More on the Meaning of Icons

Liturgical icons have been a part of the Church’s tradition from early on and in 787 the Second Council of Nicaea defined dogmatically that the making and veneration of icons, along with the pictorial representation of what the Gospels narrate, is a holy practice. This practice is founded upon the mystery of the Incarnation. Consequently, “all the signs in the liturgical celebrations are related to Christ: as are sacred images of the holy Mother of God and of the saints as well. They truly signify Christ, who is glorified in them.” Catechism of the Catholic Church 1161.

The Second Council of Nicaea encouraged the making and veneration of icons. As St. Basil taught, “the honour rendered to the image passes on to the original”. Furthermore, contemplating icons of Christ, Mary, the angels, and the saints, moves us to contemplate and honour them.

In part one of this interview, Aidan Hart discussed his top five books on icons. In this second part, he considers some further recommended readings.

Aidan Hart has been a professional icon painter and carver for forty years, with works in over twenty-five countries of the world, including with the Pope and other Patriarchs. An ordained Reader of the Orthodox Church, he is a frequent speaker at conferences and churches and has been on numerous TV and radio programmes. He teaches a three-year part-time course in icon painting for The Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Art. He has published Festal Icons (2022), Beauty Spirit Matter (2014), and Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting (2011), all published by Gracewing.

  1. Festal Icons History and Meaning
    by Aidan Hart
  2. The Icon, Image of the Invisible: Elements of Theology, Aesthetics and Tecnique
    by Egon Sendler
  3. The Meaning of Icons
    by Leonid Ouspenksy and Vladimir Lossky
Five Books for Catholics may receive a commission from qualifyng purchases made using the affliate links to the books listed in this post.

What led you to become an iconographer? Did you study at an art college or did you study art precisely to become a painter and engraver of icons.
I studied English literature, mathematics, and biology, and then a diploma in teaching. During the diploma, I discovered that I did not really want to be a teacher, at least of teenagers. But I had a scholarship, which meant that I either had to pay a bond or teach for two years, so I did try to teach a little while. I was a devout Anglican at the time. One morning, I thought, “What do you really want to do, forgetting all difficulties, imagined or real?”

“Be a sculptor” came the reply. I had grown up in an artistic family, so art had always been part of my life. However, before that day I had never seriously considered that art could be a full-time vocation. So, I left teaching to go sculpting. This ultimately led me, five years later, to the Orthodox Church. I had been seeking in my sculptures to indicate something of the spiritual nature of the human person and was looking for artforms that would help me achieve this end. I was mainly modelling heads.

I had a few liturgical art commissions at this stage, but I was primarily exhibiting. It was this search for art that would help me to depict not just the outer physical but also the inner spiritual that led me to the icon, and then to become Orthodox.

After becoming a member of the Orthodox Church, it was natural for me to start making icons. Being a sculptor rather than a painter at that time, I started carving wooden icons in bas-relief. Soon, my parish priest suggested that I start learning to paint icons as well.

So, to answer your question, I have never trained formally in the arts. To tell you the truth, art schools would have been almost useless in this respect. Most art schools, at least in Britain, do not train people in traditional techniques. I am quite pleased that I was not spoiled by the philosophy promoted in most of these modern art schools. The USA is fortunate to have ateliers, which do train students in skills. Such a schooling would not have been so bad for me.

As a result of all this, for my training I have had to learn through the arduous process of using my scientific mind to analyse good icons and other artwork, by studying scientific analyses of icons, and this sort of thing. I often feel like an archaeologist, digging below the layers to find what is underneath. Why is this icon good? How has it been painted?

"For the Russian icon tradition to have reached that height, it first had had to understand the more modelled Byzantine icon in order to simplify it."

Do you have a favourite icon?
Good question. I have a favourite iconographer: Fr. Zenon, a monk in Russia. What is interesting about him is that he started, as most Russians do, painting icons inspired by the 14th and 15th century iconographers: Rublev and people like that. But then he realised that, for the Russian icon tradition to have reached that height, it first had had to understand the more modelled Byzantine icon in order to simplify it (the work of Rublev is flatter than most Byzantine icons, which are more modelled). So, Zenon began to move back in time, increasingly using, as his inspiration, earlier and earlier icons. Having started from the 15th century, he is now back to early works, such as 6th and 7th century Roman mosaics.

Coming from a sculpting background, I really like the well-modelled aspect of Fr. Zenon’s work. He understands form very well. Unfortunately, some contemporary books on icons have equated spirituality with dematerialization. They say, “Icons painted in Russia are more spiritual than icons in Byzantium because they are flatter. They are disembodied.” That is very wrong. Christ transfigures us as embodied beings. It is partly because of the need to affirm the capacity of the material world to be grace-filled, and because I am a sculptor as well as a painter, that I find Fr. Zenon’s work my biggest inspiration.

I was at Saint Catherine's Monastery at Mount Sinai a week ago. It was wonderful to see the great 6th and 7th century icons of the Mother of God seated with St. George and St. Theodore, the one of St. Peter, and of course, the famous icon of Christ. This period is also a great inspiration to me.


For those interested in further readings, you have recommended three more books. First, there is your own Festal Icons: History and Meaning. In it, you explain the icons of each of the fourteen major feasts of the Orthodox Church. What prompted you to write this book?
About twenty-five years ago, a priest friend who had a publishing company suggested that I write on this subject, largely for the use as a catechetical tool. I completed my first draft for this, but then the publishing company closed. Many years later, having had two books published—Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting and Beauty Spirit Matter—I came to realise that there is a tendency over the past century for iconographers, Orthodox and alike, simply to copy icons. While intelligent and observant copying is a good beginning, through this book I wanted to show that festal icons—that is, icons for feasts such as the Nativity and the Resurrection—developed over time. What we now consider to be the standard types of festal icons did not just drop from heaven ready-made. In some cases, it took nine centuries to come to their current form. In his context, I had several aims for the book.

One was to show the development of the icon. From this it becomes clear that new icons do not have to draw only on what has now become the standard type. We can also, where appropriate, draw on elements of earlier icons.

"Although icons can teach us quite a bit by themselves, there are nevertheless many things in them that are puzzling without the liturgical texts to illuminate us."

Second, I wanted to go as deeply as possible into the theology expressed by the icon of each major feast and relate this to the feast’s hymns. A lot of writing on icons regards the icon in isolation from its liturgical context. But festal icons are painted for their feasts. On their feast day they are placed on the analoi or icon stand for veneration. There the icon remains throughout the celebrations, against the backdrop of the singing of the many hymns written just for that feast. For an Orthodox, these profoundly theological hymns are integral with the icon. One best understands hymns and icons when experienced together.

Although icons can teach us quite a bit by themselves, there are nevertheless many things in them that are puzzling without the liturgical texts to illuminate us. I am looking now, for example, at the icon of the Transfiguration that is on the cover of the Festal Icons book. It shows two caves, one underneath Moses, one underneath Elijah. These are gilded and therefore full of light. In themselves, these caves do not appear to have much meaning. But going through the festal texts, we realise why they are there in the icon. Both these Old Testament saints had a partial revelation of God while in caves. While he was hidden in the cleft of a rock, Moses saw the back parts of God. Elijah heard a still, quiet voice while he was standing at the mouth of a cave. Symbolically, these caves were dark, for Moses and Elijah were granted only a glimpse of God. But here, in the Transfiguration, they see God face to face. They behold God as Christ transfigured, shining with light. So in this icon the caves are shown full of light.

In Festal Icons, I wanted to bring together word—particularly the hymns and the appointed Scripture readings—and image.


Next there is Egon Sendler’s The Icon: Image of the Invisible. Why do you recommend it.
This is probably the most comprehensive, all-round book on icons. Its subtitle is ‘Elements of Theology, Aesthetics and Technique’. Egon Sendler was a Jesuit and thorough in his scholarship.

He covers the history of the icon and then looks at its theology. He then considers the Byzantine expressions of the icon tradition. In the third section he considers the aesthetic elements of icons and the geometrical structures underlying them. This section is quite mathematical. He looks at perspective in some depth, which is one of the things that people first notice about icons.

Sendler does not write just from his own point of view but draws on others’ scholarly work. He looks at the symbolism of colours and considers the theology of light and the works of Pseudo-Dionysius.

In the final section the author, who was an icon painter as well as scholar, describes the techniques of painting icons. In summary, the book manages to cover a wide range of themes but in satisfying detail, combining painting technique with the theology, history, and the underlying geometrical systems of icons.

Finally, there is The Meaning of Icons by Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky. What does this book add beyond your previous choices?
The aim of this classic book is to describe the main types of icons for all subject categories and the fundamental theology behind them; icons of Christ, the Mother of God, angels, the saints, and feasts. While my own book concentrates on just the fourteen major feasts—the twelve great feasts, and then the Crucifixion and the Resurrection—Ouspensky’s covers some other feasts as well, such as the Protecting Veil. My own work is subsequently much more detailed. I have about forty pages on each feast, while Ouspensky’s has about two pages and has a different emphasis to mine and analyses a broader range of icons.

This work remains a classical introduction to icons. Readers clearly find it very helpful since it has been reprinted many times.

The chapters by Lossky, who is a great theologian, cover the theology of the icon in general. His writing style is quite dense, but repays careful reading.

In my opinion, Ouspensky can sometimes be unnecessarily harsh on Western traditions. In Festal Icons, I wanted to show that iconography was once a Western as well as an Eastern tradition. After the Gothic period, the West began to get a bit too naturalistic and over emphasise the outer reality at the expense of the spiritual. But up to and including the Romanesque period, it was fully in the icon tradition. So, in my book, I have tried to be more affirmative of the Western history of iconography. Nevertheless, The Meaning of Icons remains a good introduction.

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