An Icon? or a Religious Painting?

Christ Pantocrator

An icon is different from a religious painting.  (The latter includes private devotional images like the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Divine Mercy, as well as images of apparitions such as Our Lady of Guadalupe and Our Lady of Fatima.) It is sometimes difficult to articulate the differences, although the “look” of each is immediately apparent.

Icons are the earliest Christian works of art.  St. Luke is said to have made the first ones, of Mary the Mother of God.  I won’t go into the detailed history, but over the centuries the east and west grew apart in language and expression of worship, although not necessarily in teachings.  Once there was a definitive split in the Church, the Roman/Western Church moved toward self-expression and individualism, while the Eastern Church continued to uphold and safeguard the style and traditions of the Holy Icon.

First and foremost, an icon is the liturgical art of the Eastern Orthodox Church.  It is an integral part of every form of worship and liturgy.  As such, it follows the canon and guidelines of the ancient tradition, as approved by the bishops.  The icon is not signed, as it is not about the skill and fame of the artist, but rather for the glory of God. Neither are new and original icons constantly designed: icons instead faithfully translate the original teachings and dogma of Christianity.  The aesthetic rules of Byzantine theology and symbolism are applied.  It can be said that every icon is an image of Jesus Christ. Every icon is a witness to the Incarnation of God. A physical likeness is not important.  (The icon always has a name written upon it.) It is a depiction of a person transfigured by grace–a spiritual portrait rather than a physical one.  The figures are very stylized.  The icon transcends era and nation, reflecting the timeless truth of a catholic Church for all humanity. 

Smolensk Mother of God


Madonna&Child w/ Infant St.John

In the

Western Church,  art serves  more of a decorative purpose than a doctrinal one.  An artist is free to interpret the subject matter and to express him/herself in any way that is pleasing–and which the market will accept.  There is no imprimateur or particular standard to meet with paintings. The artist’s imagination is free.  The works thus naturally reflect the era and culture where they were produced.  Attention was paid to likenesses, and the subjects frequently look very realistic,  individual and specific.

El Greco
Christ and the Moneychangers

Western art is very dynamic and active.  Figures twist and move.  Often they look the viewer directly in the eye, or at the other figures in the composition, in relation to each other.  Strong emotions are depicted.  There is also expert use of perspective as well as shadows to create a sense of depth, volume, and emotional mood, in the painting. 

The Transfiguration

The Transfiguration

An icon has a sense of timelessness, stillness, and silence.  The mouth is never open; instead the figure listens to the Word of God attentively. Often the ears are large and prominent to emphasize this as well.  There is rarely eye contact, more often the figure looks inward/interiorly, or slightly past the viewer.  Their gaze is fixed only on the Lord. Figures are lit from the divine gift of grace within, thus no shadows are cast.  Backgrounds are flat. As the spiritual is the most important aspect, there is no need to depict depth, weight or volume.  Instead, “inverse perspective” is used: rather than a vanishing point in the picture like a set of railroad tracks converging in the distance, the perspective opens up so that the vanishing point ends in the viewer.  The figures in the icon move towards the viewer, in relationship with him/her–heaven moving towards the prayerful believer. 

The Crucifixion

This is by no means a comprehensive explanation, nor an absolute one.  Icons are distinct from religious paintings, but for a Christian believer, both are beautiful and can speak to the soul, leading one to deeper prayer, and to God.

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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7 Responses to An Icon? or a Religious Painting?

  1. A wonderful overview of a difficult subject. My own perceptions have changed over the past few years. I am more comfortable saying (as I did in one of my earlier posts in 2011) that I am attempting to paint sacred images in an iconographic style rather than pure icons in the Greek or Russian tradition. As you know, the Eastern lung of the Catholic Church has very specific views and approaches to sacred art.
    As a Western/Latin Rite member of the Church I think that I especially (as a cleric) have to be careful and respectful by not saying that my work is an icon, when, in reality, it is a sacred image – but, it is a sacred image done in the iconographic style (I must admit I still have lapses and call my work icons when in reality they are Western tradition sacred images).
    My work has aspects which are taken from the icon tradition of the East, yet, my imagination and creative style is much too Western to strictly conform to the Eastern view of art.
    This is not to say that one is right and the other wrong.
    I believe both are right, but that we, as sacred artists, must be clear in our own mind on what we are doing. It has been a journey for me to walk along this road of artistic styles and to decide what path I am personally going to take to reach the same end as my friends in the East: the love, prayerful worship, and contemplation of God, His angels and saints.

  2. Biltrix says:

    The image of the Gothic cathedral came to mind reading this. The comparison falls short — e.g. the Gothic period falls short in comparison with the ancient tradition of iconography. Yet this brief tradition in western art stands out to me as a period when art and artist pointed straight to God. Artisans found glory in glorifying God. For the most part, the individual artists are forgotten. While their names are not remembered the structures they erected and decorated still stand as houses reserved for prayer and sacred service, continually raising peoples hearts to God. Like Icons, Gothic cathedrals are not just religious buildings but windows into heaven by intention and design. I can’t think of another artform that measures up in that way, consistently.

  3. reinkat says:

    Thank you, Deacon, for such a thoughtful comment. You make such good points.
    I agree that we need to be careful to respect and defer to our Orthodox brothers and sisters, accepting their understanding and definition of the icon tradition that they have practiced for centuries. In my work, I try to remain true to the Orthodox canon as best as I can. After 25 years as a commercial illustrator, and a degree in art, it was very difficult to eradicate the Western influences from my work, and to learn the Byzantine style. The Western stuff still crops up now and again. “Creeping naturalism” one teacher called it. As you say, it has been quite an artistic journey. My goal is to remain faithful to the traditional vision of the icon, though, as I find it a treasure that resonates deeply in my soul. I had posted long ago about this struggle, (one of my first posts) and felt then, as now, that I am called to continue in the tradition (albeit as a Western outsider!). For me, the Orthodox icon is like coming home. Maybe it is my Polish ancestry!

  4. Pingback: Iconic | The (Urban-Wildlife) Interface

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