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— Marcia Vinje

Theology of Icons                                  
Kinds of Marian Icons
Veneration of Images


The icon, from the Greek word for image, is a particular type of church art which is indispensable to Eastern Christian spirituality. The two dimensional art pieces which grew out of the culture of the Byzantine Empire, portray only religious themes--The Trinity, angels, sacred events, or the transfigured humanity of Jesus, the Mother of God (Theotokos), and saints. They are found in churches, at wayside shrines, and in homes; they are used for liturgy or private devotion.

As liturgical art, icons are not just decoration, but a visual aid for worship and part of the liturgy. Rather than personal works of art that seek to express an individual artist's view, the icon expresses the historical church, its traditions, and Scripture. They are made and used in an atmosphere of prayer, bringing the people of God into an encounter with his presence. The artist is not so concerned about exterior resemblance to the subject, as to capturing the essence and spirit of the person or event portrayed. Strict rules of subject and technique secure a timeless and universal quality of the icon which expresses the mystery of the divine. Since authenticity is essential in an icon, there are a few classic forms which are repeated, and yet one cannot claim that icons are only copies. They seek to express the one and only revelation of God, inviting the viewer to adapt to God's manifestation of beauty rather than a human interpretation of it. The process of development is not how to be different, but how to be better.


Theology of Icons

Theology, the study of God in words, and iconography, the study of God in images, are two major expressions of one single faith, or we might say that an icon is a visible gospel. Eastern Christians do not emphasize the "word" as much as Western Christians do, but experience God as BEAUTY which reveals divine order. In making icons, therefore, the artist attempts to show this beauty and glory of God in relation to the human person, and human life immersed in God transfigured by his presence.

The theology of the icon is based on the Incarnation, the revelation of the Image of God in the human form of Jesus Christ. This first icon was one made without human hands and revealed in the temple of Christ's body. By imitating the divine artist, the iconographer not only participates in sacred creation, but theologically asserts the reality of Jesus' humanity.

The icon of God likewise exists in each of us, for we, too, are made in God's image. This gives man the ability to communicate with God, to be transformed by his presence, and become like God, participating in his divine character. As a bridge of prayer between God and the human person, an icon gives the viewer the occasion to commune with the divine.

Icons of the sacred not only set an atmosphere for prayer, but by contemplating the holiness of the person represented in the icon, one can experience the presence of God which is "contagious." One becomes aware of praying and worshipping in the presence of angels and saints. Icons are used to enhance the beauty of the church, but also to teach us about our faith initially and then to remind us of this teaching. By bringing us in contact with holy persons, we are enthused to imitate them, helping to transform and sanctify us. Ultimately the icon is a means of worshipping God and venerating his saints.

The painted wood or wall has no value in itself if the believer is not put in a relationship with God. The icon is not just a symbol or reminder of a holy person, but has the character of an epiphany, manifesting the presence of God through the transfigured subject of the icon who is shown as redeemed and participating in God's light. These people revealed the image of God in their lives in an eminent way. Now they invite the viewer into a communion with them and through them with God. Bringing us into living encounter with the person represented, an icon becomes a door to sacred time and space.

An iconographer by definition is Christian, for he attempts to portray the dogmas of his faith. Because the artist does not reproduce what he sees but what he understands about the essence of life, he has to be a person transformed by prayer in order to perceive a universe that has been transfigured through Christ. God is asked to inspire the artist and guide his hand. Because God is the true artist, icons are not signed by the iconographer.



According to legend Jesus himself produced the first icon. King Agbar of Edessa, a leper, heard of Jesus' healing powers, and sent a messenger to bring Jesus back to heal him. Along with a letter declining the invitation because of his pressing mission, Jesus sent the MANDILION, a cloth on which the image of his face was miraculously reproduced.

The second icon is attributed to St. Luke who portrayed the Mother of God holding her son. It is significant that this first icon of a saint was made from a model, not from the artist's imagination, so that it is an authentic image of the holy persons. There are even icons of this event that show Mary and Jesus posing for Luke as he paints.

The icon became most developed and established in Constantinople, but there is evidence of icons from the second century. Because of the iconoclastic struggle most icons before the ninth century were destroyed and now the earliest ones we have are from the fifth century. The icons combined Greek, Roman and Middle Eastern influences, quickly becoming an abstract, stylized form of art.

A combination of theological, political, and cultural elements contributed to the eighth century controversy over the veneration of icons. Emperor Leo III issued an edict in 730 ordering the destruction of icons, bringing into full blossom the iconoclastic movement. The iconoclasts, who wanted to destroy the icons on the charge that they were idols, were in fact Docetists who denied the reality of the incarnation. Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople, and St. John Damascene were among the famous defendants of the veneration of icons. In the west Pope Gregory II called a synod in Rome which denounced Leo, and Pope Gregory IV established the feast of All Saints to underscore the importance of venerating holy persons who revealed the image of God. In defending the icons, the Church was defending the very foundation of the Christian faith.

In 787 the Seventh Ecumenical Council, the second council held at Nicea, made an important distinction between the worship we give to God and the veneration we give to saints and sacred objects. Finally through the empress Theodora, the veneration of icons was publicly re-established in 843. In memory of this event the Orthodox Church celebrates the feast of Orthodoxy every year on the first Sunday of Lent.

It took a while to recover from the iconoclastic persecution, so the development of icons was steady but slow in the ninth century. From the tenth century when Russia became Christian, it became the center of traditional iconography. Byzantine artists traveled to Russia to share the treasure of icons, but it quickly developed its own distinctive schools, including those of Pskov, Novgorod, Moscow, and Tver. Andrei Rublev (1360/70-1430), who studied under the Byzantine master Theophanes the Greek, is the greatest of the Russian artists.

The three periods of greatest development in iconography are:

1) The Justinian era of the sixth century;

2) The First Byzantine Renaissance in the tenth to twelfth centuries under the Macedonian and Comnenian dynasties, during which iconography began in Russia; and

3) The Second Byzantine renaissance of the fourteenth century under the Palaeologan dynasty, which is the Golden Age of Icons. With Greek, Russian, Romanian, Serbian, and Bulgarian monasteries, Mount Athos is the place today to experience the variety of schools of icons.



In early Christian centuries a variety of mediums were used for icons: marble, ivory, tapestry, mosaics, gold, silver, enamel, terra cotta. Most commonly, however, icons are painted on a wood panel, which is prepared with a layer of gesso, covered with canvas, then a series of layers of glue and powdered chalk, and finally polished. The outline of the picture is traced with a stylus or, in Russia, sketched in red paint. The background is painted first, often with gold leaf, or a neutral color. Silver or red are not uncommon either. The figure is painted with tempera of mainly earth colors, painted in several thin layers. When completed it is sealed. The icons of antiquity almost never dried, thus collecting dust and smoke from burning candles and incense which blurred the image and added to its mysterious effect.

Reverse perspective, a method of structuring the figures according to (unseen) geometric outlines, arranges the lines of perspective towards the viewer in order to draw him/her into communication with the persons in the icon. The divine is expressed through circular structures and the earthly domain by rectangles. Usually there is a cross underlying the structure and the figures are arranged symmetrically so that the focal point is Christ or the Mother of God.

Icons ignore time and space. Rather the value of a subject determines its size and position in the general layout, with the possibility of portraying simultaneously scenes that historically took place in different times and locations. For example, in the icon of the Nativity, the main scene of the birth is in the center. Around it are smaller scenes of related events of the early life of Jesus. The importance of a figure will determine its size in the icon, so that one can quite literally speak of spiritual giants.

An absence of movement or shade gives the effect of freeing one of anything that would distract from communion with the divine. There is never a source of natural light, for God is the light of the transfigured world. To give the effect of divine light radiating out from within a person, the face is painted dark and then layer by layer, lighter. Accents in clothes are done with white or gold, rather than dark shades of color.

There are three main schools of icon styles:

1) From Constantinople with characteristics of asceticism and royal grandeur. Russian art belongs to this category.

2) From Macedonia which portrays more roundness in form.

3) From Crete which used subdued colors and whose subjects have elongated features.



Icons have a sort of shorthand in symbols that remind the viewer of fundamental beliefs. The name printed on an icon not only signifies the presence of the person portrayed, but also is a seal of holiness and blessing. The pose of an icon usually shows the subject looking into the eyes of the viewer with a serious, matter-of-fact expression, since one tried to portray the spiritual, not human qualities of the saints. On the other hand, if a person stands in profile, it indicates one who is not open to the divine or has not yet reached holiness. When a hand is raised in blessing with the last two fingers touching the thumb, one is reminded of the divine and human natures of Christ.When the blessing shows the ring finger touching the thumb, the Trinity is called to mind.

Color, as the expression of rainbow light, is very symbolic in iconography. GOLD, color of the noonday sun, reveals the divine light which permeates all of the transfigured world and is the color for Christ himself. It is most commonly used as the background of an icon, creating a space that is out of the dimensions of this world. WHITE represents the light, the eternal, those who are penetrated by the divine light, and purity. It is the color of the Father because he was never incarnate but always invisible. BLUE is the color of faith, of transcendence, humility, the mystery of divine life. Blue and white are the colors of the Virgin Mary who is detached from this world and centered on the divine. RED signifies youth, beauty, wealth, health, love, and war. It is the color of the Holy Spirit, of sacrifice and of altruism. On its other side it can express hatred, pride or hell. PURPLE is both royal and priestly. GREEN, derived from plants, symbolizes spiritual regeneration, peace and calmness, and is often used for the prophets and of John the Evangelist who herald the Holy Spirit. Pure YELLOW stands for truth but pale yellow for pride, adultery and betrayal. BROWN is the tone of the earth, the transfigured land, or as in the case of monks' habits, shows a slow death to the world, like decaying leaves. BLACK is the denial of all light so it suggests chaos, anxiety, and death, but in contrast promises the coming light and new creation. The damned are painted black and sometimes demons.

Categories of saints are distinguishable by their clothing, objects in their hands, and age. Evangelists wear tunics and display their books. Bishops, dressed in liturgical vestments hold a book or scroll. Monks are clothed in a habit and stand straight and disciplined like columns. Soldiers might be in a position showing movement, clad in military uniform and carrying weapons. Bishops and monks are portrayed well advanced in years; soldiers, doctors and women are young. Individuality of particular male saints is indicated by the color, length and style of hair and beard.Women are usually indistinguishable except by the name written on the icon.

Spiritual wisdom and the power of the Spirit are detected in the large forehead, and the overall slender appearance reveals fasting and asceticism. The figures are abstract and unnatural to remind us that on our own we do not approach God, but that he takes the initiative to draw us to himself. The light in an icon seems unrealistic because it comes from within the holy person, revealing the transfiguration of man.


Kinds of Marian Icons

The most common types of Marian icons are:

HODIGITRIA means "Pointer of the Way" or "Guide of the Church." This style is associated with Mary's words at the wedding feast of Cana, "Do whatever He tells you." The mother points to her child as if to say, look at Him, not me. Wearing a veil with three stars, on her forehead and each shoulder to signify that she is ever-Virgin, Mary's attitude is one of majesty. Christ is pictured as a small but mature person who looks straight at us and blesses us. This is an icon which portrays the dogma of the Theotokos, the one who bears God. The Greek letters are an abbreviation referring to the Mother of God and Jesus Christ. According to legend, the first Hodigitria was painted by St. Luke.

The ELEOUSA (tender touch) is a variation of the Hodigitria. Mary bends her head toward Jesus but looks at us, at the world to whom she presents her Son. The faces of mother and child touch. Jesus focuses His attention on His mother, embracing her with one arm, sometimes holding a scroll with the other hand. This icon demonstrates the reality of the physical motherhood of Mary and thus her power to evoke her Son's tenderness.

A variant of the "Virgin of Tenderness" above is the Galactotrophousa or "Holy Milk-Giver" shown to the far right.

The BLACHERNITISSA, "Mother of God of the Sign," is named after an ancient, important shrine of Mary in Constantinople. The Mother of God faces outward with her hands raised in an attitude of prayer, an image that developed out of the pieta, a praying figure with hands raised toward heaven. This prayer position is also known as the Orante.

On her breast is the Christ Child enclosed in a circle, variously interpreted as her womb, or an embroidered medallion such as an empress would have worn as a sign of the emperor's authority. This is THE icon of the Incarnation and is connected with the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, "The virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel."

A variation of this type is the PLATYTERA, "greater than the heavens," portraying the Virgin in the orante position with arms raised in prayer. It is the icon used behind the main altar in the Orthodox church.


The KYRIOTISSA is the enthroned Mother of God. Mary is seated with the holy child on her lap, appearing solemn and majestic. Often archangels are pictured, either as bodyguards or in positions of veneration.

The NIKOPEIA shows Mary either standing or sitting, stern and regal, holding the Child before her with both hands. he image below, a variant of the Platytera, served as the mascot for the armed forces of the Byzantine empire. Sometimes a Galactotrophousa [Milk-Giver] style was used instead to represent this theme of the 'one who brings victory.'

GENESIUS portrays the event of the birth of Christ. Mary is shown reclining in such a way as to emphasize that she suffered no pain in childbirth. Her Child lies in the manger beside her. Encircling this main focal point are smaller scenes of the early life of Jesus.

The CRUCIFIXION scene shows a divine Christ on the cross, with Mary standing quietly and with self-possession at his right side, one arm slightly raised toward her Son. Sometimes the other hand is hidden in her veil and held up to her face in grief. Remaining dignified, she is sad but not hopeless.

The ASCENSION shows Mary in the center of the apostles, set apart by a halo and two angels in white behind her. She looks straight forward in an attitude of prayer while the apostles gaze upward at the ascending Christ or to Mary.

The scene of PENTECOST sometimes shows Mary with the apostles as the Holy Spirit descends on them.

The KOIMESIS (or Kemesis) is the icon of the Dormition or falling asleep of Mary. It shows her lying on a couch which is covered with the same red material as at the nativity, surrounded by the apostles. Standing just behind her is Christ holding a small child clothed in white, symbolizing Mary's soul.

Other icons related to Mary are those that portray her four great feasts: her Nativity on September 8, her Presentation in the Temple as a child on November 21, the Annunciation on March 25 and the Dormition on August 15. She is also shown in icons of the two feasts she shares with Jesus: His Nativity on December 25 and His Presentation in the Temple, known in the Orthodox Church as the Meeting, which is celebrated on February 2. On the day of a feast, the appropriate icon is solemnly enthroned and venerated.Anniversaries of miracles associated with icons are also celebrated in liturgy.CALENDAR ICONS are calendars that picture a saint for every day of the year.

The ICONOSTASIS, a screen of icons separating the sanctuary from the nave, is one of the most important parts of an Eastern-Christian church. In Byzantium it had two rows of icons. Since it arrived at its classic form in the sixteenth century in Russia, it consists of five rows of icons that summarize the history of humankind and of salvation.

Legend for the Iconostasis Schema

1) Christ. 2) Virgin Mary. 3) St. John the Baptist. 4) An gels. 5) Saints. 6) Series of feasts. 7) Apostles. 8) Prophets. A) Annunciation. E) Evangelists. C) Christ Jesus. M) Virgin Mary. Row 1 centers on an icon of the Trinity flanked by twelve patriarchs, the earthly ancestors of Christ. Row 2 depicts Our Lady of the Sign revealing the incarnation, with twelve prophets who announced his coming. Row 3 are icons of feasts which celebrate the mystery to which the above rows witness. Row 4 has the Deisis, an icon of the glorious Christ in the center with Mary on His right side, pointing to Him, and John the Baptizer on His left. Behind each one is a train of angels and saints, their hands raised in a gesture of prayer to intercede for all people. Row 5 is called the local. In the center is the holy or royal door, the central door to the sanctuary of the church, with icons of Jesus and the Theotokos. To the side are icons of the saint or event to which the church is dedicated. This bottom row is the object of veneration through kisses, touch, candles or incense. The iconostasis gives a sense of history and links the liturgy on earth with the eternal liturgy in heaven. One has the sense of being united with the Communion of Saints.

A TRIPTYCH is a sort of miniature iconostasis for the home, giving the same effect as opening the holy doors to reveal the sacred mysteries.


Veneration of Images

In a time when the general population was illiterate, those who could not read Scripture could meditate on a picture to learn their catechism. Images of saints reminded the congregation how specific heroes had applied the teaching of Jesus in a variety of ways, and hopefully would inspire them to do the same. More than lessons in history or dogma, a sacred image brings people into personal contact with the holy. Needs are entrusted to the intercession of the Mother of God and saints that they might join in prayer with them. When a particular image is connected with answered prayers, the faith of the people grows, and more and more join the community of those who prayed before, perhaps for generations or even centuries.

As embodied persons we need tangible signs to unite us with the divine. An icon of itself does not magically answer prayers. It is a sacrament that channels divine energy into this world of space and time. As the shadows of the apostles could be signs of special presence and work miracles, so can miraculous power radiate from the icon of a saint. Often icons are related to a special blessing or event, perhaps linked with a vision or are attributed to a miraculous origin. There are numerous stories of saints who miraculously appeared to pose for an icon and there are a number of ACHEIROPOIETES, icons not made by human hands, such as the one sent to King Agbar. Icons are invoked to protect against illness, prevent disaster, and save cities from an enemy. Most cities in Byzantium and Russia had a miraculous icon that was the patron of the city.

To show reverence to icons as sacred objects, people might kiss them, touch them, decorate them with flowers, a veil or candles. During liturgy, priest and deacon recite prayers before the iconostasis and cense the icons. There are special blessings for a sacred image that establish it as an icon. In the Orthodox Church it is enthroned in the sanctuary for forty days; when blessed it is anointed with holy oil used for consecration of sacred vessels or a church.

In the homes of Eastern Christians icons are given places of honor. They will be the focal point of the family transforming a house into a domestic church, reminding its inhabitants that the sacred liturgy continues in daily life. It is not just a decoration but a shrine which is venerated through touch, burning candles and incense.



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Photo Image Sources

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