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And keep these elements in mind:

Icons are painted in reverse, or Byzantine, perspective, in which the further away objects in the icon are, the larger they are drawn, diverging against the horizon, rather than converging as in linear perspective. This technique is meant to bring the subject matter in the icon perpetually into the present, into the immediate experience of the viewer. Reverse perspective serves as a reminder that since God is omnipresent and outside earthly time and place, his view converges from everywhere simultaneously. We are to put ourselves in relationship to the world within the icon, not expect that world to adapt to us.

Like other features, iconic landscapes are not meant to be realistic, but symbolic. Mountains in icons are not peaked, but flat, symbolizing all creation bowing down to Christ (Luke 3:5). Even iconographic depictions of events from Christ’s earthly life are meant to remind us that those events are ultimately of an eternal, transcendent nature, and not merely historical.

Unlike much of western religious art, human subjects in icons are not meant to look precisely like the people portrayed in real life. Icons are spiritual portraits, meant to emphasize the stillness of the subjects’ souls, as well as their freedom from sin and struggle in the presence of God.

Eyes tend to dominate the faces of iconic subjects, acting as reflections of the serene selves within. We are naturally attracted to a person’s eyes, so this helps our focus in prayer and our heart’s connection with Christ or the saint within the icon. Fr. Henri Nouwen says of the eyes in the icon of the Vladimir Mother of God: “Her eyes gaze upon the infinite spaces of the heart where joy and sorrow are no longer contrasting emotions, but are transcended in spiritual unity.”

Halos and gold backgrounds remind us that the people depicted there live in the presence of God’s unearthly and uncreated light. The figures in some icons appear to be floating in a veritable sea of gold. We are reminded again of another world and of another reality beyond the one we know.



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