Orthodox Icon Symbolism

Orthodox Icon Symbolism

As you already know, Eastern Orthodox iconography is full of symbols. In our previous blog posts, we wrote about many of them, hidden in garments, hand gestures, colors, objects, and other elements depicted in religious icons. It is interesting that such symbols are not unconditional. In fact, a single Orthodox icon can be interpreted in different ways, though there are still certain common features between them. For example, it is generally accepted that there is no time and there is no night or day in Christian icons, and all the events are usually shown simultaneously to emphasize their spiritual unity. Just take any Orthodox icon of the hagiographical type, and you will see that it depicts the most important events of the saint’s life as if they were taking place at the same time.

There are actually many noteworthy facts and interpretations related to Eastern Orthodox iconography and its secret symbols. So if you have some free time, use it to read more about the Orthodox icon you are going to buy for your home or collection. In particular, you will be interested to know the meaning of the following symbols.

Animals in the Orthodox icon

Just like any other figures and objects depicted in Orthodox icons, each animal has a symbolic meaning. Here are several examples:

  • An ox and an ass symbolize the unification of two nations and the cessation of separatism.
  • A pelican is a symbol of eternal life, resurrection, and love for children.
  • A winged lion, a winged ox, an eagle, and a winged man are symbols of the Four Evangelists (St. Mark, St. Luke, St John, and St. Matthew respectively).

Position of saints in the Orthodox icon

Saints in Orthodox icons are depicted facing frontally or in the three-quarter poses so that people could concentrate on communication with them on a spiritual level. This also explains why unholy persons (e.g., shepherds and magicians) are usually depicted in profile, meaning that they are just part of the overall composition.

Folds on clothes in the Orthodox icon

Garments of Christ, the Mother of God, and the saints, depicted in Orthodox icons, all bear a certain meaning. Moreover, this applies to their every little detail, even small folds of clothing. Besides, the way of painting folds can also say much about religious icons. For instance, long, straight, and infrequent folds on clothes indicate that the icon was painted in the 15th – 16th century, while an array of shallow folds often means that it was painted in the 8th – 14th century.

There are certainly many other interesting symbols hidden in Eastern Orthodox icons. Stay with us to learn more about them in our future articles!