The word icon (from Greek eikon) means image or representation. Usually when art historians use the word icon they mean a sacred image painted on a wooden panel with egg tempera. However, icons are made from any material: carved on stone, cast in metal, embroidered on cloth, etc. The first symbolic Christian images appeared within the first two centuries after the birth of the religion, and the earliest known icons on wooden panels are dated from the 6th century. The main purpose of an icon is to provide a devotee with a focus of attention while praying; icons also, through their beauty, are reminders of another reality which is beyond the material world. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition icons are treated with special veneration, however, such an attitude is actually directed to who is represented. Icons are not mere ‘religious pictures’ or portraits/genre scenes but symbols of a higher reality, and because of this they cannot be painted in a realistic style.


Christian art has gradually developed a so-called Canon: the system of symbols and approved ways of representation of Jesus Christ, his Mother, saints, and various themes. Its primary function is to ensure that the images are made in accordance with the Scriptures and the liturgical tradition; an iconographer is not completely free to express herself. However, the Canon is not something fixed as everything permanently fixed is ultimately devoid of life; various iconographers have contributed to it and continue doing so.


Jesus Christ is always depicted with a halo which has a cross on it for obvious reasons. He mostly wears a reddish tunic and a bluish cloak, these two colours signify his two natures, humane and divine. His Mother is depicted with three stars, on her forehead and each shoulder; the stars signify her perpetual virginity. She wears the clothes of the colours similar to the clothes of her Son, but in reverse order: a bluish tunic indicates the divine nature of Jesus which she accepted into her flesh which is symbolized by a cloak of warm (mostly brown or burgundy) hue. On the icons showing supernatural events, the Transfiguration and any post-Crucifixion themes, Jesus may wear clothes of white or golden colours which signify the glory of God.


The Canon also prescribes certain likenesses and advises about colours for the clothes of the saints. In iconography each colour has its special meaning; however it varies depending on the neighbouring colours and the context. Very broadly speaking, golden colour symbolizes God’s glory; white equates to glory, ‘heaven on earth’, and paradise; black to death; green to the Holy Spirit and eternal life; red to life, blood, suffering, and martyrdom; blue to revelation, enigma, and heavenly wisdom. Objects on icons are often painted in reversed perspective for the sake of including the viewer into the iconic space.


The abbreviated inscriptions on icons, traditionally written in Greek, mean:

IC XC – Jesus Christ

MP OY – Mother of God

OWN on the Christ’s halo – “I Am Who I Am” (these words God said to Moses, this abbreviation indicates that Jesus Christ and his Father are One)

According to the Canon an image is not considered to be a true icon without the inscription which identifies it with its prototype.

Icons, the ‘Canon’, and key symbolism

(a short guide written for the exhibition

at the NERAM 2006)

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