Signs and Symbols

What is an icon?

“Icon” comes from the Greek word eikon, meaning image or likeness. From around the 400s on, the use of colorful two-dimensional images of Christ, Mary and the saints became an essential part of Byzantine liturgical and devotional prayer. Most icons depict the sacred figure frontally, often displaying a very stylized face that directs a striking gaze at the viewer. Some have described the devotional act of venerating an icon as a process of seeing and being seen, almost as if the image had a life of its own. Artists who create icons are called iconographers, people who “write with pictures.” They undergo a long and very traditional course of training steeped in spiritual practices of prayer and asceticism. They employ only natural materials in their art and follow strict canons concerning characteristic ways of depicting certain figures and specific prescriptions about size and proportions of the sacred figure’s form. Many icons use gold leaf for the sky around the holy figure, an immediate clue that the world into which the artist invites the viewer is not that of everyday life, but a spiritual realm beyond this. In Orthodox and other Eastern Catholic churches a screen called the iconostasis (place of the icons) stands between worshippers and the sacred action occurring on the altar beyond. In addition to individual icons placed on stands in various parts of the church, further mural-like images are displayed across the iconostasis.


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