On Iconography

By Archbishop Gregory

Archbishop Gregory

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Orthodoxy, the truth, our life, our joy, our salvation, is exceedingly beautiful. All facets of our religion are permeated with beauty, from the architecture to the music to the prayers to the iconography, because our traditions, our Church services, and everything else about our Faith is Divinely inspired.

Probably the most immediately impressive aspect that touches the person when he or she first encounters Orthodoxy is the iconography. This is the Spirit of God mentioned by St. John the Theologian, that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh [cf. 1 Jn. 4:2], since iconography has its foundation in the Incarnation of Christ.

Icons have a unique grace. One can perceive it by the fact that when one looks at secular “art,”one can only behold it for a short time before one desires to look elsewhere. When beholding icons, on the other hand, we gaze at them intently and do not want to leave. They capture our sight and attention. We are fascinated. At last, when we do leave, we wish to return. This is the distinction between true iconography and secular “art.”

Authentic iconography’s purpose is to take us beyond mere anatomical representation and the three-dimensional world of matter to the realm that is immaterial and timeless: the realm of the spirit and of eternity. Iconography bears a special peaceful quality that depicts the faces and gestures of the sacred personages calm and free from all agitation. In an icon, every expression is characterized by the solemnity that arises from the feeling of awe toward God and the saints.

In iconography, we as painters are guided and constrained by almost two thousand years of iconographic tradition. We must remain within this tradition. Otherwise, the icons that we paint do not belong to the purest expression of the art.

Certain features of Byzantine iconography are unusual to the natural mind, yet are required by this ecclesiastical art.

First of all, the icon is two-dimensional, not three-dimensional like a statue. Therefore, we are restricted to a single plane. Iconography may utilize relief, but in general, we operate within the dimensions of height and width, without depth. Now, what do we put on this plane? We paint images which do not necessarily conform to purely human reasoning. For instance, perspective is reversed. In natural painting, the background extends to infinity. Iconographic painting, however, follows no such convention. One might say that there is no infinity.

Second, light in iconography does not come from an outside source. The icon itself is the source of light. When an iconographer paints, he starts with a board and applies paints on a white base called gesso. Light penetrates the overlying paints and reflects back through them from the white gesso, thus giving the impression that light is emanating from the icon.

A third characteristic of iconography is that human figures are not depicted realistically. Instead, the clothes and even the faces and flesh of figures depicted in icons should look as if carved in wood.

Also, in true Orthodox iconography, no scene or event is depicted within an enclosure or with a roof as if it were indoors. Instead, everything is depicted as happening outdoors, in the open and in full view of all, to demonstrate that the Gospel truths are open to us. Therefore, when we paint (for example) the Annunciation, an event which happened indoors, it is depicted as if it were outdoors. The same is true of the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple, the Mystical Supper, the Presentation of the Virgin Mary, the Birth of St. John the Baptist, and all other indoor scenes. Everything is depicted as occurring in the open, completely revealed. To indicate that an event happened indoors, the iconographer always puts drapery someplace within the icon, or else covering the event depicted, in place of a roof.

Another important element of iconography is the coloring used within the various depictions. Let us start with our Savior Jesus Christ. He usually is shown wearing two garments: an inner tunic and an outer robe. Complementing Him on the iconostasis would always be the Virgin Mary. She also is always depicted as wearing two garments. But the colors of Christ and those of the Virgin Mary are always reversed. Christ has a blue outer garment and a purple inner garment. The Virgin Mary is the opposite. Why is this? Because Christ is Divine; He is God; and He put on humanity. Therefore, the inner garment is the royal purple to signify the divine nature and the outer garment is blue to signify the flesh. This arrangement represents that the Divinity put on humanity. This pattern is reversed, however, with the Virgin Mary. Because she is from us (that is, human), her inner garment is blue. She put on divinity by bearing Christ in the sense both that she received the Divinity, God the Word, in her womb and also in the sense that she was deified in partaking so fully of His divine energies; therefore, her outer garment is the royal purple. This garment always has, of course, the three stars to signify her perpetual virginity before, during, and after childbirth. No other required colors are associated with Christ and the Virgin Mary.

St. John the Baptist always wears a green outer garment. He is invariably depicted wearing green. This is because he grew up in the wilderness, outside, on the earth. The inner garment may be any color, but his outer garment is always green. None of the other Prophets of the Old Testament have specific colors assigned to them.

Among the choir of the Holy Apostles, the only particular colors that belong to any individual Apostles are associated with Ss. Peter and Paul. St. Peter always wears a golden yellow outer garment. St. Paul, on the other hand, always wears a purple outer garment. The inner garments may be any color.

In similar fashion, only two among the choir of the holy Angels, Gabriel and Michael, have definite colors in which they are depicted in icons. In whatever form Archangel Michael is depicted, his outer garment must be red; and in whatever form Archangel Gabriel is depicted, his outer garment must be blue. An exception to this rule is allowed in the case of Gabriel if the iconographer wishes to accommodate the color scheme of the icon. Iconographers may take this liberty, and many do so. Nonetheless, I try to make the color scheme consistent with the Archangel Gabriel in a blue outer garment. That is why, when he is depicted alone on the iconostasis, he always appears in blue. When depicting him in the icon of the Annunciation, some iconographers choose to use another color. But he should be in blue always. That is how we identify him.

In like fashion, only two individuals in the choir of the holy Martyrs are identified with specific colors: St. George and St. Demetrios. St. George always has a red outer garment. St. Demetrios always has a green outer garment. It does not matter if they are depicted in Byzantine clothing, as soldiers full-length, or on a horse. St. Demetrios and St. George are always depicted in these colors. This is how we identify them, although other characteristics, such as their faces, also distinguish St. George from St. Demetrios. Specifically, St. George has a round face, whereas St. Demetrios has an elongated face. As a rule, all Martyrs except St. Demetrios may be depicted in red, signifying that they have made their garments red with their blood.

Next after the Martyrs is the choir of the clergy. Although no individual bishops or priests are identified with specific colors, the clergy in general should be depicted in white or light colors to indicate their purity. Among the deacons, St. Stephan is always depicted wearing red, usually a red garment draped over his shoulder. Here again, the red garment represents martyrdom.

When we paint icons of royalty, kings and queens such as Constantine and Helen, Vladimir and Olga, the holy Kings of Serbia, or kings of the Old Testament (King David and King Solomon), etc., the rule is that they should have a red-purple color to their garments to signify their royalty.

Thus are the colors of the saints depicted in icons.

In general, the background colors of an icon are also standardized. In a full-length depiction, the saint stands on a green or greenish-brown base. These colors signify the earth. Two colors are used to depict the heavens. One is blue, as we see in frescoes. The other is gold, as we see in panel icons.

It is a convention, when we depict the saints in icons, to depict them without certain characteristic inequalities and without infirmities. If possible, we do not depict any human frailty in the icons. By certain characteristic inequalities, I mean such things as a difference in height. St. Athanasius the Great was very short in stature. St. Ioannikios, on the other hand, was very tall. Yet, when depicted in icons, they are shown as being the same height. Of course, if we depict a scene from the life of a Saint or his or her martyrdom, then we do show the marks of suffering on his or her body.

The iconographer himself requires few words, for only two things are needed if one wishes to paint icons. The iconographer must be Orthodox and must have some talent with his hands.

Regarding the chararcter of the iconographer, we have found profitable the following Russian exhortation:

“By order of the Tsar: The iconographer should be filled with humility, meekness and piety. He should shun frivolous talk and amusements. He must be peaceful by nature and know no envy. He must neither drink nor steal. Above all, he should be extremely careful to guard his spiritual and physical purity. If he is unable to live in chastity, he should take a wife and marry according to the law. He should pay numerous visits to his spiritual fathers and inform them about his way of life and, in keeping with their commands and instructions, fast and pray, cultivate purity and modesty, and keep all shamelessness and immodesty far from him.

“If one of these iconographers conceals his God-given talent and does not permit his pupils to play their proper part, he will be condemned to eternal punishment by God, like the man who hid his talent (Matt. 25:14ff). If one of these masters or one of the pupils does not live according to the rules accepted by him, if he becomes a drunkard and lives an impure and disorderly life, the bishops will then suspend him and forbid him to paint icons, remembering with awe the words of the Prophet: ‘Cursed be he who doeth the work of the Lord deceitfully!’ (Jer. 48:10)...If a painter conceals the talent given to him by God and does not instruct any pupil in his art, then he will be condemned by Christ to eternal punishment like the man who buried his talent. So, iconographers, teach your pupils diligently and do not cunningly hold anything back, for eternal punishment will descend upon you!”

By Archbishop Gregory, Dormition Skete, Buena Vista, Colorado.

Archbishop Gregory
Dormition Skete
P.O. Box 3177
Buena Vista, CO 81211-3177
Contact: Archbishop Gregory
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