Garments and Their Meaning in the Orthodox Icons of Christ
Orthodox icons speak louder than words. You just need to know where to look. This knowledge will show you that every little detail depicted in the religious icon is important. We have already written about the meaning of colors, different hand gestures, and many other symbols used in painting Eastern Orthodox icons. However, there is one more thing you should know about if you want to understand these beautiful creations of religious art. We are talking about garments and their meaning. As an example, let’s look at the icons of Christ.
Jesus Christ is traditionally shown in the same garments worn by the highest dignitaries of the Roman Empire: a long tunic as His inner garment and a mantle as His outer garment. In fact, many figures depicted in religious icons wear tunics and mantles, but the Savior’s attire has some distinctive features.
First of all, the tunic worn by Jesus Christ is distinguished by a vertical stripe called a clavus, which was a symbol of the imperial power. In Eastern Orthodox iconography, it means the purity and perfection of the human nature of Christ. In addition, the tunic is usually depicted in red, while the mantle is in blue. These two colors symbolize the human and the divine natures of Christ respectively. Blue stands for the sky and everlasting world, reminding us of Heaven. Red is the color of blood that shows the saving nature of the resurrection. Besides, a red tunic is also a symbol of royalty.
The Savior can also be clothed in gold garments to emphasize His divine properties, for example in the icon “Christ Enthroned in Glory” by Andrei Rublev. Gold garments in such a case remind us of the uncreated light of God Himself. The same applies to white garments, like those depicted in the Transfiguration icons of Christ that are painted according to the Gospel’s description of this important event, “And his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them” (Mark 9:3).
As you can see, icons of Christ are full of symbols that tell us the story of the Savior and teach the truths of Orthodoxy without words. Every detail or color is used for a specific purpose, being much more important than it seems at first glance. No wonder, hand-painted Orthodox icons are considered to be the Gospel in paint.