Sunday, 10 January 2016

Meaning of Icon

                                      Meaning of Icon

The following is a description of the Icon in general using the Icon of Christ Pentocrator as an example.

The word 'icon' means 'image', and the story of icons in the Christian Church is a story of learning to gaze into the mystery of God. “Christ is the icon of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Col 1:15) Because God took on human flesh and became visible, we can depict Him; indeed, to portray Christ is to strongly affirm that God did really become a man, and that Jesus Christ is not mere allegory or myth.  A great deal of religious art can be merely decorative. It expresses the religious imagination of the artist and it is often charged with human emotions. Some of it is very precious to us. The icon, however, is a window through which we glimpse another world - the world of God. In the icon we are brought into the presence of the holy person or incident pictured; we 'see' the gospel before our eyes and the icon speaks to us. The icon is the occassion of a sort of revelation -in line and colour - of the kingdom of God. Hence the very icon itself is a sacred reality.

To write an icon is a religious activity requiring detailed discipline; to pray before an icon means to be drawn into some aspect of the mystery of God-with-us; to let an icon speak to us requires a depth of silence and a purity of heart which can only come from the Spirit. When we pray with icons we begin to acquire the characteristics which the icons symbolize.

Christ Pentocrator

The word Pantocrator is Greek, meaning "Ruler of All," or “Almighty”. The image expresses the central reality of the Christian faith; the Divine Majesty of the creator and ruler of all the world, made flesh and therefore visible to us in the person of Christ Jesus our redeemer. The oldest known icon of Christ Pantocrator was written in the sixth century and preserved in the remote monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai desert. The location enabled the image to survive the destruction of most icons during the iconoclastic era in Byzantine history, (726 to 815 AD.) 

On the inside of the central dome in Orthodox churches is frequently found an immense mosaic or painting of Christ Pantocrator. The Pantocrator image typically found in church domes is very stern and formidable, expressing in full the concept of "Ruler of All." Smaller, personal icons, while retaining the same majesty, more often represent a gentle and compassionate Lord. 


Theology and Symbolism

In this image of Christ Pantocrator, Jesus is presented in a half length pose, looking directly at the viewer, with his left hand holding the Sacred Word and his right hand raised in blessing. He is dressed in the traditional garb of tunic and cloak. His cloak, called in Greek a "himation" is dark blue (sometimes green) signifying the mystery of His humanity . His tunic is a bright crimson red to signify His divinity and also His human blood shed for us all. The garments of the Messiah in Isaiah 63:1-4 were red, as was the soldier’s cloak put on Jesus’ shoulders during his passion (Matthew 27:28.) Thus Jesus Christ is by nature divine, yet is fully clothed in humanity. The blue cloak is distinct from the red, as Christ’s humanity and divinity are distinct and not “inter-mingled”. Yet the blue cloak is also girded firmly around His waist, showing the Son of God to have taken on human nature forevermore; Christ’s humanity has not be casually cast off after 33 short years on earth.

To any Catholic or Orthodox Christian, Jesus’ right hand is unmistakably shown as being raised to give a blessing. The arrangement of the hand, repeated by clergy when blessing others, is also rich in meaning. The fingers spell out the four-letter Christogram “IC XC”, as it is by the name of Jesus that we are saved and receive blessings. “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;” (Phil 2:10). Not only have that, but the three fingers of Christ – as well as spelling out “I” and “X” confessed the Tri-unity of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The touching finger and thumb of Jesus not only spell out “C”, but attest to the Incarnation: to the joining of divine and human natures found in the body of Jesus Christ.

 The Bible he holds in his left hand is open to display a passage from the Gospel of St John.  In those instances, the icon may also be called “Christ the Teacher”, for obvious reasons.

Because the icon is itself the source of light, it does not reflect outward light such as one sees in the eyes of portrat paintings.   Because the Icon is the source of light, the figure does not cast shadows on any other object in the icon. The gold halo around the Head of Christ is not coming from above but eminating from the figure itself and moving out even to the outer border of time and space. 

 Christ’s halo is not the same as the halos shown around other saints. Inside of Christ’s halo is the Cross – the Cross of Salvation – although only three arms are visible: the three arms make up a Holy Trinity. Upon the three arms are the Greek letters ώ Ό Ν (omega, omicron, nu) which literally means “I AM”. This is a reference to Christ’s divinity, as “I AM” was the name God revealed to Moses (Ex. 3:14). Jesus attributed this title to Himself when He said: “Before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58), attesting to His divinity and His eternal existence (two ways of saying the same thing). These revelations of Jesus Christ’s nature and the Holy Trinity are preserved in Christ’s Halo.

About Christ’s Head are the letters “IC” and “XC”, a widely used four letter abbreviation of the Greek for Jesus (IHCOYC) Christ (XPICTOC).  

The face of Jesus follows ancient traditions. The eyes are disproportionally large to symbolize that they are windows to the soul  They look  directly into the soul of the viewer. The forehead, identified as the seat of wisdom, is high and convex. The nose is long and slender, contributing a look of nobility. The mouth is small and closed admonishing viewers to contemplate God  quietly.   The hair is curled and flowing, recalling the endless flow of time. The neck and body are powerful reminders of His strength and majesty.  The right side of the face is not identical to the left. This depicts Christ’s duel nature. In many Icons of Christ Pentocrator two strands of hair lies on his forhead contributing again to this theme of his two natures.

Saint Mark the Evangelist

Mark the Evangelist (1st century) is traditionally believed to be the author of the Gospel of Mark and a companion of Peter. He also accompanied Paul and Barnabas in Paul's first journey. After a sharp dispute, Barnabas separated from Paul, taking Mark to Cyprus (Acts 15:36-40). Later Paul calls upon the services of Mark, the kinsman of Barnabas, and Mark is named as Paul's fellow worker.

He is also believed to be the first patriarch of Alexandria by both the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Coptic Orthodox Church, and thus the founder of Christianity in Africa. His evangelistic symbol is the lion for his Gospel begins with the mission of John the Baptist in the desert and the voice of the lion resounds in desert places.

In Egypt, Mark the Evangelist is said to have performed many miracles, and established a church there, appointing a bishop (Anianus of Alexandria), three priests, and seven deacons.

When Mark returned to Alexandria, the people there are said to have resented his efforts to turn them away from the worship of their traditional Egyptian gods. In AD 67 they killed him, and tried to burn his body. Afterwards, the Christians in Alexandria removed his unburned body from the ashes, wrapped it and then buried it in the north easterly part of the church they had built.

Saint Mark's Western feast day is April 25 and the Eastern feast day is September 23

About this icon of St. Mark

Saint Mark is described firstly as writing the gospel.  He is clad in a red tunic which is a symbol of his martyrdom. He holds oven the 6th chapter of his Gospel which tells the story of how Jesus came to His disciples on a stormy sea walked on the water in the dark of night. They were terrified and thought they were seeing a ghost. He reassured them as He does, each of us in the storms of our life that He is with us and we need not be afraid if we have faith and trust in Him.



The wooden panel has a particular ascetic significance - it is an extension of the wood of the cross, and the painter shares as s/he works the suffering of the Lord, who struggled to incarnat a new vision and path in human life. The iconographer



 is bound to the board, as to the cross, till the sign of the coming kingdom is made.

The indentation of the board is symbolic of the Arc of the Covenant. The inner surface represents Paradise which is separated by the border from this outside world or cosmos. The wood is covered with linen cloth, which both reminds us of the bound Christ in the tomb and serves a practical purpose of counteracting the movement of the wood - as a natural material it responds to atmosperic pressures. This technique has its roots in the plastered linen of Egyptian burial shrouds. Linen was also used to wrap the new born infant.The board is then gessoed - glue and whiting is seived together and built up in an average of 8-12 layers. This gesso is the sign of a paradox - it both seals in the underlayers - as Christ was sealed in the tomb, and it forms the surface on which the icon  - the sign of the new creation is to be made.

When the gesso has been washed and sanded smooth, the image is etched into the gesso. Red clay is first applied to take the gold. The Hebrew word for red clay is oudem. It is the root word for Adam, Esau, and Edom: all speak of flesh. Then comes the first sign of resurrection begins! The gold goes on! Gold is applied by breathing on the clay. “..And God breathed into the nostrals the breath of life..Gen.2:7. Gold is symbolic of our spiritual nature and the breath symbolizes the Spirit breathing into Adam the breath of life. This is, so to speak, the firing of the clay vessal. Gold does not decay, so has come to represent the immutable mystery of the pre-eternal God. The gold, or at least a gold colured ground is used in most icons of Christ or the Virgin - light from light, God from God. However it is by no means used in every icon - when used it is in accordance with it’s spiritual value, and in the icon of a hermit, for example one may prefer to emphasise another value by the colour - such as ascesis.

After the gold is applied the red line is drawing around the halo. This bright red line symbolizes the transfigured physical nature of the clay after being ‘fired’ by the gold. The clay emerges in a purer state and is fit to receive the Spirit as a clay pot is fit to hold water after it has been fired in a kiln.  Every part of the icon has gone through a death process. The wood has been cut, the flax has been pounded, the animal or plant which provided the skin has died, the metals have decayed and even the earth colours have been washed again and again - like a baptism! The icon shows the movement to resurrection.

The Journey begins. The first colours which go on are, as a general principle the darkest reflect the unfathomable mystery of God who is inaccessible in his essence and dark to our intellect. It also symbolizes the dark chaos of creation without consciousness of God. Dark lines are drawn to differentiate the shapes of colours establishing boundaries between them. This symbolizes the Law of nature.


                                                                                                                                                                                                                            In Russian technique the layers are often floated on - but very differently to water colour. The dry pigments are mixed with the yellow of egg and a little alcohol and vinegar, which gives them a brilliance and resonance not found in any other medium. The art of the iconographer is to increase that resonance to the maximum - sometimes bringing opposing colours into sharp conjunction - somewhat like the techniques of ecclesiastical embroidery, sometimes carefully building up innumerable layers of slightly changing grades of colour, so that the richness of the number of layers intensifies the resonance. It is an attempt to show the Spirit of God resonating through the physical container.

Finally, very concise lines are applied, which by their linear expression and repetition, similar to calligraphy, multiply the resonance. You have to know exactly what you are doing - precisely how you are going to ‘write’ each line. These lines have all the deliberateness of a credal statement. They are written as a confession of faith - a powerful witness and sign.



Sealing of the Icon or anointing with linseed oil, “Olifa”, and the blessing given to the icon by the priest during the Liturgy: This blessing establishes a connection between the image of the person depicted and its prototype; thus transforming the icon into a perfect instrument for prayer and contemplation. This is the time when one can say that the icon has become a window to Heaven.



Glory be to the Father, to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. O Lord, God of the whole incorporeal and perceptible creation, the Maker of the heavenly hosts, the earthly beings and all that is under the earth, You have filled Your Church with the likeness of the first-born who are written in Your Heavenly Church and who minister to You with Your Holy Spirit. Grant, O Lord God, that Your powerful and omnipotent right hand may protect, bless and sanctify this icon for the adoration of Your Most Honored Name. May all those who call upon You in true faith and ask of Your compassion with a pure heart, receive their good requests and present to You first-fruits and oblations for obtaining health and healing and for attaining salvation of their souls. We beseech You and make supplication to You to accomplish Your command and fulfill the promise of Your Most Holy Spirit so that the Gospel precept may dwell, operate, perfect and be diligent regarding every deed or word that is done or said in the name of this icon. We ask this favor by Your loving-kindness, the mercies  of Your Only-begotten Son, our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, with Whom befit You praise, honor and dominion with Your Holy Spirit, now, always and forever.

Deacons: Amen.

Priest: O Lord our God, by the prayers of Your Mother and of all Your saints, martyrs, apostles and St. (N).

Here he anoints the icon with oil, not chrism, saying:
In the Name of the Father +.

Deacons: Amen.

And of the Son +.

Deacons: Amen.

And of the Holy Spirit + for life eternal.

Deacons: Amen.


Sr. Irene Gibson,