Religious Icons in Special Technique & Their Value from Antiquity to Today

Religious Icons

Icon painting, also called izografia, is a type of Christian ecclesiastical artwork designed to create sacred images – religious icons. Such creations replaced the written word with paints.

What are religious icons? Ancient icons are not just sacred images of the saints: Christ and the Virgin Mary, but also of narrative scenes like the Baptism and the Crucifixion of Christ.

Modern religious icons can be made of a variety of materials including marble, ivory, ceramics, precious stones, precious stones, precious metals, enamel, textiles, frescoes and even mosaics.

Icons and Their Backgrounds

Birth of Iconography

The Greek “ee-kon” means “image”, “likeness”. Iconic works, however, are images created for prayers, generally, it is church paintings on wood.

The image is often referred to as “The book of Faith” and “a Theology in colors” throughout the religious icon’s history and history of Christ. The icon is often called the “Book of faith” and a “theology in color”. It has served as a symbol of the people’s faith in God and His help.

Its purpose is to reflect the Divine Essence in the human form.

Hence, the need for a strict system for icon painting and writing sacred images – the iconographic canon. It defines the composition of the image: how to build a composition on a particular subject, how to paint persons, acts, environments.

The Birth of Iconography

The creation of the first man-made icons paintings is linked to the Apostle and Evangelist Luke, who was not only an educated man, but also the depictor and icon painter of the first image of Our Lady.

The classical birthplace of iconography is Byzantium. It was from here that iconography, together with the Christian faith, came first to the Balkan countries and then to Ruthenia. Under the influence of Byzantine icon painting, all of the art culture other national cultures were formed, as well as the Orthodox iconography in such countries as Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Ruthenia, Georgia, Syria, Palestine and Egypt.

The earliest icons of the 6th–7th centuries – Christ the Pantocrator, the Apostle Peter, the Mother of God with the Child – have preserved the ancient encaustic technique.

Shape and Feature of Icons

Shape and Feature of Icons

Painting religious icons could range in size from miniature to monumental. Some icons were used as pendants that could be opened and closed.

Alternatively, icons may have been mounted on a pole or frame, and icons may have been more permanently frescoed or mosaicked in church interiors. In Byzantine theology, the contemplation of icons allowed the viewer to communicate directly with the saints, and through icons, one’s prayers were addressed directly to the requesting saint or holy figure. Among the requests were always wonders.

In the style component, the artist’s way of expressing himself or herself plays a more important role, which influences our perception of the pro-orthodox icon and makes us understand and better realize the purpose of the artistic image. It must be understood that each painting has a style that combines both the individual characteristics of the artist’s own method of painting and a touch of the genre, the era, the nation and even the school of the chosen school.

There are two main iconography styles:

  • Byzantine
  • Academic

Acheiropoieta Icons

These are the kind of icons of art that are created by divine providence. Acheiropoieta is a category of wonderfully created images that have enjoyed particular veneration throughout history. A considerable number of acheiropoieta appeared in the early Byzantine period, before the onset of iconoclasm in the early 8th century. The most famous aheiropoets are Mandilion, a white cloth imprinted with the face of Christ, and Ceramic, a ceramic tile on which the imprint of Christ’s face from Mandilion was applied. The ability for miraculous repetition was a common feature of the Achaeopoetes.

Symbolic Meaning of Icons

The Symbolic Meaning of Icons

The language of iconography is not a simple metaphor both in orthodox iconography and catholic icon art. For example, a religious icon in the form of a fish “fish of Jesus” is a sign commonly used to proclaim affiliation or kinship with Christianity.

What are icons used for? For people, sacred images become standards for how to see the invisible, supported by prayer.

The Conditionality of the Image

The nature of iconography painting emphasised the unearthly nature, spirituality in the appearance of the faces depicted on the icon. This determined the stylized proportions of the figures, the idea of transfigured, purified flesh inhabiting the heavenly world.


This is a necessary element of the icon, they express the image itself. Symbolically, East Slavic icons often have inscriptions in Greek for sacral identification of the image and name.

Disclosure of an Icon

What is an icon in art? In the language of iconography, the process of creating icons is presented as a symbolic process of the gradual unfolding of the image, as if the image already existed originally and the iconographer only reveals it to the world through his spiritual vision. For this reason, it was believed that the unbeliever could not reveal the image properly, in consequence, the icon could not be scared.


The foundations of Christian color symbolism were developed by the Byzantine writer Dionysius the Areopagite in the fourth century. Red and purple signify Christ himself and the beginning and the end of all things. Red is the color of Christ’s blood, the divine fire, and in Byzantium it is the color of royal dignity. In the icons of the martyrs, it can symbolize self-sacrifice for Christ.

Gold was perceived as divine, which is associated with the transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor, where His image appeared in a dazzling golden glow.

This color on icons was created not with paint, but with gold, as a sign of the Divinity.

White is a symbol of divine light, the color of holiness and simplicity.

Blue and blue are the color of heaven, of purity, they symbolize eternal peace.

Green is the color of the Holy Spirit, eternal life. Christ is always depicted in a cherry chiton and blue cloak, called himation, and Our Lady in a dark blue chiton and cherry veil – omophorion.

A Sign of Sin

In Christian iconography, sin and vice are denoted by standing hair, a traditional demonic hairstyle. Horns occasionally appeared only in the XVII century, but it does not cancel the loose curls. Such a hairstyle in humans means that they are sinners, heretics or pagans. However, if a person’s comb is dyed in the dark paint, it is a sign of demonic power.

The Right and Left Sides

In iconography, the right and left sides are not determined by the viewer’s point of view, but by the central figure of the image. Thus, the “right” part of the image is to the right hand of the subject figure, and the “left” part is to the left of the viewer. The juxtaposition of right and left corresponds to the juxtaposition of the Old and New Testaments. The figures to the right of the central image are always more significant than those on the left.

In the icons of the Last Judgment, the righteous are on the right hand of Christ, the sinners on the left.

Repainting of Icons

Repainting is the painting of a contemporary religious icon over an old one, which has its own sacred character. The point is that icons, even old and in bad condition, should not be destroyed. Sometimes they were buried in a cemetery, or let down by the flowing water, similar to a burial in a boat. However, people believed that rewriting the first image necessarily affected the second one.

Icon Painting Techniques

Icon Painting Techniques

The technique of icon painting is an extension of the mural painting. The icons are painted on carefully selected wooden boards. The panel may have a groove on the obverse, but this is optional. The board is then prepared for painting by soaking it with well-boiled liquid glue and gluing a special canvas or sparse hemp netting on it. The board is then primed with gesso, which consists of boiled oil and chalk.

This is followed by repeated sanding and a final surface finish with horsetail or, in recent times, glass paper.

Only after that, the ready board can be used for painting. The first pattern is made first, followed by a second, more detailed one. After that, the coloring proper of wood icons begins.

As in ancient times, icon painters use egg tempera on natural mineral pigments as paint or the easiest option – painting icons with acrylics. First, everything is gilded in gold or covered with gold strokes: the watered icons, the lampstand, the garments of Christ and the Mother of God, the altars. Then the painter paints the clothes, the buildings and the landscape. At the final stage, the persons are drawn. At the end of all the works, the icon in its painting technique is covered by a protective layer of linseed oil.

Some artists added amber to the linseed oil. The flaxen amber varnish protects the icons from scratches and gives them a deeper tone. However, after many years in a heated wooden church or in a candlelit “red” corner of a peasant home, the varnish darkens considerably and darkens the image. In the early twentieth century, restorers used fire to soften the lacquer on an icon’s surface. They applied some alcohol to the surface of the icon and set it on fire. The restorer could then scrape off the varnish and clean the icon.

Dispute Over the Veneration of Icons


A misunderstanding of the fundamental nature of icons in the eighth and early ninth centuries led to a dispute over the veneration of icons. The iconoclasts condemned the worship of icons, considering them to be idols, and worshiping them to be idolatry.

The icon-worshippers, in turn, restored the ancient understanding of the essence of the image when icons were considered to be the visible image of the invisible world.

They considered icons to be the visible image of the invisible and formless but corporeally depicted by the weakness of our comprehension. Through these spiritual works, we vaguely see divine reveals. The veneration of icons was confirmed by a dogmatic document of the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787.

The Christian Image in Icons

Antique naturalism disappeared, the image became more conventional, living faces were replaced by holy faces. A reverse perspective is used, i.e., the vanishing point is not in the depths of the image but on the person standing in front of the icon and a timeless image. There is no source of light and the figures do not cast shadows, for in the kingdom of God there are no shadows. All these features of the image were intended to separate the “heavenly” world from the “beyond”. To this end, it was also forbidden in iconography to paint the Virgin Mary, Christ, and other saints from a living person or according to the artist’s imagination, but only in accordance with the iconographic canon. Therefore, “exempla” – special manuals for iconographers where each subject was verbally described – were used.

Russian Orthodox Art

What is a Russian icon? And what is known about Russian icons’ history? The first known creation of Russian icons began around the 10th century in Russia. They were often painted by monks in monasteries. Many Eastern Orthodox icons are made of mosaics, metals and enamels or in linen painting technique – almost any material available to artists.

By the 17th century, Russian orthodox paintings had flooded the entire cultural and religious world. Icons hung everywhere: in homes, public places and churches.

The Museum of Russian Icon Art was founded in Clinton, Massachusetts, in 2006, and features over 200 icons.

The icon of Our Lady of Vladimir became a symbol of the era. It came from Constantinople to Kyiv in the early 12th century, but in 1155 it was taken away to Vladimir by Andrei Bogolyubsky. The icon became one of the most famous and venerated miracle worker icons in Ruthenia.

The Mother of God of Vladimir
The Mother of God of Vladimir, 1130.

People of different Christian denominations are interested in learning about iconography because they see it as a beautiful visual aid for prayer and want to learn how it works. Some want to learn the technique, some want to paint just one icon in their life as a spiritual journey. However, all those with serious intentions are struck by the spiritual power and mystery of icons.

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