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.

14 comments on “What is an Icon?

  1. Val says:

    One of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen at any art museum anywhere (and I’ve seen a lot of great art…):


  2. One of the things I learned when I very briefly–fleetingly–so shortly that it scarcely even happened … one of the things I learned when I briefly studied iconography with the late Father Nathanael at the monastery of St. Gregory Palamas (Hayesville or Perrysville, Ohio, depending on whom you ask) was that, besides prayer in anticipation one also should engage in the physical acts of writing the icon in a prayerful way. The process is repetitive, and it is like meditating on a thought with no hurry to resolve it and move on to the next. The first thing I did under Fr. Nathanael’s instruction was to repeat the same brush stroke … for a good long quiet while.

    This is also an area where the Christian West has a hard time with the East. I have had the challenge put directly to me. By, as it turns out (I digress here because of some details you mentioned in your comment on my blog: you may find this amusing)… I was challenged once by a fellow law school classmate who was also a devout Protestant or one stripe or another and is now a prosecuting attorney in Alaska: tried and saw conviction of a soldier who returned from Afghanistan and murdered his wife and child, if memory serves. Went on to the big time that old classmate of mine, and I remember him when he was just a fresh-faced Evangelical kid in law school.

    Anywho, in Orthodoxy we will repeat certain prayers, even a great deal–some monastics will utter a prayer for hours–and the facetious response from my classmate was, “I seem to remember something in Scripture about vain repetitions.” Of course, the operative word is vain, and in Greek the verb the Lord uses in his admonition (He doesn’t use a noun for “repetitions,” He uses a verb) is “babble.” Don’t babble, as the heathen do. I don’t think he believed me. Or cared. But he’s putting bad guys away nowadays, so he’s fine by me.

    Perhaps this connects in another way to the controversy over icons. We do not worship either the material or the saints whom they represent in the material. We venerate them. Many icons depict events rather than central persons, and we meditate on these events. Or at least that’s what we ought to do.

    Good post.

  3. Sarah says:

    The Catholic Church is the oldest Christian Church because of the apostolic succession. We can trace the popes all the way back to the first pope – St. Peter.

    • Agreed yet try telling that to our Orthodox brethren 😉

      • Sarah says:

        Well, indeed. 🙂 My husband (an Oxbridge philosopher) has some ideas on how to heal the schism – he’s working on a paper about it. We see nothing wrong with the Orthodox Church except that they have no pope to be the final arbiter as it were. They are basically long-term sedevacantists. If things get worse in the Catholic Church we would even consider converting.

      • I have deep respect and admiration for both “branches” as it were — and as an Anglican, I have always gravitated to my Catholic roots –.but I do find great merit with our Orthodox kin

      • Sarah says:

        Ironically, my husband thinks the schism between Anglican and Catholic would be harder to address than between Orthodox and Catholic. There is nothing in Orthodoxy that the Catholic Church rejects because it is essentially like the Catholic Church frozen in time. On the other hand, the Anglican Church has brought in novelties (like the ordination of women) that the Catholic Church has traditionally rejected.

      • You’ve got that right- hence why I no longer attend because I do not condone women in the priesthood or the conducting of marriages between gay couple or the ordination if practicing gay clergy– but as I’ve not actually yet to go through a catechism, I’m technically still an Episcopalian– and you know the sticking point between the orthodox and Catholic Churches is that of the filioque– in the Nicene creed

      • Sarah says:

        Yes, I think the filioque is one of the sticking points my husband is addressing. It’s a bit over my head to be honest. His papers make my head hurt. 😀

      • I can only imagine! 😇

  4. What a very odd set of e-mailed comment notifications to receive on this four-year-old post. It’s almost as though the post is frozen in time: apparently, I have just learned, as we Orthodox Christians are as well. Hardy har.

    Carry on, everyone. Nice to see a blast from the past anyway. Hope you have been well, Julie.

    • Ahhh—so good to hear from you my old friend….yes, it is amazing really..the stay power of our words…well at least here on wordpress 🙂
      I suppose those of us of the Christian faith could all say that we are frozen in time as ours is an ancient faith….yet a living faith—so the discussion continues between both East and West….
      I trust all is well in your world Virgil..still practicing Law?
      As always it is good to hear from you…perhaps the Spirit is nudging you to perhaps write, sharing your faith with others…. 😉

      • Most of the “serious” stuff I write these days are motions and briefs—which is to say of course, yes, still practicing Law. 🙂 I have, however, withdrawn from the “social media.” I nevertheless scarcely wished to resist the temptation, upon getting those notifications, to plant my tongue firmly in my cheek and comment myself on this venerable old post. And, again, it was nice to be reminded of you and your blog, Julie. The good old blogging and commenting days. 🙂

      • Come back to visit any time Virgil 🙂

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