What are Byzantine Icons ?
The Visual and Spiritual Treasures
of the Eastern Orthodox
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.
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
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
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).
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.
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
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).
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
Quite simply, icons are truly unique, there is no form of
expression in the West that is equivalent or similar to icons.
Sacred Icon and Holy Picture
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.
Holy picture, Western style
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
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.
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.
(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
(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
(3) Iconoclasm refers to the 100-year long conflict between opponents and
proponents of icons
Great Schism refers to the formal rupture between the differing Latin and Greek branches of
Christianity in 1054
(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.)