The Dogma of Chalcedon Return to Welcome Page
What are Byzantine Icons ?
The Visual and Spiritual Treasures
of the Eastern Orthodox Church

Christ the Almighty
Mosaic. St. Sophia Church,
Constantinople, 13th century
The Icon of Christ is the graphical expression of the Dogma of
Chalcedon (click image to read).
In the second half of the 20th century Byzantine Icons experienced a spectacular revival in both the East and the West. In Greece it had already started in 1930, mostly thanks to Photios Kontoglou (1)(2). The revival was further stimulated in the late 1980's by the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. Surprisingly, however, many people in 'the West' have never heard of Byzantine icons or don't know what they are. This page is meant to answer that.

What are Byzantine Icons?
      Byzantine icons are sacred paintings (icons, frescoes and mosaics) of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, of the Most Holy Mother of God, and of the Angels and Saints. 'Byzantine' refers to the Byzantine Empire where icons became an integral part of the Orthodox Faith. (Click this link for some historical notes.) Characterized by vivid colors and often gold colored backgrounds, the persons depicted in icons seem to float and often are longer than their natural counterparts.
     Everything shown in an icon is symbolic.

Iconostasis St. Seraphim Cathedral
Dallas, Texas
   Vladimir Grigorenko

For example, the ears of our Lord Jesus Christ are large and his mouth is small. This signifies that he hears everything but that he only speaks words of holy wisdom.
      Icons and frescoes (murals) decorate about every Orthodox church in both the East and the West. Click on the image to the left to see the Iconostasis or Altar screen of the newly built St. Seraphim Orthodox Cathedral in Dallas, Texas. The iconostasis is the decoration centerpiece and completely made up of icons. Click the next link to see a superb mural of the Wedding at Cana in the same Cathedral (both are works by the hands of iconographer Vladimir Grigorenko).
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Deeper Meaning
      After having looked at several icons, one may notice that icons only seem to have a width and a height. Depth, the third (physical) dimension, clearly discernable in virtually all other traditional paintings (not including modernistic or abstract works of art) seems to be absent.

Mother of God Hodegetria
("She who shows the Way")
14th century
The "third" dimension of an icon goes beyond what the eye can see, as it is spiritual. Icons have a profound spiritual meaning. An icon is a Window into Heaven. This Window into Heaven will enable someone who is praying to the person depicted in the icon, to directly connect with that person : our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the Most Holy Mother of God, an Angel or Saint (also see The Essential Feature of Icons). Many icons are miraculous as many people who prayed to them were cured of their affliction. An icon is an efficient means for knowing God, the Holy Virgin, Angels and Saints. An icon is not a work of art that only illustrates the Holy Scriptures. It constitutes a confession of religious truths (5).
     In view of the foregoing, it can be readily understood that an icon painter needs to be more than an artist. An icon painter, or iconographer as they are commonly called, is a theologian as much as he is an artist (6). Painting (writing) an icon, presupposes, on the part of the iconographer a lifestyle of prayer, meditation and fasting (also see Summary).
      Quite simply, icons are truly unique, there is no form of expression in the West that is equivalent or similar to icons.
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Sacred Icon and Holy Picture

The Nativity
Holy picture, Western style

The Nativity.
Russian icon, 15th century
      Let us have a look now at the theme of the Nativity of Christ as this is depicted in a byzantine icon (left) and in a holy picture (right). It is surprising to see how the representation of this event in the Orthodox Church differs from the one in the West. In the West we see the birth of the little Child and the goodness and humanity of God who is born to us.
     The Orthodox Church puts the emphasis more on the great mystery of God's coming amongst men, on the realization of the promise of the arrival of the Messiah. There is one central character : it isn't the Child but it is the Virgin Mary. Larger than the other characters, she is shown in the center resting on a red pillow. This signifies first and foremost that she is the One who gives us God, the Theotokos, the God Bearer, the Mother of God. Often, she isn't turned towards the child but towards us, because she is Mother of all men.
     A triple ray reaches us from heaven, representing the Holy Trinity.
     Joseph is seated below on the left. The apocryphs tell us that Satan has come to tell him that it is impossible for a child to be born from a virgin. (Marcel Watté)
     More on this subject can be found on the site of Paul Azkoul, iconographer, in an in-depth article under the heading On the Differences of Western Religious Art and Orthodox Iconography.

     If you have made it to here, you will have gained some insight into Byzantine Icons. Click this line to return to the Welcome Page, then read the Summary or continue on to the HomePage.

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Historical Notes

Mother of God
Santa Francesca, Rome
3rd-4th century
Encaustic icon

Roman Empire
at its greatest extent
(1) 'Byzantine' is derived from Byzantium, which was the old name of the city of Istanbul, situated on the banks of the Bosporus in present-day Turkey. When Constantine the Great, the Emperor of Rome (274-337) converted to Christianity in 312, he made Christianity the state religion and moved his capital to Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople in 330. After the War of Independence (between Greece and Turkey) Turkey was born in 1923 and Constantinople was renamed Istanbul. Click the following link for more on the Byzantine Empire.

Byzantium at its height under
Justinian (
(2) The Art of Icon-Painting had its beginnings in the Roman Empire after Constantine the Great had converted to Christianity. The icon of the Virgin and Child in the Santa Francesca Church in Rome (shown above to the right) and the icon of the Mother of God of Tsilkan, Georgia (shown below) are witness to the fact that icons had their beginnings throughout the Empire, as both are believed to date to the 4th century. Following the Iconoclasm (726-843) and the Great Schism (1054) the icon art came to flourish primarily in the Eastern Orthodox Church in the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire.

Mother of God of Tsilkan
Georgia, 4th century
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(3) Iconoclasm refers to the 100-year long conflict between opponents and proponents of icons (a) (b) (c).

(4) The Great Schism refers to the formal rupture between the differing Latin and Greek branches of Christianity in 1054 (a) (b).

(5) See Essential Feature of Icons.

(6) Theologian and Painter: Says internationally acclaimed Master Iconographer Xenia Pokrovsky "A real iconographer is a theologian, a person having a deep spiritual life, knowledgeable about Scriptures, Christian dogmatics, liturgy, hagiography, etc.". (Izograph Studio, Frequently Asked Questions, 2nd last paragraph.)

Return to Welcome Page Top of Page Last Updated: 12 May 2007 Copyright © 2002-2007 PW de Ruyter

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