painting appeared not as art for art's sake, but for the Church.
Thus, its content was determined directly by the needs and the
purposes of the Church. These purposes were not material but
spiritual. The content of icon painting was interwoven with
the life, the evolution, and the whole tradition of the Church,
so much so that a knowledge of this tradition will be incomplete
without a knowledge and understanding of icon painting.
The faith of the Church in the reality beyond this world,
that is, in the truth of the spiritual world, defined from
the beginning the content and character of icon painting.
The Church was primarily interested in the beauty of this
spiritual world and, with the means it possessed, it tried
to interpret that world. The Church's transcendental content
was not the physically beautiful or the naturally good; for
this reason it did not try to depict the natural good and
beauty. The purpose and the ideal of Byzantine icon painting
was the expression of the category of holiness, which was
not made to appeal to the senses by being physically beautiful.
In Christian Orthodox art the beautiful is not determined
by the natural form of the objects, but by its sublime content,
that is, by its power to serve the ideals of the faith. According
to St. John Chrysostom, "Thus, we say that each vessel,
animal, and plant is good, not because of its form or color,
but because of the service it renders." Byzantine icon
painting did not copy nature nor seek the form or the color
as an end, but taking such technical and artistic elements
as were necessary for the believers to become familiar with
its spirit, succeeded, through an exceptional abstraction,
in rendering the more sublime meanings of Orthodoxy.
These basic ideas of Orthodox icon painting are the main
obstacles to our appreciation of icons. When we look at icons,
we are struck by their apparent simplicity, by their overemphasized
flatness, unreal colors, lack of perspective, and strange
proportions. At that moment we should stop and remind ourselves
that we are applying to icon painting those aesthetic criteria
which allow us to enjoy the works of the Italian masters of
the Renaissance. As viewers, we apply the familiar criteria
to an unfamiliar artistic expression. A similar misunderstanding
occurs when, used to "realistic" representations
which shaped our artistic sensitivity, we look for the first
time at abstract paintings by Picasso, Kandinskiy, or Pollock.
We are conditioned by the art of the Renaissance to appreciate
the architectural details rendered in mathematical linear
perspective, to admire the beauty of the human body, the lush
landscapes stretching far towards the horizon, and the still
lives with lights, shadows, and three-dimensional shapes so
real that we can almost pick a glass from a table or an apple
from a platter. In a word, we are used to see on the surface
of a canvas or panel something familiar, easily recognizable,
something which we can adequately analyze by using familiar
categories of perspective, color scheme, point of view, light
and shadow, and volume. Unfortunately, we cannot use this
kind of analysis on icon painting because, in contrast to
the art of the Renaissance, icon painting is not illusionist,
that is, it does not try to convince the viewer that the world
depicted on the panel is real, but, on the contrary, tries
to make sure by all the means it possesses, that the represented
is unreal, ideal, dematerialized. We cannot diminish the achievements
of Byzantine and Russian artists by assuming that they did
not know how to paint better. They simply consciously and
purposely employed a completely different convention of painting,
a completely different artistic language. To be able to appreciate
the spiritual depth of icon painting we must learn at least
the basic "grammar" of this language.
- Icon painting strikes us by the frontality of the figures.
This frontality brings the figures in direct relationship
with the viewer and gives the fullest expression to the faces.
- The faces of the saints have large, almond-shaped eyes,
enlarged ears, long thin noses, and small mouths. Icon painters
attempt to indicate that each sensory organ, having received
the Divine Grace, was sanctified and had ceased to be the
usual sensory organ of a biological man.
- Icon painting deliberately disregards the principle of
natural perspective in order to avoid at any cost the illusion
of three-dimensionality. Instead, it gives the impression
of complete flatness and the lack of perspective. However,
icon painting does use a perspective, called by scholars either
reversed or inverted, just to indicate that this perspective
is different than the illusionist perspective of the Italian
masters. Inverted perspective depends on multiple points of
view. But these multiple points of view are placed in front
of the painting, not behind it, which results in background
objects often being larger than the foreground ones and in
distortions in shapes of some of the objects.
- In addition to the inverted perspective, icon painting
uses the so-called psychological perspective which is based
on the principle that the most important figure in the composition
should be the largest and centrally placed. The viewer's attention
is drawn to what is central and larger rather than to what
is marginal and small.
- When icon painters depict an event which took place inside,
in an interior, they place all the participants in the event
outside, indicating in the background the walls of the house,
church, palace, or city. This allows them to "uncover"
the very essence of the event and give due to the participants
instead of having to deal with various interior elements which
could obscure the meaning of the events happening inside.
- Since icon painting is not realistic, it shows no natural
source of light and does not represent shadows. The only light
in icons is the inner light of sacred figures and the divine
light of Christ.
- Icon painting has the ability to represent several moments
of the same action (story) on one panel. In the scene of the
Nativity we can see not only the birth itself, but also the
arrival of the Magi, the shepherds spreading the good news,
Joseph being tempted by the devil, and even the servant women
washing the baby. Some scholars call this the "continuous
Other features of icons which help us in understanding their
meaning are simplicity, clarity, measure or restraint, grace,
symmetry or balance, appropriateness, and symbolic colors.