Race and Iconography

Orthodox iconography plays a significant role in the Orthodox Christian tradition, serving as windows to heaven and conduits for spiritual connection. The icons are not mere artistic representations but are considered sacred and powerful tools for conveying the divine. The Orthodox Church believes that through icons, believers can establish a visual and spiritual connection with the heavenly realm.

One of the key aspects of Orthodox iconography is the idea that the spiritual world is made present through the icons. The images depicted are not meant to be realistic representations but are stylized and symbolic, emphasizing the divine nature of the subjects. Icons are believed to manifest the presence of the holy figures they represent, allowing individuals to engage with the spiritual realm in a tangible way.

The concept of seeing one’s image in Christ through iconography is rooted in the understanding that every person is created in the image and likeness of God. By designing icons to resemble the people who will be viewing them, artists aim to emphasize the idea that individuals can find themselves reflected in the divine. This personalized connection helps believers relate to the figures depicted in the icons on a more profound and intimate level.

The use of familiar features in the design of icons serves a dual purpose. Firstly, it makes the divine figures more relatable, bridging the gap between the human and the divine. By incorporating familiar features, believers are reminded that the divine is not distant or unapproachable but is accessible and understanding of human experiences. Secondly, it reinforces the idea that each person has the potential for spiritual transformation and can aspire to reflect the divine qualities found in the holy figures.

In this way, Orthodox iconography becomes a means of spiritual contemplation and self-reflection. Believers are encouraged to see themselves in the divine figures, recognizing their own journey toward spiritual growth and the possibility of embodying Christ-like virtues. The icons, therefore, act as mirrors reflecting the inner spiritual state of the viewer and encouraging a transformative experience.

Overall, Orthodox iconography serves as a powerful and symbolic link between the earthly and heavenly realms. Through the intentional design of icons that resonate with the viewers, individuals are invited to see themselves in the divine figures, fostering a deep and personal connection to the spiritual realities depicted in these sacred images.

Why icons?

The Orthodox Church venerates the Saints through a mode of beauty – a visual means that is enhanced by the Church iconography, which postulates the opportunity for appropriately displaying the individual integrity of persons and upholds the beauty of the Trinity. The liturgical life of the Orthodox Church lends itself to sensory modes of worship as such by using the iconography as a vehicle by which She can display the beauty of the Church’s salvation history. By using a pictorial representation of Christ through the historical events of the life of the Church, the iconography becomes a universal method by which one can learn, appreciate, and venerate the life of the Church, Her living theology, and Christ Himself in a way that stimulates the human senses, while equally demonstrating the beauty of the Orthodox Church. The focal point of Orthodox beauty is not concerned with the manners of artistic expression, but rather with the application of art which lends itself to divine expression of faith, while maintaining a canonical integrity to narrate the corporeal chronicle of salvation.

John Burgess recognizes Orthodox beauty as having been defined by God and reflected through the “experience of nature’s transcendent beauty.” [64] Likewise, the iconography, capable of depicting the image and likeness of Christ, extends the framework of God’s creationary beauty through the transparent lens upon which salvation history participates in the essence of God. Iconography within Orthodoxy is not a mere reflection of God, but a profound method for interaction, by which one can engage with and experience God. Iconography in the Orthodox Church is used as a medium for extending the transcendent and dogmatic expressions – a written (not painted) representation of the Holy Scripture and the Saints, and therefore of Christ. Thus, by incorporating Orthodox iconography into the structural and Spiritual integrity of the Church, the Church creates new channels of worship for Christ through veneration of the Saints.

[64] John P. Burgess, Encounters with Orthodoxy: How Protestant Churches Can Reform Themselves Again (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 69.

Iconic Theology is entirely rooted in the theology of the incarnation. It is not tangible matter alone, but a symbolic human creation which displays the integrity of divine Orthodox dogmatics. St. John Damascene said, “I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter.”[65] The purpose of the iconography is therefore, two-fold, first it is in being a vehicle by which the beauty of the Heavenly kingdom is continually lived in the liturgical worship space and secondly, it is in serving as the windows by which Christ is experienced and the human senses are stimulated to live the theology of the incarnation.

[65] Daniel Munteanu, “An Iconic Theology of Beauty, Orthodox Aesthetics of Salvation,” International Journal of Orthodox Theology 4, no. 1 (2013): 27-61, https://d-nb.info/1068913630/34.

Historical Significance

Historiographers note the initial presence of the iconographic elegance to the first three centuries of Christianity. The concept of “early Christian iconography” has historically been accompanied by the Roman catacombs which demonstrate paintings of salvation and the miracles of Christ. Nonetheless, the early Christian Church has matured its iconography, expanding their depictions to holistically embody a thorough scope of portrayals varying greatly from those preserved in the catacombs.[66] Although the chronological framework for illustrations rooted in Christian subject matter does not begin until the third century, it is likely that similar imagery existed before then, as the historical period preceding the Edict of Toleration in 313 was a decisive time of “visual experimentation when the new iconography was, so to speak, still in infancy.”[67] The years 379-395 witnessed the revolution of artistry as a universal expression of religion with the expansion of religious architecture and Christian imagery. Following the reign of Theodosius I, upon the legalization of religion and the its general popularity among the empire’s majority population, the continued development of religious art evolved into a complex and sophisticated visual language, eventually blending into early Byzantine and Medieval art.

[66] Bente Kiilerich, “The State of Early Christian Iconography in the Twenty-First Century,” Studies in Iconography (2015): 99-127, https://www.jstor.org/stable/44735520.

[67] Kiilerich, “Early Christian Iconography,” 99.

While it is possible to argue for a “long late antiquity,” extending perhaps to the eighth century (the chronological range covered by the periodical Antiquité tardive, for instance), from the point of view of iconography it does not seem equally pertinent to argue for a “long early Christianity.”3 Indeed, by the reign of Justinian (526-63), Christian art and iconography had long since developed into a fully-fledged, complex, and sophisticated visual language.[68]

[68] Kiilerich, “Early Christian Iconography,” 99

Its instigation was interconnected to the particular challenges that the Church experienced by the fourth and fifth centuries A.D. which included an influx of Christian converts from pagan cultures that were predominantly illiterate. The icons, therefore, were permitted by the Early Church leaders to be employed as a utility for assimilating Christianity and its doctrine through illustrations. An icon, therefore, can and is often used in service of the Holy Tradition of the Church, and not as a mere artistic tool. There is a clear conceptual distinction between what is a written versus painted perspective of artwork, which accommodates a religious premise. The icons thoroughly uphold the integrity of Scripture by corresponding entirely to the Biblical word. The essence of artistic expression through iconography is therefore eternal, in that through icons the ultimate truth of Orthodox theology is being realized.

Contemporary Significance

The artistic nature of Orthodox iconography is inspired by symbolism which carries great meaning, projected to not only tell the story of the Saints, but reflect the nature of Christ. A few of the general characteristics which guide the creation of the icons are as follows:

  1. Large and wide eyes symbolize the spiritual eye that looks beyond the material world, the Bible says, “the light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be simple, thy whole body shall be “full of light” (Matthew 6:22).[69]
  2. Large ears listen to the word of God; “if any man have ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:23).[70]
  3. Gentle lips to glorify and praise the Lord “My moth shall praise thee with joyful lips to glorify and praise the Lord “My mouth shall praise thee with joyful lips” (Psalm 63:5).[71]
  4. The mouth, which can often be the source of empty or harmful words is small.
  5. The nose, which is seen as sensual is also small.[72]

[69] Peter E. Gillquist, Alan Wallerstedt, Joseph Allen, and Saint Athanasius Orthodox Academy Santa Barbara, Calif., eds. The Orthodox Study Bible: New Testament and Psalms, New King James Version (Nashville, Tenn: T. Nelson, 1993), Matthew 6:22.

[70] Gillquist, Orthodox Study Bible, Mark 4:23.

[71] Gillquist, Orthodox Study Bible, Psalm 63:5.

[72] Zakaria Wahba, “Icons: Their History and Spiritual Significance,” Orthodixy is Life, July 2016, https://orthodoxy.life/2016/07/15/icons-their-history-and-spiritual-significance/.

The unique qualities that shape the icons speak to the beautiful nature of the Holy and Divine Trinity, being a reflection of Christ – the eyes, the ears, the lips, the nose, the mouth, etc. – all characteristics which shape the physicality of the human race created in the image of Christ. Iconography portrayed in its truest canonical form “becomes a receptacle for the spirit of the individual it portrays in his or her glorified state, not in the fallen form of the corruptible body.”[73] Therein lies the demand for the iconographic style, to accurately reflect humankind and emphasize the Trinity as the central component to the overall story that the icons are intended to tell, thereby leading believers to a contemplative life of prayer through a thorough and profound connection to the portrayals of Christ and the Saints. It is a vehicle of evangelism and an expression of Christ’s loving nature. By allowing the focal point for veneration to flow through modes of creationary beauty and fusing the human elements with the Divine, the iconography is igniting the human senses and enabling mankind to realize the glory of God’s power and beauty in its fullness.

[73] Kiilerich, “Early Christian Iconography,” 99.

And, first, wherever you turn your eyes, there is no portion of the world, however minute, that does no exhibit at least some sparks of beauty; while it is impossible to contemplate the vast and beautiful fabric as it extends around, without being overwhelmed by the immense weight of glory. Hence, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews elegantly describes the visible worlds as images of the invisible (Heb. 11:3), the elegant structure of the world serving us as a kind mirror, in which we may behold God, though otherwise invisible. For the same reason, the Psalmist attributes language to celestial objects, a language which all nations understand (Psalms 19:1), the manifestation of the Godhead being too clear to escape the notice of any people, however obtuse.[74]

[74] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 58.

Therefore, the nature of the iconography is a continuously realized phenomenon that humankind confronts through earthly elegance, that unremittingly echoes the glory of God. As humankind is created in the image and likeness of Christ, the image of humankind is then being reflected in the iconography, and thus as the iconography illustrates the individual integrity of persons, believers are afforded the ability to identify closely with the humanity of the Saints. Therefore, creating a unity amongst each other and Christ. In Ephesians 2:18, the Apostle Paul tells us that the three persons of the Trinity work in unison with one another in a collective effort to bring unity between Christians. He writes, “For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father.” The context of his text is God’s goal to dissolve the wall between the Jews and the Gentiles, making them one in Christ. God’s efforts are implicit that humankind has equal access to God, namely in one Spirit through Christ, as a consequence of our salvation. Likewise, humankind is created equally in the same way that the Trinity is composed of three equal subjects. The significance in emphasizing the diverse nature of the Trinity that is equal to its components exists in how humankind perceives itself in the Trinity. The beauty of the Almighty empowers individuals who reflect the Trinity, ultimately conveying man’s significance. The connection between us and Christ is continuously lived through knowing the closeness of God to us, having been made in His likeness and image, and thus enabled to become more like Christ through the acknowledgment of the Christly lives of the Saints within the iconography.
The Orthodox Church is extending this living beauty of persons and God into the Church and applying an Orthodox canonical integrity that illustrates the theological life of the Church via the universal language that is beauty.

Worship versus Venerate

The veneration of Saints through an iconographic elegance has developed an overwhelmingly refined understanding the iconography has been known to embody an iconic theophany composed of complex symbolism, which both drives the spiritual relationship among humankind and produces a theological enthusiasm for veneration – that is admiring, respecting, and revering – which is further fortified by a profound liturgical purpose. John Calvin wrote, “In the Law, accordingly, after God had claimed the glory of divinity for himself alone, when he comes to show what kind of worship he approves and rejects, he immediately adds, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth,” (Exod. 20:4).” From Orthodox perspective icons are sacred imagery that are not worshiped, but venerated, as they are not God Himself, but rather a lens by which we may see and experience God, and an image by which we can admire the beauty of God’s glory. They are integral elements of ritual and devotional life of the Christian.

It is often maintained in the Protestant Church that the liturgical use of icons is both disputed and indebted to a mixed foundation, implying an argument against their veneration. The Holy Scripture distinguishes between true and false worship often by interconnecting the false teachings with various forms of idolatry, and thus the contemporary world has shaped the mutual exclusivity amid tangible item that are fundamental to the liturgical life of the church, and the idolization of false teachings.

This exclusive definition, which we uniformly meet with in Scripture, annihilates every deity which men frame for themselves of their own accord—God himself being the only fit witness to himself. Meanwhile, seeing that this brutish stupidity has overspread the globe, men longing after visible forms of God, and so forming deities of wood and stone, silver and gold, or of any other dead and corruptible matter, we must hold it as a first principle, that as often as any form is assigned to God, his glory is corrupted by an impious lie. [75]

[75] Calvin, Institutes, 96.

Given the ill-conceived implications associated with the Church iconography, the clear distinction between worship and veneration must be clarified. The veneration of the iconography and the Saints is an observed concept across all Churches within the Orthodox rite. The Orthodox Church is only aligned in the teachings of John Calvin in that she maintains that worshiping icons is a form of idolatry. The icons are only revered, as they are only intended as a means of heightening the Divine beauty of God and experiencing Him through the lives of the Saints, who have been canonized by the Church and remembered in the liturgical worship for their Christly lives.


Icons are symbolic representations of the Heavenly, expressing the theology of the Orthodox Church and Her history. The Greek word for “Icon” is, “Αγιογραφία,” which is a product of two separate words adjoined together: Άγιο, which means “Holy” or “not of this world (Heavenly)” and Γράφω, which means “to write.” Therefore, the Church iconography are not drawings or creations of imagination. They are rather a collection of writings of things that are not of this world – divine expressions. Icons can represent our Lord Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the Saints. They are representative of the Holy Trinity, Angels, the Heavenly hosts, and historical events. Orthodox icons, unlike Western pictures, change the perspective and form of the image so that it is not naturalistic.

Through the iconographic elegance, mankind is meant to look beyond the earthly, and towards the splendor of God, and the spiritual certainty of the respective person or event that is being venerated.

St. John of Damascus is known as the great defender of icons from this period [725 A.D.]. He wrote at length on their meaning. The following quote is from his writings On Divine Images: In former times God, who is without form or body could never be depicted. But now when God is seen in the flesh conversing with men, I make an image of God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the creator of matter who became matter for my sake.[76]

[1] Geoff Harvey, “An Introduction to Iconography,” The Good Shepherd Orthodox Church, November 2019, https://www.thegoodshepherd.org.au/iconography.

The Orthodox Church teaches us not to discount the physical components of humankind, but rather to transform them, shifting their purpose to attaining salvation, just as those being represented in the icons have accomplished. The written illustrations of the Christ-like example the Saints have set, is the focal point of the iconographic beauty and the lens by which we see Christ and are further inspired to pursue Him by utilizing the iconography as vehicles for remembrance, learning, and veneration to become closer with Christ.[77]

[1] On June 15, 2022, this information was sent and reviewed by a member of the Baptist Church. Based on the feedback that was received, I simplified the verbiage and terminology used to describe concepts of divine expression throughout the paper, to enhance the clarity of the descriptions. For example, rather than immediately discussing the liturgical implications of the iconographic theology, I introduce iconography as a mode of beauty and begin to expand on its practical role. Additionally, throughout the paper, I originally used complex terminology to reflect divine concepts most accurately, but ultimately determined that the concepts are more clearly defined if expressed to non-Orthodox Christians through more commonly used verbiage.

The questions remain – how does the church iconography relate to a parish’s relationship with race? How can we use iconography as a vehicle to bridging racial divide in the church? The relevance of using iconography that reflects the parishioners of a church lies in its ability to foster a strong sense of connection between believers and Christ. The theological concept that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God is foundational to Christian beliefs. When churches employ iconography that authentically represents the races and ethnicities of their congregants, it serves to reinforce this connection and promote a deeper sense of integration into the ethos of the church community.

  1. Authentic representation in iconography ensures that the imagery resonates with the cultural backgrounds of the parishioners. When people see depictions of Christ and other holy figures that resemble themselves, it creates a more relatable and meaningful spiritual experience. This relatability helps bridge the gap between the divine and the individual, fostering a sense of familiarity and comfort in the worship environment.
  2. Reflecting the diversity within a church community through iconography sends a powerful message of inclusivity. It communicates that all individuals, regardless of their racial or ethnic background, are an integral part of the spiritual tapestry of the community. In doing so, it counters any potential feelings of exclusion and reinforces the idea that everyone is equally valued within the church.
  3. The use of diverse iconography allows parishioners to see themselves in Christ, both figuratively and literally. This experience of self-reflection can be a powerful catalyst for personal spiritual growth. Believers may find inspiration in the idea that their own unique identities, experiences, and challenges can be part of a broader, divine narrative.
  4. Incorporating authentic iconography contributes to a more integrated worship experience. It helps eliminate the perception that certain cultural or racial backgrounds are secondary or less represented in the divine narrative. When individuals feel that their cultural identity is acknowledged and respected within the worship space, it enhances their overall sense of belonging and connection to the Church.
  5. Authentic iconography reinforces the idea that the church community is a family that encompasses a rich tapestry of backgrounds. This can contribute to a sense of unity among parishioners, as they collectively recognize themselves in the divine imagery. Such a shared experience can strengthen the bonds of community, promoting a spirit of mutual support and understanding.

In summary, the intentional use of diverse and authentic iconography in churches is not just an aesthetic choice; it is a theological and pastoral decision that can profoundly impact the spiritual lives of believers. By enabling parishioners to see themselves in Christ and embracing the diversity within the community, churches create an environment where individuals feel more deeply connected to their faith, each other, and the overarching ethos of the Church.

Scroll to Top