Monday, August 20, 2007

I see Icons ...

Byzantine Icons - A Brief Overview

An icon is a window to Heaven. It portrays a spiritual, rather than physical, reality. It is more than a holy picture; it reflects deified humanity and the Divine Light. Iconographers therefore deliberately avoid a realistic and natural look.

However, although the images may appear unnatural to us, we are reminded that through God, nature may be overthrown. Such examples are the burning bush that was never destroyed, the Red Sea that once parted but then remained impassable, and the Virgin who gave birth without staining her womb.

One technique commonly utilized to reflect the reversal of nature is inverse perspective. In normal one-point perspective the viewer is drawn to a single vanishing point to which all converging lines of the image lead. This contributes to the image’s third dimension. In iconography, however, the vanishing point is actually within the spectator, in front of the icon.

Moreover, each icon must conform to its prototype. Thus an image of the Annunciation from the 12th century, for instance, does not differ greatly from one that pertains to the 14th century. The iconographer’s imagination is not reflected in the image. Unlike most painters, the iconographer does not express himself, but rather the story he strives to communicate. After all, an icon (image) is an image of something – a copy. For this reason, iconographers are often referred to as “icon-writers.”

Another distinct feature of Byzantine iconography is the light source. Just as Christ emitted Divine Light during the Transfiguration, so do the saints depicted in iconography. The light source in icons, therefore, is internal rather than external. It is the iconographer’s challenge to communicate this in his painting. This is achieved by the absence of shadows. The hand that offers the benediction, for instance, does not cast a shadow but rather brightens the surrounding areas. In the image below, Christ’s blessing hand illuminates his garment and neck; farther from either side of His hand, the garment assumes an obscure tone. Christ’s body also seems to glow through the drapery folds in His garments, a characteristic common to Byzantine Icons. The deified individual’s presence therefore illuminates the image.

In Byzantine Churches, an icon screen, or iconostasis, is found between the altar and the nave. The clergy, representing Christ, pass through this screen during the liturgy, thereby uniting Heaven and Earth. Although many see the iconostasis as a means to separate the altar from the nave, it serves quite the opposite purpose. It is saturated with icons, windows to Heaven, and consequently connects the two.

For more reading about Byzantine Icons

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