About Icons


From the beginnings of this art form, iconographers have belonged to guilds, similar to the medieval guilds, not only to learn their trade and practice humility by remaining anonymous, but also to prevent dogmatic errors. A guild provides oversight and encourages obedience to tradition, meaning to those who have preceded us in the Truth. The iconographer cannot paint in isolation: for this reason he or she receives this "ministry" from the Church. It is within the ecclesial community that the icon painter fulfills his purpose. He is neither an artist nor an independent craftsman; he exercises a ministry of the Church.

The materiality of the icon:

All materials come from the mineral, vegetal, or animal world. They are called to participate in the transfiguration of the cosmos.

The wood panel is covered with a base cloth and a coating called levka in Russian, made with a mixture of glue and ground alabaster or lime powder.

The process of painting with encaustic used in Ancient Times was abandoned and replaced in the 8th century by tempera, a method of painting with pigments dispersed in an emulsion miscible with water, typically egg yolk.

In general, gold covers the base (thin sheets of pure gold) and fine slashes bring out the volume of clothing.

Before being exposed to dust and candles, the icon is covered with a coating called olifa, prepared from linseed oil.

The icon is the sign of an invisible presence:

The icon always receives a name that invests it with a presence.

The architectural forms, mountains and plants that form the background are always secondary to the people occupying the forefront.

Far from expressing physical movement, the folds of clothing reveal the spiritual rhythm of being.

The characters are streaming with light. Shadows are absent from icons.

The icon is the sign of an invisible presence. It can be figurative when it represents the features of a saint, but the spiritual dimension dominates. The body is wholly spiritualized, therefore contains nothing corruptible. The flesh gives way to a transfigured body filled with divine energies.

While the icon announces joy to the world, the ambient asceticism imparts a hint of sadness. The joy of Easter is inconceivable without the Passion at the end of which Christ rises from the dead.

The bottom layer of the icon is called the "light." It is usually ocher in color or covered with gold leaf.

Gold does not exist in nature and therefore it symbolizes the uncreated light, which invests the creature, transfigures it and allows it to already taste Paradise.

The golden background forms an opaque barrier that the eye cannot penetrate. God’s presence of God is thus showed in its mysterious dimension.

Gold symbolizes the fire of prayer.

Sometimes icons have a red background. Red represents the fiery fire that contains the divine energies, which animates creatures and breathes life into them. It also evokes the blood of Christ poured out to save humankind.

The face dominates everything:

In ancient Greek, a slave was called an aprosôpos, i.e one without a face. By taking a human face, God restored in us a face made in his image, when we were chained (aprosôpos) by sin.

Time and place:

All times and places can meet at the same point. Imprisoned time and imprisoned space exist no longer. The Nativity icon is a perfect example of this: The depicted scene takes place in front of the grotto, never inside. In this way, the iconographer emphasizes the fact that the event is larger than the historical place and time it happened.

The icon: a purifying image

"The lamp of the body is your eye. When your eye is sound, then your whole body is filled with light, but when it is bad, then your body is in darkness. Take care, then, that the light in you not become darkness. If your whole body is full of light, and no part of it is in darkness, then it will be as full of light as a lamp illuminating you with its brightness."

(Lk 11:34)

The icon purifies and teaches us to develop an inner vision

The icon is the image of a world that is not disembodied (in the sense that it would refuse creation) but transformed, transfigured, made transparent by a spiritualization that includes the entire cosmos.

The icon of Christ, his Face, "not made of human hands," is the model of all representations of the human face.

This face of God made man gives a sacredness to other faces

As a representation of transcendent Reality, the icon fills our vision of a universe of beauty.

Source :

Michel Quenot, L'icône, fenêtre ouverte sur le Royaume, Cerf, Paris 2001, p. 99-118, and 171-172.

Olga Popola, Engelina Smirnova, Paola Cortesi, Les icônes, Solar, Paris 1996, p. 53.61.


Article by Françoise Breynaert