Brandon's Notepad

February 16, 2012


Home > My Research > Christianity > Iconography

The icons of Eastern Christianity are fascinating from both a religious and an artistic point of view. Far from idolatry, icons are used to draw Christians closer to the persons and events of the Bible, as well as to the good lives of the saints. This genre of art is dedicated to depicting Heaven. While the history of and theology behind iconography is interesting and important, this page focuses on the language of icons and the technical aspects of iconography.

There is a lot to know about icons. Much information is obscure, at least to the people of the West, as icons are not neary as popular as in the East and the most direct information is available in other languages, most notably Greek and Russian. This page began as a cursory study of iconography, and I hope to add more detail as time allows, but this information will never be comprehensive.

General Information

The following pages provide good general information about icons and related topics:


Christogram. A Christogram is an abbreviation for the name of Jesus. In Greek, this is depicted as “IC XC”, which stands for “IHCOYC XPICTOC”. These abbreviations use the first and last letters of the words and usually have a line above the combination (like a tilde character, “~”) that denotes that letters in between were omitted. More: Wikipedia


Halo. This is a familiar symbol representing a ring of light around the head of a person, usually a member of the Holy Trinity, a saint, an angel, or any other inhabitant of Heaven. The ring often circumscribes a cross when shown around the head of a member of the Trinity. In icons of Christ, the arms of this cross (usually only three are visible) contain the letters omicron (ο), omega (ω) & nu (Ν or ν), which means “one who exists” or more properly “I Am”. Greek iconographers order the letters clockwise, from left to right, whereas Russian and other Slavic iconographers place the omicron on the top and work downward, with the omega on the left. More: Wikipedia


The colors used in icons are also symbolic. Modern readers in the western world may associate purple with royalty, white with purity, black with death, blue with sorrow, green with ecological awareness, etc. More: Nazareth Studio, Nicusor Dumitru Byzantine Studio, Abp. Gregory

Gold. Gold backgrounds are used to represent the heavenly abode of saints and angels. It symbolizes divine light.
Red. In general, red symbolizes life, health, fire…things dynamic. It can also represent the Last Judgment.
Blue. In geneal, blue symbolizes the sky, things heavenly. Used in frescoes to represent Heaven instead of gold.
White. Life, purity.
Red & Blue. When used in this combination, red clothing denotes divinity and blue clothing denotes humanity. Order matters. Jesus is often shown in a red tunic and blue robe, symbolizing how the divine being took on human flesh. in contrast, Mary is often shown in a blue robe and head-covering draped by a red one, an expression of a human divinely graced.
Red & White. I have seen at least one reference to this combination to express purity (white) through washing in the blood of Christ (red). This meaning may be of Western origin.
Orange. Purification, as with fire.
Purple. Royalty, nobility, wealth, the preisthood, etc. See Daniel 5:29 & Luke 16:19.
Green. Life and fertility. Used in the clothing of the martyrs and prophets and in scenes of life, such as the nativity.
Brown. Humilty (as in dirt) and asceticism.
Green & Brown. These colors also represent the earth or ground. Saints and others are depicted as standing on grass or dirt.
Black. Absence or (more symbolically) absorbtion of light. Thus, absence of life or purity.
Yellow Sadness. Also, leprosy (see Lev. 13:29-37).

Types & Patterns

Icons are part of our Sacred Tradition. Since they depict events from the Bible and the lives of he saints, the details of the pictures are preserved with great diligence, so as not to change what they represent. When painting a new icon of a particular person or event, the iconographer should study earlier copies of the same icon and faithfully reproduce the details. To assist in this, pattern books are availible. Today, it is possible to search for graphic images of an icon by name in any popular search engine and instantly receive a large sample of pictures to compare and contrast. I’ve also seen these refered to as “Types”.

Many line drawings of icons that can be used as patterns can be found online:

Icons of Christ

Pantocrator. Despite what many websites claim, “pantocrator” does not translate directly as “almighty”, but is Greek for “ruler (-crat) of all (pan-)”. It is a frontal view of Jesus, often showing only the head and torso, but may also be a full-length view of the Lord sitting on a throne. He is dressed in a red tunic (divinity) enrobed in blue (humanity). The robe covers left side completely and in his left hand he holds a book (the Gospels). The book is almost always closed (See “The Teacher” below). In some icons (mainly Russian, I think), the left hand is veiled by the robe as well (this reminds me of the way a priest uses a humeral veil to cover his hands when holding a sacred vessel such as a monstrance). On the right, the robe covers only the shoulder (and sometimes the elbow) and his right hand is extended in a customary eastern blessing (sometimes with the raised pinky, ICXC-style). The tunic on the exposed side usually has a golden edge that runs down from the shoulder; however, this looks more like a sash in many icons. There is always a halo, almost never without an inscribed cross, and almost always bearing the Greek “I Am” as described above. The other text on the icon varies. The Greek Christogram IC XC (“Jesus Christ”) is found most often, split with his head between the abbreviated words. Other variants “Jesus/Christ” or “Panto/Crator” split by the image as indicated by the slash mark, and presented in Greek, Russian, English, etc. Some examples show an Alpha on the left and an Omega on the right. More: Wikipedia, Orthodox Wiki,

The Teacher. Christ the Teacher is almost identical to Christ the Pantocrator, except the book is almost universally open. In fact, that may be the distinguishing difference between them and a minority of the examples found online could be mislabelled. More:

The Good Shepherd.

Icon Made Without Hands.

Icons of Mary

Theotokos. More to come…

Icons of Other Saints

Saint Nicholas. More to come…

Icons of Angels

Saint Micheal. More to come…
Gabriel. More to come…
Rafael. More to come…
Guardian Angels. More to come…

Icons of Biblical Events

Nativity. More to come…
Baptism of the Lord. More to come…
Transfiguration. More to come…
Last Supper. More to come…
Crucifixion. More to come…
Descent into Hades. More to come…
Resurrection. More to come…
Ascension. More to come…
Hositality of Abraham. More to come…


Here is a list of stores I’ve found while doing my research. I’ve not purchased from any of them, but thought the list may be handy someday.


How to Paint an Icon — Learn Byzantine Iconography (Squidoo)
Technique: Preparation, Transfiguration, Finishing (Icon Arts)
The Technique of the Iconography… (Moscow Icon-Painting Center)


Icons: Theology in Color by Eugene Trubetskoi, E. N. Trubektlskofi, 1973, ISBN-10: 0913836095

Uncategorized Links (now only available on Wayback Machine)


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