Many people wonder why Eastern Orthodox icons tend to look so stylized and so similar — why often they just seem to be slightly varying copies of the same image, though differing according to the styles of place and time, and the level of skill of the painter.
Traditionally-painted icons, in general, are quite different from Western European religious art, whether Catholic or Protestant. Let’s look at a detail from The Calling of Matthew, by the Italian painter Caravaggio:
This looks quite realistic — and in fact if that face were in another kind of painting — say of a scene from Greek mythology, and if its halo were absent, we would not know it was intended to be Jesus. Caravaggio has chosen a quite handsome model.
Now let’s look at a rather typical Russian Orthodox icon of Jesus, painted in the old manner:
Here is a closer view of the face:
It does not look like anyone who ever lived. There is no mistaking it for the portrait of an actual person. It is not a realistic portrait, but rather an abstraction recognizable by the style of head and facial hair and the traditionally long, narrow nose. The final mark of identification would come in the title and halo inscriptions, which in this example have been worn away.
The stylization so common in Eastern Orthodox iconography is actually something that developed over time in Byzantium. This trend toward stylization began in the 6th century, and was relatively fixed in Byzantine iconography by the 9th. And yet when one looks for some decree or canon of the Eastern Church as a whole demanding such stylization, it is nowhere to be found. It is just a tradition that developed late in Christian iconography, and was perpetuated by painters who became stuck in the practice of copying what came before — a practice which, by the time of the icon painting workshops of the last centuries of old Russian icon painting — reached its logical conclusion in the “assembly line” painting of icons, with one person doing garments, another faces, etc.
It came to be thought that stylization somehow represented the features of Jesus and the saints in a more acceptable manner than realism. It made them less “earthly” and supposedly more “heavenly,” though of course that notion was just a concept that developed, and in reality an abstraction of a face is no more “heavenly” than a realistic portrait — it is just a “symbol” of the heavenly that came to be accepted and conventionalized as such, not because it inherently is so. That is why I always say that when people talk of icons as “windows to heaven,” that is really a misnomer; they are really windows into how the painters thought one should paint saints and other “heavenly” persons, and that thought is simply a convention that developed over time.
Even when the Russian State Church abandoned such abstract traditionalism and added more naturalistic shading, it kept the same general form, as in this later icon from 1896:
That was their way of preserving the prototypical standard, in spite of stylistic change.
What it comes down to is that any rather long face, with a long and rather narrow nose, and long, not-too-full hair parted in the middle, and limited moustache and beard, came to be understood as an image of Jesus, unless otherwise identified. And though Jesus is not the only person depicted with that same face, he is clearly identified as Jesus by added title inscriptions, etc. In fact to carry this further, some saints who share the same general appearance of garment and hair as others are identifiable as a particular saint only by the title inscription.
But getting back to our contrast with Caravaggio and other Western European painters, in neither case — whether the icon is painted in the traditional old style preserved by the Old Believers or in the more realistic “Western” manner favored by the State Church from around the end of the 17th century — has the painter used a living model for Jesus. Each has kept — in its own style — the same basic image. And that, again is a part of the tradition that catalogued the iconography of deity and saint by characteristics of hair style, hair color, and garments, along with the “seal” of identification — the title inscription.
In stylized Eastern Orthodox art — from the development of stylization as an unwritten “canon” in Byzantine art onward — we find not representations of real persons — not realistic depictions — but rather symbols of persons. — abstractions of them. And yet paradoxically, the theological principle on which the veneration of icons is founded is that the veneration offered to an icon goes to its prototype — from the painted icon to the saint or spiritual being in heaven — due to the likeness of the image with the person.
That is rather an insoluble problem in the veneration of icons, because not only is an abstraction of a saint’s face not a likeness, but also it is common knowledge that huge numbers of the faces of saints and other “heavenly” persons depicted in icons are simply conventions that developed over time, rather than actual, accurate depictions of the features of a person who once may have existed. If you have any doubt about this, ask yourself how icon painters knew what the features of the various Old Testament prophets and patriarchs were. The answer is that no one knew — no usable contemporaneous descriptions existed — and so the painters simply made up the features of these and many other saints, and those made-up features became gradually standardized until they were thought to represent the actual features of a given saint. Great numbers of icons, truth told, simply depict saints with imaginary features, not actual likenesses of them.
So icons are not really “windows to heaven.” They are windows to an historically developed form of artistic conventionalization — a conceptualized artistic system with the premise that to make a saint or holy person look like a “real” human individual — as done, for example, by Caravaggio — is not “spiritual” but “carnal,”
The notion developed that when one depicts in paint a saint or holy person according to the basic descriptions or conventions for that person passed down through the tradition, one thereby depicts the saint in material form, but also — somehow — transmits his hypostasis — his “person” as not merely a material human being but beyond that, as a spiritual being — his personhood as a saint, or the personhood of Jesus as God incarnate — both human and divine. But of course this again is merely a mental concept placed upon the icon through the conventions of abstract form, halo, and title inscription.
Now interestingly, what the “canon” of Eastern Orthodox icon painting comes down to is — as previously stated — not definitely stated anywhere. It is basically what has come to be considered theologically acceptable. That means where there are disagreements in theology, there are also disagreements in what is or is not permissible in iconography — such as the controversies over icons of God the Father, or whether to put the cross halo of Jesus on the central angel in the Old Testament Trinity, or even how the fingers of the blessing hand are to be shown. And of course that distinction extends also to just how realistically an icon may be painted. The Old Believers, following a strict interpretation of the Stoglav Council of the Russian Orthodox Church of 1551, held that one must continue the abstraction practiced by their fathers and grandfathers and earlier ancestors, and must paint icons according to the ancient models, as the Greek painters did — and that they should paint as did Rublyov and other famous iconographers, not changing anything by their own imagination.
The post-schism State Russian Orthodox Church, however, developed a different view, and that is why its painters began to adopt elements of Western European realism in its icons, leaving much abstraction behind, though still keeping the general concept of the standard “prototype,” as we have seen. Still, it was considered improper to stray too far from the old patterns, or to use living human models for depicting Jesus and the saints. And that was very much the condition in which the old period of icon painting ended in Russia not long after the Russian Revolution. and though there are a few exceptions, not much has changed in “approved” Russian Orthodox iconography since the revival of icon painting in Russia after the fall of Communism.
This attitude toward icon painting in Eastern Orthodoxy also explains why icon painting is often thought of as a “craft” rather than an art. Caravaggio unquestionably is thought of as an artist — but one can easily understand why the painters of Eastern Orthodox icons generally tend to be regarded more as craftsmen than as artists — with the exception of the more extraordinarily skilled among them.