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Iconography plays a central role in the Orthodox tradition. The interior of every church is filled with icons, both on the walls and on special stands and panels, including the iconostasis – the panel separating the nave from the sanctuary. The faithful physically interact with icons, venerating them, doing prostrations, lighting incense, candles and vigil lamps in front of them. Orthodox religious painting has evolved over the centuries into a unique art – inspired by the Holy Spirit, according to Orthodoxy – which is based on a solid theological foundation, and transforms natural reality into a higher conception of form. There is even a special feast dedicated to holy icons, Sunday of Orthodoxy – the first Sunday of Great Lent.
A lesson on holy icons can help teach young children the following important concepts of Orthodox iconography:
- Icons are different from any other picture. They are painted in a special way, and show our Lord Jesus Christ, His mother the Theotokos, the angels, and Christ’s friends, the Saints. They are golden, to remind us of God’s Heavenly Kingdom.
- Icons help us learn and understand everything about our faith.
- We venerate icons to show how much we love the persons depicted on them. We do not venerate the icon itself, but the holy person – the prototype – to whom the icon refers.
- We venerate an icon by kissing it and making the sign of the cross. We can also do prostrations in front of it. Additionally, we light candles or a vigil lamp.
- In the home we have icons and pray in front of them.
- Through the Grace of God, some icons perform miracles.
Holy icon crafts
We have created a separate web page dedicated to holy icon crafts, which includes many printable templates and detailed instructions on a variety of projects. Icon crafts have been proven very popular in our classrooms, as most of them incorporate two of the children’s favorite crafting materials: Shiny gold or silver, and gems! All the crafts are simple to make, and require common materials that can be found at any craft supply store. They are very versatile, and can be used – by changing the featured icon – not only on Sunday of Orthodoxy, but also on any other day.
- Orthodox icons are purposely not realistic. They do not represent the world as we experience it with our senses, but as it is in the celestial kingdom, transformed by the Grace of God.
- Every object on an Orthodox icon has theological symbolism and significance. Nothing is painted by chance or merely for decoration.
- Colors in icons have special meaning.
- The gold color is used abundantly in Orthodox iconography. It is not merely used for aesthetic reasons, but has a theological foundation, symbolizing God himself, and signifying His radiant light in the celestial kingdom where there is never darkness.
A few important icons
(all images Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons, see bottom of page for details and links to the original files)
Christ Pantocrator (The Almighty)
This is a very typical icon of Jesus Christ emphasizing His divinity, so His face often appears stern. The halo depicts His holiness. It incorporates a cross shape, to signify the Cross of Salvation. In other icons, on Christ’s halo the Greek phrase Ο ΩΝ is also written, which means “He Who is”.
Even though absent from this icon, another common letter combination on icons of Christ is IC XC, which refers to the Greek Ιησούς Χριστός (Jesus Christ).
Christ’s right hand is raised in a gesture of blessing. The fingers spell out IC XC. The touching finger and thumb also attest to the joining of divine and human natures in Christ. In His left hand, Christ is holding the Gospel.
Theotokos Hodegetria (Directress)
The Theotokos is motioning with her arm, directing the viewer to the Christ child, thus showing the way to God.
Around her halo we can see the Greek letter combination ΜΡ ΘΥ. It refers to the Greek phrase Μήτηρ Θεού, meaning “Mother of God”.
The Theotokos is wearing her standard colors: red on the outside (symbolizing divinity) and blue on the inside (symbolizing humanity). She also has three yellow stars, one on her forehead and one on each shoulder (in this icon only the forehead one shows). They symbolize her everlasting virginity – before, during and after the birth of Christ.
Restoration of the Holy Icons
In the 8th and 9th centuries, a strong religious and political conflict arose in the Byzantine Empire, a dispute over the use of icons, called Iconoclasm. The Iconoclasts objected to icon veneration citing the possibility of idolatry. Opposing them, the Iconophiles believed that icons preserved the doctrinal teachings of the Church.
The importance of icons in the Orthodox faith was theologically established at the 7th Ecumenical Council (Nicaea, 787). An Endemousa (Regional) Synod (Constantinople, 843), verified the decisions of the Council and ended Iconoclasm for good. The icons were restored in their rightful place and their veneration was solemnly proclaimed with a procession. The day was called Triumph of Orthodoxy and is commemorated ever since, on the first Sunday of Lent.
This is the icon depicting the event. The composition revolves around a smaller Hodegetria icon within the icon, which is carried by two angels, and surrounded by the young Emperor and his mother, the Patriarch, and many Saints who opposed the Iconoclastic heresy.
This is another common icon type. Christ Pantocrator is enthroned, and flanked by the Theotokos and St. John the Baptist, as well as other Saints and angels. They are all shown in supplication on behalf of humanity.
The Mother of God “of the Passion”
On either side of the Theotokos there are two angels with the implements of the Lord’s suffering: the Cross, the lance, and the sponge.
Don’t miss our page on the Saints, which offers some material that could also be used when teaching about Orthodox iconography. It contains a detailed explanation of how to recognize different of types of Saints in icons, with accompanying activities and games.
- Coffee with Sister Vassa video on Iconoclasm
Please note: We have had questions by some of our readers about using Sister Vassa’s videos in some of our pages. We understand that Sister Vassa supports some views that are considered controversial. The fact that we are sharing some of her videos doesn’t mean that we agree with the entirety of her online content. On the other hand, we do find the specific videos in line with Orthodox teaching and helpful for discussing the specific topics.
- Sunday of Orthodoxy, GOArch online article.
- A Reader’s Guide to Orthodox Icons, detailed website devoted to holy icons.
- The Meaning of Icons, by L. Ouspensky and V. Lossky, translated by G.E.H. Palmer and E. Kadloubovsky, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, 1983
Christ Pantocrator, 6th-century encaustic icon from Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai, anonymous artist [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Theotokos Hodegetria, 14th century icon, unkown painter, National Museum of Serbia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Deisis, 18th-century icon by anonymous artist, Greek Orthodox Church and Museum, Miskolc, Hungary, photo by Szilas [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Theotokos of the Passion, 17th century, anonymous artist [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Restoration of the Icons, 16th-century, anonymous artist, Benaki Museum, Athens Greece, photo https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/beta/asset/FgE33qgHO-3V1Q [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Special thanks to Sister Vassa Larin for allowing us to embed her video in our webpage.
Scrapbooking paper used in the illustrations: