Meaning of Icons

Some Facts on Byzantine Iconography

  • Byzantine Iconography is the artistic Tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church.  St. Luke, known as the Evangelist, is considered the first iconographer, having produced an icon of the Virgin Mother during his lifetime.   Throughout the centuries Iconography has been the evangelical tool of the Orthodox Church to convey the Biblical events of the Old Testament, the Life of Christ and the Early Church.   The cathedrals, basilicas, churches and chapels in the Mediterranean cultures, in the Balkans and later in the Russian states followed an elaborate Tradition of decoration that was, simply put, the Bible in pictures.  Today, Orthodox Christians still beautify their churches with icons as the artistic expression of their message of salvation. 
  •  For the faithful, Icons are not works of art but vehicles of worship and faith.  The term Iconography reveals that icons are not painted but written and so are to be read for their spiritual and theological message.  Father Anthony explains that this ancient process makes the “invisible visible”; by revealing more than just the physical world icons also portray the illumined or transformed spiritual world.  Many people observe that the faces in icons tend to be more somber or austere.  Father Anthony would explain that the expression on the faces of the Saints portrays the seriousness of the Christian life and an inner peace.  Icons also do not depict a light source and shadowing as you would find in Naturalistic art, but rather have light emanating from within the person to express their illumined state. 
  • Byzantine and Russian Iconography utilize reverse perspective.  In traditional western art, depth of perspective makes it seem that that picture is going back into space.  Reverse perspective, however, has the viewer as the focal point so that it appears that the image comes out to meet you.  In an icon, you may notice that you can see the sides and the top of a building at the same time.  This has the theological significance of “participation” with the image.  The faithful are not mere spectators but actively involved in a personal and relational way.  If the image is of Jesus Christ, then the participation is in the form of worship.  If the image is of the Virgin Mary or the saints the participation is in the form of honor and emulation. 


  • When Father Anthony is commissioned to write an icon for someone, he follows the ancient techniques and guidelines of this tradition.  The elements of the icon of the Nativity of Christ (the Christmas icon), for example, will always be the same and yet the artist’s personal and artistic expression is conveyed.  There are many schools of iconography which reveal the social and economic culture of the time period that they were produced.  Iconography of the 21st Century being produced in Watkinsville Georgia is a different flavor of iconography from that under King Vladimir of Kiev in the 10th Century. 


  • The layout of the a church interior follows a pattern of “Salvation History”  In the uppermost section in the central dome dominates a large figure of Jesus Christ as the Eternal Ruler of All called the “Pantocrator” in Greek.  Surrounding the base of the dome you will find a row of the “Heavenly Powers” which are the angels, archangels, seraphim and cherubim.  Then a row of Old Testament figures such as the Patriarchs, Kings and Prophets.   In the supporting arches of the dome are the four Gospel writers, then below them are the Apostles and scenes from the Life of Christ.  On the side walls are the saints throughout the ages and then on the floor stand the “church militant” which are the faithful in prayer.  There is also a tradition of a family chapel which is dedicated in memory and honor of one’s family.   In this case, the family chooses scenes and saints which are particular significant to their family or their village, etc.  



The Resurrection Icon: The Central Icon of our Faith

Icon of the Resurrection

The Icon of the Resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is technically the Icon of Christ’s Descent into Hades, but is commonly called the Anastasis or Resurrection Icon. It is the visual Gospel, the Holy Scripture written in form and picture, for all to participate in the Good News of this event.

The Icon of Christ’s Descent into Hades is not a photojournalists recording of what took place in the bowels of the earth, but rather a spiritual representation of the significance, reality and importance of what Christ accomplished. Many of the elements that we see come from the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus and although the details vary from icon to icon, the essential elements remain the same:

  • We read from The Acts of Pilate, from the text of Nicodemus “The bronze gates were broken in pieces and the bars of iron were snapped; and all the dead who were bound were loosed from their chains, and we with them. And the King of Glory entered like a man, and all the dark places of Hades were illumined...” Christ is shown standing on the gates of Hades which are suspended over a black hole in the form of a cross. Hades is depicted as a person, conquered and bound.
  • Sometimes Satan is depicted with two heads to show his multiplicity and lack of integration or personhood. The hardware that held the gates in place is shattered and scattered, showing that the gates will never be closed again.
  • Christ is dressed in a garment of white, orange or sometimes even dark hews of blue, or brown, but with gold highlights emanating light from His transfigured body, showing that He is the Light of the world. His cape flies to show that He is not ascending, going up, but actually descending into Hades, and having resurrected He is shown in His glory. This is signified by the blue Mandola behind Him, which we also see in the Transfiguration and in the icon of the Koimoiseis or Falling Asleep of the Virgin Mary.
  • He is raising Adam from his tomb with Eve on the other side. Adam offers his hand to Christ rather than clasping Christ’s hand to show that it is Christ who raises us from the dead. With His other hand, Christ raises Eve from her tomb, or He may be depicted holding a scroll in His hand, in order to proclaim the Good News to the captives. Sometimes He is shown holding a cross in His hand, the tool by which He broke apart the gates of Hell.
  • Christ’s hands and feet show the marks of the nails, as is the case in the Icon of the Touching of Thomas, but which is not true of the Icon of the Ascension. Sometimes angels are shown above the mandola, (also known as the “glory orb”), holding the tools of salvation: the cross, the lance and the sponge. These are elements that also appear in The Icon of The Extreme Humility of Christ.
  • There are many figures surrounding Christ. On the left side in this icon we have 1) the Kings David and Solomon who are Christ’s relatives, according to the flesh; 2) St. John the Baptist, the last of the Old Testament Prophets is also present, proclaiming in Hades as he did in this world “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Some say that John died before Christ so that he could be the “Forerunner” even in Hades; 3) Moses is also shown, wearing a Phrygian cap, he represents the first covenant and one who witnessed the first Passover; 4) and Abel, the first to suffer injustice as the consequences of sin; 5) In the background are various kings, prophets, and righteous men who immediately recognize the Risen One.
  • On the right side we have the contemporaries of Christ showing us that this is an eternal act that transcends time and space.

This is the quintessential icon for the Orthodox faithful because in it is the fulfillment of God’s purpose for humanity. It speaks of the Restoration of Adam (and all humanity) into communion with God and tells of the Awesome Victory over Death.

“To earth hast Thou come down, O Master, to save Adam
and not finding him on earth, Thou hast descended into hell, seeking him there.”

From Paschal Matins


The Icon of the Nativity

Icon of the Nativity

One of the most famous icons is that of the Nativity. Its symbolism is that of the Creator of the Universe entering history as a newborn babe. The little helpless figure in swaddling clothes represents the complete submission of Christ to the physical conditions governing the human race. Yet he remains Lord of Creation. The angels sing praises. The Magi and the shepherds bring their gifts. The sky salutes Him with a star. The earth provides Him with a cave. The animasl watch HIm in silent wonder and we humans offer Him one of us, the Virgin Mother.

The lower scenes underline the scandal of the incarnation. The right hand scene shows the washing of the infant by the midwife and her assistant. It tells that Christ was born like any other child. The scene on the left protrays Joseph, who, having observed the washing of the infant, is once again assailed by doubts as to the virginity of his spouse. He is tempted by the devil, who suggests that if the infant were truly divine He would not have been born in the human way. The Mother Mary is in the center, and from her reclining position looks at Joseph as if trying to overcome his doubts and temptaitons.

Taken from "Introducing the Orthodox Church: Its Faith and Life" by Anthony M. Coniaris, Light & Life Publishing


The Iconographer's Prayer

"O Divine Lord of all that exists, You have illumined the Apostle and Evangelist Luke with Your Most Holy Spirit, thereby enabling him to represent the most Holy Mother; the one who held You in Her arms and said: 'The Grace of Him Who has been born of me is spread throughout the world. Enlighten and direct our souls, our hearts and our spirits. Guide the hands of your unworthy servants, so that we may worthily and perfectly portray Your icon, that of Your Holy Mother and of all the saints, for the glory and adornment of Your Holy Church. Forgive our sins and the sins of those who will venerate these icons, and who, standing devoutly before them, give homage to those they represent. Protect them from all evil and instruct them with good counsel. This we ask through the prayers of the Most Holy Theotokos, the Apostle Luke, and all the saints, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen."


Enhancing Faith

Today! Σήμερον!

"The Nativity is a now moment for us," says Father Anthony. "‘Σήμερον Χριστός Γεννάται.’ Today Christ is Born!  





St. Andrew Antiochian Orthodox Church Fills Wall with Iconography

Source: The Pensacola News Journal, August 22, 2009 by Troy Moon.

Iconographer Fr. Anthony Salzman

When parishioners enter the church this Sunday, they will see a church transformed — rich in vibrant red, blues and gold and flowing with visual symbols of the Orthodox Christian faith.

All week, the Rev. Anthony Salzman, a visiting priest and noted creator of Orthodox icons, has been at the church on W Street installing a series of Christian icons behind the church altar.

The icons seem to spring to life from the now color-filled east wall — especially the large icon of the Virgin Mary with a young Jesus on her lap. To their sides, the angels Gabriel and Michael bow in adoration, while depictions of Moses, Elijah and two bishops of the Orthodox church — St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil — complete the series.

Salzman said the icon of Mary with the young Jesus is called "Platytera,'' or "She Who is More Spacious Than the Heavens," because "the creator was contained in the Virgin Mary, so therefore she is more expansive than the universe."

Byzantine iconography is a time-honored tradition of the Orthodox Church and faithful believe St. Luke the Evangelist was the first iconographer. Icons are not just works of art for believers, "but vehicles of worship and faith," Salzman said. "That goes with the theology of the church — when you enter the church you're leaving time and space and entering eternity, the Kingdom of God."

Salzman said that worshippers don't just view icons, they "interact" with them.

Unlike most traditional art, iconography utilizes reverse perspective, wherein the picture seems to (wrap around the viewer rather than recede back into space). This allows the person viewing the icon to become a focal point in that it appears the image is coming out toward the viewer.

Icons in the Pensacola Orthodox Church

Salzman created the icons on panel rolls in his Athens, Ga. studio. He began the work in April. He brought the panels to Pensacola on Sunday night and has been affixing them to the wall ever since, touching up spots along the way.

The icons are made using acrylic paints and gold leaf.

Salzman studied Byzantine Iconography and Byzantine Art History in Greece. He is the presiding priest at St. Philothea Greek Orthodox Church in Athens.

The Rev. David Bleam, pastor of St. Andrew, said the church commissioned the icons to "enhance our faith.''

"We wanted to have as much artistic representation of our faith as possible," Bleam said. "It inspires us in that we realize that there is more to the material world than we are cognizant of."

Bleam said the altar icons are just the first stage of iconography that will go up at the church. Eventually, religious icons will fill much of the church, including the dome in the middle of the church.

"The icons teach us,'' Bleam said. "They call us to worship and to glorify God.''

Church members have not seen the full iconography that Salzman has installed, though a few have seen bits and pieces during the week.

"What I've seen is just beautiful,'' said church member Dorothy Tampary. "I can't wait to see the complete work. I just know that when most of our parishioners walk in and see it for the first time, they're going to be very impressed.''