The Icon: Theology written in light and color

The Lord is God and has revealed Himself to us

Because “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14), Christ is truly a human person. As a human, He is truly the “image (literally, “icon”) of the invisible God,” and who has seen Him has seen the Father (Jn 12:45, 14:9; Col 1:15; 1 Cor 11:7; 2 Cor 4:4). Thus, an icon of Christ affirms the reality of the incarnation.

The Holy Spirit speaks through line and color

When one paints an icon, one opens a gateway for God. One opens a window to heaven for us. The Spirit of God speaks behind the lines and colors of an icon, telling the worshipper things the art critic cannot see. In viewing an icon, we should not look at it analytically. We should allow ourselves to be looked at by God.

The icon reveals a borderland

Not unlike the wardrobe and lamp-post as markers of the frontier between us and Narnia, the icon is a borderland of holiness where the completely foreign is brought together with the familiar. Through the icon we come face to face with Christ, with his Mother, with the saints

The icon reveals the great cloud of witnesses

It is the task of the iconographer to open our eyes to the actual presence of the Kingdom of God in the world and to remind us that fellow-citizens of the saints, members of the household of God, the Body of Christ. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses (Heb. 12:1). We are part of the whole Church. This includes the living and the departed at all times and in all places. Icons of the saints are our Christian family picture gallery, but also much more.

The icon reveals a world of mystery

The icon introduces us to a world of mystery — the kingdom of God. Yet at the same time we discover that this mystery is not only “far away” and transcendent. It is also hidden within each of us — closer to us than our own heart; it is immanent. “The kingdom of God is within you.” (Lk. 17:21) An icon can be a sacramental medium that reveals not only the presence of the Kingdom come into our midst, but also the Kingdom that is within us.

The icon reveals a the Faith

“Icons in our churches and homes are opened books to remind us of God. If one lacks learning or the leisure to study theology, he or she has only to enter a church to see unfolded on the walls all the mysteries of the Christian religion. “If a pagan asks you to show him your faith, take him into church and place him before the icons.” ( St. John of Damascus)

The icon reveals transfiguration

An Orthodox icon is not simply religious art that depicts the subject realistically (as in a snapshot or portrait). The things of this world are transitory and will eventually rot and disappear. The Orthodox icon depicts the subject in a manner that looks beyond this world to the world to come. The icon shows a transfigured humanity — a transfigured world: a world that is “good,” (Gen. 1) spirit-bearing, and even deified (1 Cor. 15:28). This is why icons are sometimes called “windows” to the Kingdom of Heaven. The Father and the Holy Spirit cannot and must not be depicted (“No one has seen God” — Jn. 1:18). However, Jesus Christ, His mother, St. John the Baptist, the Apostles and the saints can be depicted in iconographic form because they themselves were visible in the body.

The icon is liturgical, anamnetic art

The icon exists in a specific context. If divorced from that context, it ceases to be truly itself. The icon is part of an act of worship; its context is invocation and doxology; it is liturgical art. It is not religious or decorative art. It is anamnetic art. By means of the icon, we can be present to God; God can be present to us — the icon is a meeting point encounter / anamnesis; the icon enfolds us; the icon invites us to follow a journey, to engage in a pilgrimage; the icon helps us enter into a new and transfigured world; vision and contemplation becomes participation and communion.

The language of the icon:

  • Color; style; line; movement; impassivity; gesture all have significance — laid down very specifically over the centuries.
  • Reverse perspective vs. vanishing point — we are the focal point of the icon; we are the reason it has been painted.

Thomas Merton:

An icon is not a painting merely of “our dear friend Jesus” but at once portrays his divinity as well as his humanity; his absolute demands on us as well as his infinite mercy. An icon bears witness to the incarnation. It is a sacrament of his presence. The great theologian affirming the place of icons in Christian life was St. John of Damascus, writing from Mar Saba Monastery in the desert southeast of Jerusalem. In his essay On the Divine Images , he argues:

If we made an image of the invisible God, we would certainly be in error … but we make the image of God incarnate who appeared on earth in the flesh, who in his ineffable goodness, lived with us and assumed our nature; the volume, the form, and the color of the flesh…. Since the invisible One became visible by taking on flesh, you can fashion the image of him who you saw. He who has neither body nor form nor quantity nor quality — being of divine nature — took on the condition of a slave and reduced himself to quantity and quality by clothing himself in human features. Therefore, paint on wood — and present for contemplation — Him who desired to become visible.

Rowan Williams:

The divinity of Jesus is inseparable from his humanity. Nonetheless, his divine life reveals itself through his human nature. It transfigures it. It deifies it. An icon of the Savior does not show a humanity apart from divine life. An icon of the savior depicts a humanity soaked through with divine life. “We don’t depict just a slice of history when we depict Jesus. We show a life-force radiating with the light and force of God. And if we approach the whole matter in prayer and adoration, the image that is made becomes in turn something that in its own way radiates this light and force.” In the icon of the Lord we can see the transfigured and transfiguring reality of Jesus.

Yet, paradoxically at the same time, Thomas Merton:

What one ‘sees’ in prayer before an icon is not an external representation of a historical person, but an interior presence in light, which is the glory of the transfigured Christ, the experience of which is transmitted in faith from generation to generation by those who have ‘seen,’ from the Apostles on down. So when I say that my Christ is the Christ of the icons, I mean that he is reached not through any scientific study but through direct faith and the mediation of the liturgy, art, worship, prayer, theology of light, etc., that is all bound up with the Russian and Greek tradition.


“I do not worship matter, I worship the Creator of all matter Who became matter for my sake, Who deigned to inhabit matter, and Who through matter accomplished my salvation.” (On the Divine Images, 1:16; PG 94:1245C)

Icons are central to Holy Tradition and are necessary to help protect the Christian dogma of the Incarnation and Salvation, the very essence of our Christian Faith.

When we consider the Incarnation of the Savior, we can see that there is a primary reason for iconography. It is precisely by means of the Incarnation that God enters the material realm to which He gives new birth and life by means of assuming our flesh, so that we, too, become temples and bearers of God (Gen 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 3:16-17; 6:19; 15:49; 2 Cor. 6:6).

The Theophany in the Jordan and the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor prefigured the Resurrection of the Savior. In these cosmic events, the Lord sanctifies all matter, which can now serve to represent Him as well as represent the mysteries of salvation and the restoration of the material realm to its originally created intent: theophany and communion.

“God became a human person by nature so that human persons could become divine by grace.” — i.e., the en-fleshment of the Word of God for the en-Wordment of the flesh of humanity — that is, transfiguration and “theosis” of the human person, and by extension, of the whole cosmos. We do not become God but we participate in the very inner life of God.


Alexander Schmemann, The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy :

The icon is inextricably connected with the unveiling in the Church’s consciousness of the meaning of the incarnation: the fullness of the Divinity that dwells bodily in Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the man Christ reveals Him in full. An image of the man Jesus is therefore an image of God, for Christ is the Divine-Human. If the material universe and its matter can be sanctified by the grace of the Holy Spirit…if [through] the water of Baptism [we are granted] forgiveness of sins; if the bread and wine of the Eucharist make present to us the Body and Blood of Christ, then a portrayal of Christ, the product of human art, may also be filled with the grace of His presence and power — may become not only an image but also a spiritual reality. In the icon there is…the gift of a new dimension in human art, because Christ has given a new dimension to humanity itself. Everything in the world and the world itself has taken on a new meaning in the Incarnation of God. Everything has become open to sanctification; matter itself has become a channel of the grace of the Holy Spirit.

Bishop Kallistos Ware, from “Eastern Christendom” in Oxford History of Christianity

“To refuses to depict Christ is somehow to doubt the fullness of his human nature. Icons are therefore a guarantee that the incarnation of the Word is genuine and not illusory. By virtue of the icon, we pass within the dimensions of sacred space and sacred time, entering into a living, effectual contact with the person or mystery depicted. The icon is a way in, a point of meeting, a place of encounter.”

No one could describe the Word of the Father,
But when He took flesh from you, O Theotokos,
He consented to be described
And restored the fallen image to its former state
by uniting it to divine beauty.
We confess and proclaim our salvation in word and images.

(Hymn for the First Sunday of Great Lent)

St. John of Damascus:

“If you have understood that the Incorporeal One became man for you, then it is evident that you can portray His human image. Since the Invisible One became visible by assuming a human body, you can make a picture of Him Who was seen. Since He Who has neither body, nor form, nor quantity, nor quality, Who transcends all grandeur by the very excellence of His nature; who, being of divine nature, assumed the condition of a servant, He thus reduced himself to quantity and quality by clothing Himself with human features; therefore, paint on wood and present Him for contemplation, Who desired to become visible.” (On the Divine Images, 1:8; PG 94:1239)

St. Theodore the Studite:

“Nowhere did Christ order that even the briefest word be written about Him. Nonetheless, His image was sketched in writing by the apostles, and preserved for us to the present day. So, what is represented on the one hand with paper and ink, is likewise represented on the icon with various colors and different materials.” (Refutation, 1:10; PG 99:340D)

“From the moment Christ is born of a mother who can be depicted, He naturally has an image which corresponds to that of His mother. If He could not be represented by art, this would mean that He was not born of a mother who can be depicted, but was born only of the Father, and that He was not Incarnate. But this contradicts the whole divine plan of our salvation.” (Refutation 3:2; PG 99:417C)

St. Maximus of Tyre (2nd cent),

On the Dispute about Images:

God Himself, the Father and fashioner of all that is, older than the sun or the sky, greater than time and eternity and all the flow of being, is un-nameable by any lawgiver, un-utterable by any voice, not to be seen by any eye. And we, being unable to apprehend His essence, use the help of sounds and names and icons of beaten gold and ivory and silver. We use the help of plants, rivers, mountain peaks and torrents, yearning for knowledge of Him. In our weakness, we name all that is beautiful in this world after His nature, just as happens to earthly lovers. To them the most beautiful sight will be the actual outline of the beloved, but for remembrance’ sake, they will be happy in the sight of a lyre, a little spear, a chair, or perhaps even the running ground, or anything in the world that wakens the memory of the beloved. Why should I further examine and pass judgment about images? Let men know what is divine, let them know. That is all. If a Greek is stirred to the remembrance of God by the art of Pheidias, another man by a river, another by fire, I have no anger for their divergences. Only let them know, let them love, let them remember.

St Basil the Great (+379):

Arise now before me, you iconographers of the saint’s (i.e., St. Barlaam of Antioch’s) merits…let me behold this fighter most vividly depicted in your icon. Let Christ also, the Instigator of the battle, be depicted therein…