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What is an icon?

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You may have an image in your head when someone talks about an “icon”, but did you know that these pieces are considered separate from regular religious artwork? 

So, what IS an icon?


  • an icon is considered the visual equivalent of written learning, or Bible stories.

  • they invite us into prayer.

  • the process of icon creation is more of a task of active contemplation than when creating other religious art. The artist must be obedient to a strict process.

  • the person portrayed in the icon is expressed “mystically”, or, as they are in eternity, rather than when on earth.

Icon Terminology

Icons are often spoken of as being “written” instead of painted. Why? The word for writing translates from traditionally Eastern Orthodox languages to mean roughly the same thing. However, writing an icon is also seen as a form of prayer, and the visual equivalent of a Bible or history story, making this word relevant.


  • Assiste: decorative gold lines that give the icon a sense of movement and illumination

  • Encaustic: a method of painting by using ground colors mixed with wax

  • Iconoclasm: movements against iconography that often resulted in the banning and destruction of icons

  • Hagiography: a genre comprised of stories of the lives of the saints

  • Acheiropoeieta: icons said to have miraculously appeared that were not made by human beings

  • Iconostasis: a wall of icons and religious paintings in a church

  • Archetype: the pattern an iconographer will base their new icon off of

  • Filyonka: a thin, colored stripe on the edge of an icon

  • Hatching: a technique of using closely-spaced parallel lines to create shadow effects

  • Kleyma: scenes on the border of an icon

  • Koine: the Greek dialect that became Byzantine Greek that is found on icons

  • "IC XC": Greek abbreviation for “Jesus Christ”

  • Mandorla: circular or oval shaped halo surrounding the image of Jesus or Mary’s body

  • Theosis: the process of becoming a perfect likeness of God and obtaining salvation. This is how the saints are depicted in icons

  • Prototype: the person depicted in an icon

  • Oklad or Riza: a type of icon covered in metal aside from the painted faces of the figures

  • Diptych or Triptych: one piece of art comprised of two or three separate panels

  • Vita: a type of icon that depicts the life of a saint

Icon History

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Tradition holds that the first icons were not made by humans and were instead divinely created. One example is the imprint of Jesus’ face on St. Veronica’s veil.

The first painted icon, however, is said to have been made by St. Luke. It was an image of St. Mary, and the legend goes that she gave him her permission to create this while she was still alive.

The style of icons was inspired by Greek and Roman funerary art contemporary to the time, since these images also idealized the person they represented.

Iconography was first found in catacombs and secret early Christian chapels during the times of Christian persecution. This art often used symbols that were used in Roman religions also, just in case the art were to be discovered.

Christian iconographic style developed over the decades and changed depending on other popular styles of the time. While it is a rigid process now, this a good reminder that many aspects of religion, not just art, were subject to these changes throughout history.

Iconography found itself at the heart of the Byzantine empire, during which many traditions developed. This time was not without differing opinions, however, as many believed that creating icons was a form of creating a false idol. This attack against icons was called Iconoclasm, and was fought back against by many saints who declared that God becoming human meant that it was now possible to make human images of him.

It wasn’t until the 11th and 12th centuries that more specific rules were developed for icons. Lines, proportions, and even the creation process itself became strictly regulated. (More on this process later!)

The Italian Renaissance inspired and changed most of the goals of artists in Western Europe, but did not change much of the iconographic practices in Eastern Europe, leading to the practice continuing in countries like Greece and Russia for much longer.


Though much less widespread, there are still new icons being created today, and many of the great artists of the 19th-20th centuries intensely admired icons as an art form.

Icon Design

The person depicted in an icon is always depicted as they are in Heaven. In one example, faces and features are often androgynous as a sign of the integration that was possessed in Eden and now in Heaven. Faces also show little personality or realistic features to resemble the peace and light of the person now being unified with God: in one quote, “every icon is an icon of Christ”.

For the same reason, there is no need to portray age. Any thin-ness or wrinkles that are shown are meant more to convey the saints’ asceticism.

The unnatural shape of the saints’ long, columnar bodies is meant to express the person’s strength, pride, and reaching towards Heaven.

The saints are also expressionless to show that they resisted temptation and are indifferent to aspects of material nature. It is representative of the person’s victory over chaos and fear.

All icon compositions and shapes must be basic copies of ones that have come before with little change.

The immense eyes of the saints in icons are meant to contemplate the viewer - so that both can “see each other being seen”.

Gold backgrounds symbolize Heaven and gold cross-hatches illuminate the body of the saint. This is to show the saint shining with a light stronger than death to represent pure prayer and serenity.

There are usually just a few characteristics specific to each saint that are depicted, such as a symbol of their story or death.

Imprinting the name of the person depicted is traditionally held to confer divine grace, and even their spirit, onto the image.

Gravity, physics, reactions, and emotions are not important since the meaning is bigger than depicting reality. The central person is also sometimes depicted multiple times for balance or in different scenes from their life.

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Icon Materials

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Materials consist of each of the earthly elements and is therefore considered an offering of these:

  • Animals: egg tempera paint

  • Plants: wood base (egg tempera needs to be on a firm surface to avoid cracking)

  • Minerals: metallic paint and gold leaf

A plaster mixed with glue (or more modern gesso) is used as a base on top of the piece of wood.

Colors used all have their own meanings also:

  • White: new life

  • Blue: mystery of creatures

  • Green: terrestrial life

  • Black: the abyss

  • Burnt Siena: asceticism

  • Red: blood and life

Egg tempera paint is used traditionally because it is very thin, allowing light to pass through the translucent layers and illuminate the piece.

Wood is also symbolic of life, the Cross, roots, etc.

Varnish is applied to a completed icon to make the colors more saturated and appear fresh, as well as to protect the work.

Icon Process

The artist will undergo a session of fasting and/ or preparation for a number of days. They will obtain the blessing of the Church or Church hierarchy, and may be subject to the ill of the Church and hierarchy as to what to depict.

The artist in some traditions will begin with an image of the Transfiguration to bring light to illuminate all future icons. Regardless, the artist will begin with an image of Jesus, and then one of St. Mary.

A layer of gesso will be applied to the piece of wood or board.

Paints will be mixed and prepared, then the artist will paint in thin layers, starting with darker and underlying colors.

Depending on the strictness of the tradition the artist follows, the process and look of the image will be almost identical to the work they are basing theirs off of, with little to no innovation.

After all paint has been applied, the artist will go back in with several possible techniques, such as assiste, hatching, or oklad.

After it dries, the entire piece is coated in varnish to bring out the colors and protect the surface.

The process as a whole is meditative for the artist, and the work is said to be always developing towards God, just like the saints depicted.


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Icon Uses

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Though icons began as one of the only ways to share stories and history of the faith with illiterate populations, they are still used today for meditation.

Icons are not meant to be beautiful art to decorate a space, but rather to provoke ideas and reflection. They have been described as “a channel of grace that sanctifies those who contemplate it”.


Icons are displayed in personal spaces, chapels, and churches, on walls or on altars or stands. Only an image of Jesus may be displayed above a Church’s altar.

Spaces that house icons are traditionally venerated through using candles and incense.

Our Practice

Knowing all of this, I had to decide what it was that I wanted to keep about this traditional practice of iconography and what I decided to toss I tried to keep as much as I could that would keep in the tradition of this format.

     I decided to keep the names of the saints in as close as I can get to the ancient Greek.

     Solid color backgrounds for contemplation and not to distract from the main focus of the painting, and also to pick another color that might have something to do with the saint and their story.

     I still use wood bases and all the pieces that I use actually are repurposed wood. So they all had previous lives, either candle holders, cutting boards, anything like that. And many of those also have something to do with the saint that's portrayed.

     I also try to keep some of the poses and symbols that are used in traditional iconography. I do have a lot of references when I'm working on these of the traditional icons and religious paintings that have come before, and I do try to use some of those pieces from those as well in a more modern way.

     I also tried to leave some of the identifiable pieces of a person in these icons. So maybe maybe they had a wound in a certain area from a certain event. That's one example.

     I also decided to make sure that this is still a contemplative and prayerful process. I have a whole ritual of setting up any time that I create one of these icons, and the entire process is full of prayers, meditation, research on this saint, and who they were, maybe even following paths that don't seem super related but eventually lead around to something that is really inspiring for the piece.

     I also decided to continue to work in thin layers. This is because the acrylic paint that I originally used was just something that I had on hand while I was in school. That was all I had, and this was something really authentic to me, and the materials that I was able to afford.

The colors that I use also have meaning, and I decide to pick those ahead of time.

     I also choose to use a filyonka (border line) to make sure that this looks as much like a traditional icon as it possibly can.

     But I did decide to get rid of the aspect of the people being expressionless. This is because, even though it is true that they did eventually overcome any problems, pain, temptations in life, they were real people for their whole lives before that, and being able to be reminded of that is something that I think is really powerful. Being able to see them with any type of facial expression that we can have, or experiencing any type of emotion or pain that we can. That's really powerful to remember how real they were.

     I also decided to, of course, toss their whitewashed, facial features and skin tones. So the images that we always have in our minds of icons come from European traditions, mostly because some of the more ancient ones were destroyed, and it was the medieval time period during which things started to become more regulated. As with everything colonization brought, especially to the Western world, it became the norm for all of our school curriculums and prestigious museums. Some of these European cultures whitewashed these people and changed their facial features either because they were a monk who was in isolation, and had never left the the monastery, and didn't know that other people existed that didn't look like him, or they honestly just wanted to relate more to Jesus and the saints by making them look like them.

     And you can still see this being done in other cultures around the world. You may see an image of Jesus or one of the saints looking definitely like they would not have historically looked. However, I decided to change that and make sure that in my practice they would look as close as they possibly could to what they would have actually looked like when they lived. I base this on people who now live in the area they lived in, what their family history was, any type of research that I can do. This is just the smallest thing I can contribute to try and undo that erasure and that harm, and also to just be more authentic. With the fact that our Church is so widespread and worldwide, the best way that we can picture Jesus and the saints looking like all of us is to actually portray them as they were.

     I also decided to toss their period clothing or robes. This was another aspect of making sure that they looked like they were in heaven. However, if you look at the history of icons, you'll see that even in recent images of more recent saints, sometimes they're still in these outfits.

And that does us a disservice in that we can't picture them looking like the people that we know, or ourselves even, and being able to see them looking like someone we might walk outside and see is another layer of being able to relate to these people, to understand how real they were, and how similar their struggles and triumphs were to ours.

     I also decided to get rid of the practice of erasing any imperfections of these people. While it may be helpful for a lot of people to know or believe that when they get to heaven they won't have to deal with any disabilities, or pain, or even a certain way that they look now. But that erases who these people really were. If we don't show that, it erases part of their story, and what they were able to do with their lives.

The last thing I decided to get rid of was automatically aging these people. While the thinness and wrinkles that I talked about mean to show asceticism in the earlier icons, it does certainly make these people look a lot older. The church is definitely lacking in imagery of the saints as younger people, especially because some of these saints didn't actually live long. We get another aspect of their story when we see them as younger. Sometimes some of them didn't have their conversions until they were older, or think about Christianity all until then, and so we can think about another aspect of their story. If we are looking for images of older saints, we have plenty of imagery of that already. The younger people who are looking for themselves and these people can find themselves in these icons.

Develop your own icon writing practice


  • How much do you want to learn/ be inspired before beginning? In what ways? How will you choose a saint?

    • (examples: library research, special intentions)

  • What rituals/ traditions do you want to establish? Is there a frame of mind/ stage of life you need to be in?

    • (Novenas, playlists, summer breaks, advent, pilgrimages)

  • What will be your aesthetics, inspirations, and goals?

    • (will it make a statement, color palette, style, mood, symbolism)

  • What will your materials be? Why?

    • (more natural or expensive could be an offering, more accessible could be more honest?

  • What traditional techniques and rules will you keep/ replace? Why?

    • (does it mean something to you, your goal, or the saint depicted?

  • How open to “mistakes”/ change will you be in your process?

    • (do you see it as guidance from the Spirit or a need to try harder/ work longer?)

  • Should there be any constants throughout the process?

    • (space for working, time of day, rituals, time worked)

  • Where will this icon live when it is finished? How will it be contemplated/ revered?

    • (is there a special space for it, will it be a gift?)

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