A Bit of History and Thoughts on the Holy Icon

A Bit of History and Thoughts on the Holy Icon

In the western Rome, Christian art first appeared in the catacombs, subterranean tunnels and niches hewn out of rock, and serving as burial vaults and tombs and funerary spaces up to the about the 6th century C.E., by which time they were being used almost exclusively for martyrs’ burial.

From the earliest times, the art of the catacombs was a teaching art. When Christianity was no longer a persecuted sect and was elevated to the status not only of legality but as the state religion, Christian art left the catacombs as did the overtly pagan symbols and moved rapidly and vigorously into becoming a unique genre, an authentic form of expression but not without substantial syncretism. After the victory of Emperor Constantine over Maxentius in 312, Christianity was officially recognized as a state religion. With emperors now joining Christianity, it led to massive conversions and consequently not only to diversification but also syncretism.

The tradition of funerary portraiture dates back to the ancient Egyptians, and some of the most exemplar and well-preserved “mummy” paintings are the Fayum tomb portraits. The Fayum mortuary portraits are dated collectively to the period AD 70-250 and went through a number of stylistic developments; they are hauntingly realistic in their detail as can be seen in the portrait of the young woman, which is striking in its naturalistic detail, especially the large, doe-like eyes which seem to draw the gaze into the portrait.

A bit of history might help to understand the unique place of the icon in Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

Byzantium was the crossroad between East and West, and included almost the entire Mediterranean basin. In the 330 C.E. Constantinople, the City of Constantine, became the imperial capital, the New Rome, the Rome of the East. In the centuries that follow it was to become the holy city that harmonized the profane with the sacred. In the 4th Century we find that Christ is no longer portrayed as a philosopher, but as the Master of the Universe, the Omnipotent One, Pantocrator; a new and strong bond is now being formed between the imperial state, particularly the Emperors and Empresses and the eastern Church.

One of the visions of Justinian I (527-565), the last of the great Roman emperors, was to achieve political and religious unity in the Empire. His reign was called “The Golden Age;” it was an epoch of exuberant spirituality and extraordinary artistic genius.

Rising from the ruins of the Western Roman Empire, Byzantium was itself the Eastern Roman Empire, and Constantinople was to become known as the Second Rome, the Rome of the East. Byzantine society and culture was closely associated with ancient Greece, and the Byzantine language was closest to classical and post-classical Greek. This linguistic kinship made the literature of classical Greece, of the Hellenistic world, and the writings of the Fathers of the Church  accessible to the Byzantines, and through these literatures, they internalized and adapted the ideas and the values it espoused.

Some of the greatest works of art of Byzantium[1] was literally and figuratively monumental, and is perhaps best recognized in the great architectural masterpieces, such as the churches of Saint Sophia, Saint Irene and Saints Sergius and Bacchus in Constantinople; these date from the middle of the 6th Century, and are attributed to the Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora. On the other side of the Mediterranean basin, in Ravenna, Italy we find the most impressive series of mural mosaics dating from the 5th and 6th Centuries. A characteristic art form involved encaustic, a method using melted wax in which coloring pigments are mixed.

Minas of Alexandria Martyr, encaustic painting.

Under the emperor  Maurice (r. 582–602) the empire experienced some expansion until his assassination and the ensuing Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602–628, which exhausted the Empire’s resources and led to the substantial territorial losses during the Muslim incursions of the seventh century. In a matter of years the Empire lost its richest provinces, Egypt and Syria, to the Muslim conquers.

Thus, by the 7th Century Egypt and Syria no longer counted as part of the Byzantine Empire, and this period could accurately be baptized the dark ages of the Byzantine era, a period. The dark cloud till hover over the empire for almost two centuries: from the time of the Emperor Heracles (611 to 641) to Emperor Justinian II (685 to 711), a period of fierce wars against Islam, the Slavs and the Bulgarians, with various periods of ascendance and decline.

In the wake of the epoch of darkness, yet another crisis would test Byzantium: two iconoclastic periods mark both the history and life of the empire and of the Eastern Church. The first period of condemnation of icons as symbols of idolatry started with the reign of Emperor Leo III, or Leo Isaurian (717-741). Rejecting any depiction or portraiture of Christ and His saints, Emperor Leo III felt that such images should not be objects of veneration. The Council of 754 which convened in Hiereia, near Constantinople, agreed to a formal condemnation of the cult of icons. It denied that the mystery of Christ included both His divinity and humanity. In essence, iconoclasm was an attack on the Incarnation. During the iconoclast period painting as an art form was never completely abandoned;  the exception was sacred art. While the iconoclasts were desecrating and destroying sacred art their adversaries the iconodules (from Neoclassical Greek εἰκονόδουλος, “one who serves images”; also iconodulist or iconophile) were busy destroying and defacing their adversaries’ art. This internecine culture-ware continued until the arrival on the scene of two successors to the imperial throne after Leo III, Constantine (780-797) and Irene (797-802) who, guided by Patriarch Tarasius, convened the Second Council of Nicea, in 787 — more precisely, the Seventh Ecumenical Council — where the iconodules successfully defended the cult of the icons and their victory prompted the restoration of the cult.

The Church was thrown once again into disarray when Emperor Leo the Armenian (813-820) ascended the imperial throne, giving rise to the second wave persecution of the holy images. Leo was succeeded by Michael Amorias, who in turn was succeeded by Theophilus (829-842). With the help of Patriarch Antony I Kassymatas Theophilus resurrected iconoclasm by prohibiting all painted images, and any aid to iconodules. After his death in 842, his wife Theodora served as regent for their son Michael III. She was a devout iconophile, faithfully venerating icons despite the disapproval of the late emperor, her husband. Theodora arranged the release from prison of the painter Lazarus (Lazarus Zographos; a 9th-century Byzantine Christian saint), and in 843 she consented to the restoration of the icons.

The Empress Theodora is alleged to have said:

“If for love’s sake, anyone does not kiss and venerate these images in a relative manner, not worshiping them as gods but as images of their archetypes, let him be anathema!”

Theodora is commemorated for her role in the triumph of Orthodoxy, and is commemorated on March 11(the First Sunday in Great Lent). To this day, the First Sunday in Great Lent is dedicated to the restoration of the holy icons by Emperor Michael III and his mother Theodora, and the triumph of Orthodoxy over the heresies iconoclasm.

St John of Damascus

St. John of Damascus is the Orthodox theologian who is most credited with defending the use of icons in Christian contemplation, prayer and liturgical practice. In his treatise “On the Divine Images” he writes:

“If we’ve made an image of the invisible God, we would certainly be in error… but we do not do anything of the kind; we do not err, in fact we make the image of God incarnate Who appeared on earth in the flesh, Who in His ineffable goodness, lived with men and assumed the nature, the volume and the color the flesh.”

After 843, Cappadocia became an important center for sacred art. The region, developed in the 4th Century by St. Basil as a center for monastic life, flourished with hundreds of churches, the majority dating from the 11th and 12th Centuries.

A second period in the development of Byzantine art is the one after the 9th Century. We find also that the Byzantine piety is influencing greatly the development of small scale pieces, icons painted on wood. Icon studios start to appear, mostly in the monasteries in the East.

In St. John of Damascus’ work we find also his argument in favor of painted icons:

“Since the invisible One became visible by taking on flesh, you can fashion the image of Him whom you saw. Since He who has neither body nor form nor quantity nor quality, Who goes beyond all grandeur by the excellence of His nature, He, being of divine nature, took on the condition of slave and reduced himself to quantity and quality by clothing himself in human features. Therefore paint on wood and present for contemplation Him who desired to become visible.” (St John of Damascus, Great Defender of Iconography)

Byzantium flourished until the final mortal blow came with the Fourth Crusade, when in 1254 Constantinople was sacked by the Crusaders, and the empire was ultimately divided into the eastern and western provinces.

The so-called Macedonian period hosted developments of considerable significance in terms of the expansion of Christianity. During this period the Bulgarians, Serbs and Rus’ were converted to Orthodox Christianity, an event which permanently changed the religious map of Europe; the repercussions are still evident today. Cyril and Methodius, two Byzantine Greeks from Thessaloniki, helped to spread Christianity to the Slavs, and creating a written language for them the Glagolitic alphabet, the precursor of the Cyrillic script.

Leo IX, Bishop of Rome

In 1054, relations between the Eastern and Western traditions within the Christian Church reached a terminal crisis, known as the East–West Schism. The terminal event occurred on Saturday, July 16, 1054, when, as afternoon prayers were about to begin, Cardinal Humbert (Humbert of Silva Candida), a Benedictine, friend and legate of Pope Leo IX (a French bishop elected to the papacy in 1048), entered the patriarchal church of Hagia Sophia, strode up to the high altar, and placed there Leo’s papal bull excommunicating the Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius. The cardinal then left the church and departed Constantinople. Shortly after this brazen arrogance, the Patriarch of Constantinople solemnly condemned the cardinal. Although there was a formal declaration of institutional separation, on July 16, when three papal legates entered the Hagia Sophia during Divine Liturgy and placed the bull of excommunication on the main altar. The so-called Great Schism was not an overnight event but was the culmination of centuries of gradual political, doctrinal and dogmatic divergence ultimately resulting in the reciprocal excommunication and inimical separation.[2]

The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, and the invasion of the Balkans, marks the end of one of the most glorious and prestigious epoch in history. The Turks, Muslims, transformed the beautiful Byzantine churches into mosques.

Let’s now return to our consideration of the role of the icon in Orthodox Christian spiritual life.

The icon is not merely a piece of art, but an aid to contemplation and prayer. Wherever one places an icon that space becomes a sacred space set aside for contemplation and prayer; the icon is not an end in itself, but a portal through which we pass and “see” with our spiritual eyes a hint of the realm of spiritual experience. Anywhere an icon is placed (except maybe in a museum) a place of worship and prayer is set, because the icon is not an end in itself, but a window through which we look with our physical eyes at the Kingdom of Heaven and access the realm of spiritual engagement. The beauty of the icon may associate it with secular art but the icon by nature and purpose relates only the sacred; the icon is theology in paint on wood. According to the great iconologist and iconographer, Ouspensky, “The ways of iconography, as means of expressing what regards the Deity are here the same as the ways of theology. The task of both alike is to express that which cannot be expressed by human means, since such expression will always be imperfect and insufficient.[i] But both iconography and theology fall short of expressing the ineffable truths and “[t]herefore the methods used by iconography for pointing to the Kingdom of God can only be figurative, symbolical, like the language of the parables in the Holy Scriptures.”[ii]

The images in the icon tend to have a certain unity because of their “flatness” and the minimal use of shadow — the images neither converge nor diverge — they appear as themselves independently of how we might expect to see them in temporal “reality” — this characteristic represents their unity with the divine, the integrity of the subject with the divine. Unity presupposes relationship, relationship in turn presupposes otherness — but not separateness —, and the isometry affirms the otherness.

The experience of an icon is distinctly different from the experience of secular or conventional religious art; it differs from the experience of say the experience of music, poetry, sculptures, dance, because each of these involve some level of interpretation or analysis of how they represent our lives or emotions. The icon , however, engages us more fully, more completely, in fact, the icon reaches out to embrace us, inviting us to awaken into silence, emptiness, kenosis. The icon does something that the physical senses cannot, what the mind, the intellect cannot, what science and technology cannot do — the icon creates the possibility of a metaphysical interaction with pure potential, the icon endows us with an image of invisible spiritual Truth. The icon teaches that if we experience the Truth of the icon and become able to look at the world in like manner, as an icon, we may be blessed to see with spiritual “eyes” the uncreated Divine Light that fills the icon and shines through the dark veil of our sentimentality and the illusion we call reality.

But this experience requires quiet communion with what the icon represents beyond the point of the paint and the wood, we have to actively engage in the silent conversation.

The icon is an adjunct to Holy Scripture. The icon is instrumental in the transmission of the Eastern Christian Tradition and is visual Scripture. The language of the Divine is first silence and then symbol and metaphor; there is no language pure enough to communicate the Divine or the Holy Spirit. The image, symbolism, metaphor of the icon communicates in the language of the Holy Spirit, and complements Holy Scripture. That having been said, we must clarify that the person who prays through an icon transcends the purely aesthetic content of an icon, and allows us access to the spiritual realm otherwise imperceptible to us but in silent contemplation we can achieve a vague vision of the materially inaccessible. The icon is the vessel that reaches out to us and ferries us to that other shore.

The icon is not sentimental art. Sentimentality denies reality, denies the Incarnation. Sentimentality is reality through rose-colored glasses, pretty but not quite real. Sentimentality is wistful, ephemeral. In sentimentality, subjective reality all too readily intrudes and breaks in. There is no sentimentality or drama in an icon. An icon represents mostly spiritual engagement events and transfigured characters. The faces of the Divine persons, the Theotokos, the saints depicted in an icon are always devoid of emotion, and suggest virtue, purity, patience, forgiveness, compassion, love. For example, the icon of St Silouan does not show the deep dry wrinkles in the saint’s face or the hard lumpy calluses on his hand but what the icon does show features symbolic of his asceticism, his piety, his wisdom, his virtue, his holiness. His hands as shown in the icon are not personal but symbolic of the humble hard work done by the saint in the monastery mills, unlike the hands of some iconic figures which are depicted as slender, delicate, and clean.

Icons are also silent. Those who are transfigured have mastered the work of silence, a virtue cultivated in the monastic since the Desert Fathers. It would be a true general statement that the mouths of the characters depicted in icons are never open in speech, and there are no symbols that can indicate sound. There is a profound silence in the icon and this stillness and silence create a moment of contemplative engagement a prayerful atmosphere, an interacting with an awakening. The peculiar silence within and evoked by an icon is a wordless language, the language of silence.

Icons are flat and lack conventional perspective. Three-dimensionality or perspective is absent in the icon. Unlike the perspective observed in most conventional religious and secular art, or in sculpture, the icon is two dimensional, depth impressions are kept to a minimum. The perspective of conventional art and sculpture tends to create three-dimensional individuality in the piece, it occupies physical space. The icon is not of this world and does not occupy physical space as do physical objects. While the iconographer may suggest depth the flat frontal plane is predominant.

Natural objects may be recognizable and are rendered beautifully but remain symbolic, almost distorted, sometimes abstract because the purpose of the icon is not to represent the world in terms of physical reality or in the reality of the conscious mind but in terms of the deep mind, which communicates in the language of the spiritual, in symbols and metaphors, even silence. Buildings, books, etc. are likewise all flat but somehow, by their arrangement in the constraints of the depiction, seem to have dimensionality, even perspective of a sort.[3]

One type of perspective found in icons is called “inverse perspective”. We can observe inverse perspective frequently in the lines of architectural structures or buildings depicted in icons. The lines do not appear to converge at some point in the distance or on a horizon; they seem to extend towards the viewer, to converge on the viewer.

The treatment of perspective tends to include the viewer in the icon; the perspective embraces us, the viewer. It is this inverse perspective, too, that gives the viewer the feeling that the figures in the icon are looking out at them. We sometimes hear people say such things like, “The eyes seem to follow me. That’s an effect of inverse perspective.

One spiritual effect of inverse perspective is that the viewer is engaged in the space between the image and her/himself. I’d like to call this interstice the “grace space” because we are not drawn into the portrayed image or the depicted scene as in most conventional art but are embraced by the spiritual sacred space between us and the icon, a grace-filled space emanating from the icon.

It is the mystery of the saint that overcomes the dimension of space and distance; we are not distracted by decadent excess detail or impression of ubiquitous activity.  The flatness of the icon facilitates the viewer’s journey through the image into the spiritual dimension in order to enter into “living” relationship with the saint. Is the lack of perspective or “flatness” of the holy icon a defect or an imperfection? If it is it is deliberate, its purpose is not to distract but to remind the viewer that the icon is liminality, a threshold to the prototype.

The icon depicts its subject matter in terms of divine time (kairos) not linear time (chronos); we do not meet the prototype in history but in spiritual time.

Color symbolism is key in the icon. Traditionally there are two classes of color in iconography: the one class includes white (eternal life, purity), green (nature, growth, fertility, attire of martyrs and prophets), blue (the heavens, the celestial realm, the Divine, imperial majesty). The second class of iconographic colors include black (absence of life, void, renunciation of all that is worldly or material), brown (the chthonic, inanimate nature, symbolic of poverty, monasticism and asceticism). Other colors are hues of red (life, blood, health, fire, martyrs (blood, life) and seraphim (fire); purple (wealth, power, priestly dignity, royalty); yellow (sadness, misfortune).

“And there was light…”


In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without order, and empty; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light, and there was light. (Genesis 1 1:1-3, KJV)

The initial three verses of Genesis are inspire the beginning and the end of the writing of the icon. These three verses reflect the spirituality and deep meaning of icon writing: it is a process of creating something good from the formless, the process of writing an icon is the movement from being without form to being of Light; Light means the uncreated light of the Divine realm. The iconographer uses relatively common formless components and fashions a pure white space and moves from this formlessness to a vague, lifeless outline of the image, to completion of a fully transfigured figure with a name: icon. The dynamic of Creation is reproduced in writing an icon: the process moves from formlessness, shadow toward light.

We can, in fact, superimpose the movement from darkness towards the light in a person’s pilgrimage through life, aided by the icon as the portal between the temporal and the eternal, between the shadow and the light. Wherever one venerates an icon the icon becomes an extension of the liturgical mystery, that same mystery we experience in the sacred space of a temple, and so the icon becomes an integral part of the Orthodox Christian’s spiritual life.

As an integral part of the Orthodox Christian’s spiritual life, the icon is a sign of a new mode of being. In fact, far from being some sort of sentimental token of an ancient tradition, it takes on dogmatic significance through a sort of incarnation by which the spiritual becomes embodied, the invisible becomes visible, the indescribable and undepictable becomes perceptible and representable. The icon is both/and; it is both the story of Genesis and creation and the story of Incarnation and transfiguration. With these thoughts in mind, we can understand how the icon can become an object invoking contemplation and transfiguration in one upon whom it converges, because rightly the venerator does not enter the icon, the icon enters the venerator; whereas we generally think of a portal as some sort of liminality through which we pass, the icon has the reverse effect in that it traverses the liminality into us.

Just as when Divine Liturgy is celebrated, an angelic liturgy is simultaneously being celebrated, the temporal and the spiritual enter the Holy of Holies of the pure heart together, the past, present and future merge into one sacred time; a transformation takes place, and history and eschatology are brought together beyond time and space. We have a similar situation in the veneration of the icon: time and space are suspended, a liturgy is celebrated in the heart, all of creation is on a single plane, our center of gravity is towards the omnipresent light, we are in a state of enlightenment, illumination, ascension.

The paradisiacal harmony intended for us by the Divine but perturbed by ugliness, division, alienation, suffering and death, is renewed in the icon as it becomes a font of contemplation and prayer, as we enter a process of metanoia, and we experience a taste of joyful mourning, harmolipia, in which we acknowledge our brokenness and fragility while at the same time we perceive in the icon the inner light of the icon as it disperses the inner darkness and nudges us into the Divine Light. Paraphrasing St Paul in Galatians 2:20, “It is no longer I who live, but the mystery of the Divine process lives in me.”

In the presence, therefore, of the icon one moves from contemplation to deep spiritual prayer, we become inspired. Our detachment in contemplation becomes an ascetic process, we interact with silence, and a healing Christ-process begins, we transfigure into being that approaches communion with the mystery we call God. We become still though awakened in body, mind and soul, the mind becomes still and at peace, there is a surrendering receptiveness to mystery and beauty. In this moment we have died to the world and have engaged the work of silence.


As we stand before an icon and allow it to enter us, we enter into communion with the icon’s prototype. Ideally we will enter into a state of being possessed by an uncontainable love and intense compassion for all things; the chest will fill and the tears will flow. The spiritual heart is set ablaze with love of all creation, humankind, birds, beasts, all creatures, even adversaries, spirit and embodied. We have eradicated evil and the false spiritualities that have obliterated the divine in us, and have infected many with idolatry. The icon communicates the meaning of life, it exemplifies the communion of the material with the spiritual, the union of heaven and earth, and all the dualities that confuse our false reality. The union of the dualities and removal of the denial and suffering that infect our lives bring us closer to the realization of the eschaton in the immanent world.

We human beings are unique icons, we too can experience the iconic character of our companion human beings by allowing them to converge onus and engaging the holy, sacred “grace space” between us. Let us presuppose a unity with the divine each time we encounter the other, let that “unity” transfigure into relationship with the other, whose otherness should cease to be separation. Let the isometry affirm the otherness and uniqueness of the “grace space” created between each of us.  In fact, let us engage all of creation in like manner; creation is an icon, a liminality, a portal to bring us closer to unity with the otherness of the Divine.

The transfigurational face of the figure radiates the Divine Light to us as a mirror reflects the light of the sun. This is the face of the creature immunity with the Divine. We share in the saint’s engagement with the grace of the Holy Spirit, which awakens a sense of the “holy” communicate by the figure represented in the icon and the icon itself. The experience of the icon operates through the relationship mediated by the Holy Spirit in the “grace space” between the observer and the icon through the intercession of the saint represented in the icon.

In past centuries and even to some extent today, the icon provides illustrated “Holy Tradition,” while the icon serves as an invaluable essential to the living Orthodox Tradition and provides guidance and nurturing to the faithful one must be cautious not to sentimentalize or to idolize the icon. Our veneration is not to be directed to the object of paint and wood but to the prototype represented in it. The icon is a portal to the holiness of the prototype and we, the observers, in the medium of prayer, participate with the aid of the icon in that holiness.

Aside: I would advocate that it would be dangerous to approach an icon in ignorance of the hagiography it represents  or in a showing of purely sentimental piety.

One of the important roles of attending contemplatively to the synaxarion or the reading of the life of the saint of the day, whether the icon is venerated on the analogion in the temple porch or in our icon corner. While the general effect of the icon is that of the Gestalt of its symbology, that is, the “window effect,” the specific figure or figures or event represented in the icon is doctrinally and theologically important and should be appreciated in its inspirational depth. Regrettably too many of us entering a sacred space do not give a second thought to the many sacred gestures we surreptitiously make from an initial sign of the cross and its significance, to the humility of our prostrations, to the kissing of a holy icon, etc. The life of the Orthodox Christian is guided by the lives of the Orthodox saints, and their message and meaning is embodied in their icon. The icon serves to facilitate a spiritual and real connection between those who are contemplating it, the divine reality it re-presents, passage beyond its liminality into the spiritual realm of the otherwise inaccessible and infinite.

Just as we would never embark on a trip without special preparation, the transfigurational journey also requires preparation. Today’s Christians must take the notion and the necessity of preparation more seriously, whether it is the preparation for Divine Liturgy, veneration, contemplation of a holy icon, or for our death. While we may rush through the time and space of linear time, when we enter Divine time we forego the dimensions of time and space; there’s no rush or urgency to get somewhere. Once we cross the threshold we should be in a state of silent being, and that takes preparation.

The human face makes us human. It is not the face of a cat or a dog nor the face of disfigurement which is abhorrent. The human face in its organized form is specifically (as in species) “human.” Doctrine tells us that if the Trinity were material it would have a human face, and indeed the Incarnate Word did have a human face and so, by extension, the human face is the face of the divine. Because we have no real idea of what the Incarnate Word looked like, any one of us could be the countenance of the Incarnate Word.

Moreover, if human nature can be located concentrated anywhere it will be in the human face. It is the human face that reflects our physical, emotional, and spiritual condition. It is therefore only reasonable that the Divine should transpire in the human face and should communicate divinity. Just as we are given a unique face so too we receive a unique name and hence are endowed with a unique existence, a holy otherness that makes possible relationship, which becomes manifest in the communion of a mystical interpersonal eucharist.  Accordingly, our otherness in communion takes on cosmic dimensions.

We human beings are clay, products of the physical world but endowed with a higher soul, symbols available and perceptible to our physical senses are almost essential for our engagement of the spiritual. The icon is one of those objects providing such access; we can speak of the icon as providing a great deal more in its character of “visual theology.” The icon speaks to us in the language of symbols and that grammar of communication was formulated by the Church Fathers in its definitive form at the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicaea II) in 787 C.E. that language communicates in light, color, movement, lines, and silence of the icon.

We speak of the background of the icon as “light;” the icon is like a stained glass window admitting the brilliant light from outside, changed somewhat, into a dark interior of our inner basilica. According to St Augustine, that Divine Light is supremely brilliant, invisible in its supernatural clarity, and becomes physically visible to us by passing through the icon, just as the intense brightness of the sun becomes safely visible to our vulnerable eyes once it passes through the stained glass window of the material basilica. Indeed, Orthodox iconographical theology refers to the icon as a “window to heaven.”

The icon takes on a jewel-like appearance with the central figure set in the radiant gold of Divine Light, whose clarity and purity admits no shadow. Everything in the icon is bathed in that supernatural light and so appears uniform, in equipoise, and without stain or blemish.

Relics of St Silouan Athonite

Rev. Ch. Harold Vadney, Proto-companion
October 5, 2017

For Further Reading

  1. Arida, Robert. “Spirituality and the Person: The Vision of the Orthodox Icon”, from Sacred Art Journal, 1994, pg.11.
  2. Byzantine Museum of Athens, Holy Image, Holy Space; Icons and Frescoes from Greece, Greek Ministry of Culture,1988, Athens, Greece.
  3. Forest,J, Praying with Icons, Orbis Books, 1997, Maryknoll, NY.
  4. Grabar, André, Les Grands Siècles de la Peinture, La Peinture Byzantine, Etude Historique et Critique, Skira/Flammarion, 1979, Genéve. (Grabar, André. The Art of the Byzantine Empire: Byzantine Art in the Middle Ages. New York: Greystone, 1967. Internet resource.)
  5. Hart, Aidan. Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting: Egg Tempera, Fresco, Secco. Leominster, Herefordshire: Gracewing, 2015.
  6. John of Damascus Saint; Andrew Louth, Three treatises on the divine images. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press Popular patristics series, no. 24. Crestwood, New York : St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003.
  7. John of Damascus; David Anderson. On the Divine Images: Three Apologies against Those Who Attack the Divine Images. New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002. Print.
  8. Ouspensky, L. and V. Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, SVS Press, 1989, Crestwood, NY.
  9. Ouspensky, L. Theology of the Icon, SVS Press, 1979, Crestwood, NY.
  10. Quenot, Michel . The Icon: Window on the Kingdom, SVS Press, 1996, Crestwood, NY.
  11. Schmemann, Alexander. The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy. Crestwood, N.Y: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003.
  12. John of Damascus, On the Divine Images, SVS Press, 1980, Crestwood, NY.
  13. The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. 3 vols. Oxford University Press, 1991, Oxford.


The Iconographer’s Prayers

A Prayer from Mt. Athos for Consecrating an Iconographer

Thou Who hast so admirably imprinted Thy features on the cloth sent to King Abgar of Edessa, and hast so wonderfully inspired Luke Thy Evangelist: Enlighten my soul and that of Thy servant; Guide his hand that he may reproduce Thy features, those of the Holy Virgin and of all Thy saints, for the glory and peace of Thy Holy Church. Spare him from temptations and diabolical imaginations in the name of Thy Mother, St. Luke, and all the Saints. Amen.

A Prayer Before Beginning an Icon:

O DIVINE LORD of all that exists, Thou hast illumined the Apostle and Evangelist Luke with Thy Holy Spirit, thereby enabling him to represent Thy most Holy Mother, the One who held Thee in her arms and said: The Grace of Him Who has been born of me is spread through the world!
Enlighten and direct my soul, my heart and my spirit. Guide the hands of Thine unworthy servant so that I may worthily and perfectly portray Thine Icon, that of Thy Mother, and all the Saints, for the glory, joy and adornment of Thy Holy Church.
Forgive my sins and the sins of those who will venerate these icons and who, kneeling devoutly before them, give homage to those they represent.
Protect them from all evil and instruct them with good counsel. This I ask through the intercession of Thy most Holy Mother, the Apostle Luke, and all the Saints. Amen.


O Divine Lord of all that exists, You have illumined the Apostle and Evangelist Luke with Your Most Holy Spirit, thereby enabling him to represent the most Holy Mother, the one who held You in her arms and said: `the Grace of Him Who has been born of me is spread throughout the world’. Enlighten and direct our souls, our hearts and our spirits. Guide the hands of your unworthy servant, so that we may worthily and perfectly portray your icon, that of Your Holy Mother and of all the saints, for the glory and adornment of Your Holy Church. Forgive our sins and the sins of those who will venerate these icons, and who, standing devoutly before them, give homage those they represent. Protect them from all evil and instruct them with good counsel. This we ask through the prayers of the Most Holy Theotokos, the Apostle Luke, and all the saints, now and ever and unto ages of ages.”

A Prayer After Completing an Icon:

Thou, Thyself, O LORD, art the fulfillment and completion of all good things. Fill my soul with joy and gladness, for Thou alone art the Lover of mankind.
Let Thy grace sanctify and dwell within this icon, that it may edify and inspire those who gaze upon it and venerate it; that in glorifying the one depicted, they may be repentant of their sins and strengthened against every attack of the adversary.
Through the prayers of the Theotokos, the holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke, and all the Saints, O Savior, save us!



[1] Byzantine art is a term applied to describe the genre of artistic works produced in the Byzantine commonwealth which included not only Byzantium proper but also Bulgaria, Serbia, Rus, including also Sicily and Ravenna, which had strong cultural ties with Byzantium, while in other respects being western other cultural aspects. The Byzantine period lasted from about the 5th century to approximately the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The term is also applied to the art of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

[2] It’s almost comical that the Roman legates announcing the excommunication were not aware that Pope Leo IX had in the meantime died, rendering the excommunication void; Humbert was cordially welcomed by the emperor Constantine IX but cold-shouldered by the Patriarch. Incidentally, the excommunication applied only to the Patriarch who subsequently responded by excommunicating the legates.

[3] One remarkable example would be the icon of the Hospitality of Abraham and the unique impression of depth and perspective created by the placement of the figures, and the lines of convergence created by the artist.

[i] L. Ouspensky and V. Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, Saint Vladimir Seminary Press, 1989, pp. 48-49.

[ii] Ibid.



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