Unpacking the Beauty of Icons in 8 Steps

Chances are that if you’ve been inside a Catholic church you’ve probably seen an icon, particularly if you ever go to an eastern rite.

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Icons depict holy men and women, as well as many famous stories from the bible. At first glance they can look a bit odd, primitive or even ugly but the more you find out about this ancient and sacred art the more their beauty and purpose is revealed. Here are eight things you may not know about icons that can help you get so much more from them.

1. The unique perspective

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When you look at most images today, they have been created with an illusion of depth. This was started during the Italian Renaissance by the architect Brunelleschi and transformed the picture into a stage on which the subject is placed like an actor. In icons, however, the compositional lines show things from all angles, as God sees them. This reminds us as we view the image of God’s omniscient (all knowing) and omnipresent (everywhere present) nature.

2. The light in Icons

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When you see an icon, the backdrop is practically always golden in colour and the characters cast no shadow. This isn’t because iconographers were unable to implement these techniques but because the figure is filled with the light of God. The gold around the characters represents the spiritual light of God that illuminates all and transfigures (changes) the physical. The halo is a symbol of how, through the grace of God, the character has been transformed into a temple of the Holy Spirit and the love, joy and presence of God is literally radiating out of them they are so full of it!

3. The Colour of Icons

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Colour of clothing and surroundings is always chosen to reflect a person’s spirit and identity; very rarely is it used to reflect the actual colour of something. For this reason, the colours of certain items like hills or buildings can often appear otherworldly. An example of how this works is when you look at icons of Christ the Saviour; Jesus wears a red robe covered with a blue robe. The red signifies his humanity, the blue his divinity. Saints too are usually wearing colours that are particular to each one of them and their lives.

4. The strange proportions in Icons

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The large eyes, thin noses, small mouths and large ears of Jesus Christ and His saints are common features of iconography and they represent the refining of senses away from the materialistic vision of the world towards a spiritual one. We are constantly being called to see God and love in others and the world. We are constantly being called to listen to Gods guiding voice. The smaller mouth reminds us that the wisest and life-giving path is to first receive from God before we act or speak.

5. Viewing an icon

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In an icon, the most important part is that with the greatest focus on the divine. The eye may look over all the different aspects of the image and learn much from all its different elements, but it will ultimately come to rest on that. Instead of trying to reach out and seize the meaning, it is best to stand peacefully before the icon and let the meaning come to you. Icons are a ‘showing forth of God’ and after some time spent in contemplation we find it draws us into a deep and meaningful understanding of some topic. For this reason, icons are often known as ‘doors to paradise’.

6. Levels of Meaning

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An icon has many levels of meaning to it. Although they are not symbolic pictures in the traditional meaning of the phrase, the images often contain elements that draw the viewer to deeper levels of contemplation. Two ways they do this are the choice of topic itself and the layout of the image.

An example of a topic could be an icon showing the raising of Lazarus; it can be seen as both a literal representation of the event and a call to leave the life of ignorance and sin and be reborn into the spiritual life. The layout of the image can show deeper meanings in many different ways. Almost any icon of Mary will have her with her son and have at least one of her hands pointing towards him. This very simple layout indicates how Mary always guides us to Christ and is never to be the object of worship.

On a deeper level, even the shape in which the image is drawn can put across beautiful theological points, such as a circle in the right context representing the eternal nature of God and his love. All items within the image tell some sort of story and, while many are obvious after a small amount of contemplation, others reveal themselves only after a person has done study into the story behind the image.

7. Praying with icons

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When we pray with an icon, it is important to remember that we are not praying to the image. Instead, the image, like the words of scripture, is a reflection that leads us to a deeper understanding of God and any others the image may depict.

With this in mind, choose an icon that attracts you and peacefully stand or sit in front of it. Direct your attention to it and resist distraction. Let your eyes wonder as they will across the icon, taking note of key features, postures and items held. Contemplate these things and, in doing so, you bring yourself to a greater intimacy and understanding of the depicted person or event. Allow your prayer to take its course but, in this special sacred time, petition God for your own and other’s needs. If the icon is of a saint, ask the said saint to pray to God for these petitions, as well as their being in the presence of God now makes them much more adept at praying to God than us in our present state.

Icons can be best understood if they are contemplated while listening to the liturgy and hymns of the particular festival with which they are associated.

8. Where to find Icons

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As mentioned before, there is normally at least one icon in most Catholic churches. My personal favourite place to go pray with icons is the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Cathedral here in London. The cathedral is a Catholic one that celebrates the Byzantine rite instead of the Roman one, and for this reason has loads of icons which are fantastic for drawing you into a deep, contemplative prayer – especially when they celebrate the Divine Liturgy (the Eastern Catholic version of Mass). Icons can also be bought at many Catholic shops, which is great as this then allows you to create a small shrine in your room as a great way to sanctify daily life!

Disclaimer: Icons have so much meaning and depth to them and, while I have tried to cover as many areas as I can in this post, it soon became apparent that if I was to write about all their areas of beauty I could very easily write a book with just my own limited knowledge – and I don’t want to keep you here for that long! Two areas well worth finding out more on are the history and creation of Icons. If there are any more areas you think could be expanded on, or have been missed out, I encourage you to share them in the comments so that we can all grow in appreciation of this sacred art together!