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Thread: Iconography

  1. #1
    tWebber thewriteranon's Avatar
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    Iconography

    I've been thinking about creating this thread for a while. Even before I became Orthodox, I started really getting into iconography. I want this thread to be primarily informational; I don't want a bunch of big debates, but I'm happy to answer questions if I can. Icons in the Eastern Orthodox Church convey our beliefs, and understanding their symbolism illuminates the teachings of the Church.

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    I will start with this one, which is one of my favorite types.

    This is an icon of the Theotokos (Eng: God-bearer) with the Christ child. This particular one, with the Theotokos and Christ child embracing like this is known as the "Tenderness" icon. I love it because you can clearly see the special love between the two of them.

    You may notice that their expressions are rather blank, although I find there is a happiness or contentment that radiates from the icon. Blank expression is present in all Eastern iconography, since icons depict the saints in heaven, where they are passionless. They are no longer plagued by the passions of the sinful world, and their expression reflects that. This is not to say they're not "happy," but this is a more classical understanding of passion, associated with worldly sins and fickle emotions.



    The Theotokos wears blue with a red outer layer. The color blue here represents her humanity and the red represents divinity. This is not to say she is divine in the same way God is divine, but only that she has achieved theosis, union with God and His energies are poured out upon her. She has been made higher than the angels (as are other saints, although the Theotokos is considered the greatest saint), though she will obviously never have the essence of God. In icons of Christ, he wears the colors in reverse: a red base garment representing his inherent divinity (although in this case he is obviously fully God in both essence and energies) and a blue outer garment representing the fact that in the incarnation he put on humanity.

    The stars on her head and shoulders (one of which is covered up by the Christ child in this icon) represent her ever-virginity: she was a virgin before (star #1), during (star #2), and after (star #3) the birth of Christ.

    Like all other saints the Theotokos has a halo. The lettering beside it is shorthand Greek for Mother of God.

    Christ always has a special halo: a cruciform halo. That is, inside the halo there are bars that form a cross behind his head, indicating, of course, his eventual crucifixion and subsequent resurrection. It's obscured in this icon because of the embrace. Also obscured, but still present are the Greek letters inside the cruciform which say "I AM." This, of course, reminds us of the true nature of Christ: the great I AM who appeared to Moses as a burning bush. Next to Christ is more Greek lettering (IC XC) which is a Christogram, Jesus Christ. Sometimes there will also be present the Greek word NIKA which means "conquers" (or victory).

    In icons like this in which the Theotokos and Christ embrace like this, it reminds us of our relationship to Christ along with the actual relationship between mother and son. The Theotokos is the representation of our Mother, the Church. Christ embraces and loves his Church and the Church in turn loves him.

    I'm sure there is lots I missed in this icon, as I still consider myself a beginner, but I'll try to figure it out if you have any questions.

    "Fire is catching. If we burn, you burn with us!"
    "I'm not going anywhere. I'm going to stay here and cause all kinds of trouble."
    Katniss Everdeen


    Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast.


  2. Amen One Bad Pig, alaskazimm amen'd this post.
  3. #2
    See, the Thing is... Cow Poke's Avatar
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    Not my cup of tea, but interesting and informational.

    Every problem is the result of a previous solution.

  4. #3
    tWebber alaskazimm's Avatar
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    If you haven't already heard of this podcast, there is one Word and Table that comes at various issues from an Eastern Orthodox perspective. In particular one episode call "Icons" covers this and a few more icons and their symbolism. Living in bush Alaska where Russian Orthodox has a strong presence I've found the podcast to be quite illuminating. Although in actual practice here the Orthodox has been syncretized a great deal with animism (eg - during the 40 day memorial feeds they will sprinkle holy water on the food to bless it while at the same time taking a small portion of each dish to burn for the deceased to use on their journey) it's interesting to see what the actual belief is.

    Plus that particular episode dismantled my Protestant ubringing belief that these icons are worshiped alongside (or in place of) Christ.

  5. #4
    tWebber thewriteranon's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by alaskazimm View Post
    If you haven't already heard of this podcast, there is one Word and Table that comes at various issues from an Eastern Orthodox perspective. In particular one episode call "Icons" covers this and a few more icons and their symbolism. Living in bush Alaska where Russian Orthodox has a strong presence I've found the podcast to be quite illuminating. Although in actual practice here the Orthodox has been syncretized a great deal with animism (eg - during the 40 day memorial feeds they will sprinkle holy water on the food to bless it while at the same time taking a small portion of each dish to burn for the deceased to use on their journey) it's interesting to see what the actual belief is.

    Plus that particular episode dismantled my Protestant ubringing belief that these icons are worshiped alongside (or in place of) Christ.
    Thanks, friend. I love iconography and the richness of its symbolism, so I'm always happy to learn more. I know I've had the Dormition icon explained to me on more than one occasion and learned something new every time.

    Interestingly, sometimes Russian iconography is syncretized with Roman Catholic style iconography, which has some slightly different rules. Most churches actually have at least 1 "noncanonical" icon displayed and venerated (sometimes on the iconostasis!). Examples include the Virgen de Guadalupe, which is prominently displayed in Mexican Orthodox churches, despite being a Catholic image and not following some of the rules for depictions of the Theotokos (debatable, though), as well as the icon of the Theotokos famously venerated by St. Seraphim of Sarov, which violates the rule against depicting the Theotokos without Christ (except in certain circumstances).

    "Fire is catching. If we burn, you burn with us!"
    "I'm not going anywhere. I'm going to stay here and cause all kinds of trouble."
    Katniss Everdeen


    Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast.


  6. #5
    tWebber Thoughtful Monk's Avatar
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    Interesting. Thanks for sharing and I hope there will be more.
    "For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings." Hosea 6:6

    My time to be on TWeb is unpredictable. It may take a few days for me to see your post and respond.

  7. Amen Cow Poke, Celebrian amen'd this post.

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