(Modern Russian version of a classic Byzantine-form icon, titled "The Resurrection")
Within the last couple years, I've begun to study and appreciate Eastern Orthodox icons. I remember when I was first exposed to them, at a showing at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity during my freshman year of college. In that semester, I and my fellow students had been spending hours at the National Gallery and the Tate Gallery, taking in some of the greatest works of Western European painting. I remember thinking that the Orthodox icons looked flat and stale in comparison. Figures were two-dimensional, faces were always full-on or three-quarters view (no profile), there was no sense of depth and no contrast of light and dark, and the backgrounds were all the same--weirdly golden. My next exposure to icons also came during my college years, when I visited a Greek Orthodox church in Buffalo. Although a very kind and knowledgeable Sunday School teacher explained the meaning and use of icons to us, it was still a little too far beyond what I had known before for it to strike me as anything but strange. Orthodox worshipers would interact with the icons as if they were people--pausing to pray before them, even kissing them on the lips.
But in my seminary years, I began to study Eastern Orthodox theology itself, and that's where my appreciation of icons really began. You see, icons aren't simply paintings. They are specially designed to be portrayals of spiritual realities--of a particular saint, or of a particular doctrine. If you ever hear an art historian tell you that the art of Eastern Christianity ceased developing in the 15th century, feel free to disregard them, because they doesn't quite know what they're talking about. The forms of iconography are relatively static for a very good reason: they are depictions of Orthodox theology. And in Orthodox theology (unlike in Western art), individual creativity is not a virtue. Rather, faithfulness to what has been handed down to us is the primary virtue. Icons are not created to hang in art galleries, they are created to be sacred objects for use in prayer, either in churches or private homes. Even the process of designing an icon is different than creating a Western painting--the iconographer is a special sort of person, seen as the recipient of a spiritual gift, and his work is done prayerfully, as an exercise of devotion. After an icon is completed and blessed for use, it is regarded as a "window to heaven," as an actual incarnation of the spiritual reality it depicts. Orthodox theologians argue fiercely that iconography is a central expression of our belief in Christ's incarnation--that the ultimate reality, the being of God himself, has become accessible to us through matter, through flesh and blood. And in the church's sacraments, as well as in icons, those spiritual realities are actually really present with us here and now, not distantly removed in some vaulted heaven. This is why they are referred to as "icons" not "paintings"--"icon" is the very same Greek word used in the New Testament to say that Jesus is "the image of the invisible God." So if you ever get the privilege to go to an Orthodox church, and see the galleries of icons around you, understand that this is intended to show us that heaven is present with us in this place. When we worship, we worship in the company of saints and angels around the throne of God.
Let's use this icon of the Resurrection (above) to go through some of the important stylistic points to know. This form is the classic depiction of the Resurrection within Orthodoxy. It does not seek to show an imaginative portrayal of the historical event, as Western paintings do, but to communicate to us the meaning of the dogma of the Resurrection. First, the words: the Cyrillic letters at the top spell out "he anastasis," that is, "The Resurrection." The "IC" and "XC" with lines on top are abbreviations of a sacred name, in this case, "Jesus" and "Christ."
Now look at the golden sky. This is perhaps the most common element in icons, and it shows the heavenly nature of this reality. You'll also notice two jagged sets of stone rising behind the scene; this is typical iconographic topography, and here it seems to represent the rent-open cave of Christ's tomb.
The radiant blue shell-like structure is commonly seen with Christ in icons of the Transfiguration, Resurrection, and Ascension. It helps show us the divine nature of the human soul shot through with the uncreated light of God's own being, displayed openly in these revelatory events. This blue circle is a less-commonly-seen convention of the halo, but around Christ it is sometimes a whole-body affair. (Incidentally, there are several stories about the greatest Orthodox mystics having visions about the nature of one's soul in the highest levels of theosis; it turns out that the color they report is a brilliant shade of blue. So if you've ever wondered what the color of your soul was, there you have it.)
You'll also notice that there are a whole bunch of people around Jesus. In most portrayals, these are the Old Testament saints that he is liberating from Hades. John the Baptist is always there, usually accompanied by kings, patriarchs, and prophets. The two people Christ is lifting up by their wrists are Adam and Eve, being brought out of their tombs. The black void under his feet, and the bound man, are representations of Hades, and the boards and random pieces of links and keys floating in that void show the shattered pieces of the gates of Hell, which Christ has just smashed down. This puts into pictorial form the great liturgical proclamation of the ancient church: "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life."
So, the next time you see an icon, don't get stuck paying too much attention to the artistic details that we would normally look for in paintings. Because it's not primarily a piece of art, it's visual theology. Pause and study the meaning behind the form, and let it lead you into prayer.