Greek Orthodox Church
St John Chrysostom

The Essence of Orthodox Iconography
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The Tradition of Iconography 
Taken from the Orthodox Church written by Timothy WareThe Tradition of the Church is expressed not only though words, not only through the actions and gestures used in worship, but also through art- through the line and color of the Holy Icons. An icon is not simply a religious picture designed to arouse appropriate emotions in the beholder; it is one of the ways whereby God is revealed to us. Through icons the Orthodox Christian receives a vision of the spiritual world. Because the icon is part of Tradition, icon painters are not free to adapt their own aesthetic sentiments, but the mind of the Church. Artistic inspiration is not excluded, but it is exercised within certain prescribed rules. It is important that icon painters should be good artists, but it is even more important that they should be sincere Christians, living within the spirit of Tradition, preparing themselves for their work by means of Confession and Holy Communion.


The Purpose of this Sacred Art 
“Thus we say that each vessel, animal, and plant is good, not from its formation or from its color, but from the service it renders” (St. John Chrysostom). The same is true with this sacred art; it is good, not on account of it being “art of the Church,” but on account of the service it renders to the Church. As such it is interwoven with the life, the evolution and the whole Tradition of the Church.Constantine Kalokyris, in his work entitled Orthodox Iconography, suggests that the character and fundamental significance of Orthodox Iconography is : 

1. Art of Spiritual Service
The content of Orthodox Iconography has been determined directly by the needs and the profounder spiritual purpose of the Church. It serves to inspire, teach, guide, and encourage the faithful in their quest towards spiritual perfection. Iconography expresses holiness and the more sublime meanings of Orthodoxy in its sacred content : the Savior, the Theotokos, the Apostles, the Angelic Powers, and the Martyrs of the Faith.


2. Liturgical Art
The Mystery of the Holy Eucharist is the center and the essence of the Liturgy (the work of the people). From its inception, iconography was concerned primarily with this highest purpose of the Church. As such, it has attempted to contribute with its own means to the believers’ understanding of the great mystery of the Holy Eucharist and of the whole liturgical drama. This is illustrated in the earliest of sacred drawings : the fish, the bread, the sacrificial lamb, the Sacrifice of Abraham etc. As iconography evolved, liturgical themes of the Communion of the Apostles, the Liturgy of the Angels, the self sacrificing one, the co-celebrant hierarchs are depicted. Simply, iconography has attempted to make understandable the sublime content of the Divine Liturgy and especially the profound liturgical act of the Holy Eucharist.


3. Art of High Theology
This art is not simply religious as in the West, but theological. Its themes are not simply related to religious history, but are organized according to the high Theology of the Orthodox Church. As such, Orthodox Churches are filled with not simply images of the passion, but with art depicting the life of our Lord (the twelve great feasts of the Church); the Theotokos; the Saints, the Evangelists; and the angelic powers; all under the blessings of the Lord. Additionally, those depicted are “represented” in a manner that suggests their true nature : in communion with the saints, earthly, or deprived of the Spirit of Grace.


4. An Art of Depth
Orthodox iconography is an expressionistic art form that seeks to convey a profounder life-experience that possesses the soul. Byzantine art therefore uses intense animated features (i.e. big eyes, small mouths, large ears), bright colors, and postures (i.e. frontal posture of saints who are in direct communion with God) to suggest the true “spirit” of the one depicted. Differences between the sacred art of the West and the East are illustrated in both the icons of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.


5. Relationship to Ideal and Natural Models
Everything in the Church ought to allude to the heavenly, spiritual and transcendental world. Therefore, Orthodox iconography avoids the representation of the sacred forms according to the natural reality and sought, through a truly marvelous abstraction upon these forms, to express the spiritual reality that constitutes the highest truth.


The Matter & Form (Content & Style) of Orthodox Iconography 
The basic presupposition of Orthodox Iconography developed by the Sacred Scriptures, the Ecumenical Councils, and the Fathers of the Church is that of a “new” man and world in Christ. This art subordinate to the Church was obligated to formulate/form this idea in its expression.The Basics of Iconography

  • The person of Christ is not depicted will solely human characteristics as in the West, as He was not solely human, but both God and man.
  • God the Father can not be depicted.
  • The Theotokos is not depicted as simply a virgin before the Spirit of the Lord came to overshadow her. She is instead “formed” to indicate the dogma of the Incarnation and that she carried Him whom could not be contained.
  • The saints are “formed” as citizens of heaven suggesting the blessed reality beyond this world.

The Particulars of Iconography


  • Coloring in the face and the naked body details the transition of the person from darkness into the light of Christ.
  • Sensory organs are not rendered according to nature, to the anatomical truth because each of them having sensed and received the divine Revelation, has become, now an organ of the spirit.
  • The mouth is shaped small to denote that the sacred person obeyed the sacred commandment of God (take no thought for your life, what shall you eat, or what shall you eat), seeking first the food of life, (the Kingdom of Heaven and His righteousness.
  • The crown of light in Orthodox iconography signifies the radiating glory of the represented person. It surrounds the head because the head is the center of the spirit, thought, and understanding.
  • The feet and the hands are equally “distorted”. The hands are often proportionate to the head (at least the blessing hand) with long fingers signifying a spiritual intensity while the feet are large and somewhat well grounded.
  • The naked body is subjugated to and neutralized by the spirit.
  • Garments project or signify the spiritual bodies of the saints covered by them. Because of their simple folds and their wider overlaps they do not appear natural, that is, simply covering the human body.
  • The principle interest in iconography is limited to the sacred persons, while the background is subordinate to them. Therefore, the background does not appear independent of the persons, but dependent upon them.


The Most Perfect Icon
The person of Christ


The Verbal Icon of Christ
The book of the Holy Scriptures
An Icon of God in Creation
Created in His likeness, humans are icons of God through virtue, that is, not physically, but through our free will, our reason, our sense of moral responsibility- everything, in short, which marks us out of from the animal creation.


The Iconoclastic Controversy 
Iconoclasts – Icon-smashers, suspicious of any religious art which represented human beings or God.
Iconodules – Venerators of icons who vigorously defended the use of icons in the Church.The Iconoclastic controversy, which lasted some 120 years, falls into two phases. The first period opened in 726 when Leo the III began his attack of icons and ended in 780 when the Empress Irene suspended the persecutions. The Iconodule position was upheld by the seventh and last Ecumenical Council (787), which met, as the first had done, at Nicaea. Icons, the council proclaimed, are to be kept in churches and honored with the same relative veneration as is shown to other material symbols, such as the ‘precious and life-giving Cross’ and the Book of the Gospels. A new attack on icons, started by Leo V the Armenian in 815 continued until 843 when the icons were again reinstated, this time, permanently, by another Empress, Theodora. The final victory of the Holy Images in 843 is known as ‘the Triumph of Orthodoxy’, and is commemorated in a special service celebrated on the ‘Sunday of Orthodoxy’, the first Sunday of Lent (taken from the Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware).


The Veneration of Icons
Icons are symbols. The reverence and veneration shown to icons is not directed to the wood, the stone, or the paint, but towards the persons who are depicted.