Text in Religious Icon Art

Religious icons are a visible reference to the invisible. Filled with Christ’s presence, they are windows into spirituality, intended to depict greater truths about God than a mere image could. Over the centuries, iconographers have used a variety of symbols to convey the meaning of Christian concepts. We have already written about gestures and colors in Eastern Orthodox iconography; however, they are not the only things to pay attention to when choosing holy icons for your home or art collection. Inscriptions also play an important role in the icon content and its interpretation.

Depending on the religious icon content and the history of its creation, inscriptions can be divided into several types:

  • abbreviations of the names of Jesus Christ and the Mother of God (e.g. “IC XC,” which is a traditional abbreviation of the Greek words IHCOYC XPICTOC, meaning Jesus Christ, and “MP OY,” which stands for the Greek “Mater Theos,” meaning the Mother of God);
  • names of events (e.g. St George and the Miracle of the Serpent or the Holy Transfiguration of Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ);
  • agionyms or the names of the saints (e.g. Nicholas the Wonderworker or the Great Martyr Demetrius);
  • descriptive texts to the events depicted in the religious icon composition;
  • prayers placed on the icon borders or included in the composition;
  • texts included in the border scenes, based on the hagiographic or other literary sources;
  • texts on scrolls and the Gospels depicted in religious icons (e.g. “Аз есмь свет миру,” which can be translated as “I am the Light of the World”);
  • texts addressed to the saint or the Mother of God, added by the icon owner or the iconographer;
  • inscriptions on the reverse of the panel, relating to the icon content, the materials used, customer or author details, date of creation, etc.

It is also worth noting that texts included in Eastern Orthodox icons are not just words written with the use of a particular font – iconographers carefully and lovingly decorate them by hand, so that they would become a part of the composition and an element of the icon ornamentation. Moreover, in many cases, the lack of inscription in the religious icon may lead to the wrong understanding of the iconographer’s context and intention, as well as of the icon meaning on the whole.

In this way, texts and inscriptions included in hand-painted icons are inseparable from the depicted image. Besides, since the Baroque era, they have also been a means of decoration and ornamentation, often used by the most reputable Russian icon schools of painting, like Palekh and Yaroslavl. Thereby, text in Christian icons not only plays an important role in our understanding of their content, but also enhances the beauty of these amazing pieces of religious icon art.

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