The faces of those depicted in the icons are devoid of worldly feelings or expressions; their faces are suggestive only of virtues such as: purity, patience, forgiveness, compassion and divine love. For example, the icon of the Crucifixion does not show the physical pain Christ suffered on the Cross, but what led Him to the Cross: the voluntary act of giving His life for us.

Icons are also silent. A close observation shows that the mouths of the characters depicted are never open; there are no symbols that may indicate sound. There is perfect silence in the image of the icon, and its stillness and silence creates, both in the church and at home, an atmosphere of prayer and contemplation.

Icons are not three-dimensional. Perspective does not exist in an icon. Everything is one single plane. Figures are long and thin. An attempt is made to suggest depth, but not a representation of our conscious world; but to suggest the beauty of the kingdom of God. Natural objects are therefore rendered in a vivid but symbolic, so called abstract, manner, because spiritual reality cannot be represented in images, except through the use of symbols.

In order to paint icons that are holy and accurate, the iconographer, same as all Orthodox Christians, must possess a humble heart. He must purify his heart frequently through prayer and confession. This way his heart becomes a permanent dwelling of the Holy Spirit, and the only way God can work through him. The iconographer is merely a tool. The Holy Spirit is the lead, the guide. The iconographer is merely the brush that paints to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

(Quoted from the Byzantine Studio of Nicusor Dumitru)