Icon of Our Lady of Mount Carmel (Mother of Carmel) by the Sisters of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Terre Haute, IN
One of the biggest difficulties Western Christians have in appreciating icons is a lack of understanding. I have previously discussed some of the theology behind iconography, but in this post I will discuss another big difficulty: the symbolism of iconography. Even if one can understand the theology of the icon and why one should venerate it, it is still difficult to venerate something that seems to be such a strange mess of non-understood symbols. This post will hopefully clear up some of that difficulty so that others can better understand icons and venerate them more worthily.
The language used in iconography is often difficult by itself, since it is usually written in either Greek or Russian, often with a strange script that combines letters on top of each other or uses less common forms of letters. Even after getting past that, there are still some strange writings on icons. The most prominent of these are the two monograms of Jesus' Name and the title of the Theotokos.
In the West, IHS is the main monogram of the name of Jesus, often seen especially in Jesuit churches and institutions. In the East, the monogram IC XC is used, with a bar (which looks like a squiggly line) over each pair of letters, showing that it represents a name. The monogram is simply the first and last letters each of Jesus and Christ in Greek, Ιεσους and Χριστος. The final letter of each word, the sigma, is usually capitalized as Σ (often mistakenly used in advertisements as a Greek-style E, though it's truly an S), but in the script used in iconography, it is usually written as a C, which resembles its final form. (Oddly enough, though, many icons will use the C in the middle of a word and a final form sigma, ς, at the end of a word.) To summarize: IC XC is the condensed form of Ιεσους Χριστος (Jesus Christ) using iconographic script.
[Fun fact: The IC XC monogram is also used in the IC XC NIKA monogram, which means "Jesus Christ conquers."]
Icon of the Protection of the Theotokos by Fr. Damian Higgins (2010)
Written for the 50th Jubilee of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of St. Nicholas
The other main monogram of icons is the title of the Theotokos, written as ΜΡ ΘΥ. This monogram is actually not based on the name of Mary, the Mother of God, at all. Instead, it is the condensed form (first and last letters) of Ματερ Θεου, which means "Mother of God" in Greek. This monogram is more confusing due to the Greek involved: the P is the letter rho (as in the Chi-Rho monogram) in Greek, which makes an R sound, the Θ is the letter theta (TH), and the Y is the upper-case upsilon, a variable letter that makes a U sound in the ου diphthong used in this phrase. To summarize: ΜΡ ΘΥ is the condensed form of Ματερ Θεου (Mother of God) using iconographic script.
Though when one thinks of iconographic halos (also known by the alternate term of nimbuses), one thinks typically of only the basic circular halo, there are actually multiple distinct halos used through iconography. All halos, though, represent holiness and the divine nature (which we can all become partakers of, as 2 Pt 1:4 states) radiating from the head of the person (or Person), which is why the floating ring halos seen in later Western art does not make sense to the Eastern Church, since they are not radiating from the subject.
Jesus Christ has a cruciform halo, a modified form of the typical circular halo. The first distinct difference is the three bars radiating from the head of Christ inside the halo, resembling the top of the Cross. The second distinct difference is the writing inside the halo: Ὁ ὤN (a mixed-case version of the phrase ὁ ὤν, ho ōn, which means "The Being"). One letter is placed within each bar of the halo, going clockwise from the left. This phrase relates to God's ontological supremacy in that He alone can be referred to simply as "The Being."
Another halo used for Jesus Christ (but only when specifically showing His glorified Body) is the mandorla. I first explained the mandorla in my post on the Αναστασις (Resurrection) icon. In short, it is an almond-shaped (sometimes more circular and with rays extending), bluish-white halo surrounding all of Christ's Body, not just His head, which indicates that an icon is specifically trying to show His glorified Body. As far as I know, it is only used in festal icons (icons that celebrate specific feasts and events of the New Testament), such as the Transfiguration, the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the Dormition (Assumption), and in icons of saints which show a vision of Christ in Heaven. The mandorla is also used in icons of the Theotokos when she is seen in Heaven or in a vision.
Icon of the Holy Trinity at the Manastirea Piatra Scrisa (Written Stone Monastery), Romania (18th c.?)
[Notice the triangular halo over the head of God the Father]
The other main distinct halo is the triangular halo, used in representations of the Holy Trinity. It is usually placed over the head of each Person of the Trinity, or over the head of God the Father, with the typical cruciform halo on Jesus Christ (the Holy Spirit is often depicted as just a halo-less dove). (As I have discussed previously, icons of the Trinity are a more recent invention, so this halo is actually fairly uncommon.)
Other halos, such as square halos, hexagonal halos, halos of stars (for Mary), floating ring halos, and other types, exist throughout Western art, but, as far as I know, they are not found in iconography.
Faces and Hands
There are two basically facial positions in icons: front and side. While a figure's body may be in any number of positions, the figure of a holy person will always have the entire face visible to the viewer. A non-holy figure, though, whether a public sinner or just one whose sainthood is not confirmed, will only show half of his face. The classic example of this latter position is any icon featuring Judas.
Like the bodies of figures in icons, the hands can be in any position, though there are a few common positions. Many saints are seen either holding items that represent them or lifting their hands to the Lord or the Theotokos. The Theotokos will often be pointed her hand towards her Son, such as in Hodigitria icons. Our Lord Jesus Christ is often performing a blessing with His right hand, while His left hand holds a book (in Pantokrator icons). The position of Our Lord's right hand in this blessing is actually a manual form of the IC XC monogram, with the pointer finger pointing up (I), the middle and pinky fingers curved (C), and the ring finger touching the thumb (X). This blessing position is often used by Eastern Christian priests.
Icon of St. George
[Notice the blessing Hand in the corner]
Another interesting hand symbol is the Finger of God. This is sometimes seen in icons of saints, representing the divine guidance of the Lord. The Finger (or sometimes a hand performing the IC XC blessing) usually comes from the upper-right-hand side of the icon, robed in blue and white to represent Heaven. Sometimes, either Our Lord Jesus Christ, in a similar position to the Pantokrator, or the Theotokos will be seen in this small corner of Heaven instead.
I hope this post has been interesting reading, and I hope that it assists you in better understanding iconography and thus better venerating the holy images. I am sorry for any mistakes or misinformation in this post. Thank you for reading, and God Bless.
St. Luke, Iconographer of the Theotokos, pray for us!
St. Luke painting a Hodigitria-style icon of the Theotokos