The word "icon" comes from the Greek "eikon" that means "image", or "portrait ". Nativity of Christ marks the birth of the icon. The Word was made flesh, the Invisible became visible, God took a human face, a unique Face that is repeated through the faces of the Mother of God and the saints who are bathed in the same uncreated light.

The icon is the result of prayerful meditation patiently created by generations of painters. It is the fruit of tradition instead of being the result of an individual's intuition, impression, or abstraction. The iconographer is the instrument through which a work is executed, a work that goes beyond the individual. Nothing of the iconographer's state of mind or sensuality should be in evidence in the image. In fact not even an individual signature is permitted to appear on the front of the icon.

Byzantine painting began as the continuation of the Early Christian paintings of the catacombs beginning with the 1st and 2nd centuries, of the first churches of Rome and of the East. Christian Art became heir to the traditions of the ancient art of Greece. 

Byzantine paintings include the wall paintings, portable icons, mosaics and the painted manuscripts that were produced by the artists of the Greek Empire of Byzantium. Luke the Evangelist was the first recognized Iconographer who painted icons representing the Holy Virgin and the Apostles Peter and Paul.

Byzantine Art begins with the emperor Justinian in the 6th century AD and ends with the Iconoclastic Controversy begun by the Emperor Leo the Isaurian in the early 8th century AD. The restoration of the Holy Icons begins in the 9th century AD, and continues until the capture of Constantinople by the Franks in 1204 AD. Architecture, painting, music and poetry cease to be forms of art, each following its own way, independently of the others, in search of appropriate effects and become liturgical and dogmatic.

It follows that from its very nature, church art is liturgical art. This is why the image of the Orthodox Church, the icon, does not define itself as an art belonging to one or another historical epoch, nor as the expression of the national peculiarities of one or another people. But only by its function, which is as universal as Orthodoxy itself, being determined by the essence of the image and its role in the Church. Since in its essence the icon, like the word, is a liturgical art. It never served religion but, like the word, has always been and is an integral part of religion. It is one of the instruments for the knowledge of God, and a means of communion with him.

Upon examining a Byzantine icon one can see a likeness not of an animate but a deified prototype, an image (conventional, or course) not of flesh, but of flesh transfigured, radiant with Divine Light. It is beauty and glory, represented by material means and visible in the icon to physical eyes. Consequently, everything, which reminds one of human flesh, is contrary to the very nature of the icon. A temporal portrait of a Saint cannot be an icon because it reflects not his transfigured but his ordinary, carnal state. It is indeed this difference of the icon that sets it apart from all forms of pictorial art.

Liturgical Art is not only our offering to God, but also God’s descent into our midst, one of the forms in which is accomplished the meeting of God with man, of grace with nature, eternity with time. The meaning of church art, and in particular of the icon, is that it transmits, or rather testifies visually to the reality of God and of the world, of grace and of nature. Thus, through the icon, as through the Holy Scriptures we not only learn about God, but also know God.

The icon never strives to stir the emotions of the faithful. Its task is not to provoke in them natural human emotion, but to guide every emotion as well as the reason and all the other faculties of human nature on the way toward transfiguration. Sanctity not only has a personal, but also a general human as well as a cosmic significance. Therefore, the visible world represented in the icon changes, becomes the image of the future unity of the whole creation - The Kingdom of the Holy Spirit. All that is depicted in the icon reflects not the disorder of our sinful world, but Divine Order, peace, a realm governed not by earthly logic, not by human morality, but by Divine Grace. This is why what we see in the icon is so unlike what we see in ordinary life.

Thus, the icon is both the way and the means; it is prayer itself.

Byzantine art and Byzantine iconography are not obsolete. It is the art of the 21st century. By the world over it is considered to be a form of modern art. This is true because it is the first art born in the souls of Christians and spirituality has not been replaced in any other style of art.

For those who may not be familiar with icons, at first glance they may appear rather strange, but further observation will reveal various unique qualities. As one gazes at an icon of a saint, the pose will be straight forward, austere, and serious because it is a confrontation with the Kingdom of God. It will be matter of fact and not an ostentatious or theatrical pose. The saint will not contain any worldly or mundane characteristics, but portray a solemn and spiritual quality. The face is the central to the representation: it is the place of the presence of the Spirit of God. The eyes are a reflection of the heart that beckons to us. Illuminated by the vision of God, they communicate the celestial message of greeting, mercy, truth and contemplation. Above the eyebrows, which reinforce the expression of the eyes, rises the forehead, seat of wisdom and intelligence. The forehead will be rather large showing spiritual wisdom and the overall appearance will be slender from fasting and control of worldly temptations. Often very high, curved and spherical, the forehead suggests the force of the spirit and the knowledge of the man of God. The nose is fine and elongated, a sign of nobility. The nostrils are light and discrete, expressing an inner control of the passions. Without too much relief or too much hollowness, the cheeks radiate interior light. Only those of the ascetics show deep wrinkles, outward signs of prayer and fasting. The lips are very fine, without sensuality. They are geometrical and always closed in the silence of contemplation. The mouth will be small. The ears listen to the divine word, which are large indicating humility and obedience to God by being able to listen more to His Word and speaking very little. The beard, thick and generous, suggests the strength and serenity of the saint.

Finally, this art will look abstract and unnatural because of inverse visual perspective where the vanishing point will not be somewhere in the picture, but in the eye of the viewer. The scene will expand rather than diminish, symbolizing that we, the viewers live in a finite world and we gaze at a window of eternity. Also, through this symbolic inverse perspective we understand the fact that man cannot, on his own, walk in God’s domain, but God, through His Grace, comes to us and lifts us up.

The icon invokes a sense of divinity, yet it maintains an anthropomorphic form. It attracts the gaze of the believer, and in its own way guides and directs his prayer. In the historical context, the Church realized the importance and the necessity of providing this visual aid, together with architecture, music, the fragrance of incense and the participation of communion to provide “a total work of art” creating a heavenly environment to bring the believer closer to his God.

The beauty of the icon derives essentially from spiritual truth, therefore from the exactitude of symbolism and from the necessity for contemplation and worship.

Although the icon represents the human form transfigured by grace in a stylized manner that respects realism, it never strives for naturalism. The person who is represented in any specific icon always refers back to the prototype. The human body is never depicted as carnal, but as transfigured. The terrestrial becomes celestial.