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Why do Byzantine icons look the way they do?

The distinctive look of these icons carries enormous spiritual significance.

Walk into any Eastern Catholic church or household, and you will immediately be met by icons.

Seeing an icon—adorned with gold and other rich colors, often wreathed in candlelight and seemingly emanating its own interior light—is an experience that captivates the viewer almost involuntarily. These images are just so… otherworldly.

If a viewer is thus drawn to the contemplation of holy things, the icon has done its job. These images are not just pieces of art: they are meant to make the divine present to us. They connect us—through prayer—with Christ, Our Lady, and the saints.

Oldest known icon (6th c.) of Christ Pantocrator (Christ in Majesty)

Two of the most distinctive features of icons are bound up with this idea of holy presence: the portrayal of light and the two-dimensionality of the features.

You’ll notice that the prominent parts of the face and other salient features seem to glow and shimmer. This is to convey the idea of inner light, the indwelling of God, and the subject’s belonging to that other world, the heavenly realm.

The features are not photorealistic (they lack depth and three-dimensionality) because they are not intended to draw attention to the beauty of the portrayal, but rather to point beyond the icon to the actual person represented.

15th c. icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help

The central idea of holy presence is also evident if we look at how these images have been transmitted to us historically. You’ll never find a true icon that is completely “new,” because each icon is a continuation of a spiritual and artistic tradition. They say St. Luke was the first icon painter, painting images of Our Lady from life. The story of the first icon of Christ (the “Mandylion”) goes back to Christ Himself.

Icon painters, therefore, take the bones of their work from icons made before them, adding their own interpretation yet keeping the essence intact to continue this tradition. In this way, icons are a living link to the earliest iconographers—and even to Our Lord and Our Lady themselves.

In fact, icon painting is properly referred to as icon writing, since an iconographer’s goal is to correctly transmit the tradition handed on to him from the past and to accurately convey the visual theology contained in the image.

You can bring the profound spirituality of these images into your prayer life through an icon of your own. The Catholic Company offers a wide selection of icons, including popular subjects such as Christ Pantocrator, St. Michael the Archangel, and Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Order yours today!

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