Skip to Navigation

What Do Icons Mean?

Magazine  December 2000 
Page 22-23






By Michael Goltz




iconography of our Orthodox Church, with all of its symbolism and spiritual
meaning, is central to the Church’s teaching. People are greatly influenced by
what they contemplate, and so the Church, in its love for its faithful, has
given us iconography in order to help us contemplate God. The Church has
elevated iconography to a place of prominence as a teaching tool. What the
Gospels proclaim with words, the icon proclaims visually.


The very
meaning of the icon has as its foundation the incarnation of Our Lord Jesus
Christ. “And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Christ
is “the icon of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), and His transfiguration on
Mount Tabor offers support of this (Matt. 17:1-13). It is because Christ became
man and allowed man to glimpse the divine glory of heaven that we are able to
write icons and venerate images of Christ, the Theotokos and the saints. If
Christ had not become incarnate, and had not revealed to us his transfigured
glory on the Mount, it would be impossible to depict the spiritual realm
of Heaven in icons. Precisely because of the incarnation and transfiguration,
everything in the icon is represented in relation to Divinity. This impacts all
parts of the icon, from how the face is painted, to the robes, to even the
“scenery” of the festal icons. While the incarnation is the basis of
iconography, the icon itself, in its role as a window into Heaven, affirms the
incarnation and speaks of God’s great mysteries. The chief task of the icon is
to proclaim the wonder and mystery of Christ, the Theotokos and the saints,
while reminding us they were human like we are, and calling us to the same
spiritual perfection which Christ’s incarnation allows us to seek. All
naturalism, whether it is spacial, figural or proportional, is set aside
and man, landscape and architecture are shown in a transfigured state.


One of
the first things which I discovered about icons before converting to Orthodoxy
is that icons are initially not easy to see. At first they appear distorted and
unreal, almost impressionist, full of symbolism. In a society more familiar with
western art, we are concerned with the response of our external, empirical
senses. Yet the icon is not meant to excite our external senses. It is not
painted to depict the mundane everyday life, but rather the spiritual realm. It
is written as a “window into heaven,” a physical means which allows us to
gaze into the invisible spiritual reality. The simplicity of the icon is not
meant to stir our emotions but rather to quietly invite us to leave the world
for a moment and guide every emotion toward the contemplation of the Divine. To
achieve this level of spiritual communion, one must quietly, prayerfully and
patiently gaze on the image. It is the way to prayer, and the means of prayer


communion with the Divine to which the icon calls us is achieved through a
symbolic language in which clothing styles, colors, gestures, architecture and
human form in the icon are fixed. The painting of iconography must not be based
on artistic speculation, emotion or abstract ideas but soundly on the teachings
of the Orthodox Church. To depict these teachings requires an understanding of
Orthodoxy, study, meditation and attention to detail, as well as artistic skill.
The iconographer must understand what parts of the icon he can adjust using his
best artistic skills and what parts of the icon he ought to leave intact.


In this
language of iconography, certain meanings are ascribed to the subjects of the
icon. People of importance in icons are often depicted as larger than other
people in the icon and are always indicated by name on the icon. In icons of single
saints, the saint is also usually depicted with the instrument of his or her
salvation. Bishops are usually depicted wearing episcopal robes, whether
monastic or Liturgical, holding the gospel and giving a blessing. The blessing
hand is formed in the monogram of the name of Christ, ICXC, just as an Orthodox
priest blesses. The evangelists are depicted holding the gospels, St. Paul the
epistles, and great spiritual writers a scroll. Martyrs are depicted holding the
crown of martyrdom, the cross or the instrument of their martyrdom. St. Andrei
Rublev, the great Russian iconographer of the fifteenth century, is depicted
holding the icon of the Trinity which he painted (and which some regard as the
standard for all other icons). The subject of the icon is usually depicted
looking straight ahead, or at a 3/4 angle. Icons gaze into eternity; yet while
focused on the divinity, the transfigured icon is not avoiding the earthly realm
but rather gently addressing it and calling it to be transfigured
in Christ as well.


physical features of the icon are also very important in conveying this symbolic
spiritual language. Because the subject of the icon is transfigured by the
love of Christ, the light of the icon is interior, not exterior as in other
forms of art. Thus, the areas of the robes and skin which protrude the most have
the brightest highlights. The forehead on the subject on many icons is often
high and convex, to express the power of the spirit and wisdom.; Ascetics, monks
and bishops are given deep wrinkles in their cheeks. The nose of the subject 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. The lips
of the subject are closed, expressing true contemplation which requires total
silence. The eyes are large and pronounced, gazing into Heaven. 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. The hands are either holding the
instrument of the depicted saint’s salvation, raised in a work of mercy, or
giving a blessing. The feet, if depicted, walk in the way of God. The halo
symbolizes the Divine light which radiates from the person who lives in close
communion with God.


important as the physical features of the icon are the colors used to depict the
subject. Certain colors are generally used to depict certain ideas in icons.
However, iconography, while being a sacred art, is still art. Iconographers in
the past have painted certain icons in certain colors because it was
theologically correct to do so as well as visually appealing. The
iconographer’s job is to write an icon which is theologically correct, in good
artistic taste and visually pleasing; good artistic taste has a role to play in
what colors are used in the icon. Artistic harmony, for lack of a better phrase,
is as important to the icon as theological accuracy. A visually unpleasing icon
can be as disturbing as a theologically incorrect one because it draws attention
to what should not be important, namely the skills of the iconographer, and
draws attention away from what is most important, namely the message which the
icon should convey.


said this about icon colors and artistic harmony let us now discuss the meanings
commonly associated with colors. Gold is used to depict divinity, as it is a
rare and precious metal; when light strikes gold it gives a radiance which most
closely reflects uncreated light. Gold leaf or a golden color of paint is used
for the halo. White, like gold, is used to depict uncreated light, as well as
physical and spiritual purity. Christ’s robes at the Transfiguration and
following His resurrection are painted white, or sometimes gold. The color blue
is used to depict transcendence, truth and humility. A famous icon of St.
Ignatius of Antioch depicts the saint wearing a deep blue robe with a blue background.
The color serves to remind us of the great spiritual truths which St. Ignatius
taught us. Red is the color of blood, martyrdom, youth and beauty, but also the
color of sin and war. Martyrs are often depicted wearing red, or, as is the case
a famous icon of St. George, with a deep red background. Christ’s outer
garments are blue and his under garments are red to symbolize that He is both
divine and human. The Theotokos’ outer garments are red, or a deep earthen
tone, while her under garments are blue, symbolizing that she is human who bore
the Divine. Green is the color of the plant world and thus is used to denote
spring time and revival. Finally, black is the color of death, and the
renunciation of earthly values. In the icon of the Last Judgment the damned are
painted black, as they have lost all hope of salvation. On the icon of the
Crucifixion, the cave under the cross is black, denoting death and despair.
Monks are depicted wearing black robes as the black symbolizes the monk’s
renunciation of all that is vain.


“scenery” in an icon has its meaning in the larger context of the icon.
Architecture and landscape serve only to tie the icon to a specific event in


That our
churches are full of icons is no coincidence, no fluke of artistic taste. The
iconostasis does not serve aesthetic purposes only. While the iconostasis does
function to separate the altar from the faithful and the rest of the church, it
also acts as a bridge between the faithful and the eternal heaven. The saints
and angels depicted on the iconostasis are there to remind us that we are not
praying alone and in vain, but that we are surrounded by the saints and the
heavenly host when we worship together. They also call us to a deeper love and
commitment to God. They instruct us in our faith and remind us that we are not
the first to walk the sometimes hard, sometimes lonely road of faith. Icons are
given as gifts to the faithful at very important times in their lives —
baptisms, chrismations, weddings, for a person’s feast day. An icon of the
cross is placed in the tomb with the faithful when he/she leaves this world. The
icon clearly plays an integral role in the lives of the faithful.


in the icon points to the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is indeed the
contemplation of the Divine which is the goal of the icon painter, as well as
that of the faithful praying in front of the icon. I have painted many icons,
prayed before many more, and in doing so have been brought to a much deeper love
of Christ while using my humble talents to manifest the incarnation to others.
The Orthodox Church, in its sincere love for its faithful, has for centuries provided
us with icons that we may come to a deeper understanding of God. To man, God is
a mystery, and the Church in its wisdom and love for man has given us the icon
to help us gain a glimpse of Heaven.



Goltz is a member of St. George Church, Pittsburgh, PA.