Anatomy of an Icon

An icon is an image of a holy person or event created by an iconographer who follows the strict standards of the Orthodox Church. Icons range in size from the very small (for home use) to very large (for cathedrals). It is not worshiped, but rather venerated and used in prayer. Traditionally unsigned, icons are considered a window or portal into a divine realm. 

The Mother of God Smolenskaya

Iconography is a living tradition, and icons today are still painted using traditional, centuries-old techniques and styles. An icon is a complex set of interwoven symbols that have evolved over centuries to form a refined and sophisticated visual language. When reading an icon, colors, clothing, hairstyles, gestures, and objects the subject holds all offer insight into what the iconographer was trying to convey. View this image of Mother of God Smolenskaya to learn more about how icons are made and the traditions embedded in their imagery.

Anatomy of an Icon Support/Board

Most icons are created on wooden boards sourced from local trees, covered with a fabric, typically canvas and treated with gesso.

Anatomy of an Icon Paint/Colors

Paints vary by culture and period. The most common is egg tempera, a mix of egg yolk and natural pigments, with colors applied from dark to light. Colors have symbolic meanings.

Anatomy of an Icon Halo

The halo denotes holiness, indicating that the figure is in paradise. It was adopted in Christian art in the third century and has different origins by culture. A disk representing the sun accompanied the Egyptian deity Ra, for example.

Anatomy of an Icon Christ’s Halo

Christ’s Halo
Christ’s halo often incorporates a cross, with the Greek inscription Ho On, meaning “The One Who Is,” or “I am that I am.”

Anatomy of an Icon Gilding/Assist

Gold leaf in backgrounds, halos, and clothing represents divine light and the splendor of heaven. Fine cross-hatching of gold, known as “the assist,” is applied after the paint.

Anatomy of an Icon Embellishments

Metal coverings and embellishments are ways of honoring the icon. Thin, stamped metal affixed to the surface are called basmas. Removable covers (riza or oklads) are removable and made of gold, silver, gilt metals, or even beaded cloth, with styles changing over time, particularly in Western European icons.

Anatomy of an Icon Inscription

The inscription identifies the icon and in some cases individual figures, usually written in the language of the iconographer and those who will use the icon. Inscriptions for Christ and his mother are in Greek.

Anatomy of an Icon Symbolism

The scroll here represents the Word of God, and Mary gestures to her son as if to communicate that the viewer should follow him.

The Christ Child has a high forehead indicating divine wisdom.

The Mother of God has three stars on her robes, symbolizing her virginity before, during, and after her pregnancy.

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