Translating Icons

People often think that icons are merely copies and reproductions of what has gone before.  In actuality, as a continuation of holy Tradition, a contemporary icon is a translation rather than a copy.  It is freshly rendered with the artistic expression and individual style of a unique iconographer–reflecting his/her own culture, time and place. The new icon is witnessing to the same ancient truths, but expressed for the eyes and hearts of a new generation.  The continuity of the essential doctrines is not lost or changed, but restated.  It is a living art.  It can be likened to a translation of a book or poem from one language to another.  A good translator remains true to the meaning and intent of the original, but makes it accessible to a new group of readers.

In writing an icon, the rendering of the subject varies tremendously according to whatever skills and tastes the iconographer has.  As in the past, modern iconographers are careful to adhere to the established models and follow the canons.  Within those boundaries, however, there is much freedom of expression.  These examples are all written from the same model, the Vladimir Mother of God of Tenderness, which is likely the most revered icon in the world.


The color scheme and composition can vary, as can the depiction of faces and clothing.  Yet each image communicates the same essential message as the ancient prototype which guides it.

In a quick glance at an icon, the viewer may not understand it.  The icon requires some contemplative time, some prayer and reflection, to understand what is being communicated.  It takes a little bit of effort and education to learn the symbolic language of the icon.  

Doing this is akin to studying the culture, times, and context of the prophets, psalmists or the New Testament evangelists.  The time you spend with the writings reveals meaning and leads to a deeper understanding of the message. 

The same is true with studying the visual representations of these messages in the icon. They have remained a consistent, steady witness to the truth since the time of the apostles.


About reinkat

I am an iconographer, and have been studying Russian/Greek icons since 1995. I'm married with 3 children. I love hiking, camping, animals, my family and church--and icons.
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4 Responses to Translating Icons

  1. MJ says:

    I’m learning a lot about icons from your graceful explanations. Thanks

  2. SR says:

    Reinkat, I do not want to appear dumb here, well I am dumb when it comes to this:>) What does “writing and icon” mean? Thanks SR

    • reinkat says:

      Hello–no worries!
      an icon is the liturgical art of the Orthodox church, the first form of Christian art, and its style was determined during the Byzantine Empire at various church councils. It has a distinctive look and style. To write an icon is analgous to saying “paint an icon”. The word “write” is used instead of “paint” because the icon is the Gospel written in line and color rather than in words.

  3. SR says:

    Thanks, so much for explaining. What a beautiful way to describe. SR

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