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The Uninitiated and the Legacy of Traditional Orthodox Iconography

The reason for this paper is because there is a misconception among many non-Orthodox who believe that simply because they wish to be iconographers and to paint icons they are permitted to do so. There is also a misconception among some Orthodox Christians who believe that simply because they hold membership in the Church they are entitled to become iconographers and paint icons.

The non-Orthodox must understand without the Faith “Once delivered to the Saints” (Jude 3), it is not only impermissible, but impossible to paint icons. Likewise the Orthodox must remember “writing icons” requires more than artistic skill or interest, for iconography is a divine “calling” that allows some Orthodox Christians to paint the icons, a “calling” which is reserved for those of God’s choosing.

One very important aspect of having “the Faith” or being chosen by God to paint icons is Sacred Tradition of the Orthodox Church. Iconography is the product of it. The iconographer must live in it. The painting of icons is an act of Faith, an act of Truth, which cannot be found outside the borders of the Church which maintains both the true Faith and the saving Truth.

So, let us start with the definition of Tradition and why it is paramount and immutable in order to understand its indispensability for one to become an iconographer.

First, a quote from Saint Athanasius: “But our Faith is right, and starts from the teachings of the Apostles and Tradition of the fathers, being confirmed both by New Testament and the Old.”

Faith and Tradition can not be separated. Even the Bible is part of Tradition. What the Orthodox believe now was believed by the Apostles and Fathers. The content of Tradition is the Faith.

Can we speak of the Faith without Tradition? Everything we need to know about the Faith is linked to the mysteries. What is Tradition but the passing down of the Faith whether written or unwritten, as Saint Basil the Great says. One can not be understood without the other. How is the Faith handed down? Principally through the Mysteries!

Without Holy Tradition there would be no revealed Truth. For it is the revealed Truth derived from Christ Himself. The reason we have so many “christian” denomination is precisely because they have sought to add or subtract from “the Faith once delivered to the Saints,” that is, the lack of Tradition. To repeat, Orthodox Tradition is a handing down of the teachings of Christ; from Christ to the Apostles, from the Apostles to the Holy Fathers and the rest of the Church. There is a lineage that is historical, consistent and unbroken.

Sacred Tradition is for the Church, in the Church and by the Church. True Faith and living piety connect the Faithful to this Sacred Tradition. Kontoglou says, “The true artist even if they are endowed with great natural gifts, feels inside themselves the need of subjugating themselves to Tradition.” (ib.)

On the other hand, “The modernists, who are ever chattering that they want the freedoms in order to make new things, are in reality certain weak creatures under the sway of fantasy.” (from C. Cavarnos, Fine Arts and Tradition: A Presentation of Kontoglous Teaching. Belmont [Mass}. 2004, p.36)

Yet, “Even with Tradition such individuals can not create anything significant being themselves empty and spiritually dead… Tradition is a foundation and power for living souls; neither Tradition nor anything else can rescue and enliven dead souls.”(ib. p.37].

Sacred Tradition is not only essential for doctrine but also for the art of iconography which is a reflection of that doctrine. For within the art and technique of iconography the Orthodox Church communicates what is found in Her Scriptures. What is absent in the so-called Christian is the fullness of the Faith, as well as consistency, which ultimately leads to uncertainty in their creeds; thus, because iconography is inseparable from all aspects of the Church life and thought — just as every other component of the Orthodox Church — the ability to paint icons is restricted to those who share the Truth revealed by God. Therefore, without Holy Tradition, iconography, nay the Orthodox Church Herself, would not exist. Thus, as false doctrine begets false Faith inevitably it creates false iconography.

It is only within the context of Holy Tradition that is it possible to acquire the depth of vision, the fidelity, the catholicity of mind, the purity of heart (in the Orthodox sense); and provides the iconographer the capacity to theologize in paint. In other words, these identifying marks characterize only the Orthodox Christian who translates his faith to canvas [or wood]. The grace to paint comes to him initially through baptism and the other Mysteries; and, of course, through the spiritual struggle —- the task of every member of the Church — a struggle which is won only within her precincts. In a word, such grace and experience is requisite to becoming an iconographer.


Various theories enter into the minds of some Orthodox that find Tradition irrelevant to painting icons; these come from a proud heart and a presumptuous mind. Secular artists who by his skills offer us a private vision of the world, the iconographer enliven us with the revealed Truth found in Tradition.

Once the Orthodox Christian iconographers adds his imagination and personal conception to the method and meaning of icon-painting, he contradicts his art and impugns the theology of the Church which it presupposes. Once this occurs the icon ceases to be a communion between us and the prototype.

Moreover, the tragedy behind this anti-Traditional attitude is that these Orthodox have broken the connection between themselves and the ancient iconographers who have left them this precious patrimony. They have severed themselves from their Christian brethren and the Saints with whom they must commit in order to share the same Tradition. They are no longer “one in Christ” in all aspects of Orthodoxy. The spiritual connection between brethren who are living and also those who have passed from this life is lost. The words “That they all may be one” becomes meaningless. “Oneness” does not simply refer to our brothers and sisters in Christ who are with us in this life, but a union in mind, thought and Faith between us and the whole history of believers in the Faith [Tradition]. “Being one” according to St Paul means to “… walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one Faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all, and in you all.” (Eph. 4:3-4)

This is the living Tradition from which these dissidents disconnect themselves by their sentimental and “creative” art.


Iconography is “mystical, hieratic, anagogic”, as Photios Kontoglou describes it. It raises the mind from the superficial and things that inevitably will end to the spiritual and everlasting realm. Sacred art’s ultimate design, whether it is music, architecture, or liturgical implements that the priest uses during the liturgy, is to change the mind from a pleasure-seeking, indulgent state to a sanctifying and salvific re-form.

Very often icons are modified capriciously and irreverently removing all Truth from them for the sake of “artistic expression”.

These innovations, whether done with a mixture of iconography and portraiture, the so-called soft-style, or something entirely aberrant are known as “New-Style” “icons”, a denial of Christ while pretending to serve Christ. These emasculated “icons” are only producing a religious picture, secular in spirit, offering an empty shell to the Faithful.

The conclusion is that in order for someone to abandon Traditional iconography one must either not understand or accept the importance of our sacred lineage, one does not believe that Orthodox iconography is neither better nor worse than any other kind of art or they have placed money, recognition, or, not to say the least, their personal agenda before the Truth.

In modern art “Artistic freedom” and an “individualistic” attitude is involved and focuses on the outward man for which most if not all modern art stems.

As soon as one forsakes Orthodox Truth for the sake of “artistic ambition”, “creativity” or “freedom”, adding and subtracting from ones Orthodox inheritance then the grace given to the iconographer is taken from him. As one may acquire more and more of the Holy Spirit, So too, one may lose more and more by betraying his charism given by the Holy Spirit.

Why? What is iconography? Theology, is it not? It is theology in color. The written scripture composed with a paintbrush instead of a pen, translated with paint instead of ink, inspired by the Holy Spirit.

To change the principles of iconography that have been handed down to us, is to spread falsehood and not the Truth in scripture itself, the Holy Fathers, Ecumenical councils and the canons.

By not adhering to scripture and preach it in print or paint then you preach an untruth, a lie, about the whole Christian revelation. Iconography and Scripture are tied together. One can not paint an icon and expect it to possess the power of an icon when it is not synchronized with Scripture. The theology of the icon is not just in the depictions represented but in the technique; and also in the absence of historical accuracies.

According to Saint John of Damascus: “We do not change the boundaries marked out by our fathers; we keep the Tradition we have received. We beseech therefore the people of God, the Faithful flock, to hold fast to the ecclesiastical Tradition. The gradual taking away that has been handed down to us would be undermining the foundation stones, and would in no short time overthrow the whole structure.”(On the divine images. Crestwood, New York, 1980. 1:22; Prov. 22-28)

Once we begin to add and subtract as iconographers, whether it be things such as buildings, or people, or even style, etc. or if we apply our own imagination to the painting of the flesh or by adding extraneous matter for the sake of arbitrary “artistic interpretation” or even for the sake of simplification, not only is scripture misrepresented to say the least, as mentioned already, but its very history as well, and those who would dare to make scripture or any teachings of the Church personal become presumptuous correctors of doctrine and therefore blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, blasphemy because symbolic style and the unerring in Scriptural history reflects doctrinal and dogmatic Truth which would be eliminated by ignoring that which has been revealed to us by God through the Holy Fathers to spread the connection between the divine revelation and God’s chosen people.


How, you might ask, does changing the technique, such as the way we paint the flesh, for example when painting icons misrepresent scripture or the theology behind scripture, or as another example, leaving out persons such as Abraham and Sarah in the icon of “The Hospitality of Abraham” or depicting the Theotokos in garment other than the burgundy red and the royal purple she wears in Orthodox icons, and her head being covered by her outer garment, or why is painting clouds in icons wrong?

Why is it wrong to paint angels female or feminine or as baby’s or children but only as young men?

If you refer back to the article on this site “On the Hospitality of Abraham“, I explain why it is wrong to call this icon “The Holy Trinity” and why it is wrong to omit Abraham and Sarah, but for the sake of the moment I will give you a bit of an explanation. To call the icon of the hospitality an icon of the Trinity is to distort the theology of it. To take Abraham and Sarah out of the icon is to distort the history of it. What is a distortion? A lie. So therefore if the icon “The Hospitality of Abraham” is painted in either of these ways, it is then a lie, a false icon.

Clouds are seen repeatedly in Russian iconography. Clouds are an addition that the Russians took from Roman Catholics and who themselves received from the Buddhists. Clouds in Russian iconography are usually represented as heaven which no one has ever seen and therefore can not be depicted for that reason. They are a representation of naturalism which the icon avoids. Often time’s clouds are painted in Western religious paintings to represent heaven.

Please listen to the words of Photios Kontoglou: “Western religious painters who wanted to depict the supernatural visions of religion took as models certain natural phenomena-clouds, sunsets, the moon, the sun with its beams. With these they tried to portray the heavenly glory and the world of immortality, calling certain things “spiritual” which are merely sentimental, emotional, not spiritual at all.

In vain, however! Because the blessedness of the other life is not a continuation of the emotional happiness of this world, neither does it have any relation to the satisfaction the senses enjoy in this life. The Apostle Paul, talking about the good things of the blessedness to come, says that they are such that “eye hath not seen, and ear hath not heard, neither have entered into the heart of man.”

How, then, can that world, which lies beyond everything a man can grasp with his senses-how can that world be portrayed by an art that is “natural” and that appeals to the senses? How can you paint “what surpasses nature and surpasses sense”?” (“About Orthodox Iconography” by Photios Kontoglou)

In Roman Catholicism the Virgin Mary is depicted in paintings and statues in blue and white. Some say it is because blue represents royalty; after all it is the Mother of God. White is for purity. Some such as Leonardo da Vinci painted her in red being the color worn of influential women of her time. It is said that some male scholars in Roman Catholicism did not like the idea of women in important roles so they changed the color from red to blue and white. These same men were to have said that red was the color worn by non-virtuous women, hence the change.

Although these ideas are noble to an extent, all is conjecture. Roman Catholics paint Mary, the Saints and even Christ in human form in order to be “relatable”, that is to say, more human, more like ourselves.

With great effort they try to make her the “perfect human being”. In Orthodoxy she is deified. She is more than human. She is the Panagia, the All-Holy. She is more honorable than the Cherubim, beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim. She is without corruption.

In iconography the Theotokos is in red, and purple for theological purposes, just as everything we see in iconography, in the temple, in hymns, etc., is done for theological reasons with head completely covered, as Scripture teaches, being an example for all women.

If you notice in the icons of Christ His clothing are the same colors as the Mother of God’s, simply reversed. Red symbolizes divinity and purple [or bluish purple] symbolizes humanity. Mary wears purple [or bluish purple] underneath because she is human and took on divinity by carrying Jesus Christ so she wears red over the purple. Jesus Christ, being the Son of God took on humanity so He wears the same color red as the Theotokos only underneath. His purple is cloaked over His red garment.

There are exceptions for Christ’s garment. His is in white and gold as an infant, sometimes seen with green as the Pantocrator, and pure white as the Ancient of Days with a white beard [Often mistaken as “God the Father”].

Concerning the flesh, it must be painted with the distinct stylization of Traditional Greek iconography [Byzantine, Macedonian, Cretan, etc.] used by our ancient predecessors, which is also true for Russian style [Kiev, Stroganoff, Serbian, etc.]. Just as scripture has been handed down from one generation to the next through the centuries unchanged by the Orthodox Church so must the technique of iconography be unaltered, whether it be the flesh, the execution of clothes, buildings, animals, etc.

With Byzantine iconography, for example, when proceeding to paint the flesh there are layers of various hues of flesh tones that gives the bodies of the saints a certain texture, and characteristic expression; such as piety, humility, zeal and sometimes judgment as in the icon of the Pantocrator and the denial of carnality, etc.

This technique was inspired to express in icons, Truth, the Truth of the Holy Scripture, the Truth of how man can be transformed by the acquisition of the continual accumulation of grace. If we look with spiritual eyes and spiritual discernment we can see everything that the Church instructs expressed in the technique of iconography, concerning fasting, humility, mercy, and unwavering fidelity to the Faith, even judgment, obedience and suffering. Iconography is an eternal catechesis just as all the doctrine of Scripture and the unremitting pedagogy of the Holy Fathers, the Ecumenical Councils and the sacred Canons.

An example of poor flesh technique is the so-called “soft-style iconography” which has been touted as another style of iconography for the last two hundred years. This is a misconception or rather a perversion of true iconography. This so-called technique was taken partly from the naturalistic renaissance depictions of religious figures found in Roman Catholicism which finally crept into ecumenical Orthodoxy.

“Soft-style” does not only make reference to the very soft frail appearance of the body but to the softness or weakness of the message it conveys to the on-looker; weak Faith and the total opposite of which true iconography expresses. Its creamy, bland skin is joined with uninspiring and powerless features. Just as the Faith it represents. The male saints and angels are effeminate instilling no confidence or devotion, befalling a Faith useless to the beholder. It is carnal, in a word; a mixture of very little iconography over-shadowed mostly by Italian Renaissance style. Renaissance, which Kontoglou called “The rebirth of paganism” never considered this a “style” of iconography. Also Photios Kontoglou (see “Influence” page of website) points our that; “Lacking the boldness to deny Christ openly, said Kontoglou, they [the Italians] pretended to be serving the Christian Faith, producing which were religious in subject-matter but secular, carnal in spirit.” (ib.)

Dr. Constantine Cavarnos mentions concerning the attitude of the Renaissance painters toward Byzantine iconography “Renaissance painters turned their back to it”, precisely because of this void of Christian spirituality of which Mr. Kontoglou speaks.

Those who accept pseudo “Soft style” or those so-called “icons” that mixes iconography with portraiture do not know the nature of true iconography nor its purpose. This poor interpretation of such weak “iconography” was created to appease those who see only fear and intimidation in the ancient, biblical Christ, a mentality instilled by Western culture. With true icons of Christ and his Saints many in the West see only condemnation, and judgment, the reminder that each of us must combat the passions, which they do not want to face. Mr. Kontoglou said there are those who possess, “no real under-standing of the underlying principles and aims of Byzantine iconography, and [therefore are] devoid of Christian spirituality.”

Abandoning Traditional iconography is abandoning iconography altogether.

Concerning the depiction of angels in icons; why can they not be depicted as female or feminine or as children, but only as young men? Simply because nowhere in scripture will one find mention of a female angel. Angels are referred to in the Bible (Hebrew language) as Bene elohim, or “sons of God.” Notice it does not say, “Daughters of God”.

It is safe to say that there was no such thing as a representation of female angels or children until the renaissance. The duties of an angel were never that of female character. They were divided into counselors, governors and ministers. This last class was the most masculine, for its symbols were “The soldier’s garb, golden belts, holding lance headed javelins and hatchets in their hands.”


A work of iconography gives expression. It should be beautiful. There are two kinds of beauty, that of the carnal or of naturalism and that of the spirit. Iconography associates only with the latter. It transcends time and place and contains wisdom and as Mr. Kontoglou says, “sets forth distinction between true art and pseudo art”. Certain individuals looking at an icon, being displeased with what they see because their mind and heart are transfixed on carnal things, and have not the Faith to believe and therefore unable to accept what is holy, can not see the spiritual and transfigured beauty in the saints in the icon.

As Mr. Kontoglou says: “The beauty of liturgical art is not a carnal beauty, but a spiritual beauty. That is why whoever judges this art by worldly standards says that the figures in Byzantine sacred painting are ugly and repellent, while for one of the Faithful they possess the beauty of the spirit, which is called “the beautiful transformation.”

The Apostle Paul says, “We (who preach the Gospel and live according to Christ) are … a sweet savior of Christ unto them that are saved and unto them that perish. Unto them that have within them the smell of death (of flesh), we smell of death; and unto them that have within them the smell of life, we smell of life.”

And the blessed and hallowed St. John of the Ladder says, “There was an ascetic who, whenever he happened to see a beautiful person, whether man or woman, would glorify the Creator of that person with all his heart, and from a mere glance his love for God would spring afresh and he would pour out on his account a fountain of tears. And one marveled, seeing this happen, that for this man what would cause the soul of another to stink had become a reason for crowns and an ascent above nature. Whoever perceives beauty in this fashion is already incorruptible, even before the dead shall rise in the common Resurrection.” (From “About Orthodox Iconography”; P. Kontoglou)

They forget these great men and women were and are human and no different than anyone else, except for the spiritual forces that allowed them to become sanctified; true Faith, piety and the humility to repent and struggle with their cross they had and do bear, transforming themselves from mere human personages to holy men and women possessing the Holy Spirit.


Now, the Orthodox Faith has been given specifics by God the Holy Spirit Himself as to how His Saints, the Theotokos and Angels must be depicted. Read, for example, Saint John of Damascus “On the Holy Images” Those who deform the icon by using undue complexity, poor organization, affectation, and not avoiding superfluity are as Kontoglou states, “pompous, pretentious and insincere, aping the style of others; [and] must be shunned”.

The styles that we have are born from the history of the church. To follow these styles is an act of humility. It is not art in the popular sense; they are styles to which the church has given birth in order to express to the Faithful her infallibility and virtue. The iconographer is transferring Truth through the icons and these styles are ways the iconographer expresses the Truth of the scripture. We as Orthodox Christians are not interested in “perspective” but the Truth.

There are those that see redundancy in iconography. That icon painting is nothing more than repetition. Mr. Kontoglou makes these remarks to such ideas:

“Even among serious students of Byzantine art there are a good number who have not grasped its true depth. They have the idea that it is a fossilized art, and that those who practice it copy in a slavish manner older works of iconography.

If it were so, every mediocre artist would be a good icon painter. However, we see that among the 20, 30, or 50 who devote themselves to Byzantine iconography, only a few are capable of doing works that are inspiring.

Our Traditional iconography is language we Orthodox use in the field of sacred painting, parallel to the language we use when we speak. All Orthodox use in our speech the same words and same canons. This, however, does not mean that we copy one another, which we imitate one another. We express ourselves by employing the same means, yet each one of us has his own peculiar way of expression. The same is true with Traditional art.

The capable iconographer is by no means a mechanical copier but a creator in the true sense of the term.

Unfortunately, even among iconographers there are some who have the idea that Byzantine iconography is an art of copying. Such artists, by saying this, reveal quite clearly that they have understood nothing with regard to this art, and they are incapable of probing its mystical depth, but occupy themselves only with the surface.

For such persons it would be better and more honorable to withdraw from it and devote themselves to secular art. Here, every kind of madness and arbitrariness has been “legalized”, and for this reason they will be able to find a splendid arena for glory!” [Fine Art and Tradition by C. Cavarnos pg. 62-66]


In conclusion, some personal information relevant to our discussion about Photios Kontoglou. He was at first a secular artist before he became an iconographer. At some point during his iconography career he painted in his home a self portrait of himself, his wife and daughter, plus many Greek philosophers, including Socrates, Plato and Pythagoras.

He did this because he loved his Greek heritage and Byzantine art in general, and not out of some self adoration, or as some think, that he was making himself a saint.

He also painted on the walls of one of his rooms in Byzantine style portraits of some of the great poets he deeply admired, such as Homer, Pindar and Aristophanes. Again, he painted them out of admiration towards their works painting them in Byzantine style for his love of the art and not because he thought that these philosophers and poets, although great men, were saints.

One night after going to sleep he had a dream where Christ Himself came to him and told him that his use of Byzantine style for such secular works was forbidden and reserved only for iconography. Photios Kontoglou repented of this and never did it again.