God became man.
The "earthy" reality of the Incarnation is probably one of the main concepts
the focusing on which separates Catholics (and Orthodox) from most other
Christians. Adherents to more Puritanical forms of Christianity are scandalized
by images; seeing a Corpus on a Crucifix instead of an empty Cross, seeing
churches adorned with statues and other icons, etc. seem so -- "undivine"
or "wordly" to these people; but we Catholics know that Christ, by taking
on flesh and becoming man, redeemed us and gave to us the offer of a dignity
which, without Him, would be impossible. It is to always be remembered that
we are not souls trapped in flesh, but enfleshed souls who are called to
use our bodies and time on earth glorifying Him and, in consequence, becoming
divinized and sharing in His Divine Nature. Our time in this material world
isn't some kind of cruel joke.
All Truth, all Beauty, all Goodness point to Him, amen, and the beautiful
and good things of this world are a shadow of the world to come. Our statues
and other icons help us to see this as they also inspire us to meditate on
the specific divine realities they mean to convey. When Christ incarnated
at the Annunciation and was born of the Virgin nine months later, He demonstrated
one of the first Biblical Truths: what God made is good, and flesh, while
humbling for God to take on, while weak, and while prone to corruption and
sin after the Fall, is not inherently evil. Christian understanding of the
consequences of this reality is evident from the beginning, as far back as
the Catacombs, and two-dimensional painted icons, statues, and mosaics have
always been used as aids to Christian worship.
Nonetheless, during the 8th c., two great waves of iconoclasm struck Christianity
in the East, the first led by Emperor Leo III who was influenced by the success
of iconoclastic Islam and a revival of the Monophysite heresy which denied
Christ's humanity. Pope Gregory II denounced Leo and his iconoclastic movement,
and the Seventh Ecumenical Council at Nicaea (A.D. 787) firmly explained
the difference between idolatry and the veneration given to icons. Pope St.
Gregory the Great explained this difference and extolled images' catechetical
value in a letter he wrote to an iconoclast Bishop:
Not without reason
has antiquity allowed the stories of saints to be painted in holy places.
And we indeed entirely praise thee for not allowing them to be adored, but
we blame thee for breaking them. For it is one thing to adore an image, it
is quite another thing to learn from the appearance of a picture what we
must adore. What books are to those who can read, that is a picture to the
ignorant who look at it; in a picture even the unlearned may see what example
they should follow; in a picture they who know no letters may vet read. Hence,
for Barbarians [those who don't speak Latin] especially a picture takes the
place of a book.
Icon writer, Leontius
the Hierapolian, wrote about the Christian use of images:
I sketch and paint
Christ and the sufferings of Christ in churches, in
homes, in public squares and on icons,
on linen cloth, in closets, on clothes, and in every place I paint so that
men may see them plainly, may remember them and not forget them... And as
thou, when thou makest thy reverence to the Book of the Law, bowest down
not to the substance of skins and ink, but to the sayings of God that are
found therein, so I do reverence to the image of Christ. Not to the substance
of wood and paint -- that shall never happen... But, by doing reverence to
an inanimate image of Christ, through Him I think to embrace Christ Himself
and to do Him reverence... We Christians, by bodily kissing an icon of Christ,
or of an apostle or martyr, are in spirit kissing Christ Himself or His
iconoclasts raged on in the East, and Christians there begged the Pope to
intervene, with St. Theodoret writing:
is brought into the Church by those who wander from the truth must certainly
be referred to Peter or to his successor... Save us, chief pastor of the
Church under heaven...Arrange that a decision be received from old Rome as
the custom has been handed down from the beginning by the tradition of our
the popular help of Empress Theodora in A.D. 843, the iconoclastic nonsense
was finally squelched, but not until after monasteries were trashed, icons
were smashed, monks were tortured and killed, and relics and shrines
When the same heresy arose in the West during the Protestant rebellions,
the same thing happened: churches and Altars and altarpieces were destroyed,
statues and 2-dimensional icons smashed, stained glass crushed, chalices
and other liturgical vessels melted down, and
monks, nuns, and priests killed. These things
were endured again at the consequent rise of secularism, especially during
the bloody French Revolution (when a prostitute was "enthroned" at the Altar
of Paris's Notre Dame and renamed the "goddess of Liberty"), and Marxism.
Nowadays, the outrages are committed mostly by Muslims and Communists all
over the world; by anti-Christian Jews in Israel; and in isolated but
increasingly common incidents caused by Satanists, rowdy teenagers, and political
activists venting their rage against the Church (there are also still incidents
perpetrated by anti-Catholic Protestants in South America). In a broader
sense, one can see the spirit of iconoclasm in much of (often publicly-funded)
modern "art" with its dung-speckled Madonnas,
Crucifixes submerged in glasses of urine, etc.
(It's fascinating and sad that public money would never go to fund artistic
depictions of Our Lady or the Crucifix -- unless they were defiled in some
way, at which point they become "art" and matters of "free expression.")
Though the word
"icon" (also "ikon" or "eikon") refers to religious images of any sort --
2-D, 3-D, made of any material, in this section, I will use the word to refer
specifically to two-dimensional representations which have become highly
stylized over time and which one typically associates with the word "icon."
Like all religious images, an icon has as its purpose acting as a "window
to Heaven," a portal through which one sees greater Truths than can be revealed
by word alone.
Christ is the first icon in that He revealed the Father ("He who has seen
Me, has seen the Father," John 14:8-9); we ourselves are creatures made in
the image of God and who are to put on Christ in order to restore our
likeness to Him. We are called to be iconic in that we are to reveal
the Father in our Christian witness, through the grace of Christ and the
Gifts of the Holy Ghost. And, of course, there is the Holy Shroud which was
made without human hands...
While the first Icon Writer (one speaks of "writing icons," not "painting"
them) is God -- Who begot the Son Who is God and Who reveals the Father,
Who created us who are called to reveal Him, and Who miraculously formed
the Holy Shroud, St. Luke is said to have made the first icon written by
human hands: an icon called the Hodegetria -- a prototype of the Eleousa
icon (Our Lady of Tenderness) which is an image of Our Lady holding her Son.
Over time, icons came to be written according to very definite rules of design
and system of symbols (see table below); the arrangement
of elements, colors used, the manner of showing light, etc. are all governed
by theological principles and ecclesiastical custom. Various schools and
ages of icon writing arose, each with distinctive styles: the 6th c. Justinian
period; the 10th c. - 12th c. rise of Russian icon writing; and the "Golden
Age of Icons" in the 14th c. Throughout, the representations of persons were
and are meant to capture spiritual realities, not earthly ones. They are
not meant to be realistic portraits of their flesh, but portraits of their
enfleshed spirits, as it were, as seen through the eyes of faith.
As you can see from where the great schools of icon writing arose,
two-dimensional highly stylized icons are a more important phenomenon in
the East than in the West, where statues, mosaics, illuminated manuscripts,
stained glass, etc., also had their place, and the means of the veneration
of images in the East and West also differ according to custom:
prostrations (inside of Lent), bows (outside of Lent), kisses to the feet
or hem of the one depicted, incense, processions, and burning candles before
the image are used to show one's veneration for the Divine Reality presented
by the image
kisses to the feet or hem of the one depicted, touching the image, burning
candles before the image, kneeling, incensing, processions, adornment with
flowers, and crownings (esp. of Marian icons) are more the form. Prostrations
are reserved for the Crucifix. (See more on posture
and gesture here.)
Veneration is also
shown to some icons by decorating them with gems and/or a cover (called an
oklad) made of silver, gold or other metal.
Symbology in Icons
||hands are often
shown giving a blessing: the last two fingers touching thumb (two fingers
raised) symbolizes the two natures of Christ; ring finger touching thumb
(three fingers raised) symbolizes the Trinity.
Hands are also shown with with the forefinger extended straight; the middle
finger curved slightly; the thumb and the ring finger crossed; and the little
finger curved slightly. This gesture forms the letters "IC XC" (Greek letters
for "Jesus Christ") -- the first finger making the I, the curved middle finger
forming the C, the crossed ring finger and thumb forming the X, and the pinky
finger forming the second C.
||large to show
faith in God ("the eyes of faith")
||large to show
we must listen to God
and saintly figures face forward; others are in profile
shown as coming from within the Divine or divinized Person or persons
Light, Christ Himself
White: eternal Light, the Father
Green: Holy Spirit, regeneration
Blue: faith, humility
Red: youth, beauty, war, love
Purple: royalty, priesthood
Bright Yellow: Truth
Pale Yellow: pride, betrayal
Brown: death to the world
Black: evil, death
is lost and icons have a flatness to them that disappears in Western Art
after the painter Giotto discovered the rules of painting using perspective.
Time, too, is distorted to show sequential events simultaneously. Both of
these phenomena lend themselves to aiding the viewer in realizing that he
is not looking at temporal realities, but spiritual realities
carry a book
carry a book or scroll
stand very erect
Let's take a look
at the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help (also called "Our Mother of Perpetual
Help" and "Virgin of the Passion") to get an idea of how to read icons.
But first, a little history, because the story of this icon is so
No one is sure about the origins of the icon, but it came from Crete and
is a "Hodegetria" style icon (see below). A merchant there heard of many
miracles surrounding the icon and, wanting it for himself, stole it and took
it with him in his travels. He ended up in Rome, and on his deathbed, told
a local Roman about how he'd acquired the icon and asked him to take it to
a church where it could be enjoyed by many. The Roman's wife, though, had
other ideas and kept the icon in her bedroom.
Mary appeared to the Roman many times in visions, asking him to take the
icon to a church. When this didn't happen, Mary appeared to the Roman's six-year
old daughter and told her the icon should be taken to St. Matthew Church.
The Roman family obeyed, and there the icon remained, venerated by many who
came to contemplate its message, until 1798 when Napoleon's army invaded
Rome and Napoleon (what else?) ordered the destruction of churches. The icon
Around 50 years later, a sacristan in a church in France told an altar boy
that the painting that had hung in their own church for almost a half-century
was very old and used to hang at St. Matthew's church in Rome. It had been
saved from destruction and secretly carried to their parish church, and he
wanted the boy to remember this so someone would know the story.
More years pass, and the altar boy had become a Redemptorist in Rome. His
Order took over an estate that just happened to include the old St. Matthew
church, and while researching the history of the place, they learned of the
beautiful icon that had disappeared. The former altar boy remembered what
the sacristan had told him and relayed the story to his Brothers. The
Redemptorists appealed to Pope Pius IX, reminding him that it was Mary's
own wish that the icon be hung at St. Matthew's church. The Pope intervened,
restoring the icon to its now rightful place, and telling the Redemptorists
to make Our Mother of Perpetual Help their mission, spreading knowledge of
her and her icon throughout the world. This they have done.
And now on to the icon itself:
Mary's gaze is aimed directly at you, as though she wants you to meet her
eyes and ponder. The Greek letters above --
MR QU --
tell us that she
is the Mother of God, and, against a background of gold (divine light), she
wears a dark blue robe (faith, humility) with a green lining (Holy Ghost)
and a red tunic (beauty).
Baby Jesus, identified by the letters "IC XC," doesn't look at His mother
or at us in this icon; instead, He is looking away, having seen something
that made Him afraid -- so afraid that He ran to His mother fast enough that
He lost one of His little sandals. What does He see? His destiny, symbolized
by the angels bearing the instruments of His Passion. The angel to the left,
Michael, carries the lance that will pierce His side, an urn filled with
gall, and the reed and sponge which will carry it to His lips. The angel
to the right, Gabriel, bears a Cross and four nails. His earthly comfort,
and ours, is in His mother, and as He clings to her, she, with her gaze,
invites us to do the same.
Below are descriptions
and pictures of some of the most famous icon types. You will see the same
artistic elements and schemes in icons from different eras and ritual Churches,
in different styles, but with recurring themes and standardized types. The
icons below can be purchased from
Skete Icons (will open
in new browser window).
(Ruler of All, Christ the Teacher)
Christ as Teacher
holding a book, two fingers (raised in a blessing) indicating His two
(Grebenskaya, Our Lady of the Way, The Leader, The Guide of the
Mary holding Christ
and pointing toward Him. The prototype is said to have been written by St.
Luke. (The Polish depiction of Our Lady of Czestochowa, the famous "Black
Madonna," is a variation of the Hodegetria style icon, as are St. Luke's
"Salus Populi Romani" icon kept at St. Mary Major Basilica , the icon of
"Our Lady of Perpetual Help," the "Virgin of the Three Hands," and "Our Lady
of Kazan" ("Kazanskaya") (see below for some of these in more detail))
(Elouesa, The Tender Mercy, Virgin of Loving Kindness, Tender Touch, Sweet
Mary holds her
Son, Who touches His face to hers and wraps (at least) one arm around her
neck or shoulder (See La Bruna icon below)
(Oumilenie, Virgin of Tenderness, Who Embraces Gently)
Like the Eleousa,
but the Theotokos embraces Jesus Who caresses her chin
(Kyriotissa, Queen of Heaven, She Who Reigns in Majesty)
Mary regally enthroned
with Baby Jesus on her lap
(Close to the Motherly Heart)
Mary holding Jesus
with their faces touching, His arms are flung wide open around her neck
Mary is shown alone,
in profile, facing toward her left (toward Christ), with hands held out in
(the Orante, the Oranta)
Mary is shown with
arms in orante position. A most popular form of this style is the "Lady of
the Sign" (a.k.a. Virgin of the Incarnation, Platytera, or Panagia), shown
at left, in which Mary is shown with arms in orante position, with Christ
enclosed in a circle in her womb. When Christ is shown in Mary's womb like
that, she is known as the "Mother of God of the Sign," hearkening back to
the words of Isaias 7:14, "Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign.
Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called
Emmanuel." Such icons are favorites among those who fight abortion.
Particular Icons You Should
We've already seen
the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, but there are other particular icons
that you should be familiar with:
St. Luke is said to have written the famous "Salus Populi Romani" ("Protector
of the Roman People") Hodegetria-style icon, shown at right, which was brought
from the Holy Land to Rome by Helena, Constantine's mother. It is
St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome, a Basilica which was built in response to
a miracle: in A.D.. 358., Our Lady appeared to Pope Liberius and a couple
and told them to build a church at a place she would mark out with snow on
Esquiline Hill. On an August night, she did just that -- a church-sized,
church-shaped area of snow fell on the hill. The people staked out the area
"Our Lady of the Snows" indicated, the Basilica was built, and Pope Liberius
consecrated it. It has been rebuilt over the years, lastly by Pope Paul V
(1605-1621). The Feast of the dedication of the (original) Basilica is August
5, and in commemoration of the miraculous snowfall, white rose petals are
sprinkled down from the dome during the Mass that day.
During St. Gregory the Great's pontificate (A.D. 590-604), in the year A.D.
597, this icon was carried in procession to Hadrian's tomb during a time
of a great plague. Upon arrival at the destination, a choir of angels was
Regina coeli, laetare,
Quia quem meruisti portare, alleluia;
Resurrexit sicut dixit, alleluia.
(Queen of Heaven, rejoice, alleluia;
For He Whom you did merit to bear, alleluia;
Has risen as He said, alleluia.)
To which St. Gregory
Ora pro nobis Deum,
(Pray for us to God, alleluia.)
St. Michael appeared over
the tomb, with sword drawn -- and put his sword back in its sheath as a sign
of the end of the pestilence. This appearance of the Archangel is the reason
why Hadrian's tomb is now known as Castel Sant'Angelo.
In this icon, Mary, dressed in a red tunic and a dark blue mantle with gold
trim, holds Jesus in her left arm. Jesus gazes as His mother as He holds
a book and raises His hand in blessing. Unlike most Hodegetria type icons,
Mary does not point to Christ.
Our Lady With
Hodegetria-style icon you should be familiar with is the icon known as "Virgin
Tricherousa," or "Our Lady With Three Hands." St. John Damascene (ca. A.D.
676-754/87, Feast Day 27 March), a great fighter against the iconoclasts,
was accused of being an enemy of the state in which he lived, and as punishment,
the Caliph ordered that one of his hands be chopped off. Afterwards, St.
John took the severed hand, prayed in front of an icon of Our Lady (one said
to have been written by St. Luke), and then fell asleep, waking to find that
his hand was healed. In honor of that healing, he made a hand of silver and
added it to the icon. The altered icon has been duplicated ever since. You
can see the silver third hand in the lower left of the picture.
This icon is at the Serbian Monastery of Chiliandari, Mt. Athos ("Holy
Mountain"), near Ouranoupolis, Greece (in Orthodox hands).
Our Lady of
The icon of Our
Lady of Czestochowa -- another icon in the Hodegetria style -- is another
important image, and one with an important and miraculous History. One of
the "Black Madonnas," she can be recognized by her dark skin tone (partly
due to style, partly due to the effects of smoke from candles), the jeweled
clothing, and the slash marks on the cheek (hard to see in the image
at right, but obvious in person and in good
reproductions). This icon is another said to have been written by St. Luke,
and allegedly was brought from Jerusalem to Constantinople by
St. Helena. It ended up in the hands
of the princes of Ruthenia, then was taken to Poland by Prince Ladislaus,
who kept it in the chapel of the Castle of Belz. When the Saracacens attacked
the castle, one of their arrows scarred the throat of the image. Praying
to Our Lady to discover where to place the icon to keep it protected, Prince
Ladislaus had a dream in which he was told to leave the image on Jasna Gora
(Bright Hill) in Czestochowa, where the icon remains today. He built a monastery
and church there and, in 1382, asked Pauline monks to act as guardians of
In 1430, iconoclast Hussites attacked the monastery and tried to steal the
icon -- but their horses wouldn't budge when they attempted to carry it away.
In a rage, they broke the icon into three pieces and slashed the cheek of
Our Lady's image three times; at the third slash, the swordsman died! These
slash wounds cannot be repaired, though many had tried over the years.
In 1655, Swedish soldiers, said to have been 12,000 in number, went up against
the monastery but were held off by the 300 religious who had Our Lady to
protect them; in gratitude, King John Casmir declared Mary Queen of Poland.
In 1920, the Russians gathered in the area to prepare to attack the Polish
people. But the people beseeched Our Lady, and the next day (15 August, the
Feast of the Assumption), her image appeared in the skies, sending the Russians
The golden crown that adorns the image today was a gift of St. Pius X (but
Pope Clement XI crowned the image in 1717. Reproductions of the icon paint
in the crown). Many, many miracles are associated with this icon, and it
is quite dear to the Polish people.
Our Lady of
The ultimate origin of the 13th c. Our Lady of Kazan icon (known as Kazanskaya
in Russia) is unknown, but it is said to have been found on 8 July 1579 by
a ten-year-old girl, Matryona, who had a dream of the image resting under
ashes in the ruins of one of the Kazan houses. Legend says that this icon
helped the Kazan militia liberate Moscow from the Polish invasion in 1612.
It was kept in Moscow's Kazan cathedral for a time, but was transferred to
St. Petersburg by Peter the Great. It was stolen during the Russian Revolution
and sold abroad along with other church valuables. The Blue Army (a Roman
Catholic group devoted to Mary) bought it around 1970 from an American collector
and presented it to Pope John Paul II in 1993. The Pope, in a move very
controversial among traditional Catholics, returned the icon to Russia in
I also have to
mention the "La Bruna" ("The Brown One"), an icon that is of the Eleousa
style but shows Mary with a star with one long tail on her right shoulder
reflecting her purity. Again Our Lady is wearing a red tunic and blue mantle
and veil, which Jesus clings to. Though it doesn't show up in this reproduction,
Jesus and Mary are surrounded by large halos, hers with 12 rosettes representing
the 12 Tribes and 12 Apostles, His with the Cross. This icon is a 12th c.
Carmelite icon, the original of which is in the Basilica of Carmine Maggiore
in Naples, Italy.
For other important images, some miraculous, see:
Infant of Prague, Santo Bambino di
Ara Coeli, & Maria Bambina on the "Devotion to the Child Jesus"
Our Lady of Good Success in
Quito on the Marian Apparitions page
Our Lady of Guadalupe on
the Marian Apparitions page