What Are Icons?

Did you know…

… that you don’t look at icons, icons are windows through which Heaven looks at you? Icons are holy images and nothing more — they are not worshiped as idols, but neither are they portraits or life-like representations of saints.

The significance of icons was, and still is, of great importance to Eastern Orthodox Christians. There were icons in every household in Russia — big or small, richly decorated with gold and silver and jewels, or simple works of apprentices, according to the means of the household. Icons were placed on a shelf in the easternmost corner of a room, above eye level, so that one had to look up at them. A small oil lamp illuminated the icons. From that corner, the Heavens looked down on those who dwelled in that household. If you examine an icon, you will realize that all things, especially geometric objects such as buildings or furniture, are drawn in an odd and awkward manner. That is not due to a lack of knowledge of the laws of perspective on the part of the iconographer, but because the icons’ perspective is inner: icons are drawn from the point of view of the saint represented, not from that of those looking at the image. The saint is looking at you: the perspective points at the viewer, not at the horizon within the icon.

And if the figures in the icons seem stilted to you, it is because they do not represent people in their human bodies, but saints transfigured in Paradise. Icons express, rather than depict: they express the holiness of saints; they do not depict them as they lived, within their mortal shell. That is why you will see few crucifixions or depictions of saints’ martyrdom among Orthodox icons. And even when icons do represent martyrdom, you are more likely to see serene faces of saints, rather than expressions twisted in agony. The Dormition of the Theotokos (Death of the Virgin Mary/Assumption), for instance, is not an icon of suffering and grief for those left behind, but one of triumph as Mary is taken up into heaven: icons represent victory over death.

It is still the custom in Russian Eastern Orthodox households to have icons in the house. There is usually at least one “bright corner,” as it is called, in the main room, and often one in each room of a residence. It used to be proper and customary to cross oneself and bow to the icons as soon as you entered a house (men would take off their hats), and only then to salute the host. Icons and their veneration (not worship) are one of the strongest reminders that the medieval world was aware at all times of its religion, and lived every day with its dogmas and demands.