How to Read Russian Icons

How to Read Russian Icons. Basic Principles

Russian icons are often called “Bible for the illiterate.” The current educational system was formed quite recently. Previously, only a few could boast of the ability to read, especially common people. Because of that, cult images had to be transparent and enlightening to transmit biblical ideas. These facts formed a specific canon, a certain narrative language known to every icon painter and parishioner.

Basic principles of Russian icons

Icon colors

The images in Russian icons are usually painted on a golden or ocher background. In Russian iconography, the golden color is a unique visual symbol because it means both color and light and creates the image of the Kingdom of Heaven and divine radiance. In the process of depicting clothes and some other elements, the golden color may be replaced by white, silver, or yellow. Red is the color of sacrifice, green means the Holy Spirit and eternal life, and blue is the color of purity and innocence. This interpretation may vary depending on the specific image.

Position of figures in the icons

The icons depicting Christ in the center of the composition and other characters surrounding Him are painted according to the determined hierarchical principle. The right side of Christ (directions in icons are read from the inside) is considered to be more privileged. Thus, a figure located on the right side of Jesus is more privileged than a figure on the left side. In Deesis, the Theotokos is always standing to the right of Christ, and John the Baptist is to the left. The icons of the Last Judgment depict righteous people on the right side and sinners on the left.


Russian icons can be easily read if you know the attributes of saints and other characters. Christ, the Virgin Mary, saints, and apostles, all have their own iconography and set of elements that help see who exactly is depicted in the icon. The groined halo is an essential attribute of Christ, the key from Heaven and the scroll are Saint Peter`s signs, Judas Iscariot is painted in yellow clothes, with a pouch with thirty pieces of silver, and the Archangel Michael usually holds a labarum, speculum, fiery sword or a spear in his hands.

Russian icons are the visualized biblical world. To not get confused in its semantic codes, icon painters follow certain canons. The parishioners in their turn rely on these iconographic principles to read religious messages.

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