About this Guide

This is a site devoted to Holy Orthodox Icons.

For those of you who are interested in such sacred images, I hope you have already gained much from contemplating and praying before them. Perhaps you have already experienced an Icon “speaking” to you. But of course an icon doesn’t speak to you anymore than a book speaks to you. What you gain from a book comes through either reading or hearing the words read to you. Moreover, what you gain is dependant upon how much of the language you understand.

The language of Holy Icons is symbolism. Without this symbolism, no artist could ever hope to depict what is shown in Holy Icons: the eternal, heavenly, realm. The symbolism used is not mysterious, nor is it difficult to grasp; but neither is it part of the school curriculum. Therefore, what is meant to be an economic, beautiful, and powerful way of communicating spiritual truth is often hidden from the majority of us today. It is hidden but not lost, because throughout the ages the language, tradition, methods, theology, and basic truth of Holy Icons have been preserved by humble, pious people. By saints. What I present and explain here is the fruit of their labours.

To God be all the glory!

(6th Monday after Pentecost, 2010)


Some articles to begin with:

54 Responses to About this Guide

  1. James Hoffman says:

    Hello there. I was wondering if someone could help me and inform me as to what material the icon located here is made of.


    The very first icon on the page, of the last judgment with the black hell monster. I can’t seem to find details of its material composition anywhere.

    Thank you!

    • Mike Kueh says:

      Hi Iconreader,
      I am writing from New Zealand. I come across a copy of an icon showing Christ with a saint. Can you tell me more about it? How can I email the image to you?

      • iconreader says:

        If you click on the small icon next to my username it brings up a profile where you can send me an email. There are numerous icons it could be, but one quite common icon is this ancient one:

        … if on the off-chance this is the icon you came across then it is St Menas who is with Christ. If not, then email me a copy/description and I will try to help.

  2. iconreader says:

    It seems that this icon is Polish, from the village of Lipia, and now in the Historical Museum of Sanok (Muzeum Historyczne w Sanoku). Looking for this museum I found their website where they talk about the icon, but only the composition, and not the materials used:

    http://www.muzeum.sanok.pl/?p=2390 (and scroll down until you find it)

    At least, that’s what I could get through GoogleTranslate – I don’t speak Polish. But at least now there is a point of contact for people who (should!) know what the icon is made of.

  3. Mario says:

    Hello Iconreader,

    Firstly thank you for creating and maintainting such an informative, interesting site. I am currently writing a paper that discusses the history of icons and wanted to quote you. I can’t find any biographical information about you, making it hard to reference you.

    Please could you reply with your name, or confirm if you would prefer to remain under the nom-de-plume Iconreader.



  4. Pingback: A Reader’s Guide to Orthodox Icons « Sowing Seeds of Orthodoxy

  5. Thom says:

    Christ is Risen!

    Beautiful blog. I was wondering if you could tell me where you found this icon:


    That is the most beautiful icon of the Resurrection and I would love a copy for my home. I was wondering if there were any sold like this or if there was at least higher quality image I could print out.

    • iconreader says:

      He is Risen Indeed!

      The icon is actually a modern fresco from the walls of the Holy Trinity Church in Butte, Montana; I have only seen pictures, but the other frescoes appear excellent too:


      If you click on the icon in my post it should give you a larger resolution. Here is the larger, full-sized image:

      It is 1,024 x 1,553 pixels; I don’t think there is a bigger resolution than that available online. I have printed this icon for use in our local church and the image quality is easily good enough to produce an A4-sized hard copy without any problems.

      • bstipp says:

        We’re new to Orthodoxy, so I have so much to learn about icons. I’m so excited to have found this site. Thank you!
        Is it appropriate for me to print off online icon images for use in our home? I’m trying to figure out how to a) put some icons in our home, b) not break any copyright laws, and c) stay within our budget. Along those same lines, I purchased a calendar of icons and was planning to cut out and mount those images myself. Is this ok? I’m sorry if it sounds like a simple question, I just want to be sure I’m not being inappropriate in some way.
        Peace of Christ to you,

      • iconreader says:

        Hello Elizabeth:

        When I first came to Orthodoxy I was living in China, which as you can imagine was a difficult place to find icons! Printing images found online was how I began to build my icon corner so you can guess what my answer to this question would be. I am not the person to ask about copyright as I do not observe it in making this blog — the only thing I hope is that, because I am not running this blog as a commercial venture, there is ‘no harm, no foul’ in terms of using images of icons. From my point of view, therefore, printing images of icons for veneration would be even more acceptable.

        If you can find an Orthodox church, you might find that they sell postcard icons or printed icons stuck onto wooden bases which are inexpensive (especially postcard icons) and would mean any money spent would go towards the parish.

        Cutting out icons from calendars is not only ok, but a very good idea! Printing icons onto ‘disposable’ items like calendars, flyers, greetings cards can be a problem because when the items are discarded, so using the images beyond the lifetime of the calendar is the right and proper thing to do. You will find yourself with an abundance of icons in no time. There is an article called “How not to be an accidental Iconoclast” that mentions this directly.

        Hope this answers your questions, and hope your growth in Orthodoxy goes from strength to strength!

        In Christ,

  6. Emily says:

    Greetings in the Lord!

    I am a Youth Worker at a Parish in Colorado and am working on marketing a very successful tool that our Priest came up with this year. A “Pascha Passport”. However, the “stamps” for the Passport are all icons of the specific days: Sunday’s of Lent, Bridegroom services, Unction, Palm Sunday, etc. And I am looking for an online source of these icons of which to gain permission to use their photos as these stamps.

    I believe that your site has all of the icons that I need for this, and I am sorry that I did not see any other way of contacting you to get permission. Would you be willing to give us permission to use your icons in our Passport? I will be happy to print “Iconreader” as the source, and even mail you a Passport if you would like :).

    Please let me know if this is a possibility!
    Thank you,
    St. Spyridon Greek Orthodox Church

    • iconreader says:

      Hello Emily,

      Unfortunately I don’t own the copyright for most of the images on this website so I cannot give permission for them to be used. The idea of a passport is very interesting! I work in a museum and we have a similar scheme, which works very well; I hope your endeavours are blessed!

  7. Janna says:


    Christ is in our midst!

    I JUST started a blog about my journey to Orthodoxy (I’m a current United Methodist) and was wondering if you would mind me putting a link to your site on my page? This is very informative and it would be great to reference your site in some of my upcoming posts if you’re okay with that.


  8. Helen says:

    Hello, I have a Russian icon of guardian angels and there’s these little brown winged creatures that don’t necessarily look like they’re up to no good, but they don’t look like angels. They have very spiky features (hair, noses). Are these demons? Hoping you can help me sort this out. Thanks.

    • iconreader says:

      I couldn’t say for sure unless I saw the icon. There are demons shown in the Ladder of Divine Ascent Icon, for example:

      …pulling people from the ladder. If they look like this then they are demons.

      I had a look at some Russian icons of guardian angels online and wondered if your icon might look something like this:

      If so, then these figures are angels, specifically seraphim. These are described in the Book of Isaiah and the Book of Revelation as fiery angels with six wings, covered all about in eyes. Because they are “fiery”, they are usually painted in red, though in older icons this might appear brown over time. These angels dwell the closest to the Throne of God and continually offer Him praise: the furthest thing from being demons! 🙂

  9. Matthew Conner says:

    I’m curious about a common motif in iconography that I can’t seem to track down. I wonder if you could help.

    Many saints have a tessellation of crosses on their robes/vestments. I’m not sure if this a specific attribute of certain saints or a symbol of a certain class of people, like martyrs with palm branches. Regardless, I’m curious about it’s significance. An example is linked below.

    Best wishes.

  10. Nel says:

    I wonder if you can help me. I’m in Poland. Some friends recently bought an icon for their children. I assume that my friends bought the icon in eastern Poland, since they travel there often (we live in western Poland). It’s supposed to be Saint Michael the Archangel. He holds a sword in one hand (right hand), but instead of the expected scales in the other hand, he is holding a chalice in his upraised left hand. (I don’t remember any dragon, but I admit I was looking mostly at the chalice.) The only connection between angels and chalices that I know about is angels holding chalices in images of the crucifixion, to collect the Precious Blood of Jesus.

    Do you have any information about St. Michael the Archangel holding a chalice in traditional iconography? A search of the Internet revealed only one supposed image of St Michael holding a chalice, but it looked more to me like a modern cartoon than a real icon. I’d be grateful for any information you can offer.

    Thank you.

    • iconreader says:

      Hello Nel:

      The image of the Archangel Michael holding the scales isn’t that common in Orthodox iconography, except in icons specifically of the Last Judgment. More usually he holds a lance in two hands, or else holds a shield, a jasper mirror (representing God’s wisdom as a hidden mystery), an orb (representing earthly authority). He is also sometimes shown holding the tiny soul of a man in his left hand, whilst trampling the devil, an image related to him holding the scales.

      But unfortunately I don’t recall ever seeing him hold a chalice. It sounds like it could be an image related to Revelation, and the Archangel’s role in the end of this world (isn’t there a cup from Heaven that is poured out on the world during one of the visions?), but I honestly am not qualified to speak on it.

      Sorry I couldn’t help.

      • Nel says:

        On the contrary, that is help. Sometimes the conclusion we draw from research is ‘negative’ in the sense that what we thought at the beginning proves not to be true. You’ve told me a lot more than I was able to find out from any other source. If my friends have any clues about where they got their ‘icon’, or who made it, I may have another question (I suppose, frankly, it’s a painting in ‘icon-style’, the kind available in any religious shop over here).

        In any case, thank you very much for your reply, and for this fascinating website!

  11. Michelle says:

    Dear Iconreader,
    Thank you so much for your beautiful website. I have a question which is so basic that I feel sure I should be able to find the answer somewhere in cyberspace, but, so far, I have been unsuccessful.
    I would love to know the significance of the long nose, small mouth, and “big hair” that is so often seen in icons. I particularly have in mind Rublev’s stunning icon of Christ the Saviour.
    With abundant thanks,

    • iconreader says:

      Dear Michelle:

      The basic appearance of Christ in Icons is founded on the Incarnation first and foremost, and so many of the features are due simply to the “image” of Christ left to the Apostles and preserved through the centuries. This is the reasoning behind the beard and “big-hair”, which I think is just trying to depict Christ as He was: with a beard and long hair.

      It’s true, though, that there are stylistic differences between Icons, as Christ is not always shown with the “small” features of the Rublev icon. For example, this 6th century icon of Christ with St Menas from St Catherine’s monastery shows Him with large eyes and features:

      (although the hair is still “big”, in my opinion).

      There are reasons given for these differences, besides the simplistic “they were painted at different times by different artists” reason.

      Large eyes in icons can be seen as a symbol of clear-sightedness and wisdom. Icons with small eyes, mouth, etc. are seen to symbolize the more ascetic side of the Christian Faith. This is also true of the thin nose, and usually thin, tapered limbs and fingers too: they represent an ascetic, inward, hesychasm which is common not only in icons by Rublev, but of other icons coming from the Medieval Russian North.

      St Andrei Rublev came from the Holy Trinity monastery of St Sergius of Radonezh. I am currently reading the lives of St Sergius and the other monastics who established monasteries in the Northern wildernesses of Russia. What strikes me is the extreme harshness of the lives they led: physically demanding (and dangerous), but also incredibly isolated. In this isolation they could practice the same asceticism of St Anthony the Great and the other desert fathers. However, although they emulated the desert fathers, their surroundings were different, and so the spirituality that came from the Russian wildernesses was also different, though very much related.

      The Egyptian desert lived in by the Holy Fathers and Mothers of the first millennium was characterized by clear skies, expansive views, scorching sun; the Northern Russian wilderness is more secluded, with leafy forests, marshy swamps, and softer shades. The Desert Fathers were mighty and elemental; the great ascetics of the Russian forests (of who Rublev was one) were quieter and introspective.

      The fruits of these two “deserts” are therefore distinct, in terms of the exploits of the Saints produced, their writings, and the iconography.

      The way Christ’s features are rendered in a simple, minimalist way are similar to the way in which St Andrei also rendered the “Hospitality of Abraham” in a stripped down way, removing the external details of the scene (Abraham and Sarah, the fatted calf, the table laden with food) so that only the main revelation: the Holy Trinity remained.


      Another example, not from Andrei Rublev but from the Northern monasteries of Russia, is the icon of St George and the Dragon: which shows only the Saint, the Serpent, and the Desert background, without all the other details of the story the image is based on:

      https://iconreader.wordpress.com/2012/04/25/saint-george-and-the-dragon-in-iconography/ (and scroll down to “The Novgorod-style depictions of St George”)

      Sorry for the digressions. Basically the “small” features of Christ (and other Saints) is symbolic of the inner-life of prayer, hesychasm, and asceticism. It is characterized by thin bodies and facial features (asceticism) and a small mouth (hesychasm/silence).

  12. Michelle says:

    Dear Iconreader,
    Thank you, thank you, and thank you again for your magnificent response to my enquiry. I am profoundly grateful to you for your generosity and insight. I shared your response with a group of educators last week, and they too were so grateful for these magnificent insights into iconography.
    May God bless you and your wonderful ministry,

  13. Taylor says:


    Could you tell me from where you pulled the following icon of Mary?


    I’d like to track down its source so I can get permission to print a copy.


  14. Steve says:

    Can you direct me to an internet resource for descriptions and explanations of individual icons or the use of specific elements (color, symbols, etc.) in iconography. I have a Protestant friend whose daily devotions occasionally include icons and she would like to know more. I will, of course, direct her to this beautiful site!

    Thank you,


  15. Anna says:

    I am enchanted by your blog. I am a (very) novice writer of icons.
    I have run across two icons that I cannot seem to find satisfying information about. If you don’t mind would you let me know if you know anything about them. One is the quadripartite icon. 1540 -1550. Located at the Kremlin.
    I have an interest in learning about these more complicated compositions of icon, but am striking out trying to find info. I see them categorized as “theological icons” but that seems very vague.
    I saw your post about the Last Judgment icon. Thank you. That was one I was having a hard time finding info about, though the compositions I had encountered were a bit different than the one you used as an example, but at least it was something.
    Thank you for the work you do on this blog.
    God bless,

  16. Chatico says:

    Hello, I was wondering if you would know what it says on the back of this cross. I was told it was old slavonic, but I can’t find anyone who can tell me what it says around the ring. See image here. http://quickecontacts.com/images/cross.jpg

    I would very much appreciate it and I enjoy your website.

  17. Brian says:

    Hello there,

    I wanted to say I enjoy your site and the clear explanations of the icons. I do have a few questions that maybe you can help me with:

    – Is there an icon for the unknown or hidden saints?

    – Where can you find an example of an icon of a less well-known saint? For example, I would like to find an example of an icon of St. Phocas the Gardener.



    • iconreader says:

      Hello Brian:
      I do not believe that there is an icon specifically to unknown Saints; however the Icon of All Saints, by definition, does honour Saints not recognized by the “Church militant.” I have been meaning to write something about this icon for a while now.

      I have found two icons for St Phocas the Gardener online, both look fairly modern. The first one is a Russian icon:

      …which is from this website: http://prihod-2007.narod.ru/photoalbum-sovhoz-Ostrog.html

      The second has a Greek inscription: http://litopys.net/img/thisday/Oсtober/05/Foka_vertogradar3.jpg

      Two different styles, but as I said I believe both are modern.

      As for finding such icons, I have found that searching Google Image for an Icon or Saint in other languages works well. By far the best language to search in is Russian (e.g. Святой Фока Садовник is St Phocas the Gardener): both the icons above were found through searching the Russian name for this Saint. I’ve never had much luck finding Saints or Icons using the Greek names, but Russian always seems to work. I think it must be that there are just more (or larger) Russian language websites out there which contain high-resolution icons that are correctly labeled. The icons you can get by searching in Russian are not limited to Russian icons either: lots of high-res images of Byzantine icons can be found by searching in Russian.

      A translation website will usually bring up a decent Russian translation/transliteration of a Saint or Icon name you can use for searching.

      Hope this helps

  18. Janine says:

    Hi. Thank you for your wonderful and thorough blog. I use images of icons on my blog on occasion and perhaps in the future I could link them with one of your posts in identifying and thus providing further info. For example, I did not know about the Serbian “tomb” angel’s use in broadcasts! At any rate, thank you so much for such a well-written source!

  19. Diane Ward says:

    Dear Icon Reader
    Please can you give any advice regarding the use of any icons on your blog. I am interested in using the Theotokus of the Sign in some Christian resources and don’t know how to make a proper enquiry regarding copyright permission.
    I would be grateful for your help.
    Diane Ward
    North Wales

  20. Georgia Mitrakos says:

    Dear Icon Reader:

    You have a very beautiful “Theotokos of the Life-giving Spring” icon that I would like to use for a project. Can you tell me where you located it so I can get permission to use it.

    Thank you for your work.

  21. Eva Smith says:

    Dear Iconreader: Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge about icons. Your explanations are thorough and enlightening. In the summer of 2012, I travelled to the village of Chalara in west Macedonia, Greece. I went into the ruins of an old Orthodox church and was able to photograph a beautiful relatively intact fresco with several icons depicted on it. There is one icon in particular I find fascinating. It depicts Jesus — at least, I believe it is Jesus — in a chalice. I would appreciate it if you could give me an explanation of the meaning of that icon. Here is a link to the photograph: http://www.flickr.com/photos/25562391@N02/8732975199/in/photostream

    I would also appreciate it if you could tell me when you think the fresco might have been created. Here is a link to the photograph: http://www.flickr.com/photos/25562391@N02/8733060083/in/photostream

    Many thanks for any help you can give,


    • iconreader says:

      Hello Eva:
      It looks like this is a variation of Christ as the “Lamb of God”, which is talked about here:
      … just scroll down to the part headed “The Lamb becomes the Melismos”. I say variation, because most images like this show the Christ-child laying on the paten (or diskos), next to the chalice, rather than in the chalice itself. In the article there is a similar image (flanked by angels, with paten and chalice) to the one you took. Both pictures are also in a recess, probably in the sanctuary of the church, where the priest would conduct the liturgy of preparation (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liturgy_of_Preparation).

      I could only guess the date of the fresco, but the style and “wear” of it suggests 14th or 15th century.


      There is one final icon I should mention: the Inexhaustible Cup icon of the Mother of God (e.g here: http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v476/Parastos/My%20Site/InexhaustibleCup.jpg). This is a later icon, and is particularly popular in Russia, where it is thought that prayer before the icon can help with problems of alcoholism and addiction. This is not the same icon as in your photo – which is clearly related to the “melismos” – although given the possible age of the fresco it may provide a link to the later “Inexhaustible Cup” icon. I will probably write something about the Inexhaustible Cup icon at some point; if I do, may I use the photos you have taken?

      Many thanks in advance.

  22. Nancy Grech says:

    Dear Iconreader
    I have an icon of the Dormtion. There are two winged figures one each side of Our Lady. Both have haloes and the one on the right is holding a rod in his right hand and the rod rests on his right shoulder. Do they represent Angels or do they also represent the two persons of the Trinity, the Father and the Holy Spirit?
    Many thanks

  23. Dear Icon Reader.

    My name is Jonathan Pageau. I am the editor of the Orthodox Arts Journal (www.orthodoxartsjournal.org). I am very impressed by your blog, which is quite complete and also simple to understand. If you are ever interested in collaborating, please write me at jpageau@orthodoxartsjournal.org

  24. stannaw says:

    I am just writing to thank you. I have recently reaffirmed my Faith and have decided to produce a booklet regarding Greek Orthodox Saints. Your blog is interesting, informative and beautiful. I thank you for your hard work, your committment AND for bringing the beauty of the Orthodox icons to the wider public. My sincere appreciation

  25. Joseph Bajada says:

    Hi U have an old icon,and would like to find more information about it,can you help?

  26. Pingback: {p,h,f,r} I'm a Little Oratory Fan Girl | This Ain't The Lyceum

  27. Any books on iconology you can recommend to an icon-painter-in-training (me! – gulp!)?

    Anyway, pray for the icon painters. Ours is not an easy calling.

  28. Mike Kueh says:

    Dear IconReader, thank you very much for your email reply. Yes, it is the icon! Can you tell me where it was found, etc. Best Regards. Mike

  29. Vasil says:

    Hello iconreader!
    I hope you can answer my question, because I found nothing on the internet about this.
    Why the skin of some saints is painted bright, some are golden and some are very dark?
    Is there some symbolism or is it about the different paints or styles?
    Example of icons are Knyaz Boris I of Bulgaria and Tsar Peter I of Bulgaria.
    Thank you.

    • iconreader says:

      Hello Vasil:
      The closest article I have relating to the subject is here: https://iconreader.wordpress.com/2011/06/22/the-100-non-definitive-guide-to-colour-in-icons/

      What I would add about skin tones is that the age of an icon might affect its colour. Older icons will naturally start to darken due to constant exposure to the smoke from censers, candles and lamps. Lighter-coloured paints – like those used for skin tones – will blacken more noticeably than the bolder-coloured paints used for clothing. This can make it appear that the face has been painted darker in the beginning when this isn’t necessarily the case.

      Other than that, I only notice that the skin-tone of Saints in icon will usually match the skin-tone of the people in the place the icon was made – therefore Saints in Greek icons will have darker tones than Saints in Slavic icons.

      Hope this helps.

  30. Markg says:



    Where is the icon of Constatine and the Bishops housed?


  31. Amy says:

    Hi Iconreader,
    Was wondering about the possibility of using the digital image of one of the Theotokos icons on your page for an ordination invitation?
    Many thanks,

  32. Hi Iconreader,

    I write from the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton MA. I wonder if you’ve heard of us. I’ve come across your site many times while researching for our exhibits. Should you be interested in browsing our collection you can access it here: http://collections.museumofrussianicons.org/WordSearch.aspx?CR

  33. Anonymous says:

    I’ve been wondering: in certain icons Saints might appear to have a line connecting one brow to the next. I am guessing this a way of showing the light? But then in this icon of St. Theodosia,(it’s hard to tell) it seems she might genuinely have a unibrow: http://antiochian.org/sites/default/files/assets/writer/St.TheodosiaVirginmartyrofConstantinople_DFE7/clip_image001.jpg
    And closer up:

    Just something I noticed. If there’s anything about this way of depicting saints, or if in St. Theodosia’s case she actually had a unibrow (nothing wrong with that; how God made her), would you be able to say? Thanks!

    • iconreader says:

      Having looked at the link and other pictures of icons of St Theodosia I think your initial suggestion of showing the light to be most likely. This can be seen on other icons too. The issue with photographs of icons is that they can alter the image depending on lighting/filtering or whether the photograph is digital or not. In addition, icons change colour over time due to fading pigments and older ones need to be restored or else covered with a ‘riza’ metal covering.

      Looking at different photographs of the same icon of St Theodosia, it does appear that the ones where the brow is more pronounced are probably due to different lighting. However, the icon itself does look old enough to have been painted not long after the restoration of icons and may well have been painted based on descriptions of the Saint during her life.

  34. Hugo says:

    Hello I´m Hugo from Mexico. I love so much Byzantine icons, and I´m writting an article analyzing the diferrence between the occidental image “The Most Precious Blood of Christ” and the Melismos. I want to know, what´s the name of the last icon, before the Querubin Hymn. This icon apeears in your article “The Lamb of God in the Orthodoxy”. I want to know, where is it, which is the technique, and what´s the meaning of the russian words inside. Thanks for your help. God Bless you.

  35. David Giffey says:

    The writing and information on this guide are extremely thoughtful and important. May I ask for its source? I’m an iconographer, and my experience and the teachings I’ve learned have been very similar to many of the guide comments that have been expressed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s