THEOLOGY OF THE ICON



The icon is a link between the human and the divine. It provides a space for the mystical encounter between the person before it and God. It becomes a place for the appearance of Christ, the Theotokos or the Saints-provided one stands before the icon with the right disposition of heart and mind. It creates a place of prayer. An icon participates in the event it depicts and is almost a re-creation of that event existentially for the believer.
As S. Bulgakov said, "By the blessing of the icon of Christ, a mystical meeting of the faithful and Christ is made possible." Throughout the world, many icons are for this reason regarded as "wonder working", providing both spiritual and temporal blessings. They are venerated as instruments of miraculous intervention. They provide courage and strength in a world marked with tragedy and suffering. They provide joy since icons remind us that we are deeply loved by God.

Western spirituality teaches us to listen, and the Byzantine Fathers invite us to look.
The constancy of the Christian Faith is reflected in its art. The icon is steeped in tradition. Tradition and artistic convention govern the icon painting. We all can imagine the ancient scribe carefully copying letter by letter the ancient religious texts. In a similar way the iconographer follows that which was before him. In fact, the act of painting an icon is often referred to as "writing." The artist's creativity comes into play not through creating the "novel," but in the freedom of manipulating line, color, and form for a directed purpose: the expression of the truth and vision of the Church. With these specific goals in mind the icon over the centuries took on its own particular style. The ochre skin tones, the unnatural folds of closing, the flatter spaces and odd perspective, are all examples of this.
An icon itself is not so much a painting as a prayer, hence it's majestic simplicity and peacefulness. All that is depicted in it reflects divine orderliness. An icon speaks also with its hues, which are equally as symbolic as forms. Red, white, green, brown and yellow colors were the basic hues used in icon painting, red having a symbol of life and blood, in particular the blood of Christ and Martyrs. White represented the transcendental world, green was a symbol of youthfulness and vitality, while brown (the color of the Earth-antithesis of Heaven) was used to paint monks' and ascetics' vestments. Yellow, approximating gold, symbolized light and eternity. The most spiritual hue was azure, a symbol of the mystery of life frequently used in icon painting.

There could be nothing personal, nothing those reflected individual predilections of a painter in an icon, as it did not depict human thoughts or images of the Truth, but the Truth itself. The art of icon painting is bound to religious tradition, which disallows loose alterations. This preserves the pure form and protects the specific theological and religious concepts being presented through the icons. A special discipline is prescribed for icon painters in conformity to ecclesiastical requirements. The icon is a consecrated object, thus demanding the painter to pray and fast for divine inspiration.
According to such interpretation the work of icon painters ( iconographers ) had very much in common with the priest's duties, merely the form of work differed, for a priest taught with words and an iconographer with form and color.
Some people consider painting icons an uncreative anachronism. This could equally be said of singing plainchant or interpreting any other time-honored form of art or music. An icon is said to be a mirror of divine revelation. A painter's interpretation of it is also a reflection of his spiritual attitude. A good craftsman may make a competent copy, but the true artist tries with reverence to capture the spirit of the icon.

In Western art forms, the artist's creativity and expertise are of primary value. In Eastern Byzantine Iconography, the value is in essence over appearance. The vast difference between styles seems to create a sort of language barrier between them. Ultimately, each has it's own place and purpose; truly understanding various art forms takes a certain effort. Western art has often aided in the greater appreciation of God's creation. Eastern Iconography serves to express the glory of God Himself.


When the Son of God became Man through the Mother of God (incarnation), God was given a physical image and was then able to be portrayed in icons in human form. The images serve as an inspiration to all who view them. An icon does not show the confusion of a sinful world. Rather, it depicts the peace of the Divine world; a world governed by grace, not logic. That is why every religious painting is not necessarily an icon. Icons are very different from other more commonly seen art forms. The value of an icon, therefore, is not based on the beauty of the work, but on the spiritual beauty it portrays.

Icon painters, are generally not known to us by name. By a curious twist of fate we are familiar with the names of many masters, but do not actually know any picture they have painted, whereas in the case of a great number of the works that have survived, we know the painting, but do not know the artist and have little hope of ever finding out his name. Icon painting was an anonymous branch of art because, the painter regarded himself a tool in the hands of God rather than as a creative artist. Therefore his name was quite unimportant and not worth mentioning. He was not interested in enhancing his reputation and the whole procedure of dating or signing pictures seemed quite superfluous when viewed in that light.
In more recent time, the inscription "by the hand of (the iconographer's name)" is used, thus giving God the credit for guiding the hand by which form is given to His sacred mysteries.

To those newly interested in icons: allow the icon to speak to your heart through quiet contemplation. Icons are a doorway into closeness with God, (leading beyond itself to the Eternal Creator.) Through God's love, icons are created to aid seekers into spiritual holiness. Iconography is not an invention of painters or artists but it is an authentic tradition of the Church. The preaching of Christianity was carried out through word and image.