Art of the Icon

‘We do not have to be experts in art to tell at a glance that the art of the icon is radically different from any other art form. It has neither the realism of classical Greek and Roman art nor the mystical feeling for the "Great All," which is so characteristic of Chinese art. It is neither concrete nor abstract. It is neither western nor eastern. In fact, it is both at once. The Byzantine art form which is expressed in an Icon seeks to portray the Invisible made visible. The abstract of the East and the concrete of the West meet in the Person of Jesus Christ, God made flesh.


Iconographic art is strictly Christian art. It began to flower in the fourth century, as Christianity emerged from under the shell of the pagan Greco-Roman civilization. It received its impetus at the imperial city of Constantinople, a city which boasted it had never known a pagan temple. And it came into its first full bloom in the sixth century during the reign of the Emperor Justinian I.


An Icon seeks to make visible the borderline between heaven and earth.  Its subject matter may be "in" this world but not "of" this world. Thus the picture becomes a sort of window into heaven.  For this reason a true Icon always has a rather flat appearance. There is no depth to the picture, and that is just what disturbs us about it at first glance. The picture seems primitive. A closer study reveals, however, that the picture is often exceedingly complex. The flatness, for example, is sometimes achieved by drawing perspective in reverse. The artist expects us not to look at the picture, but through it.


There are two distinct schools of iconography, the Greek and the Russian. In addition, many Western Romanesque paintings are local Italian, Spanish, and French variants of Byzantine iconography. Byzantine Greek iconography was the original model for all Christian art. The figures are generally massive, with clean cut lines and brilliant colors.


Russian iconography came into its own from the 14th to the 16th centuries. It differs from the Greek in its more subdued colors, curiously elongated figures, and heightened sense of rhythm to the whole composition. Northern Russian artists felt the influence of Scandinavian Romanesque art, while from the south after the Mongol conquests of the I3th century came Persian art. But basically Russian iconography remains Byzantine'.

Rev. Daniel H. B. Montgomery, St. Michael's Orthodox Church, Beaumont, Texas

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