Theological Insights from a Modern Perspective

Icons – Devices

I decided that a bit of explanation on the uses of various devices in Icons (color, clothing, etc.) is required before we can do an in-depth study of an icon.

To bring across the meaning behind an Icon an Iconographer will use several devices in the creation of the Icon, these include colors, clothing, backgrounds, and objects. Nothing is places into an Icon without deep thought and prayer, and so carries a message from the Iconographer. Some of these devices have fixed meanings, others a fluid (depending on the Icon itself). Here I will go into some of these devices, as a full coverage would be too extensive for a simple blog.

 

Colors

More than any other device color is used to convey power and meaning from the Iconographer to the observer. Each color carries with it a specific meaning, and imbues the image with its message. Every color in the rainbow is used in an Icon, with the exception of gray; gray is ambiguous, carrying no real feeling, and so is not used in Icons. Here I present the most common colors in use (pastels are considered the same as their rich counterparts).

RED – Red is used to denote royalty, both earthly and heavenly. It also used to represent passion, love, life, and energy; it is the symbol of the Resurrection, the conquering of death. It also represents sacrifice, and so is used with martyrs to signify their willingness to sacrifice life for Christ. Used in the background it represents a celebration of eternal life.

GOLD – Gold represents light, specifically the Divine Light that permeates our world from the heavens. Gold symbolizes God’s divine nature, its’ use in the halo shows God’s nature at work through the person in the Icon.

PURPLE – Purple was very important in ancient cultures as a sign of the Emperor. In the Byzantine Empire only the Emperor could use purple inks or sit on a throne laden with purple cloth. Purple is used with Mary to signify she is the Celestial Queen.

WHITE – White is cleanliness, purity, holiness, and simplicity. Righteous people are shown wearing white clothing to indicate a lack of guile. This is why we see babies in white, as they are sinless; angels are in white because of their unwavering devotion to God; the dead are also shown in white because they are no longer capable of sinning.

BLUE – Blue is a sign of eternity, never-ending. Icons will have a dark blue sky to represent heaven, not the actual sky. Mary is typically shown in a deep blue to show her eternal position as Queen of both heaven and earth.

GREEN – Green represents nature – life, growth, the grass and trees, youth, hope, and renewal. The ground is frequently shown as green to remind us of where life began.

BROWN – Brown is also a sign of earth, but from the other side: dust, death. In Icons of Mary it is a reminder that she, too, was mortal.

BLACK – Black is a sign of evil, sin, corruption, and is most often used to represent the eternal abyss from which, before Christ, there was no escape. It is also used to denote mystery, or the unknown. Monks might be shown in black robes as an indication of giving up the ways of this world, and their worldly existence, in essence dying from their earthly life.

 

Clothing

Next in line, after colors, is clothing. The clothing used in Icons denotes the person’s most notable place within the church. When I say most notable this is because a person can have more than one role during their lives, for example, Basil the Great was both a great monk and a bishop, it is his role as bishop that defines most of his Icons.

Cyril and Methodius, Apostles to the Slavs

BISHOPS – on the image to the right you can see the saints Cyril and Methodius, brothers who brought Christianity to the Slavic people. Methodius, on the left, is depicted in Bishop’s attire. On the outside is the omiphoron, worn over the shoulders it represents a sheep on the shoulder of a shepherd. Under the omiphoron is the sakkos, a tunic with long sleeves for humility, representing Christ’s robe. Under the sakkos is the epitrachelion, a symbol of his priesthood.

MONKS – Cyril is shown dressed as a monk. Compared to the Bishop, a monk’s attire is unadorned, representing their austere lifestyle. On their head, under the cloak, is the koukoulion, upon which are depicted five crosses one on the forehead, one on the back between the shoulders, one on the back further down, and one each on the ends of the wings of the veil.

Different clothing is used for other people (martyrs, angels, etc.), but this gives an idea as to how clothing is used as a device to help with our understanding of Icons.

 

Objects

Objects are also used to convey information about the person or event being depicted. For example, in the Icon above we see Methodius holding the Sacred Scriptures, often this is done for someone, such as a Bishop, whose life was spent in teaching others. Cyril is shown holding a scroll containing they Cyrillic alphabet he created to translate Sacred Scripture into the Slavic language.

Another popular object is called a Mandorla, Greek for almond, and is an almond shaped “halo” placed behind a person or event. The Mandorla is used to illustrate something which we know, from personal experience or Scriptural account, that occurred but was not really visible to those present. An example would be the Baptism of Jesus where we are told the Spirit was present in the form of a dove, typically a mandorla would enclose the dove, indicating that the people would not have witnessed the Spirit itself, merely the manifestation of a dove.

 

Proportions

Finally, for the purpose of this introduction, we speak of proportions as used in Icons. Icons are not photographs nor paintings in the Western style, but are theological statements. Therefore, people and objects are not necessarily shown to scale, rather certain features may be exaggerated to call attention to specific features, or minimized to draw the viewer’s attention away from something. Here are a few examples of how proportions are used:

  • A table is typically shown with the front being smaller than the back. In a painting it would be the opposite. This is done to draw attention to the person or object at the rear of the table.
  • On a Theologian or great thinker the foreheads will be exaggerated.
  • Mary’s hands may appear larger when she is holding Christ to show she is protecting him.

These are not all of the devices used in Icons, but sufficient for this discussion. More information can be found in any of a number of book on Icons and Iconography.

Next we will look into one Icon to see what the Iconographer is trying to say to us.

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