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Question 153

Just got back from a lovely trip around Greece. Last Wednesday I went into a Church in Crete and despite the fact that the paintings on the ceiling were breathtaking in all their artistry - the one thing that struck me is that every person depicted including our Lord and Saviour Jesus - looked depressingly sad and morose. Quite sad really when there is so much joy to be had in the knowledge of His Resurrection...          


Answer to Question 153


As an Iconpainter myself , I know exactly what you mean. Icons are not to be painted with smiles, but neither should they be extremely sad. Getting the right expression is not easy and depends how good the Icon painter is. 

The way in which Icons are painted is not so much a written law, but a traditional law soaked in theology and dogmas. We do not paint the image of a saint in the same way he looked as when he was alive, that is to say, we do not paint his portrait. We try to keep away from earthly naturalism and human beauty. This is extended to clothes, mountains, buildings, animals and vegetation. 

The face, while still keeping the same features, is spiritualized to show that the saint has been glorified by God. The eyes are larger than natural eyes and are animated. The large eyes express that the saint sees in spiritual purity and are the spiritual eyes of the soul that see God. They have been opened to see wondrous things [open thou mine eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law (Psalm ll9:18)]. 

Like the eyes, the ears are larger to express that the saint hears and obeys the commandments of God and that he has heard the mystery of the divine economy. The nose is long and thin giving the face a noble character, moreover the nostrils seem to vibrate with the movement of the spirit, expressing the saints dedication and love for God, and indicating that he smells the spiritual fragrance of the Holy Spirit. 

The lips/mouth, being the most sensual part of the face, is rendered smaller and thinner to minimize the natural sensuality. It also shows that the saint has kept the commandment: “Take no thought saying what shall we eat, or what shall we drink?”[St. Matth. 6:31], but limited himself to what was required to stay alive. The mouth also represents the saints inner state of prayer and contemplation and this is also why the mouth is always shown closed, in spite of the fact that in many scenes, we have the need to show someone in a dramatic pose to express that he is speaking, singing, crying or other emotions like fear, grief, shock, pain, etc...

The closed mouth also brings to mind that we should only speak when we have something positive to say, keeping with fear the Lord’s saying: “That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgement” [St. Matth. 12: 36].

The forehead is sometimes enlarged to express wisdom and knowledge. This we often see in the Icons of the Mother of God holding the child Jesus in her arms. Jesus is no longer portrayed as an infant, but as a mature young person. His forehead can at times dominate over the rest of his face: this overemphasis is to show Him as the Christ Emmanuel, the pre-eternal God, filled with knowledge and wisdom. This overemphasis of the forehead is also given to many of the saints, especially to the great teachers and theologians as St. Paul and St. John the Evangelist.