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.

The event of the Transfiguration of Christ was a theophany, (a manifestation of the Holy Trinity) and therefore we can see similarities in this icon with that of the Theophany (the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan).  In this event the Son is revealed in the person of Jesus; the Spirit in the bright, overshadowing cloud; and the Father in the voice from the cloud. Behind Jesus is the Mandorla or nimbus, the tri-colour blue shape which represents the divine glory and majesty of God beyond that which can be physically witnessed. The geometric figure within the Mandorla represents the Holy Spirit which comes in the cloud that descends upon the scene.  While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them Mt. 17:5.

In the event of the Transfiguration of Christ, the three Apostles Peter, James, and John are permitted to experience the glory of God only as much as they can bear. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Mt. 17:1-9. We see that they have been overwhelmed with even this much of an experience of God’s glory as they are “knocked off their feet.” Peter on the left is kneeling as he realizes that he is truly in the presence of God. Shortly before this event he had professed his belief that Jesus is the Messiah, therefore his eyes and heart are open to what he is seeing. He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”. Mt. 16:15-16. With his hand Peter points as he says: “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Mt. 17:4.

James on the right has fallen over backwards with his hands over his eyes. This experience has burned itself within him. For us he represents hope, since in the near future, because of what he has seen, he will have the courage of faith to be the first of the 12 Apostles to be martyred. 

John in the centre lies directly under the transfigured Christ.  He will soon be standing directly under the Him as He hangs upon the cross. This glorious revelation of the light of the Resurrection will strengthen John for what is to come. 

Christ is blessing all with his right hand and holding a scroll in his left. His blessing reminds us of His abiding love for all of us and the scroll is the “Good News” of the Gospel. Christ is the “Living Word of God”.

Elijah and Moses stand at the top of mountain peaks on each side of Christ. These two holy men represent the Law and the Prophets. Moses, on Christ’s left-hand side holds the book of the law which he received from God. It is significant that the prophet Elijah is at the right hand of Christ where John the Baptist stands in the icon of Theophany, thus linking again to the first great theophany in the life of Christ. As do all the prophets, both Elijah and John ultimately point us to Christ. 

Other matters to note: Both of these men experienced visions of God on mountains: Moses on Mount Sinai and Elijah on Mount Carmel and here they stand again on a mountain sharing in that experience with Peter, James and John.  Elijah, because he was taken up into heaven by a chariot of fire, represents the living and Moses, because he died before experiencing the promised land, represents those who have died.  All the living and the dead are saved through Christ. 

This event came at a critical point in the ministry of our Lord, just as He was setting out on His journey to Jerusalem where He would experience humiliation, suffering, and death on the Cross. This glimpse of His glory and ultimately the glory which we will all share in, was meant to strengthen the three men (and us) for the suffering of the cross. 

In our life as Christians, the Holy Eucharist is the sacrament of the transfiguration. We receive a “taste” of heaven, and we are transfigured.  We are meant to go out and in turn transfigure the world with the light of Christ. 

The feast of the Transfiguration of Christ gives us hope and we look forward to the great and glorious Second Coming of Christ. We await the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God when all of creation will be transfigured and filled with the light of Christ.


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.