Religious icons are easy to distinguish and difficult to understand for one reason: people are used to comparing them with fine art paintings. Icons and paintings may look similar, but they are quite different forms of art, each with its own merits and characteristic traits. For example, a painting represents what our current mortal world consists of: the good and the evil, the light and the darkness, the victory and the defeat. In this sense, the scope of the painting is wider than the scope of the icon because the latter excludes a number of things.
There is no intention in the icon to reveal reality as it is; the iconographers often show the existence of the evil as being defeated by the good, like a dragon in the icon of Saint George the Victorious. Along with that, there is a very clear presence of a divine, eternal dimension in every religious icon. In that respect, icons contribute to a visual depth and richness more than fine art paintings.
Besides all of the above, there are more other striking features of the iconography, which distinguish religious icons from fine art paintings. Let’s take a closer look at some of them!
Main differences between fine art paintings and religious icons
1. Compliance with the canon
A painting inevitably reflects the author’s individuality, their personal and peculiar features. Moreover, each artist strives to find their unique painting style. There are no canons of art, no limitations for talented artists.
When it comes to religious icons, whether they are ancient pieces or works by contemporary masters, they are always painted according to the strict pictorial canon. The iconographer’s goal is not to express their individuality. The same saints or scenes painted by different masters are similar and recognizable. That is why the image is considered to be canonical. An icon is a kind of medium for the spiritual world, and the icon painter is trying to convey not a physical reality, but the Creator’s idea behind it.
2. The imperfection of the saint’s body
Generally, the figures of saints in religious icons look somehow stretched; their bodies are not proportional, and the face features impress with their severity and imperfection.
Painting is sensual and conveys emotions because art is a way of discovering the world through feelings. It is well known that the main function of art is to influence a person through the use of aesthetic means, i.e. a certain display of figures, actions, etc. Therefore, a fine art painting is a way to interact with the artist’s identity, while an icon is a means to communicate with God and His saints.
3. Each color in the religious icon matters
The colors in icons occupy a no less significant place as the depicted scenes and biblical stories. Without following the color meanings, the symbolism of the icon would be completely lost. For example, red is the color of pain and sacrifice of Christ, white reflects the Divine light, and blue stands for the wisdom of the eternal world.
The color symbolism in painting exists as well. However, these symbols do not point to the spiritual meaning of the painting, but the artist’s style, thoughts, and beliefs.
4. Symbolic image of a saint
To create a genuine and symbolic image is quite challenging for an iconographer. The icon painter should know what the particular saint is famous for, what clothes they wore, what symbols associated with them, etc. The iconographer’s task is to narrow all the information in one small image that would reflect the whole life and deeds of the saint. Moreover, it should be taken into consideration that in religious icons, saints often hold certain objects in the hands. These objects are also symbolic and associated with saints’ lives and events they are celebrated for. For instance, Evangelists are depicted with the Gospel and Holy Fathers with a rosary.
The distinction of an icon from a painting lies in the strict canons of depicting a particular saint. There is no place for imagination and individual desire to represent scenes as the author wishes.
5. Icons are timeless
Religious icons often illustrate the events from the whole lifetime of a certain saint. One can see the saint’s deeds, life, miracles, and death in one icon. Thus, we can say that icons depict the past, the present, and the future. It is a little different from paintings. We see a dynamic action that is unrelated to other actions and conveys a single fundamental message.
The differences between religious icons and fine art paintings do exist. The main purpose of an icon, as opposed to a painting that conveys the sensual side of the world, is to open the reality of the spiritual world and to help the viewer get a sense of the real presence of God and His saints.