As an artist coming from a protestant background the concept of religious icons intrigued me. As I usually visited Europe I was acquainted with Catholic Icons. I am planning a visit to Greece and I realized that there is a big difference between Orthodox and Catholic icons. So I looked into it.
So, let us start of by saying what is an icon. The dictionary identifies it as: a representation (as in a mural, a mosaic, or a painting on wood) of sacred events or especially of a sacred individual (such as Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, or a saint) used as an object of veneration or a tool for instruction.
In orthodox icons the representation is not naturalistic. The figures appear flat and devoid of emotion. Normal perspective does not play a role. There are no shadows, as the sainted individuals will have an ‘internal’ light. Every individual will be identified by attributes special to him or her, like St. George with a spear. Even gestures would indicate a specific person. A person steeped in the tradition will be able to identify the saint immediately.
The colors used all have symbolic meaning. Gold represents the radiance of heaven. Red represents divine life, while blue represents Human life. Red and blue together has special meaning as well. Jesus would have a red undergarment with a blue overgarment, to show that it is God that took on human form. Mary or other saints will have a blue undergarment with a red overgarment, to show a human touched by God.
Catholic icons are more naturalistic. They use naturalistic color and the artist has full artistic freedom to interpret the icon as he likes. The icon is used as an educational tool and for aesthetic use. It is not revered, but visible gospel to help you focus your attention on God. Here we think of the great Renaissance painters, like Botticelli and Raphael.
In short we can say: Catholic icon is fine art, helping you to find God
Orthodox icon Is not revered or worshiped. It is a window into heaven, to show you God’s holiness. The prayers go to God. The icons is sacramental, a reminder of Gods presence.