The Background Color of an Icon

This text is a resume of a conference-slideshow presented at a meeting of the Saint John of Damascus Association, June 15, 1996 and published in the Sacred Art Journal 17, 2, (summer) 1996.

Transfiguration of Christ Icon
Transfiguration of Christ. Sinai. 12th century.


Thesis: The background of an icon should be either golden or of a light color.

At the beginning of the slideshow, the author showed four images with a very dark background, almost black, and asked the following questions:

What do you think of these icons? Do they make you uneasy? Is there a problem?

They share a common element. Which one? Their background is of a very dark color, almost black. Even if the background color is in fact a very deep blue, we have the impression that it is very dark, obscure; it gives the impression of night. I know, as you do, that there are many frescoes and icons that have a very dark background, but for a long time now I have been disturbed by the dark-colored backgrounds; so I take advantage of this opportunity to discuss it with you.

The question I would like to address is precisely the background color of an icon. Is it a question of no theological import, a question left to the choice of the iconographer, as for example, the dimensions of a wooden support or of the slightly raised border of an icon? There are questions of this nature that do not derive from theological principles and are left to the discretion of the iconographer. There are other questions, however, that touch on an iconological principle and are highly theological, as for example the image of God the Father, the bathing scene on the Nativity icon or the inscription of the name of the person represented. Does the background color of an icon belong to thie first or the second category of questions? I would like to argue for the position that defines the background color of an icon as a theological question.

What follows is the result of my reflection—my opinion if you will—but I would like to believe it is motivated by a reasoned theology of the icon, inspired by the iconology of the Church and by the best icons that have come to us through history. My reflection is founded on five points.

  1. Orthodox iconography is a theological art, that is it expresses in images, through color and lines, a theological vision. This vision is that of our Orthodox faith, and it can be expressed otherwise in words, phrases, ideas, either pronounced, written or sung. There are many ways to express this theological vision, but whatever the mode of expression, it is the truth of the Gospel. The icon shows this truth in an artistic manner. If an icon does not express the truth of our theological vision—or worse, falsifies the theological vision—we can legitimately talk of a heretical icon, just as we can designate writings or opinions as heretical if these do not conform to the Gospel, or falsifiy it. If, as we suggest, there exists a close link between word and image and if our iconography is a theological art, we should not be surprised that there exist icons that conform to the Tradition of the Church and images that depart from it. Therefore, I address the question of the background color of an icon while accepting the first point: an icon visibly expresses a theological vision that can be true or false and must be evaluated theologically.
  2. Colors in iconography have meaning; they are not a question of little importance. We cannot choose any color to paint anything. There exists, it is true, a certain latitude in the domain of colors, but it is not true to say that all shades, all gradations of a color, have the same significance. In general, then, colors have a theological meaning, and we do not have the liberty of neglecting this point or of concocting just any palette that pleases us or pleases current tastes. Dionysus the Aeropagite is one of the most ancient sources discussing the significance of color. He wrote, probably for the first time, about the meaning of colors. For example, he says that green represents life, plants, trees and the force of life. We take as a given, therefore, that the colors in an icon are significant and are not purely and simply left to the discretion of the iconographer.
  3. The third point concerns light. What are the place and role of light in an icon? I think we are in agreement, we who study icons and you who paint them, that light is the essence of iconography. One of the reasons icons exist is to spread light. Therefore it is not difficult to conclude, in my opinion at least, that a black or very dark background is equivalent to a reduction of luminosity. I am not talking only of natural or artificial light or of light colors, but also of the theological, divine, uncreated light, that in our world we associate symbolically with the radiance of the sun or to vivid colors. We reflect the divine Light in our world, mostly with gold but also with colors that resemble it. I think that we should discourage, even abolish, all that diminished the effect of light in an icon, that reduces the strength of the light and lessens its radiance.
  4. Since Orthodox iconography is a theological art, it is not sufficient, in addressing the question of the background color of an icon, to consult our art books. We cannot justify a practice solely—and I say solely—by citing what was done at Sinai in the 5th century, in Russa during the 12th century or on Mount-Athos during the 18th century or in any other place or time. It is quite possible to find in our icon books, by practicing a kind of iconographic archaeology, examples that show images with a very dark background. However, since Orthodox iconography is precisely a theological art, we cannot support or denounce an idea or practice only by citing examples. It is not sufficient to say: “Since we find this or that type of image at X in the time of Y, I am allowed to do the same.” Simply citing precedents excludes a theological evaluation of these precedents. It is possible that the artists who produced these particular images did not know what they were doing, were copying bad models, were following their own imagination, were guided only by their piety having set aside any theological evaluation of their works or were creating images of theological ideas that were not recommendable. We must know, as much as possible, what motivated these artists in order to evaluate their works with a healthy, Orthodox iconology. If one wants to convince me of the rightness of an icons with a dark background, it is not sufficient simply to cite the works of certain artists on Mount Athos our elsewhere at this or that era.
  5. The fifth point concerns the criteria by which we decide if an image is an icon or not. How do we decide if image X is an icon or not? Some say: “This is an icon and that is not.” It is the model of the on/off switch, like in our homes. The lamp emits light or doesn’t. It is all the luminosity of the light bulb or nothing. “It is an icon or it is not an icon.” The on/off model, I think, is not the one we want to use to define the “iconicity”–I don’t know if this word exists—of an image. The criteria I prefer is that of the variable, gradual switch that allows diminishing or augmenting the intensity of a lamp’s light, the one that allows gradations from full light to darkness. Let us apply this principle of gradation, of degrees, to the icon. We can have an idea of an ideal icon, maybe a real, historical image that perfectly embodies this ideal. But we also know, from this ideal or historical model, we can add or eliminate certain individual elements that will reduce, without destroying, its “iconicity.” We can also add elements of an icon to a pious image, making it closer to an icon without its ever completely becoming an icon. I would like to affirm that the background color of an icon is one of those iconographic elements that diminish or increases the force  an image has to be an icon. A very dark background for a canonical image does not destroy the “iconicity” of an image, but it clearly reduces the capacity of an image to be an icon: that is to be a center of luminosity, not only in the pictorial sense, but also at a theological level.

After the slideshow, there was a discussion on the subject. What follows is a resume of the opinions offered in response to the slideshow.

Many suggested that a dark blue is acceptable for several reasons. Blue is the favored color in certain icons because it is mystical, noble, practical and cultural; it permits also to contrast the background with the figures.

The color called “mystical blue” in several Greek books on iconography–-amongst others the book Ekphrasis by Photios Kontoglou—is a blue that tends towards a dark green. Kontoglou talks about this dark blue that he calls “mystical” by citing the same Dionysus the Aeropagite cited by Father Steven when he spoke of green. Kontoglou adds that this dark color represents the heavenly mystery, in an apophatic way: the glory of Heaven cannot be represented in all its radiance by the colors of an icon. Therefore it is permitted to use a “mystical” blue in the background.

Gold, as a noble material, is perfectly appropriate to abstractly represent the royal glory of the Divine. Similarly, a rich deep blue, from an apophatic point of view, is appropriate to represent glory, like a brilliant saturated red preferred by certain Russian iconographic schools. This red–easier to understand as an expression of strong luminosity—is derived from cinnabar, a precious material; it is comparable to blue and gold because blue was a product of a precious material, in this case lapis-lazuli, that is a blue of a precious stone found in what we now call Afghanistan. Lapis-lazuli and cinnabar, from which red is produced by pulverisation, are more or less equivalent to gold because they are noble, precious, and very expensive materials.

Gold, beyond its capacity to reflect light, can adequately symbolise light. But gold had a reputation of being a “dark” color during the Renaissance when artists, such as Bernini wrote manuals for artists.

We can mention a practical consideration in favor of a dark background color: especially for frescoes where carbon from incense, lamps and candles accumulates. This suit will eventually darken the walls with a thick layer. To prevent this, when planning to paint frescoes, it is  preferable to paint the walls a dark blue in order to minimise the inevitable darkening and to avoid the wrong relation of color that may unbalance the visual dynamics of the composition.

Culturally, the Greeks preferred blue as Russians preferred red. Krasny–red in Russian–can signify brilliant or beautiful. The desired ambiguity, brought about by the different meanings of the word red, can be seen in expressions such as Red Square, the luminous corner and the pascha kranaya. In certain Russian churches during the paschal season, the faithful use red candles. Nonetheless, it is only a cultural consideration because red is not more phosphorescent than the blue.

Artists use a technique to enhance color, to make it more brilliant, by painting the background in a dark color. This technique accentuates contrast. The Transfiguration is a good example of an icon that accentuates light. By having a dark blue background to maximize the brilliance of the Lord’s white clothing, we obtain an effect similar to showing diamonds on black velvet.

Despite all these responses offered to oppose the thesis presented, Father Steven is right in noting that the usual psychological effect of dark colors is not to evoke joy or spiritual exaltation or to create luminosity.

At a certain moment during the slideshow[1] Father Steven said that he wanted to be “bowled over” by the radiance of light in an icon of the Transfiguration, just as the apostles were as they are seen on the icon. Having a thirst for the good things of the Kingdom is a noble sentiment, but, according to one participant, icons do not call upon our passions; they should not fascinate the senses. The purpose of an icon is not to express the psychological but the spiritual. Icons invite us to contemplate the sublime rather than to get lost in intellectual hypothesis—or God forbid!–to reveal the sensual.

End of the resume for the conference.

Conclusion: Final comment from the author. Despite the diversity of points of view expressed in the discussion, I still maintain that a black or very dark background of an icon does not evoke the joy of the Kingdom of God, but rather a dark and menacing cloud that floats over the person or event being represented[2] The Uncreated Light that penetrates from behind and through the people or things represented in an icon makes them shine and is preferably symbolised by gold, by a golden color or by another color that produces the same luminous effect.

[1]          A video camera did not capture this moment of the presentation. And so it is this commentary during the question period that brings out Father Steven’s expression.

[2]          I cannot help think of the scene in the movie Independance Day where the shadow of the alien spaceship advances on the White House to blow it up.

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