One Sunday after liturgy, I overheard a visitor to our church commenting on the iconography, “Why do the figures look so strange? They are cartoonish and simple, and not at all realistic. And why do they look so sad or angry?” This man’s ignorance of the purpose and design of iconography is common today.
I also was once a participant in the widespread misunderstanding of iconography, and I recall having similar thoughts. Ever since my time living in St. Petersburg, Russia, however, my exposure to and knowledge of icons has been perpetually increasing. For the past seven years I have been a student of iconography and am now a practicing iconographer, and I continue to learn new things and deepen my understanding of this profound art.
This brief summary will only scratch the surface of the answer to the question above. I will address what I consider to be the chief differences: stylization as opposed to “realism”, faithfulness to Tradition rather than self-expression, and the use of light and perspective.
Icons are not meant to be portraits, but depictions of the spiritual bodies of those united with Christ. The Seventh Ecumenical Council established the standards for iconography, and it was determined that icons should lead the viewer towards the contemplation of the Heavenly kingdom, avoiding the naturalistic interpretation of the material world. Icons show exaggerated organs of the 5 senses rather than making them anatomically correct because the Church fathers said that the senses are the doors to a person’s soul; the eyes are large because they have seen great things; the ears are large because they have heard the commandments of the Lord. The nose, which smelled the fragrance of God, is drawn long and thin; the small mouth indicates the saint’s obedience to God and willingness to sacrifice in fasting. The canons of the Councils declare that the garments depicted in icons are not to show the natural body lines, but to use simple lines and wide overlaps in order to show the spiritual body rather than the natural body; the garments must also show the saint’s profession or vocation (prince, princess, soldier, priest, etc.)
These standards prescribed by the Church ground the creation of icons in Tradition, Icons are marked by discipline rather than inspiration, as the Church and Tradition determine the content; the form is a receptacle for the content. Icons are above the personal - they are an expression of the Church’s faith, never complete in itself; it refers to a spiritual dimension and is part of a concrete religious practice. In the East, words and images are equal; an icon with its specific rules of depiction is equivalent to language when it attempts to define dogmas as exactly as possible. The icon has a dogmatic character, depicting visually what the Church declares verbally. As St. John of Damascus says, “What the book is to the literate, the image is to the illiterate.”
It is also important to realize that, while icons are not the sphere for the iconographer to express his political opinions or voice social commentary, Tradition is not made up of stagnant historical facts, but is history alive and valid today. The iconographer incorporates all of Tradition to this point creatively. The modern iconographer and artist, Markos Kampanis, comments on the role of the imagination in iconography: “The act of painting whether liturgical or not, is a creative act, and thus imaginative, by definition. After all, the church fathers during the Icon restoration stressed the fact that the artistic part, the craft belonged to the artist himself.”
The unique depiction of light in iconography certainly sets it apart from other sacred art, such as that of the High Renaissance. There are no shadows in icons because the light of God saturates all things. Light does not have an exterior source. There is a degree of object shadow; faces, garments, and objects are modeled by using lighter and darker shades of color. This is not what we see in Western Renaissance paintings, where light comes from a distinct source and shadows fall accordingly.
Another distinctive feature in iconography is that rather than one or two point perspective receding to one or two vanishing points (as in Renaissance paintings), inverse perspective is used. The viewer himself is the vanishing point, so the lines of buildings terminate in the viewer, not inside the painting; this is to emphasize the communion of the Church militant with the Church Triumphant and it is as if the viewer is being looked at by the Holy person in the icon. This inverse perspective also leads the thoughts towards an existence without end, to a transcendent dimension.
Those are just a few of the points that differentiate iconography from much of traditional sacred art. And there is plenty more to be said about the virtues, symbolism, and role of iconography in the modern world, but I will leave that for another post!
The Mystical Language of Icons by Solrunn Nes
The Story of Icons by Mary Paloumpis Hallick
Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting by Aidan Hart