Religious Icons in the Byzantine Tradition

Leaf Bearing Cross by Suzanne Zoole

ou might order a hand-painted religious icon of your favorite saint for yourself or give an icon to your favorite spiritual person. The icon can serve as a focal point for prayer and meditation or simply add a spiritual note to any environment. A large icon can be placed in a church setting and serve as a memorial. While Zoole often works from commissions, there are always icons available in the Workshop for immediate sale.

Any saint or spiritual figure can be depicted in an icon. When commissioning an icon, note that several weeks are necessary for completion of the order.

Icons are based on century-old prototypes and are painted in the Byzantine style with careful attention to color, setting, and composition.

What are icons?

Square format is filled with stern powerful version of Christ with his hand held in a blessing.
Christ Pantocrator by Suzanne Zoole

n Icon is typically a depiction of a sacred figure painted on a specially prepared wood panel. They are a means to prayer and worship for believers and a means to meditation for others. Icons come to us from the Eastern Orthodox Church, where they have been venerated since the 4th century.

Jesus Christ, Mary the Mother of God, the saints and other biblical figures are all portrayed in icons. Smaller sizes are typically used for personal devotion. Larger icons are usually placed in a church setting and depict certain events in the Christian tradition: the Nativity, for example.

Those who paint or write icons do so in a prayerful manner, often meditating on the saint. Prayer is part of the process. The icons depict biblical saints and scenes, yet their purpose is not to educate us as other religious art is intended to do. While icons are certainly decorative and beautiful, their role is a spiritual one.

Icons are called windows into heaven because they invite us to enter into silence and into a prayerful space. They are symbols that reveal the mysterious reality of God's presence in human life. The word icon means image in Greek.

How are they made?

Mary holds her hands up in prayer, as the Christ Child appears in a medallion on her chest.
Theotokos of the Sign by Suzanne Zoole

n icon begins as a piece of high quality wood, prepared with several coats of gesso (a white plaster) and is sanded smooth after each coat. Early in the process, a piece of cotton or linen is laid over the surface, gessoed and followed with more layers of gesso. The purpose of the fabric is to strengthen the panel should warping take place.

The wood panel is then sanded to a silky finish on which a tracing of the subject is made. The acrylic paints are applied in layers. After the large areas are filled in, then successive layers of details according to the Orthodox tradition are added. Special attention is taken with the face, especially the eyes.

Gold leaf (23.5 kt) is applied to the halo adding a richness to the entire piece. Finally to ensure protection and permanence a coat of polyurethane is applied. Traditionally, a prayer of thanksgiving is offered at the icon's completion.

Why do they look the way they do?

The archangel in blue and red garments holds a staff with one hand and blesses the viewer with the other.
Archangel Gabriel by Suzanne Zoole

he features of an icon differ from ordinary painting in several ways. Creativity and originality, which are the very essence of fine art painting, have no place here. Both tradition and canon require that the iconographer remain faithful to previous depictions of the icon.

Therefore the icon painted today looks like a copy of the original done centuries ago. The style of icons is archaic and unrealistic to our eyes. Figures are often distorted and perspective is off.