Icons, if made in the ancient tradition, follow conventions that are much different from those we are more familiar with in Western art. According to Sr. Nancy, “the Russians have probably preserved the oldest and most classical Byzantine style of iconography in its purest form.” Some symbols are present in all icons, forming a collective body of expected representations, called “conventions,” that carry specific theological meaning. Other symbols are particular to the person in the image. These conventions are like a language that is unique to the art, separating it from other religious art.
The primary symbol or convention in icons is light. And it is the eyes that contain the entire source of light. The windows to the soul enlighten the whole figure.
A second convention is “inverse perspective.” The vanishing point is in the viewer’s eyes, out in front of the icon, not within the picture, much as a ribbon or road or sunset becomes smaller as it moves toward the horizon line, a feature of linear perspective. This linear perspective was typical of Renaissance painting employing realism and naturalism, one thousand years after icons began as an art form. Inverse perspective, on the other hand, is opposite to the normal way we see reality, and so, often appears as a distortion to us. This perspective within the icon keeps expanding to show that one cannot contain or fence in love that is infinite. That is also why the halos, symbolic of love, stretch beyond the border. And the corners of the eyes are not enclosed, but expand.
The head of a figure in an icon appears unusually large and spherical. This is because the iconographer is trying to show the whole head at the same time. When you look at the figure, you are not only seeing the figure’s face, as a photo taken with a camera would show. You see the front and sides and back of the head all at the same time.
Still another convention is the puff lines in the neck, representing the fullness of the Breath of the Spirit in the saint, and their readiness to blow the Spirit out upon who and what they see with love through the window of the icon.