An ICON, or the sacred art of the Eastern Church, was discovered in the West a long time ago, but there are still a lot of erroneous opinions about it, probably resulting from our different cultural traditions. First of all, some people link Icons with Russia, considering them to be the cultural heritage of this country only, or the heritage of the Eastern Church, having nothing to do with the Western Church. All these claims are completely ahistorical. In fact, when the first Icons were created and popularised (in the 5th and 6th century), the Church was not divided. On the contrary – it was united more than ever to fight against heresy. Rus’, which had adopted the new religion in 988, was the last country to accept Christianity from the Byzantine Empire, while the Byzantine Church was originally the only one of the dioceses and its unusual art was only a great variety within an artistic trend. Icons, therefore, represent the cultural heritage of the whole Christian world. Before the schism, which irreversibly divided the Church into the Eastern and Western churches in 1054 (the latter claimed then to be the truly orthodox church), Icons existed for at least four centuries in the entire Christian world, from Syria to Egypt, from the Byzantine East to the Carolingian West. Not everybody knows that some of the oldest Icons dating back even to the Italian Middle Ages, have survived in Rome where they were first created by Duccio di Buoninsegna and Giotto. Some researches go back even further, like to the wall paintings in catacombs, which are often pre-patterns for later Iconic themes and style of their painting form. Another inaccuracy is the common opinion that an Icon is just a simple religious picture, a devotional image similar to those that fill churches and those that we put in our homes to manifest our faith, to pray or to simply cherish the tradition or our tastes. In fact, Icons cannot be understood only within the artistic category – they contain much more. At this point, the artistic value of an Icon is somewhat incidental and marginal. What distinguishes an Icon is the Mystery of God which is imagined through the painting.

In the tradition of the Eastern Church, codified by the councils, an Icon is “a sacramental participant in the essence of God”. It is a place where God is present and available, it is the grace of His infinite mercy, as well as an opportunity to “touch the tails of his coat”. In order to understand this special importance that is given to Icons by the Eastern Church, one has we have to go back up to the dawn of human history. Even in prehistoric times, man used image to contact the divine element. The oldest civilisations referred to the arts as a means of expressing divinity, for example, in Egyptian religious painting – on papyruses, steles, in tombs – use of a sign that symbolised the meeting of the soul with the deity in the afterlife. In pre-Christian civilisation, an image of a sacred character was used as a symbol of presence. For example, in the provinces of the Roman Empire that were remote from Rome, an image of the emperor had to be out in a court while passing a sentence. The Image was called Divus and it had to be out so the tribunal could act on its behalf. This imago efficiens guaranteed the sanctity of every sentence as if it was issued by the emperor himself. The image made the presence of the person it depicted real. It was at the Council of Ephesus when an Icon was described as the “sanctuary”, i.e. a place where the depicted person is also miraculously present, he/she is a participant in the Mystery of Incarnation – this incomprehensible event when God became man so that man might become God. When such manifesting understanding of the meaning of Icons is related to the teachings of the Roman Church, it can be compared even to understanding of the Sacraments. An Icon is, therefore, no longer only a religious painting, but also a “holy” one. It becomes a place where a contemplating man almost directly meets the Living Manifested God. It is Him who, empowered with the Holy Spirit, “takes the initative” in such a meeting as the Light of the Spirit permeates the “Holy board” and pours on a man. Acheiropoieton, the face of Christ “made without hands” (Russian: Nierukotvornyj) centrally placed in every church is an example of Icons shown on a board (as Icons were mostly painted on boards) and it manifests Christ Himself giving an opportunity for deep and mystic closeness and meeting with Him. It also enables to receive His gifts and graces for the reason of power and light of the Holy Spirit forever manifesting the real presence of the Creator in the human reality. Such understanding and experiencing of the “meeting with Icons”; is, therefore, the meeting with God’s Light which pours out onto the man. The theology of Icons understood in such a way is also connected with a series of requirements and rules of purely artistic nature. Starting from the one that if the resulting Iconic painting is to be a place of mystical meeting with the God Himself, the process of creation itself must be mystical and prayerful. A monk-artist who intends to do his work as a painter has to prepare to this action in a proper, “purifying” way. It is in prayer and contemplation when he realizes that the source and inspiration to create his work is Holy Spirit himself. The role of an artist (as well as an evangelist) is, therefore, to discover the already prepared and prayed-for “board” of divine reality in front of human eyes. Then, as the Divine Light is the one to illuminate the reality of the Iconic painting so to speak, it must be technically painted in a way that, when it comes to the painting aspect, the light does not illuminate the presented characters but rather clearly emanates from them. In other words, there is no chiaroscuro or linear perspective. And the third most important characteristic feature, which clearly distinguishes it from the Western painting, is symbolism and hieratic character. Each painting or sculptural representation of religious content in Western art is an allegorical vision of an artist answering the question: “How could it look like?” – for example, depiction of the crucifixion of Christ – there are so many depictions as are the artists. The only guarantor of holiness and canonicity of a presentation in the art of Icon painting is to make it (for example, the mentioned Crucifixion) come down to pure and unambiguous symbol. In other words, the artist does not present any similarities to the depicted character or scene, but expresses the entire content, its theology with certain signs and systems. Thus, to put it simply, the belief that creating an Icon is not only to paint it but to “write” (Icon writing) the entire complex theology. From the above discussion, an obvious conclusion occurs: adoration given to the holy Icons in the Eastern Church is not due to their content, depicted characters or events, but to the belief in this blessed presence of God Himself, Mary or the saints. And their creator stops to be only an artistic performer, but becomes an evangelist and apostle of Divine Truth.

Long theological and artistic analyses can be conducted in relation to particular Icon themes, “grouped” in a whole range of canonical types. Thus, the main canonical type are Icons of Christ, both in a single form (Image of Edessa, Pantocrator, Christ within mandorla and Christ in Majesty), as well as more complex ones (Transfiguration of Jesus, Crucifixion, Harrowing of Hell). An other type are the Icons depicting Virgin Mary: Theotokos, Mary with Child Jesus (Hodegetria, Eleusa, Oranta), or in scenes with many characters (Annunciation, Birth of Jesus, Dormition). In addition: the whole range of Saints, Church Fathers, Patriarchs, and even tsars and princes (in Russia). And above all of them, there is an Icon of the Holy Trinity from the Orthodox perspective (Old Testament, Russian: Vietchozavietnaja), or from the Greek-Catholic perspective (New Testament: God the Father, God the Son with the cross, or on the cross and the Holy Spirit as a dove). The Icon, which has somehow found its way from the Western Church to the Orthodox and Greek-Catholic East, is currently experiencing a renaissance and a systematic come-back to the canons of sacred art and interior design of Catholic churches. It is enough to mention only the Icons of Mary which occur so often and are famous for their wonders in many sanctuaries (Jasna Góra in Poland, Gate of Dawn in Lithuania). It is the returning Icons which restore a little more warmth, mystery and mysticism to the over intellectualised Catholic Church. The most important things in writing Icons are two elements: FACE AND COLOURS. In the practise of writing Icons, particular stages of work are divided into those connected with face and those unconnected . An Icon writer always starts writing from the head – it dictates the size and position of the body and the rest of the composition. A man with big eyes and still, deep look can see the extra-terrestrial world. The central point of the face are eyes which are filled with heavenly fire. Thin lips are devoid of any sensuality, passion or greed. Elongated ears listen to the silence. Nose is just a thin curve line. Forehead is high and broad, its slight distortion stresses the advantage of contemplative thought. What is connected with the face is not only the face itself and the eyes, but also hands – each gesture is well thought out and connected to the the whole.

Symbolism of colours: 

GOLD - light
RED – human nature, martyrdom
GREEN – eternity, hope, youth
BLUE – heaven, depth, mystery