When an iconographer creates an icon, they are said to "write the icon", not paint it. This is because it is a prayerful exercise in humility before God. They are highly symbolic using shapes, colors and forms to symbolize different spiritual realities. The best iconographers are not famous artists, but holy saints. Praying with icons is an ancient prayer practice that involves keeping our eyes wide open, taking into our heart what the image visually communicates. We focus not on what is seen in the icon, but rather on what is seen through it - the love of God expressed through God's creatures.
Religious icons are commonly referred to as "windows to heaven" or "windows to the eternal". The idea that a piece of artwork can give us a glimpse of the invisible comes from Christology - the study of the person of Christ -,which focuses on the Incarnation. Because God took on human flesh, He allows us to see the person of Christ, who is God.
Icons also lift up our minds from earthly things to the heavenly. St. John of Damascus wrote, "We are led by perceptible Icons to the contemplation of the divine and spiritual." And by keeping their memory before us through the Icons, we are also inspired to imitate the holiness of those therein depicted. This is prayer without words, with a focus on being in God's presence rather than performing in God's presence. It is an experience of touching and feeling what is holy -- a divine mystery. Icons are not simply art; they are a way into contemplative prayer, and are therefore one way to let God speak to us.
They are doorways into stillness, into closeness with God. If we sit with them long enough, we too can enter into the stillness - into communion. And if we listen to them closely enough, with our hearts, we just may discern the voice of God. When we speak of icons as a medium for “gazing into heaven”, we refer to their value as much more than religious art. Instead, icons serve as a very real means for connecting us with God and His love. Icons are beautiful, but without relationship behind it, beauty alone feeds only a portion of the human soul, and ultimately patronizes the deep human need for loving connection with the Transcendent. With this in mind, we seek to view icons as points of visual and spiritual intersection with eternal things, as living prompts for our prayers, and as reminders of the very real world that exists beyond the limitations of this temporal one. Christ and the saints are alive and well, and they have not forgotten us.
We can draw strength from holy people who have gone before us into eternity, who are constantly present within both the form and function of the icon to help us in our prayers. Icons teach us to contemplate life’s most important matters. Icons can seem complicated or strange at first. Take time to simply gaze, allowing both your sense of sight as well as the longings of your heart to interact with what the icon presents to you in a particular moment. Icons have a way of teaching the heart spiritual truths the mind cannot. This is part of what is meant by icons being “theology in color.”
Icons are painted in reverse, or Byzantine, perspective, in which the further away objects in the icon are, the larger they are drawn, diverging against the horizon, rather than converging as in linear perspective. This technique is meant to bring the subject matter in the icon perpetually into the present, into the immediate experience of the viewer. Reverse perspective serves as a reminder that since God is omnipresent and outside earthly time and place, his view converges from everywhere simultaneously. We are to put ourselves in relationship to the world within the icon, not expect that world to adapt to us. Like other features, iconic landscapes are not meant to be realistic, but symbolic. Mountains in icons are not peaked, but flat, symbolizing all creation bowing down to Christ (Luke 3:5). Even iconographic depictions of events from Christ’s earthly life are meant to remind us that those events are ultimately of an eternal, transcendent nature, and not merely historical. Unlike much of western religious art, human subjects in icons are not meant to look precisely like the people portrayed in real life.