I remember sitting on a pew inside the small OCA church about 12 years ago, alone with my thoughts and my journal. And yet I wasn’t alone. On a midweek afternoon, I had come to the little parish to think and to pray, to make some sense of my jumbled thoughts by putting pen to paper. I could have journaled in a library or a coffee shop, but the church kept pulling me to herself.
I was an inquirer into the Orthodox Faith with more questions than answers, and plenty of answers were available online. But a laptop and a helpful book can never replace the power of a sacred space.
Mine was the only physical body in the nave, but I knew that the space was crowded. I have sensed God’s presence in many places: surrounded by the unadorned walls of my Protestant church as I prayed with others; leaning against a Ponderosa pine tree and listening to the tumbling roar of a waterfall in Rocky Mountain National Park; and sitting across from a trusted friend at my kitchen table, steaming mugs of Earl Grey tea in hand, while she prayerfully listened to my litany of heartaches.
God’s presence was in that nave, and others joined us too: the saints and angels on the walls and the iconostasis. They were far more than paint on wood. I had learned a little bit about iconography, that icons are known as windows into heaven, but even without a lot of knowledge, I felt their presence. My intellectual understanding was rudimentary, but my spirit understood things beyond anything my mind could comprehend.
I didn’t have any visions as I lingered there. No voices spoke to me. None of the saints appeared in human form. But their presence was real.
Let the icons of saints bring to your mind how many intercessors you have always praying for you before God, and how many allies fighting for you in your unceasing battles. Having themselves courageously fought the enemies throughout their lives and overcome them, they have revealed and shown you the art of waging war. If, with their help, you are alert in fighting your battles, you will, like them, be crowned with victory in the eternal glory of heaven. — St. Theophan the Recluse
One way or another, newcomers to an Orthodox church always respond to the icons. Visitors might be offended by them, especially if they have been raised with “four bare walls and a sermon.” Icons can touch people’s hearts and sanctify their thoughts with a sense of holiness. They can confront us with our sinfulness and distance from God. But icons cannot be ignored.
Decoding a Visual Theology
As I began attended the Liturgy regularly in that little parish, I remember thinking that the icons were clearly conveying messages in colors, clothing, and various objects. But I didn’t speak the language.
If you’re in that place, with a certain level of ignorance about iconography—and even if icons have been part of your life since you were a baby with a guardian angel icon near your crib—I hope this post will help. Consider this a very basic primer on a few common aspects of iconography. Then, because Holy Week is coming soon, we will focus specifically on the icon of the Crucifixion of Christ.
In a culture saturated with advertising, where models and actors confront us from every magazine, billboard, and YouTube commercial with promises of happy-happy-happy, the facial expressions in icon seem especially odd. Everyone is so serious. Whatever happened to the joy of the Lord?
On the website A Reader’s Guide to Orthodox Icons—which is a wonderful resource, full of short, easily digested articles about iconography—the anonymous author posted an article titled, “Why do the Saints never smile in icons?”
There are a few reasons for this. The author, who goes by “Icon Reader,” quotes St. Maximos the Confessor, who wrote of those who have been spiritually purified: “The rewards for the toils of virtue are dispassion and spiritual knowledge. For these are the mediators of the kingdom of heaven, just as passions and ignorance are the mediators of eternal punishment.” Saint Maximos also explained, “Dispassion is a peaceful condition of the soul.”
The saints in icons are not grim or bored; they are communicating this dispassion. This means that in their earthly lives, through prayer and struggle, the saints conquered the passions of the soul—the desires and emotions that dominate us. Whether these passions are anger, lust, gluttony, judgment, or addiction, they control our thoughts and rule our lives.
In short, icons show us the faces of people who have been freed from earthly cares. Icon Reader writes,
It is this “peaceful condition” that is communicated in the countenance of Saints in icons. It is far above the fleeting happiness of the world and the ceasing of sorrow over sins, and is what can truly be called joy. It is the transfigured, revealed reality of the blessed, joyful, heavenly state. It is a reflection of the peace Christ promised to His disciples; the peace which belongs to Christ Himself (John 14:27).
Mouths, Foreheads, Noses, & Fingers
An icon might look a lot like the saint being depicted, but it is not portraiture. It is a depiction of the spiritual truth of the saint’s life rather than physical reality.
Thus the foreheads of some of the saints are quite prominent—almost bulbous. I noticed this in saints who are known for their sermons and other writings, such as St. John Chrysostom, and I recently discovered the meaning of the high forehead, as well as the prominent noses—usually long and thin. Reporter Chloe Langr wrote,
In icons, people’s foreheads are usually higher—this conveys their spirituality and wisdom. Monks and holy people are often given deeper wrinkles to symbolize their knowledge. The nose of the subject is often exaggerated, which reminds the viewer that the saint’s nose is attuned to the incense of prayers rising to Heaven. Lips are often closed, which reminds the viewer of the importance of total silence.
Photographer Michael Goltz explains, “The nose of the icon is long and thin, which gives it a sense of gracefulness; it no longer smells the odors of the world, but rather the sweet incense of Heaven.”
In addition to the closed lips, you’ve probably noticed that the mouth is quite small in proportion to the face. Once again, spiritual meaning, rather than photographic realism, is being conveyed. Icon Reader writes,
Large eyes in icons can be seen as a symbol of clear-sightedness and wisdom. Icons with small eyes, mouth, etc. are seen to symbolize the more ascetic side of the Christian Faith. This is also true of the thin nose, and usually thin, tapered limbs and fingers too: they represent an ascetic, inward hesychasm.
Goltz also notes, “While the physical features of the face are spiritualized, they still retain a likeness to the saint depicted. Thus the face of St. Peter is different from that of his brother Andrew and from that of St. Paul.”
This spiritualized physicality is especially evident in icons of St. John Maximovitch of Shanghai and San Francisco. Because he died in 1966, we have many photos of St. John. His icon bears a resemblance to him, but, significantly, his ever-present eyeglasses are missing. The icon shows us the transfigured, transformed man without physical impediments.
Rev. Michael Shanbour expresses this idea well in his chapter on “Icons, Veneration & Worship” in his book, Know the Faith (Ancient Faith Publishing, 2016):
The Church’s icons are designed to portray not the fallen and distorted world of sin that often becomes in our eyes “normal,” but man and creation as made and redeemed by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the holy icons purposely do not depict what we see with our fallen eyes, but present the purified and transfigured creation. They are holy icons, not worldly images. (p. 274)
Time, or, more accurately, timelessness, is another interesting feature of iconography. It is impossible to know the century in which a saint lived through his or her icon. Dr. Karen Sullivan Sibert writes in her blog aPennedPoint,
There is no sense of time in icons because they are not intended to be “of this world.” While a painting may depict events in sequence, a religious icon can depict different scenes and events as if they occur at the same time. This is because of God’s perception of time, according to Holy Scripture: “A day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.”
This approach also explains the lack of shadows in icons. There is no sense of the time of day, whether the sun is overhead or setting. Instead, the icons are lit from within with the light of God’s presence. Goltz explains,
The subject of the icon is a person transfigured by the love of Christ and thus the light of the icon is interior, not exterior as in other forms of art. Because of this the areas of the robes and skin which stick out the most have the brightest highlights.
The Use of Objects in Iconography
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a saint or an angel standing with empty hands in an icon. They are always holding something, and the object in hand is not, as you’ve probably guessed, a mere prop to add visual interest. Icon Reader explains, “What is held in the hands of the Saints in Icons is their instrument of Salvation; i.e. the ‘tools’ by which God saved and glorified these people.”
Let’s look at some common tools of salvation.
A Hand Cross
A saint holding a simple cross, which can be painted in a variety of colors like silver, black, or brown, is a saint who was martyred. Regardless of the type of martyrdom, such as beheading, drowning, or any of the cruel tortures that they may have suffered, the martyred saint holds a cross because the word martyr comes from the Greek word for “witness.” The most powerful symbol of Christianity, and of the gospel for which they died, is the Cross. Also, the Cross symbolizes Jesus’ Crucifixion.
Icon Reader notes that “the manner of a Saint’s execution is not how
they gained Sainthood. . . . Orthodox Icons may sometimes show the martyrdom itself, but portrait Icons are ‘windows into Heaven,’ and so the Saints are not shown burdened by the things which killed them.”
A scroll represents holy wisdom. You will often see the prophets holding scrolls, but they are especially noticeable in the hands of the apostles. Saint Paul is often depicted holding multiple scrolls, representing the many books of the New Testament that he authored.
Scrolls are often shown unfurled, with famous quotes from the depicted saints written on them. Icon Reader notes,
At first this may seem as though the Saints are being glorified for their own “works.” However, it is precisely because these Saints’ writing/wisdom/prophecy is believed to come from God, not their own reasoning, that they are glorified. This is clear when we see, for example, the Prophet Isaiah holding a scroll which bears the words: “Hear, O Heavens, and give ear O Earth” (Is. 1:2). These words are “Isaiah’s,” but are also the words of God spoken through his prophet. It’s the same for later Saints who are shown holding scrolls bearing the words they were inspired to write.
In icons, bishops hold a gospel book, which they use to proclaim the Good News during the liturgy. Many of the Church Fathers were also bishops, and their writings are actually sermons that they preached after the gospel reading. You can also identify a bishop by the crosses on the stole that is draped across his body.
Interestingly, many icons of bishops show their subjects’ reverence for the gospel by covering the bare hand that carries the book with some of the fabric from their vestments or stole.
Some bishops hold a crosier rather than a gospel book. This is a pastoral staff, and it is also depicted in icons of abbots and abbesses. In the Christian East this staff is shaped like the Greek letter tau (“T” in English) rather than the shepherd’s crook of the West. The look of the staff varies; as Icon Reader explains, “Which design of crosier used in an Icon is largely dependent upon the actual design used in life by the Saint in question”
Weapons, such as lances, shields, and swords, may seem a bit warlike to modern eyes, but in the early centuries of the Church, saints were often either virgin-martyrs or soldier-martyrs. Christian soldiers often renounced their military lives, but some of them are depicted wearing armor and carrying weapons. Icon Reader explains,
These martyr-soldiers (and they usually hold crosses too, in remembrance of their sacrifice) have through their confession of faith become “soldiers for Christ.” . . . As our intercessors in Heaven it is comforting . . . to know that there are saints warring against the “principalities of darkness” on our behalf. It is therefore natural to show those already courageous soldiers who renounced earthly weapons to even more courageously embrace death now adorned with the armour of God (Eph. 6:11-18).
Saints who are remembered for their dedication to building churches are shown holding small churches or monasteries. Some of these saints are kings and queens, known as protectors and benefactors of the Church in their lands.
In one icon of my patron saint, Hilda of Whitby, England, she is shown holding a monastery in her left hand because she founded a double monastery for both men and women. In her right hand she holds a crosier with an ornate shepherd’s crook that includes a shamrock. This is appropriate for a seventh-century English abbess in the era of Celtic monasticism.
The Wings of St. John the Baptist
John the Baptist, or Forerunner, who features prominently in the iconostasis of an Orthodox parish—on the right side of Jesus from the viewer’s perspective—is often depicted with wings. These wings symbolize his role as a divine messenger. The Greek word for messenger, evangelos, is the root of the word “angel.”
The Old Testament prophets, apostles, and missionaries and bishops throughout the centuries were also messengers, but they are not shown with wings. Why not?
In his article “Why does John the Baptist have wings in Orthodox icons?” Icon Reader writes,
The answer, in the words of Jesus Christ Himself, is because “among those born of women there is no one greater than John”; moreover, he is “the culmination and the crown of the prophets, as the hymn from the feast of John’s nativity proclaims. Therefore, St. John is an especial example among the Saints of an earthly “angel” and a heavenly man. As such, he is also described as the “Angel of the Desert” in the inscriptions of icons.
And finally . . .
A Grab Bag of Miscellaneous Objects
Some of the saints hold unique items or wear something unusual. For example, St. Spyridon is depicted in numerous ways in icons, but he always wears what appears to be a basket on his head. The woven, straw hat is a traditional shepherd’s hat, showing his role as a shepherd of God’s people.
Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr from the Book of Acts, is usually depicted with a golden censer on chains in his right hand,
commemorating his role as deacon, and with a small church in his left hand, reminding us of his role in the early days of the Church. His white vestments, so different from other clergy in iconography, reflect the deacon’s robes in the first century.
The icon of St. Paraskevi tends to grab people’s attention, because she is holding a dish that contains two eyes. They serve a reminder of a miracle she performed. While she was being tortured for her faith, she was thrown into a vat filled with hot oil and tar. When she not only did not burn but appeared to remain cool, the king told her to splash some of the liquid on him so that he could know if it was hot. When she splashed him, his eyes were immediately blinded. St. Paraskevi then pleaded with God to heal the king, and his sight was restored.
A recurring group of objects appears in icons of the unmercenary Saints. “Holy Unmercenaries” is a term given to saints who did not accept payment for their good deeds. Many of them were healers or physicians who tended to the sick free of charge.
These saints, including St. Panteleimon and Ss. Cosmas and Damian, are often depicted holding a medicine box or a flask of oil. They may also hold a long-handled medicine spoon that resembles the Communion spoon used during the Divine Liturgy. It’s easy to make the connection between healing and the Eucharist.
The list of distinct objects in icons could go on and on. Icon Reader explains,
There are other objects not mentioned here which are held by Saints in their “heavenly portraits.” The reasons for each object are different, but the principal is the same: the Saints hold the tools of their Salvation. The sheer number of different items depicted in Icons show us the diversity of ways in which God calls us. The Cross, the Gospel, holy Wisdom, the Church: all ultimately lead to Christ, of course, yet the richness of items points to the abundance of His Mercy and Grace.
We have only skimmed the surface of the topic of holy icons. rCountless volumes—scholarly, instructional, and devotional—have been written about iconography. Every article of clothing, every color, every hand gesture, every feature means something. Icons teach, inspire, and point us to Christ.
If anyone asks you about your faith, take them to church and show them the sacred icons. — St. John of Damascus
Now that Holy Week is almost here, let’s close by taking a close look at a familiar icon in every parish: the Crucifixion of Christ.
Many parishes feature an icon dedicated to the Crucifixion of Christ, and all of them contain a cross in the altar area with a wooden icon of Christ crucified suspended from it. This icon is removed on Holy Friday, wrapped in linen, and set aside in the altar until Pentecost, when Jesus’ body is returned to the Cross.
In these icons Jesus is depicted with eyes closed and head bowed. Icon Reader notes,
The most striking detail is that Jesus, clearly shown as dead, still has His halo. Despite undergoing bodily death, and contrary to some heretical teachings, Jesus Christ’s Divinity has not left Him. Even bleeding and physically dead upon the Cross, Christ is still fully divine. He wears a crown of Glory, not a crown of thorns. Indeed, it is difficult to find an Orthodox Icon which shows Jesus Christ wearing the crown of thorns. Such a crown, made for Christ by His mockers, has no place upon this Icon.
Worshippers will also notice a profound difference between this icon and Roman Catholic statues of the crucified Christ. Some of the Catholic depictions I have seen are quite graphic—and realistic—in their violence. Jesus’ eyes are often open, gazing heavenward, or His body sags on the Cross. He is clearly in agony. I have seen some artistic depictions of Him covered in blood, the lash marks from His scourging clearly visible.
One aspect of visual depictions of the Crucifixion is common throughout all branches of Christendom: Jesus is shown draped in a white loincloth, even though the Scriptures are clear that the Roman soldiers cast lots for His garments (see Matt. 27:35). In addition to the agonizing bodily pain of crucifixion, Jesus suffered the humiliation of being displayed naked while people mocked Him.
This tradition of draping Jesus’ body is a sign of modesty and respect. But we can see a stark difference between Roman Catholic and Orthodox depictions of Christ’s body on the Cross. In iconography, we see a small amount of blood from the nails in His hands and feet and the spear thrust into His side. But otherwise, Jesus’ body is clean—unrealistically so.
Once again, the Church is using iconography to display spiritual truth. Look at the position of Jesus’ body. He is not sagging on the Cross. In material reality His fingers were probably claw-shaped, spasming with pain, but in icons His hands are open.
Icon Reader writes,
Christ’s hands are shown palm upwards, almost in an embrace, which beautifully echoes numerous prayers of the Church, such as:
“Jesus, Who stretches out Your hands from the Cross to all,
draw me to Yourself, for I too have gone astray!”
— Akathist to the Passion of Christ
The icon emphasizes the voluntary nature of Jesus’ sacrifice. It illustrates the theological truth that Jesus gave Himself. In the words that the priest prays quietly in the Holy Anaphora after we recite the Nicene Creed together, “He delivered Himself up for the life of the world.”
The Catholic crucifix often emphasizes the agony of Jesus’ hours on the Cross, but, as Icon Reader writes, “The Icon of the Crucifixion portrays the horror and victory, the earthly and heavenly, together in one image, so that – impossible as it may seem – we can behold this paradox.”
We can see other heavenly truths in the icon of the Crucifixion. Jesus is shown surrounded by people, including His blessed mother, Mary Magdalene, St. John the Apostle, and the Roman centurion whom the Church knows as Longinos. He is recorded in the gospels as the centurion who, when Jesus gave up His spirit, observed the earthquake and resurrected saints and stated, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matt. 27:54).
The website of the Russian Icon Collection notes, “All the figures depicted in the Crucifixion icon show emotions associated with grief, but nothing suggests sound. Their mouths are not open, and the icon holds silence.”
These icons often make a theological statement in the ground beneath the Cross. It is cracked in two, revealing a skull. The place of Jesus’ execution was called Golgotha, meaning “the place of the skull” (Matt. 27:33 and in the other gospels). Tradition states that this was the site of Adam’s tomb; thus the icon proclaims Jesus as the new Adam. It also shows that through the Cross, Jesus has defeated death itself. As the Paschal troparion proclaims,
Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death
And to those in the tomb
He has granted life!
So many deep truths are proclaimed in iconography. Icons are “written,” not “painted”—the terminology emphasizes their teaching function and their role in proclaiming the gospel. Icons are truly “theology in color,” and I am so grateful for our Church’s use of these holy tools for contemplation and silence, drawing us to greater devotion to Christ. I could never return to the “four bare walls” of my past.
Icons in houses or in the temple are not intended for show, but for prayer before them, for reverence, for instruction. The images of the saints ought to be our teachers at home and in church. Study their lives, engrave them upon your heart, and endeavor to bring your life into conformity with theirs. — St. John of Kronstadt, Spiritual Counsels, p. 85
Because the final week before Pascha is so intense in its number of Holy Week services, as well as their depth and power, I am going to take a short podcasting break. Our next episode of Walking an Ancient Path is scheduled for Bright Week, but I don’t want an extra deadline hanging over my head during this meaningful time.
So I will return in a month, on May 11th, with new material. Good strength to you as we finish the course of this Lenten fast and move into the blessings of Holy Week. Soon we will proclaim together, Christ is risen! Truly He is risen!