What we now know as “icons” began to be made by about the middle to late 6th century as both a portable decoration and a teaching tool, since most of the people in the Byzantine world were agrarian and non-literate. In fact, there were some nations that had no written language at all and so pictures became the visible “word of God” or “Gospel” for them. Today, in accordance with Canons of the Orthodox Church an icon is only made of someone whom the Church has Canonized and who has been seen on Earth. The Orthodox Church does not recognize those Saints created by the Western Church after the Great Schism of 1054.
The problem of not being able to depict God the Father and God the Holy Spirit is overcome in a number of ways. In the most well-known icon of the Blessed Trinity, or Old Testament Hospitality of Abraham and Sarah, three angels, identical in appearance but wearing different colored garments represent each person of the three-in-one God. The Father is often shown simply as a hand, emanating from a cloud (Heaven) in the form of a Blessing, while the Holy Spirit can be shown as a dove or fiery flame.
Because an icon is really a Biblical story or Church teaching in pictures, naturally there is a great deal of symbolism in icons. The idea behind using symbols is nothing more than giving common reference points to something portrayed in the icon. Just as we associate a specific “thing” or action with most words in our language, so an icon’s symbols convey that specificity to an icon viewer.
For example: the Virgin is never shown in an icon without Jesus Christ also being present, because Mary is venerated “simply” as the Theotokos, or Mother of God…she is not venerated in her own right. The Virgin is always shown wearing garments in the style of a Byzantine Empress, the colors of which are almost always a deep purple or reddish brown, indicating that Mary is considered the Mother of the Earth. Only in Western church art is Mary shown wearing the blue and white garments of the “Queen of Heaven” – a title she does not have in the East.
Christ, when shown as a child, is always depicted as a miniature adult, wearing the robes of a philosopher. In fact, any person shown in an icon as a child always appears as a miniature version of the adult that person became later in life.
Many depictions of Christ as an adult show Him holding an open Gospel book or a scroll. On either of those, quotes from Christ’s own sayings will be written…sometimes just in symbols, as for example, those for Alpha and Omega…which make the entire statement of Christ’s life on earth…”I am the beginning and the end”…in other words, everything.
A subject who is a Martyr is shown clothed in red, or wearing a crown (and sometimes both). Pearls are symbolic of a Saint particularly venerated for his or her purity. Lapis lazuli when used either as a gemstone, or ground into a medium to be used as a paint, symbolizes Heaven and pure gold is always symbolic of Heavenly Light.
Many symbols are specific to the subject, as you will see in the commentaries on individual icons below. However, one “symbol” you will NOT see in an icon is the painter’s signature. All icons are written anonymously, and to the Glory of God. The closest thing you may see to a signature is the statement “Written to the Glory of God by the hand of (first name only)”. Ancient icons have usually been identified with specific painters only by their clothing, style and location of the original, thus placing them in an historic and geographic context into which the painter can then be placed.