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Icon Painting

Icon painting, or more traditionally and correctly icon writing, is an ancient practice of creating images of Jesus Christ, signal events of the faith or images of the Saints, for the purpose of veneration and growth in the Christian faith.  Icon writing uses time honored techniques and, because they are spiritual images, use specific approaches, practices and techniques.


The most basic elements of icon writing, using a flat board prepared so it won’t bend or break, application of a sizing element to hold the paint, use of egg tempera, etc. can be traced back to Egyptian times.  In the early Christian Church and contemporary Judaism, “icons” were used in worship as illustrated by frescoes found in an excavated Christian church and a synagogue (circa 250 AD) at Dura Europos in Syria.

Icons are usually two-dimensional images and may be made of paint, mosaic, embroidery, weaving, carving, engraving, or other methods. They can be applied to walls as frescoes, to structures designed to display them (iconostasis), to the outside of buildings, or most commonly on a single board for veneration and assistance in prayer.

Because it is a spiritual vehicle, with the purpose of directing our attention to heaven, assisting us in our prayer, providing a model for living, or putting forth a model of the Christian life to emulate, icons are written in a particular fashion.  Most people unfamiliar with icons, when first seeing them, are struck by their apparent simplicity, by their over-emphasized flatness, unreal colors, lack of perspective, and strange proportions. The answer to the question “Why?” is that the purpose is not to present a naturalized image as in a painting. It is not to present a “familiar” figure we can recognize, but to put before us a spiritual image that challenges us, delivers theological content and enables us to proceed on our spiritual path.

As Alexander Boguslawski points out, 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 style."
  • 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.

Credit: Alexander Boguslawski

See Subject Pages on: Icon and Iconography

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL offers the following additional content on this subject:


1. Worship in the early church

2. Heavenly Worship

3. Early Eastern Orthodox Liturgics

4. Iconography and worship

5. Calvin and the Icon

The Web Store offers:

1. A wide range of books on the development of liturgical worship

2. Books on iconography


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