Understanding Icons


Painting the IconostasisIcon painting appeared not as art for art's sake, but for the Church. Thus, its content was determined directly by the needs and the purposes of the Church. These purposes were not material but spiritual. The content of icon painting was interwoven with the life, the evolution, and the whole tradition of the Church, so much so that a knowledge of this tradition will be incomplete without a knowledge and understanding of icon painting.

The faith of the Church in the reality beyond this world, that is, in the truth of the spiritual world, defined from the beginning the content and character of icon painting. The Church was primarily interested in the beauty of this spiritual world and, with the means it possessed, it tried to interpret that world. The Church's transcendental content was not the physically beautiful or the naturally good; for this reason it did not try to depict the natural good and beauty. The purpose and the ideal of Byzantine icon painting was the expression of the category of holiness, which was not made to appeal to the senses by being physically beautiful. In Christian Orthodox art the beautiful is not determined by the natural form of the objects, but by its sublime content, that is, by its power to serve the ideals of the faith. According to St. John Chrysostom, "Thus, we say that each vessel, animal, and plant is good, not because of its form or color, but because of the service it renders." Byzantine icon painting did not copy nature nor seek the form or the color as an end, but taking such technical and artistic elements as were necessary for the believers to become familiar with its spirit, succeeded, through an exceptional abstraction, in rendering the more sublime meanings of Orthodoxy.

These basic ideas of Orthodox icon painting are the main obstacles to our appreciation of icons. When we look at icons, we are struck by their apparent simplicity, by their overemphasized flatness, unreal colors, lack of perspective, and strange proportions. At that moment we should stop and remind ourselves that we are applying to icon painting those aesthetic criteria which allow us to enjoy the works of the Italian masters of the Renaissance. As viewers, we apply the familiar criteria to an unfamiliar artistic expression. A similar misunderstanding occurs when, used to "realistic" representations which shaped our artistic sensitivity, we look for the first time at abstract paintings by Picasso, Kandinsky, or Pollock. We are conditioned by the art of the Renaissance to appreciate the architectural details rendered in mathematical linear perspective, to admire the beauty of the human body, the lush landscapes stretching far towards the horizon, and the still lives with lights, shadows, and three-dimensional shapes so real that we can almost pick a glass from a table or an apple from a platter. In a word, we are used to see on the surface of a canvas or panel something familiar, easily recognizable, something which we can adequately analyze by using familiar categories of perspective, color scheme, point of view, light and shadow, and volume. Unfortunately, we cannot use this kind of analysis on icon painting because, in contrast to the art of the Renaissance, icon painting is not illusionist, that is, it does not try to convince the viewer that the world depicted on the panel is real, but, on the contrary, tries to make sure by all the means it possesses, that the represented is unreal, ideal, dematerialized. We cannot diminish the achievements of Byzantine and Russian artists by assuming that they did not know how to paint better. They simply consciously and purposely employed a completely different convention of painting, a completely different artistic language. To be able to appreciate the spiritual depth of icon painting we must learn at least the basic "grammar" of this language.

[Sources: Cavarnos, Ouspensky, Kalokyris].


© Alexander Boguslawski 1998-2005