Religion

Windows to Eternity: Decoding the Symbolism in the Icon Tradition

If you just don't "get" icons, it's probably because you don't understand their profound symbolic language. Icons are beautiful in a way that's been lost in our culture.

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August 14, 2013
Pantokrator PD
What do you think of when someone mentions the word “beauty”?  If you’re in your twenties, you might think of Beyoncé, Natalie Portman, or Tyra Banks; if you’re in your fifties it might be Audrey Hepburn or Sophia Loren.  Or perhaps you’d think of a newborn baby, a spectacular landscape, or a sunset.  The point is that most of us are drawn to what we consider to be beautiful like moths to a candle flame – it’s almost magnetic.  When we are confronted with it, we long to be close, involved in every aspect. For instance, many of those who are considered “beautiful” become objects of fascination and enquiry, followed by the paparazzi, news articles and films, etc.  Many strive to emulate these “beautiful” people, spending large amounts of money on beauty products, gym membership, exercise videos, even surgery.  So what is it that drives such fascination?

It is not a modern phenomenon.  The ancient Greeks, wanting to understand the nature of beauty, asserted that beauty is “objective” – in other words it is measurable in a concrete sense.  For them, the beauty of the human form could be measured through the idea of proportion and symmetry. Look closely at photographs of celebrities like those mentioned above, and you will find a strong degree of symmetry in both their facial features and their bodies.  If such elements were present, for the Greeks the human form would be close to “perfection.”  Consequently, Greek art followed a set of rules called the “Canon” of art (the word canon simply means a rule or measurement) in order to create beautiful works.  Now, we don’t want to get embroiled in a search for the meaning of beauty here, but certainly beauty is a property of God, and we are created to be drawn towards it.

Indeed, throughout our brief history on this planet, humanity has striven to achieve “beauty” through the medium of art from the earliest petroglyphs (prehistoric images or patterns carved into rock) and cave paintings to the complex imagery of the Italian Renaissance.  Yet oddly enough, many people today avoid or even dismiss art because they do not “feel” that they understand it, while others may even dismiss it altogether, considering it antiquated in an age of rapidly evolving electronic and digital imagery.  

There are some who argue that art “lost its way” in the 20th century, for until the 17th and 18th centuries art had a definite purpose. Much of it conveyed a message about the larger issues of the human journey.  It answered questions like “who are we?”, “why are we here?”, “what is happiness?”, and “what is suffering?”  Art was a “teaching tool” that contained a universal language, making a singular message accessible to every person, whether educated or not.

Over the next few weeks, we are going to rediscover some of the language contained in a few of the world’s more exquisite works of art, some of it overtly Christian.  Some examples will be drawn from other world views that many may not realize are still embraced by the Church as fine examples that “speak” to the enquiring mind; they may not be Christian but they still contain important truths.

Our first work is taken from an ancient tradition of painting that sprang from early Christianity but is still practiced in exactly the same way as it was in the beginning: iconography.  When I first came across it as a teenager while studying at art school, I – like many who are not aware of its profound depth of meaning – found it simplistic and disproportionate.  However, the icon is not meant to be a “tasteful” work hanging on the wall of your lounge, blending in with the décor; its true vocation is as a vessel of prayer and meditation. Icons provide a window into Eternity; if you were to visit an Orthodox church, you would find a vast array of icons hanging on a wall called an iconostasis, which is situated directly in front of the main altar.  Orthodox Christians also have icons in their home to help them focus their prayer. Indeed, the Catholic Church too encourages her members to have religious images – including icons – in their homes to help focus the mind upon the truths of the Faith.

The image I have chosen is called “Christ Pantokrator” (Ruler of All). There is no individuality in the icon tradition so it matters little who painted it or when; the modern versions hardly change from the older ones. All icon images are “written” from those that come before it, because the earliest are traditionally said to be closest to the actual figures of Christ and Mary, and so those that come after cannot deviate from the original. On top of this, no one can really describe the genuine features of the angels and saints.  Thus, unlike in the Western tradition of art, living models are never used as substitutes.  

Within the image, it is important to consider several points.  Firstly, we will look at color.  Every color used in the tradition of iconography has great significance for understanding the ‘mysteries of Faith’.  Notice that Christ wears a blue robe; blue represents those things that pertain to Heaven, and so here describes Christ’s fully divine nature. Beneath his robe, you can glimpse a large piece of red garment; red is the colour of blood, and so represents the living – and in this case, Christ’s fully human nature.  The background is overlaid with gold leaf; gold represents uncreated light and therefore God himself.  You will see that there is a Trinitarian element to this work as it gradually unfolds.  

Also representing uncreated light is the halo around Christ (and also the angels and saints in other works) called the nimbus. Note the Greek letters inside the nimbus.  Text is as important as image in the iconography, and here, these letters represent the initial letters in the phrase, “I Am Who Am” – the divine name revealed to Moses in the burning bush in the Book of Exodus.  The letters on either side of Christ’s head are the initial letters of his name, Jesus Christ.

Next, we will consider the light source.  There is no light source in an icon, as you would find in the Western tradition of paintings (do a Google search for “Caravaggio” to see what I mean here; the light usually comes from one direction). If you look closely at his face, you will see that the light is actually emanating from Christ himself – this is the divine light of grace that comes to us from the Holy Spirit, helping us to become more like Christ in our everyday lives.

Now look at the features of Christ.  Those that “receive information” (i.e., eyes, nose, and ears) are slightly enlarged to receive, while those features that are more expressive (i.e., his hands and mouth) are slightly smaller.  Why do you think the icon is painted in this way?  Perhaps to listen and consider information before acting?  Note also the graceful, elongated fingers with the tapered ends. The sense of movement is always “upwards,” towards the Heavens.  This is very important, because the icon itself is not the main focus of the viewer; the image is meant to engage us and then take our minds upwards to the Heavenly Prototype – Christ himself – and thus direct our prayers to him rather than the image.

Note also the book that Christ carries in his left hand.  The Book, of course, is Scripture – the Word – and the Gospel of John teaches us that Christ himself is the Word (logos) of God.  The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that Christ is the High Priest of God – can you work out what it is in the Icon that tells us this?  Look closely at his right hand; it is held in blessing, while the thumb touches the third finger in a reference to the Trinity.  As the High Priest, Christ blesses the whole of the cosmos, and hence the title of the work.  In some Pantokrator images, Christ is painted with one eye different to the other – one is more stern, while the other is softer (do a Google search for the 6th century icon held in St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai).  One eye is the eye of a judge, which Christ will do at the end of days, while the other represents his boundless mercy.  This device again helps us to see Christ as the Ruler of All.

Lastly, let us look at scale.  In this icon, Christ takes up the whole of the image surface, indicating his importance.  He is in the very centre of the work, dominating the whole scene, underscoring the idea of the Pantokrator.  He is painted face on, looking straight out at the viewer (in an icon, the main subjects are never painted in profile) challenging her or him to take heed to the message and the kind of life that the message calls one to lead.


Karen Andrews is married with three children and lives in Chester, England.  Until 2011 she was the Course Director for the Art, Beauty and Inspiration course, as well as the New Testament Studies course at the International Catholic College, the Maryvale Institute, Birmingham, England. She is now a freelance writer and artist. B.A (Hons, Fine Art); B.A. (Hons, Divinity); M.A. (Theology); OPL
What do you think of when someone mentions the word “beauty”?  If you’re in your twenties, you might think of Beyoncé, Natalie Portman, or Tyra Banks; if you’re in your fifties it might be Audrey Hepburn or Sophia Loren.  Or perhaps you’d think of a newborn baby, a spectacular landscape, or a sunset.  The point is that most of us are drawn to what we consider to be beautiful like moths to a candle flame – it’s almost magnetic.  When we are confronted with it, we long to be close, involved in every aspect. For instance, many of those who are considered “beautiful” become objects of fascination and enquiry, followed by the paparazzi, news articles and films, etc.  Many strive to emulate these “beautiful” people, spending large amounts of money on beauty products, gym membership, exercise videos, even surgery.  So what is it that drives such fascination?

It is not a modern phenomenon.  The ancient Greeks, wanting to understand the nature of beauty, asserted that beauty is “objective” – in other words it is measurable in a concrete sense.  For them, the beauty of the human form could be measured through the idea of proportion and symmetry. Look closely at photographs of celebrities like those mentioned above, and you will find a strong degree of symmetry in both their facial features and their bodies.  If such elements were present, for the Greeks the human form would be close to “perfection.”  Consequently, Greek art followed a set of rules called the “Canon” of art (the word canon simply means a rule or measurement) in order to create beautiful works.  Now, we don’t want to get embroiled in a search for the meaning of beauty here, but certainly beauty is a property of God, and we are created to be drawn towards it.

Indeed, throughout our brief history on this planet, humanity has striven to achieve “beauty” through the medium of art from the earliest petroglyphs (prehistoric images or patterns carved into rock) and cave paintings to the complex imagery of the Italian Renaissance.  Yet oddly enough, many people today avoid or even dismiss art because they do not “feel” that they understand it, while others may even dismiss it altogether, considering it antiquated in an age of rapidly evolving electronic and digital imagery.  

There are some who argue that art “lost its way” in the 20th century, for until the 17th and 18th centuries art had a definite purpose. Much of it conveyed a message about the larger issues of the human journey.  It answered questions like “who are we?”, “why are we here?”, “what is happiness?”, and “what is suffering?”  Art was a “teaching tool” that contained a universal language, making a singular message accessible to every person, whether educated or not.

Over the next few weeks, we are going to rediscover some of the language contained in a few of the world’s more exquisite works of art, some of it overtly Christian.  Some examples will be drawn from other world views that many may not realize are still embraced by the Church as fine examples that “speak” to the enquiring mind; they may not be Christian but they still contain important truths.

Our first work is taken from an ancient tradition of painting that sprang from early Christianity but is still practiced in exactly the same way as it was in the beginning: iconography.  When I first came across it as a teenager while studying at art school, I – like many who are not aware of its profound depth of meaning – found it simplistic and disproportionate.  However, the icon is not meant to be a “tasteful” work hanging on the wall of your lounge, blending in with the décor; its true vocation is as a vessel of prayer and meditation. Icons provide a window into Eternity; if you were to visit an Orthodox church, you would find a vast array of icons hanging on a wall called an iconostasis, which is situated directly in front of the main altar.  Orthodox Christians also have icons in their home to help them focus their prayer. Indeed, the Catholic Church too encourages her members to have religious images – including icons – in their homes to help focus the mind upon the truths of the Faith.

The image I have chosen is called “Christ Pantokrator” (Ruler of All). There is no individuality in the icon tradition so it matters little who painted it or when; the modern versions hardly change from the older ones. All icon images are “written” from those that come before it, because the earliest are traditionally said to be closest to the actual figures of Christ and Mary, and so those that come after cannot deviate from the original. On top of this, no one can really describe the genuine features of the angels and saints.  Thus, unlike in the Western tradition of art, living models are never used as substitutes.  

Within the image, it is important to consider several points.  Firstly, we will look at color.  Every color used in the tradition of iconography has great significance for understanding the ‘mysteries of Faith’.  Notice that Christ wears a blue robe; blue represents those things that pertain to Heaven, and so here describes Christ’s fully divine nature. Beneath his robe, you can glimpse a large piece of red garment; red is the colour of blood, and so represents the living – and in this case, Christ’s fully human nature.  The background is overlaid with gold leaf; gold represents uncreated light and therefore God himself.  You will see that there is a Trinitarian element to this work as it gradually unfolds.  

Also representing uncreated light is the halo around Christ (and also the angels and saints in other works) called the nimbus. Note the Greek letters inside the nimbus.  Text is as important as image in the iconography, and here, these letters represent the initial letters in the phrase, “I Am Who Am” – the divine name revealed to Moses in the burning bush in the Book of Exodus.  The letters on either side of Christ’s head are the initial letters of his name, Jesus Christ.

Next, we will consider the light source.  There is no light source in an icon, as you would find in the Western tradition of paintings (do a Google search for “Caravaggio” to see what I mean here; the light usually comes from one direction). If you look closely at his face, you will see that the light is actually emanating from Christ himself – this is the divine light of grace that comes to us from the Holy Spirit, helping us to become more like Christ in our everyday lives.

Now look at the features of Christ.  Those that “receive information” (i.e., eyes, nose, and ears) are slightly enlarged to receive, while those features that are more expressive (i.e., his hands and mouth) are slightly smaller.  Why do you think the icon is painted in this way?  Perhaps to listen and consider information before acting?  Note also the graceful, elongated fingers with the tapered ends. The sense of movement is always “upwards,” towards the Heavens.  This is very important, because the icon itself is not the main focus of the viewer; the image is meant to engage us and then take our minds upwards to the Heavenly Prototype – Christ himself – and thus direct our prayers to him rather than the image.

Note also the book that Christ carries in his left hand.  The Book, of course, is Scripture – the Word – and the Gospel of John teaches us that Christ himself is the Word (logos) of God.  The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that Christ is the High Priest of God – can you work out what it is in the Icon that tells us this?  Look closely at his right hand; it is held in blessing, while the thumb touches the third finger in a reference to the Trinity.  As the High Priest, Christ blesses the whole of the cosmos, and hence the title of the work.  In some Pantokrator images, Christ is painted with one eye different to the other – one is more stern, while the other is softer (do a Google search for the 6th century icon held in St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai).  One eye is the eye of a judge, which Christ will do at the end of days, while the other represents his boundless mercy.  This device again helps us to see Christ as the Ruler of All.

Lastly, let us look at scale.  In this icon, Christ takes up the whole of the image surface, indicating his importance.  He is in the very centre of the work, dominating the whole scene, underscoring the idea of the Pantokrator.  He is painted face on, looking straight out at the viewer (in an icon, the main subjects are never painted in profile) challenging her or him to take heed to the message and the kind of life that the message calls one to lead.


Karen Andrews is married with three children and lives in Chester, England.  Until 2011 she was the Course Director for the Art, Beauty and Inspiration course, as well as the New Testament Studies course at the International Catholic College, the Maryvale Institute, Birmingham, England. She is now a freelance writer and artist. B.A (Hons, Fine Art); B.A. (Hons, Divinity); M.A. (Theology); OPL
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