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An introduction to the world of iconography

30 July, 2010

Sister Aloysius, an accomplished iconographer, explains the very special character of the icon and how interest in this sacred art form is growing in the West.

The word Icon comes from the Greek word eikon meaning image. It is the word used in the Bible in Genesis – “God made man in His own icon“. That is, in His own image. And again, St. Paul tells us that Christ is the image, Ikon, of the invisible God (Colossians 1.15).

Not many years ago it would have been unusual to hear anyone in Ireland speak of iconography, but today, happily, there is an encouraging interest in this ancient and beautiful art-form which has come to us from our sister churches of the Orthodox Rites. In fact, the Irish Association of Iconographers, started in Dublin in 1992, is steadily growing and flourishing.

After a lifetime involvement in Western art, my own serious love affair with icons began just seventeen years ago, when for the first time I felt their powerful, prayerful presence in Orthodox Churches in Eastern Europe. Their silent strength and stillness made a lasting impression on me, demanding that I stop, be still and listen – in the presence of the Holy. After that experience, other work in my studio gradually gave way to the writing of icons, requiring an entirely different approach and training.

(Archimandrite Zenon, Russian Orthodox theologian and iconographer, recommends a minimum of fifteen years of study under a master iconographer, with more years added if the aspirant has studied Wetern art.)

Making an icon
A panel of seasoned wood is selected, sanded and sealed with natural glue-size and covered with fine linen. Several layers of gesso are then applied. (Gesso is whiting or alabaster mixed with heated rabbit-skin glue.) This is sanded down to ivory smoothness to receive the lightly incised drawing, the gold and the colours (raw pigments mixed with white of egg).

The Icon versus Western art
The icon differs from Western art in many other ways. It is normal for a painting to be recognised by the artist’s distinctive style (brushwork, etc.). Iconographers, however, regard their work as a prayer, where style is irrelevant, and where the real author is the Holy Spirit, and so iconographers do not sign their work. They submit their talents in obedience to Holy Tradition and rules, with as much care and accuracy as a medieval monk transcribing the words of Holy Scripture. There is no place for personal interpretation. An icon does not reflect the author’s personality: it is a mirror in which the Divine is reflected.

Given the contraposition of the two artforms, it is interesting to observe the appeal that icons are having at present in the West. Leonid Ouspensky, in his Theology and Meaning of Icons (St. Vladimir Press, 1979) tells us that icons today often have stronger emotional appeal than the most famous works of Western art, Renaissance or modern. He asks if it because we have become weary of technically perfect optical illusions of reality.

The Icon and Western interest
Since the tradition of icon painting/writing is deeply integrated into the history and spirituality of Eastern Christianity, it is reasonable to ask why interest in it has recently grown in the West. Part of the answer lies in the 20th century’s ease of travel and media communication, together with the increased exposure of Eastern European countries to these phenomena.

Another explanation could be that fairly early in the century art restorers found the way of cleaning ancient icons darkened by centuries of smoke-soot, grease and over-painting, thereby revealing their original brilliance. And thirdly, with their senses bombarded by noise and visual stimuli, people today hunger for something with inner peace and deeper meaning.

The Icon and Celtic art
While all the forgoing is true for Ireland, another explanation lies in the tradition and discipline of ancient Celtic art. The ‘Sacred Geometry’ of the icon has a parallel in the grids and curves underlying early Irish art. Both ancient art forms are rich in multiple symbolism, and neither are interested in realism (e.g., The Book of Kells is so laden with spiritual symbolism). The symbolic language of our storied celtic crosses is the equivalent of that of the icon.

Symbolism is a means of seeing a deeper meaning behind the appearance. It means the gathering together of different levels of meaning to get the essence. The opposite of symbolism, (sym = ‘together with’) is diabolism (dia = ‘dividing against, scattering’). Symbolism is a representation that brings to light a hidden meaning.

In fact, every element in an icon brings to light a hidden meaning, simple yet profound. Even the basic materials of every icon have multilayered spiritual significance. The wood, with its linen covering, the egg used to mix the pigments, and the gold, together represent the natural world of matter: vegetable, animal and mineral, which are offered back to God in the work. They also remind us of the passion, death and resurrection of our Divine Lord:

  • the wood recalling the suffering on the cross;
  • the linen reminding us of the shroud enwrapping His dead body;
  • the egg being a symbol of the resurrection.

All the other components as well the features, hands and clothes of the holy persons depicted in the icon, the landscape, the architecture and the colours all of them have their individual interpretations, leading us to a different wealth of spiritual wisdom.


  • blue: eternity, infinity
  • green: earth and humanity
  • brown: humility
  • red: royalty, exalted, dignity
  • white: wisdom, innocence or invisibility
  • gold: the symbol of light and holiness – the situation in which the holy person in the icon now lives.

In icons the illusion of distance and size in the perspective of Western art is reversed, so that as we go deeper into the icon, away from our own view point, our spiritual perspective widens; we have the capacity of spiritual growth.

These are always visualised as open and often given irrational locations. God frequently sends us His invitations in unusual circumstances.

Hills, so often mentioned in the Bible, especially in the Psalms, are always holy places a place of ascent to God. In icons, to help this ascent the hills are stepped, and as a further help, each step is lighted for us. “The icon evokes a personal presence, and its symbolism shows this presence and the cosmic situation around it to be saturated with divine light.” (St. Clement of Alexandria)

The body is rendered with a gentle dignity befitting a temple of the Holy Spirit. The holy person is in the presence of God, yet turned towards us. As we pray he is very present to us not somewhere out in space. “The art of the icon is essentially a witness to an eternal presence, and each holy person like a sacrament of divine beauty.” (St. Clement of Alexandria).

The folds of garments, rendered in rhythmic order, are in some way an image of the inner harmony of the soul and body of the weaver. Leonid Ouspenski calls them ‘Vestments of Glory’.

Features and faces
All faces in icons have a similarity of expression, reflecting the face of Christ within. As we look, it feels as if it is we ourselves who are being seen as the eyes in the icon look deep into our soul. The ears are unnaturally bent forward – listening. The mouth is closed silent. The face of the saint is never in profile. The profile in icons is the beginning of absence.

An icon is often referred to as matter and spirit. Archbishop Gregorios, in his encouraging address to the Iconographers of Ireland in Galway Cathedral in May 2000, told us, that “An icon can be seen as a theological statement confirming the truth of the Incarnation whereby everything is open to sanctification and matter itself becomes a channel of grace by the Holy Spirit”.

Prayer is part of the process
All the above-mentioned contributes to the holiness that is imparted to the icon by the prayer of the iconographer when the work is begun and by his or her continuous contemplation as the work is in progress. Fasting, too, is strongly recommended. But, if there is any reason why we cannot fast from food, there is always an obligation to fast from noise and distraction. The atmosphere of silence is not merely negative the absence of speech. It is also highly positive an attitude of attentive listening to the voice of prayer in our hearts.

It takes time to achieve this, as it takes time to change our natural impatience to see the finished result. We should work on peacfully, knowing that the process is a prayer that should not be rushed.

When it is finished, the icon is given a solemn consecration, anointed with the sacred oils used in the dedication of a church and sacred vessels.

The blessing remains alive and active, waiting to be claimed by anyone who comes in prayer before the icon, in which, Archbishop Gregorios reminds us, there reposes an energy, a Divine Force.

The Irish Association of Iconographers
From its beginning in Dublin in 1992, we, the members of the Irish Association of Iconographers, have been guided by the expertise of trained and experienced masters of iconography. Under them we have learned the rules and techiques by painting exclusively from Greek and Russian prototype models.

The natural progression for some members is to want to paint/write icons of Irish saints. Because there are no iconic prototypes for these, this work has to be undertaken very responsibly, after prolonged research and prayer. Also with careful attention to apply traditional rules of materials and method, so that the finished icon is true to tradition, to dogma and to devotion.

We are deeply indebted to the Othodox Ecumenical Patriarch, Archbishop Gregorios, Archbishop of Thyateria and Great Britain, for his interest in our approach to iconography and his encouragement of our desire to be enriched spiritually by it.

More information about the Irish Association of Iconographers can be had from the Secretary, Colette Clarke, 10 Rathlin Rd, Glasnevin, Dublin 9.

Email: [email protected]