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Exploring the Sacred World of Orthodox Icon

If you've been to an Orthodox Church, chances are you've come across Orthodox icons. This is because icons are an essential part of Orthodox tradition and faith.

For Orthodox Christians, holy icons are not merely artistic paintings designed to be admired for their beauty. Rather, icons teach about the Orthodox faith and Christianity, and they are a worshipping aid that inspires prayer and contemplation. For this reason, it's not uncommon to find holy icons and handcrafted religious items in the prayer corner of Orthodox Christian homes.

In this post, we'll explore the correlation between Orthodox Christianity and icons in detail. We'll cover the origin of iconography, how icons are made, the Christian symbolism involved, and much more. Interested in seeing Orthodox icons explained? Keep reading!

orthodox icons explained

A Journey into the Origin of Iconography

Before we explore the ins and outs of Orthodox icons, we need to understand the history of iconography. The term iconography is derived from two Greek words. "Eikon" is the Greek word for "image" while "graphe" translates to "writing". Therefore, the literal meaning of iconography is image writing. This definition suggests that an image is capable of telling a story.

Icons are a fusion of three distinct cultures: Greek, Roman, and Christianity. They have a long and fascinating history that saw Christian art evolve to present-day Orthodox icons.

The earliest form of Christian art consisted of simple images found in the catacombs. Catacombs were underground burial places that were common up to the 6th century and they were linked to Christians. When Christianity was legalized, Christian art was no longer limited to the catacombs and it evolved rapidly. The Golden Age in particular was marked by spirituality and enormous advancements in Byzamite art.

orthodox icon Byzamite art

All this changed during the iconoclastic period when the Emperor Leo III prohibited making and venerating icons. He decided that icons were basically idols and they, therefore, violated the laws against graven images. In this period, Christians were forced to destroy and abandon Christian art. Only a few icons survived in Rome and regions under Islamic rule.

The first iconoclastic period lasted until 787 when icons were finally restored. However, a second wave of condemnation of icons as idols began in 813 and lasted till 843. This momentous Orthodoxy triumph is still celebrated to date on the first Sunday of Great Lent.

The start of the 9th century was marked by smaller-scale Christian art pieces, icons painted on wood. St. John of Damascus championed and defended icons during the iconoclastic struggles.

The Techniques and Methods of Icon Creation

Unlike other forms of painting, Orthodox iconography does not start in the artist's imagination. Further, an iconographer cannot simply implement new twists for the sake of originality and creativity.

Orthodox icons are meant to be spiritual and their main objective is to convey the feelings and teachings of the Orthodox church. Therefore, these religious images are said to be written rather than painted.

orthodox iconography

How are Orthodox icons made?

Before embarking on icon creation, the iconographer will often prepare through prayer, fasting, and studying the subject. When writing these sacred images, they'll need to adhere to strict guidelines to achieve the spiritual quality of icons.

Iconographers often employ a technique known as reverse perspective. The goal is to ensure that objects don't taper off into the distance. Instead, this technique places the observer on the same plane as the lord Jesus Christ, a patron saint, or the depicted event.

Spirituality over form

Icons are not meant to be distracting. Therefore, the focus is on the event rather than the finer details. For example, you'll not see details such as muscles on a sacred image. Also, there is an absence of drama as faces don't depict feelings.

If you've keenly observed Eastern Orthodox icons, you've probably noticed that the mouths of the depicted characters are always closed. This is because icons are always silent. This helps create stillness and an atmosphere of prayer and contemplation.

The symbolism of Colors in Icon Creation

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Colors are a significant and symbolic part of Orthodox iconography. Blue represents the heavenly realm including celestial beings such as angels. Conversely, red is an earth color. Looking at the icon of Christ, for example, Jesus is depicted wearing a red undergarment and a blue outer garment. This signifies Christ's heavenly presence on earth.

The color white points to purity and eternal life while black signifies the absence of life or a void.

The special techniques and guidelines when icons are written ensure that they achieve the main objective of educating and worshipping. Icons complement the holy scripture since the Holy Spirit communicates via sacred objects.

What are the Rules of Orthodox Icons

When it comes to Eastern Orthodox icons, you may be unsure of which ones to obtain and how to handle them. Holy icons have a spiritual quality in the Orthodox Church. Therefore, it's important that you always treat them with respect and reverence. Here are some helpful guidelines when handling holy icons:

  1. In Eastern Orthodox homes, Christians often have a dedicated space set aside for all the icons that the family owns. The icon corner or sacred corner is usually on an eastern facing wall. This way, when you pray, you're facing the East. It's important to note that while the practice of setting up an icon corner facing the East is common in Orthodox homes, variations may exist based on individual preferences, available space, and cultural considerations.

  2. Venerating an icon may entail kissing it, making the sign of the cross, performing a metania or even prostration.

  3. In the Orthodox church, we don't pray to the image but rather in the presence of icons. Veneration is also directed to the holy person depicted and not the icon itself.

    Orthodox church icons
  4. Iconographers do not impose their individual artistic styles on icons. Instead, they work within the established conventions to maintain continuity across icons.

  5. It's allowed to gift others Eastern Orthodox icons. When it comes from the heart, an icon is a very special gift to a loved one.

  6. It's okay to purchase or sell holy icons. An Orthodox icon store may stock common Orthodox icons, hand painted Orthodox icons, and more.

The Role of Icons in Orthodox Liturgy and Devotional Practices

Icons are an indispensable part of divine liturgy in Orthodoxy. Whether in the church or our homes, Orthodox icons aid in worship and open our eyes to the spiritual truth. The Holy Spirit talks to us through the icons.

Icons are a reminder of the Incarnation of Christ

Icons of the Most Holy Theotokos are a reminder that our invisible God took an actual human form and was born by the Virgin Mary for the salvation of the human race. The Orthodox Jesus icon is also reminiscent of the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ and our salvation. These physical icons are a tool to show veneration and some deliver miracles as well.

orthodox christian art, orthodox christian iconography

Theological Teaching

Icons are considered to be theological documents in themselves. They convey theological truths and stories from Scripture and the lives of the saints. The composition, colors, and symbols used in icons often have specific meanings. For example, halos represent sanctity, while specific gestures and postures of figures convey aspects of their character or story.

Intercession of Saints through Icons

Saints live a life of faith and love. When they transition to the next world, they intercede on our behalf so that we may also live a life that pleases God. When we have an icon of a saint, we venerate the icon as a sign of love to the holy person depicted and ask them to pray for us as we navigate life and all its challenges.

The Guardian Angel watches over Orthodox believers

Baptism is a significant sacrament in the orthodox church. We receive a guardian angel who helps us navigate this life until we transition into the next one. Therefore, an icon of a guardian angel is an important addition to any home.


As we explore the world of Orthodox icons, we uncover a deeper understanding of how these sacred icons are more than just artistic depictions. They are vessels of prayer, sources of spiritual guidance, and channels for communion with the divine. Through the devotion and reverence shown to icons, Orthodox Christians are reminded of their place in a timeless spiritual narrative that continues to inspire and uplift generation after generation.

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