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Rus: Orthodox Ikonography
by Donald R. Houston   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Saturday, November 12, 2011
Posted: Tuesday, April 04, 2006

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Ikonography of the Orthopdox church is specific, rigidly ordered & full of secular history as well as religous history.

Part 1

Principles of Ikonography

Orthodox Ikonography is governed by 3 basic principles. The first is pedagogical, the ikons depict by the use of lines combined with color what the scriptures and other writings of the Church described in words. Secondly, they function as a means for Orthodox Christian to focus their true devotion when worshipping. It is this coordination of the eye with the mind that the worshipper is drawn beyond the representation to what is actually being represented. Third, iconography is actually a sacramental ritualistic function. Being "symbolic" in an older and wider sense as the locus where Divine reality and actual reality come together. As you can see, what begins as a simple teaching and learning concludes as part of the great mysteries of the Church.

For the Orthodox, following the decrees of the 7th Ecumenical Council, ikonography is indispensible becuause it is ikons that teach us and bring us to the mystery of the presence of God in the world in a way which is unique to the visual arts. Ikons are not merely representations of a physical reality. They are not only simple "religious" pictures. They are actually "dynamic" manifestations of man's spiritual ability to redeem creation through beauty and art. The colours and lines of ikons are not meant to imitate nature. In raeality it is the artists aim at demonstrating that men, animals and plants, indeed the whole cosmos, can be rescued from their present state of degradation and restored to their proper "Image". All ikons are pledges of the coming victory of a redeemed creation over the fallen one. The Orthodox say this is because in Jesus Christ's Divinity & His humanity meet in one person. Because Jesus is the first & the primary mystery or sacrament, the way is opened for all created matter to become a vehicle for the presence of God and the grace of God.

Ikons are a visual manifestation of restored creation which was manifested by Christ in His transfiguration, and thus that which will be with God at the end of time. They are an actual and present disclosure of God's presence in our midst. Icons are a concrete reminder that the Kingdom of Heaven is not some futuristic concept of a mythological "pie in the sky", but also present at each point when time meets eternity. Thus ikons are the result of a spiritual vision which is informed with a purity of prayer and deed. Thus they a result of a spiritual vision because it has itself been formed by the uncreated reality manifested to the Apostles Peter, James & John in the Transfiguration of Christ, and as such are going beyond created reality.

In orthodoxy there are many famous centers of iknographic works. Some of the oldest lie within in in the Republic of Georgia. Others are located in Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Armenia, Serbia, Ukraine & Moldova. One of the most famous centers is now located in Sofrino, Russia. Many famous and beautiful ikons were and indeed still are crafted in Sofrino, which is located a shor distance from Moscow.

In Sofrino there is a small church ikon factory with a large number of artists whose work has received the full blessings of The Patriarch of the Whole of Russia, Alexii II. The Sofrino factory works for the Russian Orthodox Church and has done so since 1980. It is at this factory that the artists recreate the religous art of Orthodoxy in Russia that has been accumulated for well over a thousand years. These ikons are paineted by the "iconolclastic" rules of ikonography that many conservative and older Orthodox theologians believe to be the only truly accepetable ikons.

Functional History

Ikon Meanings & More Ikon History

The word Icon comes from the Greek word eikon which means image. Obraz is the old Russian word that denotes an ikon. Ikon is the same word that describes the creation of man in God’s image & likeness. Ikons are Apostolic, healing & pre-date all of the written Gospels. The first ikon was made miraculously by Jesus Christ Himself. The next ikons were made by the Holy Apostle Luke.

There is a wide variety of ikons extant today from the various ages, schools individual ikonographers. They also exist as well as from many specific locations such as St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, Holy Dionysiou Monastery & Holy Stavro-Nikita Monastery on Mount Athos along with many other historic monasteries in Russia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Armenia, Republic of Georgia and Macedonia where there are very famous as well as large selections of historic icons. The main centers of Russian ikon painting were the Kiev School, the Moscow School aong with the schools of Novgorod & Pskov.

Ikons were not only made in Greece and the Rus. The Georgian ikons pre-date the Rus ikons by centuries. The subject matter remains the same but the antiquity as well as the specific style are definitely different. In Bosnia, Bulgaria, Macednia and parts of Armenia ikons were made and they have their place in the ikonography of the Rus because they are revered as well as sought after as additions to collections of relic ikons in many well known churches & cathedrals.

Serbian ikons are just now becoming more well known. This is attributed to their exposure during the war between Bosnia & Herzegovina in 1992. Some 2000+ ikons were known to be housed in churches in Serbia. With the exception of only one, all were from the Ottoman period. It is the only extant example of icon painting in Bosnia dating from pre-Turkish times. This one is the processional icon of The Virgin Peribleptos, this image of the Virgin and Child is painted on one side with St. John the Baptist painted on the other side. It is more popularly known as the Cajnice Beauty. It is deemed a holy & miraculous ikon. The ikon comes from the Church of the Dormition in Cajnice, a traditional place of pilgrimage. It is the work of a Byzantine artist who was probably serving at the court of the Serbian king, King Stefan Decanski in the early 14 th century.

Ikons were carried by travelers, missionaries and were often use as holy gifts or even as offerings to churches, holy men or leaders encounteresalong the way by travelers. It is not unusual for an ikon made in Kiev to be found in Vladivostok, Arkangelsk or some other far flung location where it was carried by a traveler. This is readily seen by the famous ikons of Estonia. Estonia was and is predominantly a Protestant nation. During the time of Russian Imperial domination and again during the time of the Soviet occupation, ikons were carried into Estonia by settlers, military men & commercial travelers. A document of 19th century is an interesting case in point. An Orthodox priest serving at a church in Tallinn, Estonia writes a request to his superiors in Moscow. In this letter he beseeches them to send him ikons that are "brighter and nicer", because, according to his thoughts, the beautiful ikons are needed to be an influence to the local inhabitants thus helping to persuade them into coming over to the Orthodox Church.

Significant Period of Note

In the 17th. century Russian ikonography began to be more widely made as well as more widely known both in & out of the borders of the Rus. The 17th. century ikons show a more defined and polished style than that of their predecessors from the 11th-16th centuries. This goes along with the actual maturation of the Church in the Rus as well. Comparisons are made and seen between the varying styles with those of the 17th. century being the most significant in the sophistication of the art.

Ikons are not only painted. They are embroidered, carved, molded and cast. The painted ikons are the most well known form of ikons but the others so exist and are equally revered by the followers of Orthiodoxy in the Rus and elsewhere.

Part 2

Ikon Specifics

The Nativity of Christ

Ikons of this feast are the visual description of the Kontakion of the Feast. It is a visible representation & testimony of the fundamental dogma of the Christian faith: God has become part of the creation to recreate as well as to renew the creation.

The creation acquires at this point a new meaning as well as a new purpose. It is penultimate Transfiguration. Therefore all of creation is here represented before the Throne of God become man. The earth offers a cave. The light of the newborn child shines forth from this cave just as the light of the Resurrection will shine forth from the cave which was His tomb. The child is wrapped in swaddling clothes which foreshadow the grave clothes in which He will be wrapped after His crucifixion. The baby lies in a manger which is the offering of the wilderness. Thus the manna which was received in the wilderness by the wandering Israelites, is seen to have foreshadowed the bread of life given by Christ in the bread of the eucharist. The cave, the manger, and the swaddling clothes are indications of the kenosis of the Godhead.

The presence of the animals in the very center of the icon, next to the manger, recalls the prophecy of Isaiah "The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master's crib: but Israel does not know Me, and the people has not regarded Me." The Mother of God is depicted as the new Eve. Just as the first Eve became the mother of all living people, so the new Eve became the Mother of all renewed humanity. She is lying just outside the cave on a portable bed such as Jews of the period would have carried in their travels. She is clothed in purple denoting her royalty.

The angels glorify the new-born child & bring good tidings to the shepherds. In the top center of the icon is a star, guiding the Magi, with one of its rays shining down directly into mouth of the cave. This ray connects the star with a part of the sphere which goes beyond the limits of the icon, thus becoming a symbolic representation of the Heaven.

In the bottom part of the figure we see Joseph, separated from the main group because he is not the father. Joseph is contemplating the mystery set before him. We also see 2 women bathing and caring for the child. Thus we are instructed that this child was a child like all other children, with the needs and wants typical of all human children. it is thus that the entire creation, earthly and heavenly, joins in this hymn of celebration for the renewal of all.

Christ the Pantokrator

It is this is a type of ikon in which Jesus Christ is depicted as the Divine Son, who, having taken on our human nature, has restored our humanity to its Divine Image & likeness and thus he has taken that humanity to the very throne of God. In the Orthodox Church it is usually found in the Dome, the highest point in the building, on the Ikonostasis to the right as you face the Ikonostas of the Holy Doors , on the Deisis Tier. It is placed there for the veneration of the faithful. The ikon may be shown full length, or 1/2 length. It is called "Pantokrator" because He is the Ruler of All from the Greek pantokratoros meaning 'all powerful'. Typically this ikon includes ikonic depictions of Christ the Teacher, as well as Christ the King of Glory who will ultimately judge the world.

The ikon teaches us that Jesus, the Christ, is the Word of God made flesh. Unlike a secular portrait, ikons painted according to the canon reveal the Divine person Who is the second Adam, meaning of course that He is not merely human. He is truly human because He has restored our human nature to what it was before the fall and which now shines with the light of His Divinity. The Greek lettering shown in the halo surrounding His head is the Greek translation of the Hebrew YHWH (Yaweh - He Who Is) and is the name that was spoken to Moses from the burning bush. In this way Jesus is explicitly identified with God who delivered the Israelites from their long bondage in Egypt in the first Passover and in the Passover Seder (the Last Supper) delivers all mankind from bondage to the devil, sin & death. The colors & drapery of the clothing as well as the general shape of the ikon is taken from the canon & is used to depict our Lord so that the light appears to be coming from within Him rather that only or just reflecting off of Him. In the Dome ikon He is depicted surrounded by 6 winged cherubim, recalling the vision of Isaiah. The ikons of the Pantocrator reveal our Lord in every aspect of His humanity and divinity. They express the compassion and tenderness of the Saviour who is accessible to the prayers of man, as well as the Righteous Judge who will judge the world and the peoples with His truth.

Dormition of the Theotokos

A classical type of the Dormition in orthodox ikonography is by traditiona limited to representation of the Mother of God lying on Her deathbed, surrounded by the Apostles, and Christ receiving in His arms the soul of His Mother. Traditional Orthodoxy mythos states that all of the apostles except, Thomas, were present at the funeral of the Virgin. When Thomas arrived late, he was taken to the tomb which was discovered to be vacant. Traditionally ikonography does not depict any element of her resurrection. At times in answer to a desire to show equally the moment of the bodily assumption a depiction at the top of the ikon, above the scene of the Dormition, the Mother of God, seated on a throne in the mandorla that angels are carrying towards Heaven. Depicting Theotokos enthroned with Christ as co-redemptrix is not a part of the Orthodox Tradition. The multitude of angels present at the Dormition an outer border around the mandorla of Christ. The episode of Antonios, a fanatic who had both hands cut off by the sword of an angel, for trying to disrupt the funeral of the Mother of God, has his hands about to be restored by the apostles.

The Transfiguration

This ikon depicts Christ surrounded by a mandorla, representing the reality of heaven is manifesting itself. Contaned in the mandorla, depicted as an extension of His clothing, is a star-shaped pattern representing the bright cloud which surrounds Jesus and communicates the light to the apostles. The clothing of Jesus is bright white showing that the light comes from within Him rather than reflecting off of Him. Our Lord is shown standing on the peak of a mountain conversing with Moses and Elijah representing, respectively, the Law and the Prophets. St. John Chrysostom points out in his Homily 56 on St. Matthew that both Moses and Elijah had a secret vision of God, and that Moses represents the dead, while Elijah (having been taken up to heaven) represents the living. Jesus thereby indicates that He is the end (i.e. the purpose or fulfillment) of both. The three rays which point down to the apostles indicate that the activity taking place in the event of the Transfiguration is Trinitarian.

Peter is represented kneeling in a position to protect himself from the overwhelming light James and John are depicted as having fallen down also overwhelmed by this vision of Divinity.

The scene is aptly described by St. Paul: "But we all, with open face [i.e. uncovered faces] beholding as in a glass [i.e. a mirror] the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord."

Baptism of Christ

The Ikons of the baptism of the Lord are a reproduction of this Gospel testimony. The feast of the Baptism of Christ is also known as the Theophany, the manifestation of God, because itIkon1g is the point at which Jesus begins His ministry of salvation. St. John Chrysostom tells us "It is not the day when Christ was born that should be called Theophany, but the day upon when He was baptised. It is not through His birth that he became known to all, but through His Baptism. Prior to the day of his Baptism He was not known to the people."

The Baptism of Christ has 2 fundamental aspects: that on this day, the full dogmatic truth of God in 3 Persons was revealed to man. This mystery of the 3 Persons in 1 Godhead, is beyond all human understanding & it was here that it was made manifest not only spiritually but physically in sensory forms as well. John the Forerunner, heard the voice of God and saw the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove as the confrmation of this voice. Both of them testifying to the appearance among men of the Jesus, Son of God, in the Person of Jesus, the Baptised. Later Christ established the sacrament of the Eucharist while celebrating the Old Testament Passover, so on that day, while performing the act of ablutions established by the prophets, he establishes the New Testament sacrament of Baptism.

In the upper part of the ikon there is an arc symbolizing the opening heavens. This segment of a circle, the arc, depicts the presence of God, which is oftentimes emphasized even more by a hand blessing. Shown as being shed upon the Saviour are rays of light containing the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove.

The holy Fathers of the Church explain the appearance of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove at the Lord's Baptism by analogy with the Flood. Just as then the world was purified of its iniquities by the waters of the Flood and the dove brought an olive branch into Noah's Ark, announcing the end of the Flood. So too now the Holy Spirit comes down in the form of a dove to announce the remission of sins and God's mercy to the world.

Jesus is standing in the waters because according Orthodoxy, He allowed Himself to be washed in order to sanctify water for our purification. The water reflects and symbolizes the world as cosmos and life. It is also the symbol of destruction and death. This is the mysterious depth which kills and annihilates. It is the dark habitation of demonic powers. It is the very image of the irrational, chaotic, uncontrollable, elemental in the world. The principle of life, a life-giving power, and the principle of death, the power of destruction: such is the essentially ambiguous intuition of water in man's religious worldview. Lastly, water is the principle of purification, of cleanliness, and therefore of regeneration and renewal. It washes away stains, it re-creates the pristine purity of the earth. It is this fundamental religious symbolism of water - symbolism rooted in the self-evident and natural attributes of water - that permeates the Bible and the whole biblical story of creation, fall and salvation. Thus our Lord allows Himself to be cleansed in order to restore this fundamental element of the world, and to purge it of the demonic.

St. John the Forerunner officiates the ritual. His right hand is placed upon the head of the Jesus. This sacramental gesture is and has always been part of the ritual of baptism. Angels take part in this holy ritual. They hold cloaks in their hands thus playing the role of attendants during Baptism in an attitude of reverence before him Whom they serve.

The Vladimir Ikon of the Theotokos

In Russian the word "umileniye" expresses mercy, compassion, pity, tenderness and lovingkindness. The Ikon which is most closely associated with umileniye is the ikon "The Virgin of Vladimir" which was brought first to Kyiv from Constantinople about 1155AD. Sometime later it was taken to Suzdal. It was then that is was moved to the newly built Dormition Cathedral in Vladimir, and thus the name. In the 14th century it was taken to the newly built Dormition Cathedral in Moscow where it was kept until the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. This type of ikon became very widespread throughout the Rus. It became one of the principal themes of Russian ikon painting. It is one of the summits of Russian art. Neither French Gothic art nor the Italian Renaissance managed to put into this image greater warmth. They created images that were more carnal and fleshly, but certainly not more moving. Looking at the ikons of Loving Kindness, one is moved by a feeling of deep love and kindness. The Ikons of Loving Kindness are full of a truly natural human feeling of love and tenderness which is transfigured by the light of Divinity. They underline the fact that the humanity of the Theotokos is also the humanity of Her Son. It is an image of the Mother grieving deeply at the coming Passion. The Babe Himself is clothed in garments showing His pre-eternal Divinity.

St. Nikolas

St. Nicholas is one of the most widely loved, revered & venerated od all the saints of Christiandom. The honor extended to him includes not only the Orthodox & Roman Catholics, but Protestant denominations as well. He is honoured even by the followers of Islam. Within the weekly liturgical cycle of the Orthodox Church, in which each day of the week is dedicated to the Saviour and the different orders of heavenly and earthly sanctity, only 3 persons are singled out by name: the Mother of God, John the Forerunner & St. Nikolas. This is actually quite extraordinary since that he left us neither theological works nor any other written works. He did however leave with a tradition that is followed all over the wprld where Christians gather. His example of giving gifts as a remionder of God's gift to man of His Son, Jesus, the Christ. However the Church sees in him the personification of the shepherd, the one who is the epitomy of both defender and intercessor.

St. Nikolas was born to well known, well respcted and wealthy parents. He was taught the spiritual life by his uncle Nikolas, bishop of Patara, for whom he was named. He later became a monk at New Zion Monastery. At the death of his parents, he distributed all of their property to the poor, keeping nothing back for himself. As a priest of Patara, he was known for his charitable works. Even though it was his wish to lead his life in solitary as well as in silence, he was made the Bishop of Myra in the province of Lykia. Continuing his charitable works, he also endured persecution being imprisoned during the persecutions of Diocletian and Maximian. He was presnet at the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea in 325AD.

He entered into rest on December 6, 343AD and is commemorated in the Church on that day. Later in western European and American folk tradition he was transformed into a mythological person who gives gifts during the Nativity season.

Crucifixion of Christ

Christ is represented in this ikon as being naked, having only a white loin cloth which covers His loins. The flexion of the body towards the right, the bowed head along with the closed eyes indicates death. His face is turned towards Mary, depicting a grave expression of majesty in suffering. The cross has eight points, following a form Ikon1ccoresspoinding to a very ancient tradition. It is considered as the most authentic one in the East as well as in the West. The upper cross-piece corresponds to the superscription placed over the head of Jesus with the title, Christ - King of the Jews. The main beam supports His arms. The lower cross-piece is a bar upon which the feet of Christ were nailed. In response to the heresy of aphthartodocetism -- the heresy which said that Christ was "apparantly incorruptible" and therefore could not have really suffered on the cross -- the lower cross-piece was slanted to teach the unread that Christ really did suffer on the cross.

Ikons depicting such notable & revered saints include St. George, various Tsars, Tsaric family members, notables within the historical hierarchy of the Church along with certain others. Scenic ikons, those that depict events or happenings, may be presented as made of 2 or more parts ditychs or triptychs) or within a single part multiple levels showing the chronology of the events.

Ikons are the visual and physicalIkon1b representation of the intent and beliefs of Christian Orthodoxy, be it Rus, Greek or whatever. The beauty, the majestyn of the subject matter or the colors it draws attention and causes one to think, to wonder and to be awed by this art form like no other. Ikons are not all drawn and painted. Many are carved in stone or wood or today in plastics, molded in clay, cast in plaster, epoxies or precious and semi-precious metals, or embroidered on cloth. Whatever their media of presentation they remain among the best known and most reverred art pieces in the world.

Part 3

Subjects & Mediums

Orthodox icons are presently undergoing a Renaissance after the fall of Communist rule in Eastern Europe. Apart from their religious use ikons are highly coveted art objects for collectors for their beauty & charm.

It was the decrees of the 7th Ecumenical Council, which made ikonography is indispensable because they serve to teach us and illustrate to us the mystery of the presence of God in our world. Ikons are not merely representations of a worldly reality. They are not just simply religious pictures or religious art. What they truly are and become are totally dynamic manifestations of man's spiritual power to redeem creation through beauty in an artistic manner.

In this time many new mediums are being used to depict ikonography as never before. Metal alloys such as aluminum, pewter, stainless steel, & chromo-titanium are being machined, cast, carved, welded & otherwise shaped into the classic or neo-classic ikons that follow the basic parameters that govern ikonography.

Embroidered ikons go back many hundreds of years usually on silk or linen and with a havy usage of metallic threads. Today much of this is being not by hand in the time honored way but but by computer-controlled machines using materials such a nylon, acrylan, rayon, and other modern synthetic fabrics and threads.

Three dimensional carvings more like statues are being produced as ikons. Some are carved from wood but some use modern materials such as lucite, glass, lead and quartz crystals, leather, ivory, bone, many types of exotic woods. Some are still carved by hand but many are now being carved using lasers or other computerized machinery. Semi-precious stones such as turquoise, jade, malachite, rhodium & many others are being used as a medium for the ikonographer to present his/her art.

Traditional ikons are still in demand but the newer presentations, mediums and styles are equally being accepted and sued even in the churches and cathedrals. Modern ikonnographic artists are trained in the use and function of mediums never used prior to this time and their works are brilliant in style, composition and medium.

Many times one wonders exactly what is the subject matter of an ikon. What is it depicting or whom is it depicting? The ikons depict religious events such as the baptism of Jesus, the last Supper, the Crucifixion, the martyrdom of John the Baptist and other siants. Ikons are used to depict the arkangels, Apostles, the biblical prophets, members of the nobility who were consodered to be pious, holy & worthy. Events that depict happenings described in the Old Testament or the New Testament of the Holy Bible. Often times they depict the ancient Jewish forefathers of the Judeo-Christian faiths such Abraham, Isasac, Moses, David, Solomon and others. They can depict a biographical series of venets in a saint's life or another subject'slife as well.

Part 4
Ikonography Glossary

The word comes from the Greek language. Eikon means simply image.

The holy shroud in which Jesus was buried until his resurrection.

An Ikonostasis is an altar screen in orthodox churches showing ikons in a fixed order.

The Ikonoclasts believed that the display of images of God or other Holy persons or saints was blasphemic idol worshipping. And therefore all images should be destroyed. The Ikonoclasts were a strong movement in the Greek church until 842 AD.

Nikolas1 An Okhlad is a metal cover for an ikon. Only the face and the hands of the image are to be seen. In the 18th and the 19th century the area of the image that was not to be seen, was not painted any more.

A Hagiography is the biography of a saint in orthodox terminology. A Hagia is a female saint and a Hagios is a male saint.

Pantokrator comes from the Greek language. It means the "Omni-Powerful" or "Omni-Ruleing" and is a synonym for an ikon image of Jesus Christ. In this ikonographic image, Jesus is displayed with a beard, his right hand raised for blessing and the left hand holding the gospel. An image of the Pantokrator is usually found in the center dome of a church.

This is an iconographic image of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus on her arms. Jesus Christ makes a gesture of blessing.

Obraz is the old Russian word for an icon.

Theotokos is another name for the Virgin Mary. It means the "Bearer of God".

In the Christian belief this is the visit of the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary announcing to her that she was chosen by God Father to give birth to Jesus Christ, the Son of God.


Leonid Ouspensky, The Theology of Icons, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press

Leonid Ouspensky & Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press

Catherine Aslanoff, editor, The Incarnate God: The Feasts of Jesus Christ and The Virgin Mary, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press

Kallistos Ware, Mother Mary trans. The Festal Menaion, St. Tikhon's Seminary Press, South Canaan, PA, 18459
Nicholas Zernov ,The Russians and their Church

Svetlana Rakic, PhD., Bosnian Icons

Stefan Taaru, PhD.,Tallinn, Estonia, Ikons of Estonia

Ikonography URL's

© Donald R. Houston, PhD 2007-2011

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