Orthodoxy Iconography: Text Pointing to the Sacred

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(photo from The Restless Pilgrim)

Although I no longer practice, I was baptized as a Russian Orthodox Christian. In the Russian Orthodox Church–indeed all Orthodox churches–religious icons are a central feature of worship and church life.

The early Christian church, including the Orthodox church, arose at a time when only Priests and the ruling class knew how to read. Icons were presented as a way for the flock to approach the church’s mysteries without being able to read.  Each icon told a story–from the beheading of John the Baptist to the Crucifixion of Christ. The Orthodox Saints are also the subject of many icons.

Icons are considered art, and in some parts of the world are collectible and highly valuable. However, icons served a religious and scared function by focusing the worshipper on Christ and scripture in a meditative and contemplative manner.

Although icons are primarily a visual form of communication, most icons include textual elements. These textual elements remind the reader of the central messages of orthodox Christianity. In the following icon, “IC” and “XC” are prominently featured;

jesus-icon-ii

(photo from The Restless Pilgrim). Although I am familiar with the meaning of these characters from my years growing up in the Orthodox Church, the Restless Pilgrim Blog provides a succinct explanation:

The “IC XC” is a Christogram, a monogram of Jesus’ name. As we saw last time, “Jesus Christ” when it is written in Greek looks like this:

ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ

If we take the first and last letters of ΙΗΣΟΥΣ (“Jesus”) and ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ (“Christ”) we are left with:

ΙΣ ΧΣ

A line (“titlo”) is often placed over each pair of letters to indicate that it is an abbreviated sacred name. Since we don’t have sigma (“Σ”) in our alphabet, each sigma is converted to a “C”, thereby giving us:

IC XC

So there we go! “IC XC” is yet another shorthand for writing “Jesus Christ”.

Although IC and XC are characters from the western alphabet that can be used to form words, in this instance the combination of characters have a specific association with Jesus Christ. Without the textual element of IC XC, this icon would be profane and not serve its function as a revered object of worship.

In addition to the textual meaning of IC and XC, these characters form an important visual element of the icon. The XC and IC are presented in inverse colors from the halo around the Christ figure, providing visual balance and interest. Although iconography is a formal and circumscribed art form, the iconographer still works to achieve the same artistic goals of balance, color, composition and relationship. The IC and XC are placed on the top of the icon emphasizing Christ’s ascendency and primacy in the church. Therefore, the artistic composition and placement of the characters conveys additional meaning in relation to the other visual elements.

In this promotional video for an icon being sold, the IC and XC can be clearly seen:

To reinforce the meaning of IC XC, some figures in icons are shown holding fingers in particular pose that refers back to the text IC XC:

jesus-icon

(photo from The Reader’s Guide to Orthodox Icons). The Reader’s Guide to Orthodox Icons explains the relationship between the characters and the hand positions:

To any Orthodox or Catholic Christian, Jesus’ right hand is unmistakably shown as being raised to give a blessing. The arrangement of the hand, repeated by clergy when blessing others, is also rich in meaning. The fingers spell out the four-letter Christogram “IC XC”, as it is by the name of Jesus that we are saved and receive blessings. “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;” (Phil 2:10). Not only that, but the three fingers of Christ – as well as spelling out “I” and “X” – confess the Tri-unity of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The touching finger and thumb of Jesus not only spell out “C”, but attest to the Incarnation: to the joining of divine and human natures found in the body of Jesus Christ.Interestingly, because the intended historical audience of iconography was the illiterate and uneducated, the name Jesus Christ was reduced to its essence using this approach.

Orthodox iconography is an example where the textual elements are integrated with the figurative elements forming integrated religious art. Neither the figurative elements nor the textual elements would have the same meaning standing alone.