What is an Icon?

Originally I had decided to have today’s post offer some insight into one of my most favorite cooking ingredients, along with a couple of favorite recipes…however given to yesterday’s historic and reverberating event of the “retiring” of a Pope, as well as seeing that we are in the throes of Lent, I felt somewhat compelled to share a little about Christian Icons, particularly those of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

The picture I posted  today  (below this post) is indeed that of an Icon.  It is a replica of a late Renaissance Russian Icon (icon meaning image).  It is from the Moscow School (a group known for having produced Icons during a particular time period–with this one dating from 1670.)  It is an image of the Christ or Pantocrator as He is known in Greek/ Παντοκράτωρ—meaning Divine (translated from the Hebrew El Shaddai).

I have been known to give replicas of Icons to very special individuals as gifts.  No, I don’t normally give just anyone an icon—-only very special individuals…as an icon is very special—particularly, to me, as is this particular certain image.  It is an image of the Pantocrator –The Almighty, The Ruler of All….

I have a replica of the same Icon from today’s previous post—it is one that I feel captures a physical Christ , grace, tenderness, forgiveness and yet his having also been a teacher.  I find it more natural of an image…as we know Jesus was a middle eastern Jew—no blue eyes or light European skin.

As an art teacher and as a person who has a deep interest in art produced by early Christians down through the Renaissance, I have always been drawn to art that speaks to the glory and mystery of our Christian and Spiritual faith and heritage– even art produced by our Jewish brothers and sisters.  I marvel at the realism, the beauty, and the precision.  Works done by artists who I know were not exactly saints (the Italian Caravaggio is just one in particular)– I still find fascinating and deeply moving as I know that even though their lives may not have witnessed such a faith– I know that their art has and does. I know there had to be a bit of the Divine in their very being even if they did not live as if there were…

As most western individuals are familiar with the religious art of the Renaissance, with the works of Michelangelo and Raphael taking a commanding presence, I, rather, am often reminded of  lesser known artists whose works capture a rawness of reality–one piece in particular is the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grunwald—one of my most favorite images of the crucifixion, as it shows not a languid image of an intact pretty body of Christ seemingly floating against a cross, but it shows in vivid detail the results of a deathly beating, a body nailed, pierced, abused, now dead in full rigor mortis—- the altar-piece was commissioned for a hospital in Colmar (now France but originally in Germany) for patients with various skin afflictions (most likely plague and leprosy).  Hope in suffering—resurrection form death….Glory and victory over sin.  As themes of that very raw emotion are most vividly captured throughout various Renaissance paintings — so too are they depicted  in Orthodox Iconography.

I became quite interested in Icons many years ago.  We of the western Christian faith find Iconography a little disturbing, odd, and for some, even sinful.  Protestants just don’t get the whole icon and saint thing—we’ve always looked sideways at Catholics with their patron saints of this and that, their rosaries and religious statures and medals…wondering if that “thou shalt not worship graven images” thing somehow escaped them.  Throw the Eastern Christian church in the mix and we’re really confused!

The best I once read it explained is that an Icon is actually a window looking to a spiritual dimension that we simply cannot grasp with our limited abilities.  I like that…. a window…a small opening allowing us to glimpse the Divine.

Icons are not painted, they are “written”.  Before an artist- iconographer begins an icon, he/ she must submit themselves to prayer asking for guidance—they then allow the Holy Spirit to work through them as they “write” a visual letter from God.  I think that’s a pretty cool thing.

The earliest image or icon of Christ is found in Saint Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai desert—they believe the arid climate and remoteness of the monastery has preserved the frescoed image.  After seeing replicas of that image, and then later other images, I was amazed—it was as if I was seeing a photograph of Jesus.

The Eastern Orthodox Church (which includes, the Greek, Russian, Cypriot, and Armenian, Churches) claims to be the original Christian church, predating the Latin or Catholic Church– therefore making Protestants mere babes in the whole Christian mix.

This small history lesson aside, it is my desire for all who see an Icon to understand the significance and the very essence  of an icon—especially an icon of the Pantocrator and what it can mean to receive such a gift.  It is not a graven image, but a visual representation of something we simply cannot grasp, as we are the created, not the Creator.

There is a small Orthodox skete (small community), St Isaac of Syria, in rural Wisconsin that I get the icons from.  They are very kind and have a wonderful array of books, religious items, mounted icons, as well as actual commissioned—written (actually hand painted) icons—done by several of their priests or brothers.  They pray over the icons that are purchased .


May it be a small reminder of God’s undying devotion to all who see one—that regardless of our pains and struggles—God is in the center of it all—much greater than anything we suffer.