Why do religious icons look so odd?

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | December 10, 2015

The purpose of these sacred images is to bring heaven into the present

During the Christmas season, the image of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph draws our eyes: from Nativity sets to Christmas cards. This year, an image of the Holy Family will also draw your hearts and prayers. Bishop David Ricken is sending a icon-style prayer card of the Holy Family to every Catholic household in the diocese.

Familiar, but not

Icons are familiar to Catholic eyes, but also seem a bit unfamiliar — since icons are prayer images that come from the Eastern church’s tradition. While icons seem like artwork, they are more correctly prayer aids.

The anonymous author of a book published by the Orthodox Brotherhood of the Apostles of Peter and Paul explains icons as “a window through which we look with our physical eyes at the Kingdom of Heaven and the realm of spiritual experience.”

Franciscan Sr. Bridget Stumpf, a Sister of St. Francis of the Holy Cross in Bay Settlement, has studied icons for a number of years. She explained how most Western Catholics experience icons: “To just look at (icons), you think, ‘Well, that doesn’t look like a real person. They look kind of severe; they don’t look real. It’s not like a photo or how Rembrandt tried to portray a person. They look kind of distorted.”

Icons are meant to remind us that there is more beyond our everyday world. If you pray with an icon, it can seem as if heaven is drawing into you. As Franciscan Fr. Michael Scanlon wrote, “For Eastern Christians, the icon is a representation of the living God, and by coming into its presence it becomes a personal encounter with the sacred, through the grace of the Holy Spirit.”

Specific rules

Creating icons follows specific rules. To call them “art” is loosely correct, since they involve media, like paint. However, unlike Western religious art, there is no “artistic license” with icons. Because of this, we can learn to “read” an icon.

One icon writer, Linette Martin, explained it this way: “The pictures are not there just to be looked at as though the worshipers were in an art museum; they are designed to be doors between this world and another world, between people and the Incarnate God, his Mother, or his friends, the saints.”

An iconographer prepares for this work — often by long periods of prayer and fasting — and usually receives permission from their bishop or abbot to begin an icon. The work is done in many layers — starting on a wood base. This is covered with linen and gesso — a liquid plaster and glue mix. Then the image is etched into the wood, using a pattern. Finally, colors are applied.

Gold is the first color — and is real gold leaf, most often 23 karat. Then the dark colors are applied. Many layers are used, building up from the darkest tones so the light seems to come from within the image itself. The intent is to represent the glory of the unseen God, breaking through from heaven. This is part of why icons don’t look like real people; icons are meant to be “spiritual portraits” revealing a person who is with God and existing beyond the physical world.

This is why certain features of an icon’s face appear so different: the ears are large — to hear the word of God; the mouth is small — because one does not speak in God’s presence. With an icon, we are invited to enter into silence, into prayer and contemplation which need silence to listen to God.

Reverse perspective

Another characteristic of icons is their perspective. Icons are painted in reverse, or Byzantine, perspective. This means that, the farther away an object in the icon is from us, the larger it is portrayed. The entire image does not converge into the background as it does in Western linear perspective. So, instead of the distance vanishing away from you, the entire image seems to move toward you. The feeling of movement is part of an icon.

This is deliberate and the purpose is to bring the subject portrayed in the icon into the present, into the immediate experience of the viewer. It also serves to remind us that, since God is omnipresent and exists outside of earthly time and place, God’s view converges upon us from everywhere simultaneously.

When you look at a Western-style landscape: you can look into it, drifting farther and farther into the distance. With an icon, the image seems to look at you, coming nearer and nearer, even into your soul. This is also why eyes in an icon are so prominent; the belief is that the icon is looking at you — and at heaven — both at the same time.

Dennis Sardella is docent at the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Mass. “An icon is a portal,” he said. “You do not pray ‘to’ an icon. You pray ‘in the presence of’ one. The light of divine grace is said to come through the icon as it does through the stained glass windows of the West.”

Even the colors of icons are formalized — for example, you aren’t allowed to use blue for Mary’s eyes or pink for her cloak. Blue is the color of heaven, where God lives. So an icon of Jesus always shows him wearing either gold (for heaven), white (for the Resurrection) or a blue robe (for his divine nature) draped over a red tunic (representing the blood of his human life).

Not so much Joseph

Knowing some of these rules can tell us if we are looking at a true Eastern-style icon or not. The icon image Bishop Ricken has sent is in the Byzantine style of icons, but is not completely an Eastern-style icon. One of the first things that would tell us this is St. Joseph.

“Oh, there are icons of St. Joseph” in the Eastern churches, said Joe Bound, director of education for the Green Bay Diocese. “He’s not a big saint in the Eastern church.”

Bound has been a Byzantine Catholic for 40 years and is fascinated by icons. He notes that, when Joseph is portrayed, he always older, with gray hair, not as a younger, brown-haired man. And, he added, Joseph usually wears brown or gray colors, not bright colors.

In the image from Bishop Ricken, Joseph wears blue and orange (which seems to represent gold). As noted by the company that printed the mailed icon image, “The pattern for this icon is of uncertain origin, probably Russian, and dating from after the time of Peter the Great (18th century).

Not a married couple

One of the more telling things about this icon being in a Western style is the fact that Mary and Joseph touch. This does not happen in a true Eastern icon and it would make many Eastern Catholics uncomfortable. Following the strict rules of icon formats, touching between a couple means they are married and in a physical relationship.

Mary and Joseph were betrothed, but not married, and the Mother of God remained a virgin. (Her virginity is signified in icons by three stars on her garment: on her forehead and each shoulder). In Eastern icons, Joseph is never shown as touching Mary and is often only in the distance, as in the icon of the Nativity on this page.

Icons do exist that show a married couple, in an image that looks very like the Holy Family, but these icons show the parents of Mary: Anna and Joachim. They may be shown embracing or with their daughter as a child. In that representation, Anna and Joachim touch each other as Mary and Joseph do in the Western-style image.

Look into heaven

All these rules about icons aren’t meant to be restrictive, but serve to direct our prayers and place our souls in the presence of God. When you look at an icon, remember that you are looking into heaven and that God is present — the gold reminds you of that.

As Jim Forest, who has written one of the best current resources on icons — “Praying with Icons” — said, icons “serve as invitations to keep our eyes open when we pray.”


Sources: University of Dayton at campus.udayton.edu/mary; “The Icon, History, Symbolism and Meaning”; franciscanfriarstor.com; viterbo.edu; othodoxinfo.com; antiochian.org; “L’Osservatore Romano”; “A Reader’s Guide to Orthodox Icons” at iconreader.wordpress.com; spiritualityandpractice.com; “Praying with Icons” at stspyridons.org; crux.com; writingicons.weebly.com; iconreader.wordpress.com; catholicinsight.com; museumofrussianobjects.org; eparchyofpassaic.org; menachos.net; and the Dioceses of Colorado Springs, Col., and Crookston, Minn.

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