Icons: Major Motifs
According to iconographer Solrunn Nes, "the icon painter's repertoire consists of the complete gallery of persons in the New and Old Testaments, as well as holy men and women in Church tradition. A motif may incorporate one person, a group, an event or the progress of an event." Certain motifs have been more frequently depicted than others. Of those of Christ, "Christ Pantocrator," "Christ Emmanuel," and "The Icon Not Created by Human Hands" are the most reproduced. Most frequently used motifs of the Virgin Mary are "Our Lady of the Sign," "The Mother of God, Hodegetria," and "The Mother of God, Eloeusa." Festival icons of the major liturgical feasts of the Church year are frequent subjects. Icons of the saints and biblical events have also been popular.
All images are in the public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Click on an image to enlarge it.
Nes, Solrunn. The Mystical Language of Icons, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.
"Pantocrator" means "All-Ruler." This icon shows Christ as Creator, Savior, and Judge. He looks right at us in compassion, but demanding a response. His hand is raised in blessing. He holds the book of the Gospels, the good news of salvation for all who will receive Him. Some versions of this icon show Christ seated on a throne, underscoring that He is the almighty King of Kings and Lord of Lords. From the 13th century. Serbian.
"Emmanuel" means "God with us." This icon shows Christ as a beardless youth, who, at the same time is of indeterminate age, and who has wisdom beyond his years. This refer to the event in the Gospels, when Jesus, at the age of 12, astounded the elders of Israel in the Temple with his knowledge of the things of God. Icon by Simon Ushakov, 1668, Russian.
This icon shows the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. God the Father announces that "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased." The Holy Spirit also descends to empower Jesus for His ministry. This icon depicts a theophany, an appearance of the three Persons of the Trinity to human senses. Coptic. Before the 19th century.
This icon depicts the New Testament event when Jesus took Peter, James and John with him up onto Mt. Tabor, where He revealed his divine glory to them and God the Father once more declared Jesus to be His Son, who was to be heard and obeyed. Moses and Elijah come to speak with Jesus about his death which would soon follow. Circa 1516. Ukrainian.
In this icon we see Jesus on the cross. Standing at the foot of the cross is his mother Mary and the Apostle john. Angels in the sky weep at the suffering and death of their Lord for the sins of mankind. The cross is planted on a mound in which we see a skull indicating this is Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, which tradition said was the mountain on which Abraham was told to sacrifice Isaac. 13th century. St. Catherine's Monastery, Mt. Sinai.
This icon depicts the resurrected Christ descending into Hell to free believers (in the persons of Adam and Eve) and lead them to Heaven. He triumphs over death and Hell through the power of his now-empty cross and his resurrection. He stands as victor on the gates of Hell, which he has burst asunder. Date unknown. Inner side of the Resurrection Gate to Red Square, Moscow.
This is an example of an icon of one of the most important saints. In the Orthodox Church, John the Baptist is known as the "forerunner" because he prepared the way for the coming of Christ. This is an example of an icon that paradoxically shows two moments in a person's life: John as a living man, but he is holding his head which he will lose at Herod's order. Before the 17th century. Macedonian.
This icon commemorates the festival, the Synaxis of the Archangel Michael and the Other Bodliess Powers, and depicts the angels, archangels and seraphim, who worship and serve their Lord and God, Jesus Christ, indicated by the image in the medallion in the center. Christ is depicted there as Christ Emmanuel. End of 15th century. Russian.