Summary of Stylistic Elements of Icons

Icons reflect creation redeemed, the ideal of man, eschatological man, pure without sin in contrast with man of the fallen world. Man is shown in Heaven as described in the Book of Revelation and also as reported during the Transfiguration. Here are some typical characteristics of the iconographic style:

Exaggerated Features:  eyes, ears, nose are typically lengthened to show that a saint is one who contemplates divine mysteries, hears the word of God and follows it, smelling the fragrance of paradise.

Reduced Size of Expressive Body Parts:  mouths and hands are smaller because a saint always listens and considers information with wisdom, before acting. Lips and gestures can be smaller and more refined because saints are full of divine power, so their words and deeds are very potent. They do not need to do or say much for a lot to happen. The emphasis is on saintly humility, without drama or self aggrandizement. (Fingers are the exception, however, as they are pictured as long and graceful.)

No Emotion – because a Holy person is calm, all knowing and doesn’t need to emote.

Saint is the source of light – icons show no shadow and no glint of reflected light in the eye of a Holy person, because they do not need created light. The saint is the source of light itself.

Position – full frontal or ¾ view. A Holy person is never shown in profile to ensure face-to-face interaction with the viewer.

Two Dimensional – because the icon represents another world without space and time, there is no need for naturalism of three dimensionality.

Two Dimensional Flatness helps the viewer to pass through the image in unity with the Holy person. Flatness denotes Heaven and the fullness of God, where there is no time and space.

Hierarchical Perspective – denotes spiritual importance – Christ is always the focal point, then Mary, all else is subordinate, which is why trees, rocks and mountains may depicted in icons as bowing to them.

Multiview Perspective – (AKA axonometric) allows for the front and back of buildings to be shown simultaneously because when we look at something of absolute purity, our knowledge does not need to be restricted by reality.

Sacred Geometry is used to order the icon for a well-balanced composition.  The relationships follow Pythagorean ratios of 1:2, 2:3, 3:4.

How to Read Christian Iconography – Symbols & Saints

Iconography in terms of symbols – A truly comprehensive resource for the iconography community, this secular website enables the viewer to learn how to identify symbols and saints in medieval art and read the legends behind the saints’ pictures. Everything is beautifully linked and has an extensive bibliography.

www.christianiconography.info

This site was prepared by Richard Stracke, assisted by Claire Stracke, for the Department of English and Foreign Languages at Augusta University. Dr. Stracke is Emeritus Professor of English in the Department, and Mrs. Stracke is a veteran of Davidson Fine Arts School and of several projects like this one.

Dual Nature of Christ

Christ Pantocrator
Christ Pantocrator
Composite images of both sides of Christ’s face

The Christ Pantocrator of St. Catherine’s Monastery at Sinai is one of the oldest Eastern Roman religious icons, dating from the 6th century AD.

Did you think that maybe the artist didn’t quite get the eyes right? There is a reason for that. Just like there is a reason for every brushstroke in iconography.

Many agree that this icon represents the dual nature of Christ, illustrating traits of both man and God, perhaps influenced by the ecumenical councils of the previous century at Ephesus and Chalcedon.

Christ’s features on his left side (the viewer’s right) are supposed to represent the qualities of his human nature, while his right side (the viewer’s left) represents his divinity

His right hand is shown opening outward, signifying his gift of blessing, while the left hand and arm is clutching a thick Gospel book.