The iconography of the Holy Orthodox Church, with all of its symbolism and spiritual meaning, is central to the Church’s teaching. People are greatly influenced by what they contemplate, and so the Church, in its love for its faithful, has given us iconography in order to help us contemplate God. They are also teaching tools. What the Gospels proclaim with words, the icon proclaims visually.

The very meaning of the icon has as its foundation the incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ. “And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Christ is “the icon of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), and His transfiguration on Mount Tabor offers support of this (Matt. 17:1-13). It is because Christ became man and allowed man to glimpse the divine glory of heaven that we are able to paint icons and venerate images of Christ, the Theotokos, and the saints. If Christ had not become incarnate and had not revealed to us his transfigured glory on the Mount, it would be impossible to depict the spiritual realm of Heaven in icons.

Our theology impacts all parts of the icon, from how the face is painted, to the robes, to even the scenery of the festal icons. While the incarnation is the basis of iconography, the icon itself, in its role as a window into heaven, affirms the incarnation and speaks of God’s great mysteries. One great task of the icon is to proclaim the wonder and mystery of Christ, the Theotokos, and the saints, while reminding us they were human like we are, and calling us to the same spiritual perfection which Christ’s incarnation allows us to seek. All naturalism, whether it is spatial, figural, or proportional, is set aside; and man, landscape, and architecture are shown in a transfigured state.

The icon is not meant to excite our external senses. It is not painted to depict the mundane, everyday life, but rather the spiritual realm. It is painted as a window into heaven, a physical means which allows us to gaze into the invisible spiritual reality. The simplicity of the icon is not meant to stir our emotions but rather to quietly invite us to leave the world for a moment and guide every emotion toward the contemplation of the divine. Icons assist us in prayer as well as we gaze upon them quietly and patiently.

The communion with the divine to which the icon calls us is achieved through a symbolic language in which clothing styles, colors, gestures, architecture, and human form in the icon are fixed. The writing of iconography must not be based on artistic speculation, emotion, or abstract ideas, but soundly on the teachings of the Holy Orthodox Church. Depicting these teachings requires a studious understanding of Orthodoxy, meditation, attention to detail, and artistic skill. The iconographer must understand what parts of the icon he or she can adjust by engaging artistic skills and what parts of the icon to leave intact.

In this language of iconography, certain meanings are ascribed to the subjects of the icon. People of importance in icons are often depicted as larger than other people in the icon and are always indicated by name on the icon. In icons of single saints, the saint is usually depicted with the instrument of his or her salvation. Bishops are usually depicted wearing some episcopal designation, holding the Gospel, and giving a blessing. The blessing hand is formed in the monogram of the name of Christ, ICXC, just as an Orthodox priest blesses. The Evangelists are depicted holding the Gospels, St. Paul the epistles, and great spiritual writers a scroll. Martyrs are depicted holding the crown of martyrdom, the cross, or the instrument of their martyrdom. The subject of the icon is usually depicted looking straight ahead, or at a 3/4 angle. While the saints gaze into eternity—focused on the divinity—the transfigured person is not avoiding the earthly realm but rather gently addressing it and calling it to be transfigured in Christ as well.

The physical features of the icon are also very important in conveying this symbolic spiritual language. Because the subject of the icon is transfigured by the love of Christ, the light of the icon is interior, not exterior, as in other forms of art. Thus, the areas of the robes and skin which protrude the most have the brightest highlights. The forehead on the subject on many icons is often high and convex, to express the power of the spirit and wisdom. Ascetics, monks, and bishops are given deep wrinkles in their cheeks. The nose of the subject is long and thin, which gives it a sense of gracefulness; it no longer smells the odors of the world, but rather the sweet incense of Heaven. The lips of the subject are closed, expressing true contemplation which requires total silence. The eyes are large and pronounced, gazing into Heaven. While the physical features of the face are spiritualized, they still retain a likeness to the saint depicted. The feet, if depicted, walk in the way of God. The halo symbolizes the divine light which radiates from the person who lives in close communion with God.