Orthodox and Catholic Icons: Main Differences

Orthodox and Catholic Icons: Main Differences

Religious icons are a unique characteristic of the Christian Church. Serving as a visible gospel, they have been used in churches since the early days of their existence. From simple images like those found in the catacombs to beautiful paintings and frescoes, icons can take any form and be made of any media. However, the most wide-spread now are Orthodox icons that usually represent dispassionate and unemotional images of certain figures and Biblical scenes. What about Catholic icons? They are an absolutely different type of religious images, many of which are rather classic paintings than strict depictions of the holy figures. Let’s look at the main differences between Catholic and Orthodox icons.

Orthodox and Catholic Icons: Main Differences

The main distinguishing feature of the Orthodox icon paintings is the adherence to traditional iconographic methods. The composition, theme, meaning, and aesthetic criteria – each detail is regulated by a set of standards developed in the 11th-13th centuries. This canon was strictly observed years ago, and it still remains a basis for icon painting in the Orthodox world. Its major characteristics include:

  • schematic representation of the objects (trees, houses, garments, attributes of saints, etc.) and their conventionality;
  • two-dimensionality of the image that does not depict time or space in the earthly understanding of the terms;
  • reverse perspective (when objects closer to the viewing plane are depicted smaller while farther objects are depicted larger);
  • absence of shadows, which emphasizes the fact that the depicted scene takes place in the Kingdom of Heaven, where the laws of the material world do not exist;
  • symbolic colors and gestures, with each color or gesture bearing a certain meaning;
  • abbreviated inscriptions in Church Slavonic or Greek language.

As for the Catholic icons, they do not follow any strict canon. They are more emotional and realistic, with many pieces looking like fine art paintings. Let’s just remember works by such masters as Rafael, Leonardo da Vinci, and Sandro Botticelli. Each of them is not just a story from the Bible or a depiction of a holy figure; it is an artwork created to force an intense emotional response from the viewer. It is also worth noting that Roman Catholic churches rarely use icons in their usual sense; most of them are decorated with sculptures and statues that are not common for Orthodox temples. Anyway, both Orthodox and Catholic icons, while being different, are very important for the Christian world. They make us closer to God and help focus our thoughts on what really matters in our lives.

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