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  • Writer's pictureAmr Abbas

Concepts Engraved Within the Tradition of Icon Making

Icons are believed to precede the church itself. In fact, the first mention of the idea of icons comes from the legend of the Icon of Edessa (1). According to the legend, Christ impressed His face onto the piece of cloth. The tradition was carried on through the centuries and produced magnificent images from different cultures. However, the tradition did come with conflict. The iconoclasts have greatly compared the divine images to idols and idolatry. Yet, the meaning and idea of an icon are wholly different from that of an idol. Whereas an idol presents a god or a goddess to be worshiped, an icon is to be venerated.

Icons, in essence, are a reflection of a scene, not bound to time or space. Even in more modern depictions of religious paintings, two constants that remain consistent with the imagery are the concepts of divine time and divine space. In a manner of speaking, icons are more bound to the moment of the scene than anything else, and in that, they take the viewer to the scene. In a way, taking the viewer to the scenes means that the viewer would relive the accounts depicted in the painting.

Mathematics has been used in icon-making and has been engraved within the tradition of icon-making which has only changed when the schools of realism and naturalism came along. Before then, it had little to do with the more realistic aspects of painting. However, looking at some of Dali’s religious paintings, one could come to the conclusion that he studied some of the traditions of icon-making and employed them in his works despite the paintings not fulfilling the category of icons.

In some of the most prominent paintings and frescos, the aspects of icon-making are employed. Looking at the Sistine Chapel ceiling that was painted by Michelangelo, one would see the illusionary elements in the paintings to their grandeur. Concepts such as sacred time, sacred space, the mathematical shapes of the trinity are amongst many aspects that are used in icon-making. The use of those aspects is mainly to involve the viewer further in the scene.

All of this falls under the concept of enargeia. The purpose of this is to turn images into perceptual realities and move the meaning from abstract to concrete form. It is, in other words, to show instead of tell (1) (2).

Sacred Time

Unlike the common concepts of time and space, sacred time and sacred space are different from ordinary concepts. Time and space exist objectively as they are the measures of existence. Time reveals the health of things and their ontological temperature. While it may be said that the world was created in time, it is not correct to say so. In fact, the world and time were created together (3). And time will only cease to exist as we know it when the Angel of Revelations announces the end, it will not be the end of time, but rather the end of the mathematical time. Mathematical time is the continued progress of existence and the events from the past, the events happening at the present, and the events that would happen in the future. Those forms of time, the past, the present and the future, are not entirely separate from one another, but they are intertwined and weaved together. According to St. Augustine, the future does not yet exist, but it goes through the present which is the incomprehensible instant that fleets so fast. In that sense, the future becomes the past and thus, no longer exists but as history.

There are three forms of time that do not concern the past, present, and future, and those are the cyclical time of the stars and the planets, the historical time which goes on continuously, and the existential time where each instant can open from the inside to another dimension. The latter is the one where the viewer of the icon can live eternity within a single moment, this is known as the “eternal present”, “sacred time”, or “eternity”. That form of time is neither before nor after time, but within (3).

According to Evdokimov (3), time found its axis within Christ, where before Him, time moved towards Him, and upon reaching Him it was fulfilled. As one would celebrate Christmas, one celebrates the birth of Christ and lives within the moment of the birth of Christ. Similarly, upon gazing at an icon, one gets Judith with the Head of Holoferneso live within the moment of the scene before their eyes.

This is particularly seen in many of the icons and even the religious paintings that would be difficult to define as icons. The concept of time can be difficult to decipher within a painting, as it would retain the concept of history; however, it is particularly the history that is shown in different paintings that permits one to live or relive the moment of the scene. For instance, in The Dance of Salome by Benozzo Gozzoli, the depiction of the outfits of the characters in the scene is shown to be more modern than Titian’s Judith with the Head of Holofernes. However, the use of modern or current outfits makes the scene seem as if it is happening at the moment which, in a way, presents the viewer with an image that can be interpreted as being of the moment itself. Dali is one artist who incorporated sacred time within his religious paintings. He used images of the crucifixion but presented the scene of a nuclear bombing in the background to define time as overlapping, overflowing, and continuous. Yet, in every aspect of time, Christ and the scene of the Crucifixion remain.

Sacred Space

Similar to the concept of sacred time that presents eternity, sacred space presents the Lost Paradise; God’s Kingdom. The concept of sacred space within icons is there to make the viewers “one” in Christ. As Christ is ever-present, he is the Tree of Life which touches the heavens at its top and bridges it to earth with its roots.

One prominent idea that appears in the Christian tradition is that Golgotha is the center of the world. Golgotha is the place of Adam’s creation, the place of his burial, and the place where the Cross is raised. Along with the concept of sacred time, this explains why Adam’s tomb and skull are depicted at the foot of the cross in many icons and paintings. And while the scene may be in different locations, there are usually indications of different places at the same time, namely in images that showcase place. While portraits often detach from that particular tradition of showing the place, sacred place is shown in many paintings, frescos, and icons (3).

Some particular scenes, like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, contain images from different stories, beginning with the creation of Adam to the stories of Noah to Christ. While the images take different sides, they still, in a way, resemble the use of sacred time and sacred space. In images of Christ’s Triumphal Entry to Jerusalem, the Mount of Olives is shown in the background, sometimes Golgotha, too. Icons and religious paintings alike have mixed different scenes in what could be considered a use of the concept of sacred space.

Size and Position in Relation to the Importance of Figures

One of the key elements in many of the traditions of icon-making is the size of the figures. While this is scarcely touched upon, it is evident in many frescos and paintings that the bigger the figure is painted within the icon the more important that figure is. Emphasizing that the more prominent figure should be depicted larger than the other depicted figures in a painting is a tradition that has been and continues to be used by iconographers.

Additionally, there is the position of the figure in an icon which also points out the importance of the said figure. In many paintings and icons, Christ is depicted in the center of the painting, emphasizing His importance and symbolizing that He is the center of the world. The ranks of the angels are often depicted in levels, whereas the higher up they are, the more important they are within the painting.

One fresco that shows the importance of size and position comes in Giotto’s The Last Judgment where the figure of Christ is approximately thrice the size of other figures depicted. This is an emphasis on the importance of Christ. Additionally, the ranks of the angels in the painting are shown to be on levels, whereas the more important ones appear more prominently. In the same painting, the figure of Satan is depicted at the bottom with hell surrounded in black and flaming red. Placement is another use to signify the place or the scene. While the figure of Satan in the image is perhaps larger than the apostles who surround Christ, it serves as an indication of the power of Satan over mankind.

In more modern depictions of religious paintings, the depiction of importance ceased to exist with the Renaissance period. A shift towards realism and naturalism took place, yet some painters have continued with the tradition. In Dali’s Corpus Hypercubus, the figure of Christ appears larger than that of Gala’s, which goes in line with the tradition.

The Geometry in Icons

Geometry and symmetry were heavily used in medieval times in frescos and paintings. The influence, perhaps, stems from ancient sculptures and symbols in Ancient Egypt (4). However, geometry and geometric symbolism are visible in many paintings. Where the halos consist of circles, other geometric shapes are evident, visible, and invisible in icons.

For instance, the triangle that presents the Holy Trinity is shown in many paintings. The Holy Trinity by Andrey Rublev is one of them, where the three heads of the three figures form an invisible triangle. Squares symbolized Earth, where the four evangelists stood on each corner of the paintings; oval shapes, specifically in Eastern iconography, presented divinity and the glory of God. Even in more recent religious paintings, the use of geometry did not cease to exist. In The Christ of St. John of the Cross by Dali and even in the sketch of St. John of the Cross himself, the invisible triangles are evident, presenting the Holy Trinity.

The Axonometric Perspective and God’s Perspective

Before going through periods of realism and naturalism, the divine images had a strong focus on the perspective where the use of reversed perspective and more often the axonometric perspective were common. The axonometric perspective was used as a neutral point of view, out of the boundaries of space, which relates greatly to the use of sacred space. Using the axonometric perspective allows the viewer to feel like they stand within the time and the scene of the image depicted before them.

This was largely emphasized in the period of illusionism but in other ways. For instance, in The Virgin and Child at the Apse of Hagia Sophia, the perspective is only shown through the chair and the pillow, but it falls in line with the axonometric perspective. That perspective was abandoned. However, it works like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, but if one glances upon the entire ceiling as a whole, it will show the aspects of realism and illusionism in the work. Later, in the surrealist period, in works like Dali’s The Ascension of Christ and Christ of St. John of the Cross, the use of a wholly different perspective was used. In The Ascension of Christ, the perspective that Dali used related more to his Nuclear Mysticism theory where he used “God’s perspective” in the painting which is to say, that the painting would be viewed from God the Father’s point of view. While this example steps away from iconography, it is worth noting.

The Use of Colors

While using colors is not something that defines an icon, the use of certain colors has been highly limited in certain ways to certain figures. For instance, the use of gold is reserved to Christ Himself, and oftentimes it is employed in the aura around Him. The gold, in that case, presents the divine and unseen energies of God and the uncreated light of God himself. The blue, often through the use of lapis lazuli, is often reserved to the Virgin. However, it was also used for Christ Himself and the robes he donned.

The symbolism in colors is not limited to icons, certainly, but it is one of the main aspects that were used by artists during the medieval period and even afterward. The employment of certain colors is not only for visual aspects but can be helpful in defining the figures depicted, the intention of the artist or iconographer in the colors, and more importantly, the colors help in defining lesser-known figures.

In the Last Judgment by Giotto, the angels are depicted with colors to identify them easier due to their numerosity.

The Angels in the Last Judgement (Channel, 2020)

The Use of Monophysititism Before and After the 7th Ecumenical Council

The term, monophysitism or monophysism is derived from Greek μόνος (monos, "alone, solitary") and φύσις (physis, a word that has many meanings but, in this context, means “nature”). The term was used to define Christ as having only one nature, the divine. The Christological doctrine upheld by the Oriental Orthodox churches stands against the use of depicting Christ in His divine nature.

This is evident in the Rabbula Gospels Illuminated Manuscripts’ depiction of the scene of crucifixion showed Christ in His divine nature with a stoic look about him. This changed in later years, after the 7th Ecumenical Council where it was agreed that only the human nature of Christ could be depicted in images.

The avoidance of monophysism or using the divine nature of Christ appears in plenty of icons, paintings, and frescos. The Crown of Thorns which Christ dons in scenes of the Crucifixion shows blood spilling on Him, He is also shown with a sunken stomach in those particular scenes and sorrowful facial expressions, twisted fingers, and legs. Even in more modern depictions such as Mathias Grünewald’s Crucifixion, Salvador Dali’s Corpus Hypercubus among many other depictions of the scene after the 7th Ecumenical Council, the only nature that is depicted of Christ is human nature.


To say that there are aspects and concepts instilled within the icon-painting tradition is a correct statement. However, it does not mean that those concepts are always employed within the paintings and different depictions. Oftentimes, painters and iconographers take the liberty to follow the schools they belong to. The realism and illusionism in Michelangelo’s frescos and the lack of colors that were often used do not take anything away from his works. And while Dali’s religious paintings cannot fall under the category of divine images, they remain to have aspects of the traditional icons despite their entirely different nature.

The concepts mentioned in the body of this article are only to showcase some of the aspects that were commonly used in icons and not to define whether the icon should contain all or some of those concepts. The portraits of the saints hardly contained any of the concepts above mentioned, but they retained the mysticism that brought the icons to life to be venerated.

Written by Amr Abbas.

Cover photo by Trey Musk.


(1) Tsakiridou, C. (2013). Icons in Time, Persons in Eternity: Orthodox Theology and the Aesthetic of the Christian Image. Ashgate Publishing Limited.

(2) Webb, R. (2009). Ekphrasis, Imagination and Persuasion in Ancient Rhetorical Theory and Practice.

(3) Evdokimov, P. (n.d.). The Art of the Icon: A Theology of Beauty. California: Oakwood Publications.

(4) Haggagy, A. G. (2020). Ancient Egyptian Influences in Coptic Wall Paintings. International Journal of Advanced Studies in World Archaelogy.


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