How icons depict saints and why every saint has an icon

In the Orthodox Church and iconography, saints of various orders are adored. These are people from the creation of the world to the present who are part of the history of the world's redemption and are related to Jesus Christ, Christian doctrine, and faith in God. And every saint has an icon.

How icons depict saints and why every saint has an icon
The Ascension of the Holy Prophet Elijah. Image by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay

In the tradition of the Orthodox Church, and therefore also in iconography, saints of various orders are specially venerated. These are people throughout the history of the world, from the creation of the world to the present day, who are part of the whole history of the salvation of the world and are in one way or another connected with Jesus Christ, Christian doctrine, and faith in God. And every saint has an icon.

The saints are depicted in icons not in the appearance of their earthly life but their heavenly glory, enlightened, standing before God in the kingdom of heaven. Knowing the Holy Scriptures, the life stories of the saints, and the tradition of the Church by iconography, even if the inscription of the icon has not survived, we can learn something about the saint depicted. The way a saint is drawn, how he looks, what he wears, how he moves, and what his hands look like all say something about him and make it possible to recognize him.

We can recognize, for example, Patriarch Abel. Unlike other Old Believers, he is depicted as young, with a shepherd's staff, often holding a lamb. The patriarchs, or ancestors, form a succession and lineage that we can trace back to the birth of Jesus Christ.

Among the prophets who, inspired by the Holy Spirit, revealed God's will and intentions to the people, we know and recognize best the prophet Elijah in his sheepskin cloak. He is most often depicted in the desert, sitting by a cave with a raven who brings him food. Or climbing up into the fiery wheels of heaven.

We know of a number of prophets who proclaimed the imminent coming of the Messiah. And we recognize their prophecies in the texts' stanzas or attributes.

Those closest to Christ were his disciples, the apostles—the bearers and preachers of God's word. Their clothing is the same as Christ's, and they always carry a scroll of texts or the gospel in their hands as a sign that they, sent by Christ, are carrying his teaching into all the world.

The followers of Christ in the first centuries, especially during the persecution of Christians, are called the holy martyrs or witnesses. They have shown their faith and loyalty to Christ by enduring martyrdom and death. We recognize them by the crosses in their hands or by their red clothes. If the icon of the saint is accompanied by scenes from his life, we can see all that he endured.

Those who, for Christ's sake, have separated themselves from secular life and have given themselves completely to Christ, sometimes even in rigorous asceticism, are called the pure in heart. Among them, we see the ascetics of the desert either completely naked, covered with hair and feathers, or dressed in coarse, skimpy garments. Some have spent their lives at the ends of poles.

Monks are recognised by their clothing, often with prayer beads in their hands or a hand placed over their heart, symbolising the continuous prayer of the heart. Sometimes the monk has the monastery in the background, where he has been living, or a model of the monastery he founded in his hands.

There are saints who have witnessed to Christ and to their faith with their whole lives, serving people and the Church. For example, we can recognize the non-mercenaries, who were most often doctors and healers who helped people without asking for payment, only their faith in Christ, by the medicine bowls and other medical instruments in their hands.

By the royal robes and models of churches built or other attributes in their hands, we can identify well-meaning rulers of countries who promoted faith in Christ among their people. We recognize ministers by their liturgical vestments.

Many saints, especially the New Disciples, are still waiting for their iconography. And it is the job of icon painters to make a picture of a saint that is appropriate, iconographic, and recognizable. They do this in a responsible way, with strong faith, and in close cooperation with the Church.