What is an Icon?

Origins of Iconography

The term "icon" derives from the Greek eikon which means "image." This word is commonly used to designate a painting, often portable, with a religious subject, executed on a wooden board, according to a particular technique and a tradition transmitted from century to century and still alive.

Romanesque style triptychChristian iconography, which has its origins in the frescoes of the catacombs of the second, third and fourth centuries, has Byzantium as its homeland. From there, this art spread to the Slavic countries after the tenth century, also exerting a notable influence on the Latin West. Some Romanesque frescoes up to about the twelfth century are very close to the Eastern iconography. The triptych presented here is a recent creation in this style.

The difference between an icon and a simple painting is that the icon should redirect the viewer to the object. The eyes do not rest on the image, the icon immediately refers them to the object which is to be considered: the risen Christ, the transfigured Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary, etc., whereas paintings of great artists tend to arrest the eyes on themselves. An icon painted by someone who has really contemplated is never the object of the eyes, which then spontaneously pass beyond it.

Theology of the Icon

Mary near the CrossThe Second Council of Nicaea solemnly defined in 787, against the iconoclastic movement, the theological foundations and legitimacy of Christian iconography as well as of the worship of images. The council taught that it is permitted to represent Christ, true God and true man, because while remaining the invisible God, the eternal Word, consubstantial with the Father, the second Person of the Holy Trinity, he became visible to us by assuming a human nature. Refusing icons would thus mean, as the Fathers affirmed, denying the incarnation of the Word of God. An icon of Jesus Christ is the expression by an image of the doctrine of the Chalcedon Council (451), because it represents neither only the divine nature, which is invisible, nor only the human nature of Christ, but the divine Person of the Son who unites in himself "without mixture or confusion" these two natures. An icon of Christ is therefore a "theandric" image, that is to say, partly celestial and partly human. "Therefore the iconography of Christ," writes St. John Paul II in the Apostolic Letter Duodecim Saeculum, "involves the whole faith in the reality of the Incarnation and its inexhaustible meaning for the Church and the world. If the Church practices it, it is because she is convinced that the God revealed in Jesus Christ has truly redeemed and sanctified the flesh and the whole sensible world, that is man with his five senses, 'to allow him to be ever renewed in the image of his Creator' (Col 3:10)."

Icon of St. Joseph
St Joseph - Coptic style icon
For this reason, an icon traditionally has a sacred, cultic and liturgical value: it is an object of veneration in churches, and of devotion in Christian homes. For the Eastern Church, the icon is an integral part of the liturgy and completes the announcement of the mystery commemorated and relived by the Church with the help of texts read or sung. The connection between the icon and Holy Scripture during the liturgy has been emphasized by the Fathers, and finds its foundation in a decree of the Fourth Council of Constantinople (869-870) which states: "We decree that the sacred image of Our Lord Jesus Christ should be venerated with the same honour as the holy Gospels [...]. It is proper, since the honour goes back to the Prototype, to honour and venerate images like the book of the holy Gospels and the precious Cross."

An angelAccording to St. John Damascene (8th century), an icon is "a channel of grace, with a sanctifying virtue". Indeed, after having been blessed, an icon becomes a sacramental, that is to say a sign of grace, not in the manner of the sacraments which are effective in virtue of their institution by Christ, but in virtue of the powers and prayer of the Church. Therefore, an icon is an aid to the spiritual life of Christians. By representing Jesus Christ, the Mother of God, the Angels, scenes from the life of Christ, the Virgin or the saints, an icon makes them in a certain way mysteriously present. This presence is not attached to the coloured wooden board, but to the "resemblance with the prototype", that is to say with the character represented on an icon; a resemblance that the Church takes care to authenticate before blessing an icon.

The Eastern tradition calls the icon "a mirror of the invisible beauty" and "a window open on eternity". Viewed with the eyes of the heart and in the light of faith, an icon gives an insight into the spiritual world, into invisible realities and the uncreated Beauty, into the Christian mystery in its supra-terrestrial reality. It is in a way a "visual theology".

Principles of Iconography

Not all religious subjects can be represented on an icon. Fall within the scope of traditional iconography only Christ, the Virgin Mary, scenes from the Gospel, angels, and saints from all eras: those who are very close to us, such as St. Theresa of the Child Jesus and her parents, St. Louis and St. Zelie Martin, as well as those who are more distant in time, such as St. George.

Icon of St. Theresa of the Child JesusIcon of St. George

The iconographer is bound by traditional "canons" (i.e., rules) of this art, which the Eastern Church has established in detail over the centuries. These prescriptions are intended to ensure that the painting should conform to the Church's experience of Christ, as expressed in Scripture, liturgy and theology. The pictorial style of the icon does not aim to reproduce or imitate nature perfectly, but to create an image transfigured by the spiritual radiance of the mystery. An icon is not a portrait, but the prototype of the future humanity, freed from passions, from all sensual aspects, from the laws of matter, time and space, and transfigured in glory. Movement itself is curtailed, hence this hieraticism so characteristic of the Eastern iconography, capable of giving a supra-terrestrial vision of the sensible world.

An iconographer should not sign his work, for it belongs to the Church. The artist, especially if he is a monk, as is traditional in the East, steps aside to let tradition speak through his art.

Icon of the Deesis