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Icon Painting: Style and Significance, Technique

Updated on April 28, 2013

Icon, an image or likeness, is usually of a religious subject, and especially a small painted wooden panel characteristic of Eastern Christian churches. The term is derived from the Greek eikenai, meaning "to be like." In the Septuagint it refers to the character of man, who is created in God's image, and also to heathen idols. In the New Testament it refers to the portrayal of the emperor on Roman coinage, the horrible likeness of the Beast in Revelation, and Christ's being the image of the invisible God.

After the 4th century, when the early church finally overcame its Jewish-derived suspicion of all attempts to express religious events in visual form, it arbitrarily applied the word "icon" to religious paintings, mosaics, bas-reliefs, or other objects. Icons, used didactically to inform the picture-minded Greeks and Latins of "the mighty acts of God," played an important part in the rapid expansion of early Christianity.

Most early icons were frescoes and mosaics in churches for public worship, but there were also small panel icons for private devotions in church or at home. The displacement of mosaic by fresco in the Byzantine Empire in the 14th and 15th centuries gave great impetus to the painting of such panels. About the same time, the development in Eastern churches of the high iconostasis, or screen of panel icons, tended to increase their popularity throughout the Orthodox world. In Russia, the "Bright Corner" of the humblest dwelling had its icon, illumined by a lamp.


Style and Significance

Most icons reflect traditions of subject matter and style developed under ecclesiastical supervision at Constantinople. These traditions were influenced by Jewish and early Christian fear of idolatry, which culminated in the Iconoclastic Controversy; by the Neoplatonic emphasis on the spiritual over the material; and by stylization in Persian and Syrian art. Consequently, representations of Christ and the saints tended to be unrealistic, formal, stylized, dignified, and detached, expressing a sense of otherworldliness and the passionlessness so dear to Eastern piety.

Within these basic conventions, Byzantine icons changed in style over the years, and local schools of icon painting—such as Mistra and Crete in the Greek world and Novgorod and Moscow in the Slavic world—developed distinctive characteristics. Particularly outstanding were the icons of Theophanes the Greek and the Russian Andrei Rublev, both of whom worked in Russia in the late 14th and early 15th centuries.

It is especially in considering icons in Russian terms that one is able to understand the difference between them and other types of religious painting. The distinguished 20th century Russian theologian Georges Florovsky writes, "One is not supposed to look at sacred pictures, but rather through them, ascending mentally and spiritually from the image to the proto-type." According to the Russian historian Nicolas Zernov, icons are pledges of redemption and vehicles of the Spirit. Given these statements, we can understand why icon painting is described as a theological art. The Painter's Guide by Dionisius Phournagraphiotis sets forth the guidelines by which an icon painter's mind is kept "subordinate to the catholic mind of the Church." As Florovsky points out, "the true icon must be ‘impersonal’, since it is an'image' of reality, and not an ‘image’ of the painter's mind."

Considered in this light, the famous 12th century Byzantine icon Our Lady of Vladimir sets forth the splendor of maternal tenderness in unsentimental terms. On the other hand, many early 20th century icons in the Italo-Greek style, which attempted to preserve Byzantine traditions in an alien setting, lost the integrity of their models to gain in sentimentality.


The technique of painting panel icons was derived from the portrait panels found in Egyptian tombs of the Greco-Roman period. A board, often strengthened by wedges set in the back, was smoothed on the surface and coated successively with gesso, cloth, and more gesso. When completely dry, the surface was polished, and the figures were drawn on it. Color was then applied—in encaustic (hot wax) in many early icons, later usually in tempera (egg yolk). The background was often gold, symbolizing heaven, but various schools had individual preferences, such as red or pale ocher. From an early date many Russian icons were covered with embossed silver that was cut out to show the faces and hands underneath. Later, some of the covers were studded with jewels.


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    • Better Yourself profile image

      Better Yourself 4 years ago from North Carolina

      Very interesting hub, nice job!

    • whyjoker profile image

      whyjoker 4 years ago

      Thanks a lot Chris.

    • Chris Achilleos profile image

      Chris Achilleos 4 years ago

      Excellent work here! I love painting and have sold many pieces of my work! I have always had an interest to learn how to paint icons. I will be sharing this hub :)

      Voted up and useful!


    • Vacation Trip profile image

      Susan 4 years ago from India

      Very interesting hub. You have written everything so clearly. Thanks for sharing. Voted up.