Understanding Eastern Orthodox Iconography

antique Russian icons

What is an icon? For today, we have so many definitions of this word that it is easy to get lost in what can and what cannot be considered an icon. However, if you want to understand Eastern Orthodox iconography, you should start with the following: an icon is a sacred image of Jesus Christ or a holy person in another reality, place, and time, which has an important spiritual role. No wonder, in the Orthodox Church, a religious icon is much more than just a beautiful piece of art – it is a “window into heaven” that gives us an idea of what the heavenly realm looks like. For better understanding, let’s look at the basics of Eastern Orthodox iconography.

1. Religious icons remind us of the incarnation of Christ.

Eastern Orthodox icons serve as a constant reminder of the fact that God became incarnate in human form and died to rescue us from our sins. It is also the reason why we can see and portrait Him. Moreover, because of the incarnation of Christ, we can also paint the Mother of God and other saints who lived their lives on earth and are now in heaven.

2. Holy icons depict silence.

Persons depicted in Orthodox Christianity icons don’t speak or display any actions. Besides, they show people that time does not matter, thus inviting us into the world of silence, prayer, and contemplation. Furthermore, figures and things in religious icons don’t cast shadows, as there is no night in heaven, only eternal day. That’s the divine reality, where the depicted story precludes space and time.

3. Icons are not sentimental pictures.

Although Eastern Orthodox icons depict historical figures and scenes, they don’t show human emotions, as they are not intended to force an intense emotional response. However, they still show us such virtues as love, compassion, forgiveness, patience, and purity. Moreover, Christ is always depicted as God, even in religious icons showing Him as a baby. No wonder, the Christ Child always has an adult face.

4. Orthodox icons serve as a means of worship and veneration.

Being “windows into heaven,” religious icons serve as a means of worshipping God and venerating His saints. To show that amazing divine reality, iconographers use only specific colors and lines prescribed by tradition. The most interesting fact is that Eastern Orthodox icons are painted the same way they were painted centuries ago, with possibly several slightest stylistic changes. After all, it is believed that the first icons were painted by St. Luke, who saw the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ with his own eyes. Other religious icons are also based on the very first depictions of saints, which makes them a subject to the canon.

In general, the rules of painting are very rigorous, not to mention that iconographers have to fast and pray while working. Being inspired only by God, religious icons are created to possess spiritual presence and power. Finally, it is worth noting that most of them are not signed, which makes Eastern Orthodox icons even more special and sacred.

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