Icons as Religious Art

Icons are very popular today. Look at the toolbar on a computer. Each little symbol means something—volume control, Internet connection, media player, and so on. Each one represents a greater object, such as a program or process, and gives the user a quick link to that object.

Religious icons are similar in that they are also symbols or representations of a greater “object,” but in this case, the “object” is a person: Christ or one of the saints in heaven. Icons are like quick links in that they give us a kind of symbolic snapshot of holy persons who are in heaven. More than that, religious icons are a form of prayer. When you look at an icon, it is meant to make you aware that you are in the presence of God. Icons, then, are not just art with a religious theme; rather, they are sacred art because they bring the viewer to the sacred.

Icons have been called windows to heaven or doorways to the sacred. When you are standing in front of an icon, it is as if you are looking through a window into the heavenly world of the mystery. But this is a two-way window. As you look though the window, you are also being seen with the eyes of love by those in the icon. It’s like you become a part of the mystery that the icon seeks to express.

In addition to the style of the painting (or writing as it is called), the actual technique of making an icon is rich with symbolism. For example, in the Eastern Church tradition, icons are painted on high-quality wood that has been carefully shaped and smoothed. The wood is a reminder of what life was like before the fall of Adam and Eve. It symbolizes both the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. A linen cloth covers the wood, both to protect it and to remind us of the cloth that Jesus was wrapped in when he died. Coats of gesso made from rabbit-skin glue and chemists’ chalk are applied over the linen. This symbolizes the soul and life of the person.

The iconographer cleans, smoothes, and prepares the gesso to receive the holy image, much as we prepare ourselves to bear the image of Christ. The board is indented so that the edges appear raised. The center part of the wood board is shallower than the rest and is called covcheg, which is Russian for “coffin.” The image is placed inside this shallow space. It is etched into the gesso. A thin layer of clay bole (a mixture of clay and hide glue) is applied to the areas of the icon that will be gilded with gold leaf. The clay represents our physical nature. To apply gold, the iconographer breathes on the clay bole to vaporize it and immediately places the gold leaf on the damp area. This process symbolizes the Spirit and reminds us of the act of creation and the breath of life. The gold itself symbolizes divine light and heaven. Icons often have gold backgrounds because the viewer is gazing at someone in heaven. The image is painted with a mixture of egg yolk, pure water, vinegar, and natural pigments. Many layers are applied, each with their own color symbolism.

There are many other symbols used in writing icons. These are just a few to show that icons are more than pretty pictures. They are a visual form of prayer in line and color that seek to tell us something true about God and the saints. They follow a long tradition of truths that are communicated visually rather than through words, a theology passed on from one artist to the next. They are meant to help us open ourselves to God’s love.

After 300 years under the Emperor Constantine the Great (306-337), Life-Creating Cross and the Holy Sepulcher were again discovered and opened for veneration. Desiring to find the Holy Cross, St Constantine sent his mother Helen (May 21), to Jerusalem, giving her a letter to St Macarius, Patriarch of Jerusalem. Upon arrival she gave orders to destroy the pagan temple and the statues in Jerusalem. It was an elderly Hebrew by the name of Jude who showed her that the Cross was buried where the temple of Venus stood.

They demolished temple and began to excavate the ground. Soon the Tomb of the Lord was uncovered. Not far from it were three crosses, a board with the inscription ordered by Pilate, and four nails which had pierced the Lord's Body. To determine which of the three crosses was Jesus crucified, Patriarch Macarius alternately touched the crosses to a corpse. When the Cross of the Lord touched, he came to life.

This con everyone was convinced that the convinced everyone that the Life-Creating Cross was found. A large number of Christians came to venerate the Holy Cross, beseeching St Macarius to elevate the Cross, so that even those far off might reverently contemplate it. The Patriarch with other spiritual leaders raised up the Holy Cross, and the people, cried out Lord have mercy and reverently prostrated before it.

Helen journeyed to other holy places connected with the earthly life of the Jesus, building more than 80 churches, including one at Bethlehem the birthplace of Christ, and on the Mount of Olives where the Lord ascended to Heaven, and at Gethsemane where the Savior prayed before His sufferings and where the Mother of God was buried after her death. Part of the Life-Creating Cross and nails were taken by Helen to Constantinople. Constantine built a large church in honor of the Resurrection of Christ, also including under its roof the Life-Giving Tomb of the Lord and Golgotha.

The temple was constructed in about ten years. St Helen fell asleep in the Lord before the dedication of the temple. The church was consecrated on September 13, 335. On the following day, September 14, the festal celebration of the Exaltation of the Venerable and Life-Creating Cross was established.

And the serpents bit the people; and much people of Israel died.  Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord, and against thee; pray unto the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people.  And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a brazen serpent, and set it for an ensign ; and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.  And Moses made a serpent of brass, and set it up for an ensign, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.

(Numbers 21:6-9,)
Dearly beloved, when we look to Christ lifted up on the Cross, the eyes of faith see more than what the wicked saw, unto whom it was said through Moses : And thy Life shall hang in doubt before thee, and thou shalt fear day and night, and shalt have none assurance of thy Life.  They saw in the Crucified nothing but the work of their own wickedness.  As it is written : They feared greatly.  But their faith was not unto faith, which giveth life by justification, but unto the torture of their own bad conscience.  But our understanding is enlightened by the Spirit of Truth.  And so with pure and open hearts we can see the glory of the Cross shining over heaven and earth, and discern by inward sight what the Lord meant when his passion was nigh at hand, and he said : Now is the judgment of this world ; now shall the prince of this world be cast out ; and I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.

(From a Sermon by Pope St. Leo, Lesson for Matins,)
The Cross is raised on high, and urges all the creation to sing the praises of the undefiled Passion of Him who was lifted high upon it. For there it was that He killed our slayer, and brought the dead to life again: and in His exceeding goodness and compassion, He made us beautiful and counted us worthy to be citizens of heaven. Therefore with rejoicing let us exalt His Name and magnify His surpassing condescension. (From Great Vespers, Byzantine)


What is an Icon?
An icon is not a painting in the sense we normally regard pieces of art, although it is an image that is painted. An icon is a window out of the obvious realities of everyday life into the realm of God. Every paint-stroke has a meaning hallowed by centuries of prayer. Icons are religious images that hover between two worlds, putting into colors and shapes what cannot be grasped by the intellect. Rendering the invisible visible. Icons are the visual equivalents of the Divine Scriptures. Not every religious painting can be considered an icon. Icons are religious pictures that convey inner spiritual meaning of their subject matter. The Son of God came to restore the divine image in human form. Iconography is the graphic witness to this restoration.