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.
In the future, we are planning on developing a full resource page on holy icons and Sunday of Orthodoxy. Currently, however, we are concentrating on icon crafts, which 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.
- 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.
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! Detailed instructions, patterns and icons for the crafts can be found in the free printable file at the top of this page. 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.
Silver engraved icon
This craft is meant to imitate silver engraved icons. Teaching points that can be emphasized through working on it are: Holy icons can depict our Lord Jesus Christ and His mother, the Theothokos. In icons, both the Theotokos and Christ have a halo around their heads, to signify their holiness. The letter symbols around them – MΡ ΘΥ, ΙC XC – can be additionally pointed out, as well as the cross symbol on the halo of Christ (see icon descriptions below).
The craft is based on a 14th – century icon of the Theotokos Hodegetria from Serbia, now in the National Museum of Serbia. While making the craft, the Theotokos Hodegetria icon can be briefly discussed. The children will notice there is a painted surface and a silver engraved surface on the original icon, a look they will recreate when completing the craft.
While making this craft, we can point out that, on holy icons, we can see our Lord Jesus Christ, His mother the Theotokos, angels, and Christ’s friends, the Saints. Additionally, we can mention that icons can always be kept with us, and used when we pray.
The following four crafts can be used on any occasion. You can choose any of the icons provided in the printable, or replace them with your own. One idea is to search online for the parton Saint of each child, and provide them with their own patron Saint icon to make. If making the crafts for Sunday of Orthodoxy, it is a good idea to use the image of the Restoration of the Icons.
Mini easel and icon
The following three crafts offer a good opportunity to discuss the importance and symbolism of the color gold in Orthodox iconography (see Background Basics below).
Free-standing golden icon
Popsicle stick-framed icon
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.
The icons in the crafts
(all images Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons, see bottom of page for details and links to the original files)
The icons in the crafts have been carefully chosen to help familiarize the children with original Orthodox iconography. They are works of Byzantine and post-Byzantine artists and were chosen both on the base of their subject matter and their artistic quality.
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.
BASIC ICON BACKGROUND FACTS
Until we tackle the subject in greater depth, and in order to effectively use the crafts to teach about icons, some additional background facts can be useful:
- 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.
- Coffee with Sister Vassa video on Iconoclasm
For more, visit coffeewithsistervassa.com.
- 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.