Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
By Jan Verdonk MD

An icon is a permitted portrayal of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the saints and biblical events.

However, legends surrounding Saint George and Saint Nicholas or traditional stories surrounding the birth of Christ may also be depicted on icons. For this reason, it is a general rule that everything that has been written down in Christian tradition and seen by human eyes may be depicted in an icon.

It must be a permitted image, however. The authority granting permission is the church. Permission may also mean toleration or implicit permission, but the final decision rests with the church.

Can a photocopy also be an icon?

Yes, it is an icon if it is, as mentioned before, an image of a holy person or a biblical event.

Seen this way, a fresco of a saint is an icon as well. In theory, an icon may also be painted in watercolours, embossed in metal or carved in ivory.

Usually only the icon painted on wood is called an icon, but in theory the concept is broader, as is clear from the preceding.

The icon on a wooden panel is the traditional icon. This is especially venerated, adulated and kissed by the faithful.

Is singer Madonna an icon?

In ordinary language, someone is called an icon who does pioneering work for an entire generation or movement, someone representing in his or her person the spirit of the era, someone who is looked up to and adulated. For this reason, celebrities like artist Andy Warhol and singer Madonna are called icons too.

What is, in brief, the history of the Greek icons?

The pagan precursors of the first icons were the funerary portraits from Fayum in Egypt, which were painted in wax technique on a wooden panel (encaustic, with liquid beeswax). After the recognition of Christianity in the fourth century, painters started painting images of saints and biblical scenes on the panels. In the seventh century icon painters turned from bee wax to egg tempera. This paint is made with pigment (colouring), egg yolk and vinegar.

The Russian icons are the best known, but the Greek (or Byzantine) icons are the oldest. Some icons have been preserved from the sixth century.

In the Byzantine Empire (325-1453) icon painting expanded enormously. Icons were given an important role in liturgy and an honoured place in church.

Various schools in the Greek style have existed, the most important being the Macedonian (1300-1500) and Cretan (1400-1600) schools.

What technique is used for Greek icons?

It begins with a wooden panel that has been coated with linen and a traditional ‘gesso’ of size and chalk. Next, the painter chooses an image of a saint or a biblical scene. He transfers the rough sketch onto the panel. Then he gilds the background with gold leaf. The paint is called egg tempera and is prepared by mixing pigments with a mixture of egg yolk and vinegar. Next come the garments, for which lighter shades are applied on top of the ground colour, e.g. dark blue. There are always three such highlights in the garments, which have angular forms. The faces, hands and feet (ta sarcomata, the flesh parts) are also set up in highlights, but more fluently and rounded. Finally, the inscriptions are applied.

An icon painter devotes a lot of time to the mixing of the colours.

What is egg tempera?

Egg tempera is a type of paint. The word derives from ‘egg’ and from the Latin word ‘temperare’ meaning mixing. In tempera paints the pigment particles (colouring particles) are held together by an emulsion. An emulsion is a mixture of two liquids that do not normally mix: for instance, oil and water. There are artificial emulsions such as gum emulsions and glue emulsions. And there is one important natural emulsion: the egg yolk. In the egg yolk oil components and water are stably mixed without falling apart.

The advantages of egg tempera paint are: it is durable; it looks crispy and fresh right from the start and remains so, no matter how many layers are applied.

Has vegetable colouring been used for icons?

Yes, some vegetable colourings have been used for icons. Some names are dragon’s blood red, red madder and vine black. But in fact, vegetable colourings have too little colouring power for painting. They are more often used for colouring cloths.

The best colouring agents for the paint of the icon painter were mineral in nature, i.e. chemical compounds found in the earth. Substances like ochres which are iron oxides.

Why is a traditional icon always painted on a wooden panel?

The first icons were painted on wood. In the fourth century, this was the method of portrait painters in the Middle East, whose work has been preserved in the Fayum portraits.

The first icons were deeply venerated. The material of the object of devotion was wood, and it has been kept that way, probably for reasons of respect. Traditional materials that were also maintained included the linen and the natural ‘gesso’ priming of animal skin glue and chalk with which the panel was coated. An important innovation occurred in the sixth century, when icon painters started using the egg tempera technique instead of the encaustic (pigment in liquid beeswax). This technique, too, has been maintained to the present day.

Why do icons often warp, and are they always convex and never concave?

Wood will inevitably warp, especially large panels. This is caused by dehydration, the process during which the wood loses its remaining water. Because of its structure, wood gives off more water in some spots than in others, and as a result will get an uneven shape.

If an icon has warped convex, it has done so as a result of a calculation. The side of the panel to be painted must be the side that is the closest to the core of the tree. In that case, the growth rings will run slantwise through the panel. Schematically: \.\.\.\././././

The evaporation of the water in the wood gives rise to a force that causes the growth rings in the panel, which are slightly bent, to become straight. As a consequence, the panel will warp and become convex.

What is the difference between Russian and Greek icons?

  • The image on the icon can be divided into fairly large colour fields. In Russian icons the ground colour of such a colour field is transparent, with the white priming visible through it. In Greek icons the ground colour of the large colour field is not painted transparently, but opaquely.
  • The colours in Russian icons are pastel tones, partly due to the transparent painting technique. They are subdued, restrained colours. Some icons have been executed almost entirely in one colour. The Greek colours are bright and radiant, often contrasting sharply. It makes one inadvertently think of the difference between the grey, misty North and the intense, magnificent display of colour of the Mediterranean.
  • In Russian icons the line drawing plays an all-important role. The shape of an over-garment, for instance, is extensively marked by a multiplicity of small lines. Colour plays a subordinate role. Greek painters, on the other hand, use the light on prominent places such as hips, knees and shoulders to indicate form. They suggest light by putting layer over layer of ever lighter shades of the ground colour. Greeks are colour mixers while Russians are draughtsmen.
  • If one would have to categorize the Russian style, one might call it expressionistic. In the Russian iconostasis Evangelists and apostolic figures bow deeply in humility before the figure of Christ in their midst. Their faces show the same expression. Greek saints resemble classical philosophers in their appearance. There is no distortion; working after nature seems to have been the motto. The Greek style is more naturalistic.
  • The Russian Christian tradition is only 1000 years old. Russia’s christening began in 988 with the baptism of the sovereign of Kyiv. Russian icon painting did not have its first hey-day before the thirteenth century, and not without the help of Byzantine masters. It is strange to realize that by that time, Greek icon painting had already existed for nine centuries.

Why do orthodox people venerate icons?

In the Orthodox Church, people venerate icons. This veneration is transferred to the holy person portrayed in the icon, even if this person is no longer with us.

The saints are in heaven singing God’s praise. Consequently, they know bliss and have a glorified, renewed body. Neither sorrow nor pain exists there, which explains the peaceful, unmoved facial expressions of the saints. In other words, what is special about an icon is that it is a window in our times, looking out on eternity on the other side. Knowing this, you will understand better why the faithful kiss and adulate icons.

There is also an important biblical aspect, on which the veneration of an icon is based. In the Bible, the word ‘eikon’ is used countless times, starting with: God created man after His image. The Greek word for image is ‘eikon’ and the word recurs over and over again throughout the Bible. Christ is the ‘eikon’ of God the Father and – a totally new but very biblical message – man is the ‘eikon’ of God! This can be read in Saint Paul’s letters. For this reason, the faithful in the Orthodox Church are incensed as well, because of their being an ‘eikon’.

What does ‘orthodox’ mean?

The Greek word ‘orthos’ means ‘straight’ and the Greek ‘doxa’ really means ‘opinion, view’, so one could translate ‘orthodox’ in English as ‘sound in the faith’.

‘True doctrine’ would also be correct.

How does one venerate an icon?

Veneration is paying respect and tribute to the saint portrayed. At the same time one can say a prayer or address the saint in another way.

Worshipping is usually done with silent gestures such as crossing oneself, touching or kissing the icon, bowing, kneeling or lighting a candle (a candle stands for prayer).

Isn’t this a violation of the second commandment?

Exodus 20 reads: ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.’

In the Greek text, the word for graven image is ‘eidolion’, meaning idol. The word for likeness is ‘homoioma’, something that portrays. Sure enough, an icon is a portrayal of a living being, but because the word idol is so clearly connected with idolatry (remember the golden calf), the word likeness must also be understood in this context. The following sentence, ‘Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them’, confirms this.

Furthermore, the icons exhort people to a Christian life through the example of the saints and the biblical scenes.

What is depicted on the Easter icon?

The first icons portraying the holy days were created in the Byzantine Empire towards the tenth century – among them the traditional Easter icon.

Christ stands triumphantly in the centre. The almond-shaped aureole surrounding him is called a ‘mandorla’. The mandorla is portrayed because after his resurrection Christ was a purely divine figure and no longer a human being. As Christ appeared to the disciples in his divine form during the Glorification on the mountain, the icon of the Glorification shows the ‘mandorla’ as well.

Christ descended into hell to grant life to the people in their graves. This event is described in the apocryphal gospel of Nicodemus. The lower part of the icon shows hell, the shattered gates of hell and the dislodged hinges and locks, two empty graves and Satan turned over to the king of the underworld.

Christ raises our ancestor Adam from the grave. Eve is present, as are righteous persons such as Abel and Henoch. Also present are the ‘First Kings’ David and Solomon and prophets such as John the Baptist, Isaiah and Jeremiah.

After all, Matthew 27:52 tells us: ‘And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose’.

The icon is called ‘The Resurrection’, or sometimes ‘The Descent into Hell’.

Many icons have the inscription ‘IC XC’. What does this mean?

IC XC is the inscription accompanying Christ in all icons, as it is the name Jesus Christ abbreviated in Greek capitals (ΙεσουC ΧριστοC). There are other signs as well - abbreviations, aspirations and word accents.

Other inscriptions are:
ΜΡ ΘΥ= Mother of God
Ο ω Ν= The Being
Ο ΑΓΙΟC= the saint
Ο ΑΓ= the saint
Η ΑΝΑΣΤΑCIC= the Resurrection
Ιω= John