Decoding the symbolism of Orthodox icons

Stuart Forster meets an artist in Ouranopolis, Greece, and discovers what to look for when decoding the symbolism of Orthodox icons.

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In the Greek town of Ouranopolis I’m drawn to the window of an attractive, smartly designed shop selling souvenirs including soaps, natural products and religious icons. Even to my unschooled eye, these Orthodox icons look to be of far better quality than those that I saw minutes ago, on sale near the jetty.

Ouranopolis is a port and the gateway to Mount Athos, the peninsula known to members of the Orthodox faith as the Holy Mountain. I’ve seen countless icons today and many people buying them. I’m intrigued as to what sets a good icon apart from those costing just a few Euros.

Understanding Greek Orthodox icons

I take a closer look at the icons in the shop and see that they’re paintings of saints and the Virgin Mary. They make liberal use of gold and their blues and reds are rich.

Seeing my interest, a grey-haired man introduces himself as Jakobos. His eyes gleam beneath his glasses. He has a moustache and a neatly trimmed beard. He’s a Venetian and, it transpires, a master icon painter. His work has been exhibited in countries including Austria, Belgium and Luxembourg.

Perhaps a touch naively, I ask him to point out the best icon on display.

“For us all the icons are good because the icon is something to pray to. So it is not so important if the icon painter is a master or pupil. Of course, some monks, after many years of experience paint much better than others. You can see this in particular details; in the choice of the colours, in the harmony of the colours and, for example, in the face,” he answers diplomatically.

Identifying a quality Orthodox icon

What should I look for in a good Orthodox icon?

“This is egg tempera,” he answers pointing at the smooth surface of one of the icons. “It’s very difficult because you work with different colours at one time. It’s important to know the technique well.”

“The icon must be flat to the touch. One of the difficulties with icon painting comes after several colours have been applied. You must understand the technique to see if it is a masterpiece or a normal icon,” says Jakobos.

The principle applies to Greek Orthodox icons as well as Russian Orthodox icons.

Leafing through a couple of books he shows me a number of well-known icons which are held in monasteries and art collections around the world.

“We paint all the saints but we do not paint God because in the Orthodox tradition we paint only what we can see. When we paint the Holy Trinity we paint three angels because in the Old Testament Abraham had three guests, three angels, and when he spoke with these three angels he spoke in the singular like there was one person,” he adds.

“An icon painter is the opposite of a normal artist. A normal artist paints what he feels inside. An icon painter paints an exact copy of old icons. We never paint with our imagination. Normally we can change only small details,” explains Jakobos.

Colours with symbolic meaning

“Jesus Christ has blue or green on his outer garments. The Virgin Mary wears red clothing. Close to his body Christ always wears red, the opposite of the Virgin Mary, who always wears blue or green. The red is the divinity, so Jesus Christ is first divine and then human. The Virgin Mary is first human and then became a saint,” he says, clarifying the symbolism of the colours used in Orthodox icons.

I also learn that three stars in paintings depicting Mary symbolise her virginity before, during and after the birth of Christ.

Jakobos then explains how working with 23-carat gold, while creating an icon of St Catherine, once caused serious problems for his eyes, due to the amount of light being reflected directly back at him.

To members of the Orthodox faith icons are important, “something to kiss and something to remember; like a picture of a mother or father. Sometimes we say the icon calls you, you don’t choose the icon.”

They are often valuable artworks. “Icons can cost anything from €300 to €350,000. The size is important and so too is the painter. When you paint a masterpiece you need experience and a lot of time,” says the Venetian.  It takes three to five years to learn the techniques of mixing colours and painting icons on wood.

Icons from Mount Athos

“In our icons normally we have on the back the signature of the Agios Protos, the governor of Mount Athos. It helps prevent forgeries,” says Jakobos.

There artist’s signature never appears on the front of icons. Even this is charged with symbolism. “The icon painter must be humble, therefore it’s not signed. We do not paint for our glory but for the glory of God.”

“We say that we give our hands to God; God paints. For this normally if you have a good lifestyle, you fast before and pray during the painting then the painting it will be better. If you smoke cigarettes and listen to music, it will not be so good. An icon painter prays as he paints. This means good spiritual energy is inside the icon,” says the artist.

The oldest Orthodox icons

Jakobos explains how St Paul’s Monastery has the oldest icons on Mount Athos. An icon known as The Holy Virgin of the Mirror survived the Byzantine Iconoclasm because it was under a mirror. Yet far older icons survive at the Monastery of St Catherine in the Sinai Desert.

The materials from which icons are made help give them a long life expectancy. “An oil painting will change more in 30 years than an icon in 500,” says Jakobos with conviction.

Unfortunately, my budget won’t stretch to any of the icons. I leave the shop empty-handed but take with me a significantly improved understanding of their symbolism.

Further information

Learn more about the Mount Athos Area via its tourist information website.

See more about attractions in Greece on the Visit Greece website.

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