The word “iconography” is derived from the Greek words “eikon” meaning “image” and “graphos” meaning “to write.” The icon image is a visual symbol of the invisible. Icons express in images the spiritual realities that are inexpressible in words and inaccessible to our rational mind.
The Church developed the symbolic language and technique for the sacred art of iconography between the fourth and sixth centuries A.D. The purpose of this canon of representation is to ensure that the teachings of the Gospels remain clear and undistorted. Thus, the iconographer merely strives to represent accurately the spiritual truths as set forth by the Church instead of his/her personal interpretation of these truths. This is the main difference between icons and religious paintings which show the artist’s opinion or perception of a particular religious figure or event. Figures, features, and faces in icons are not the subjects’ realistic portraits but their symbolic likenesses as their bodies are transfigured by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is for this reason that icons are sometimes referred to as windows into heaven.