Sacred Icons are painted as windows into Heaven, displaying Heavenly rather than earthly reality. Icons, on the other hand, are made of people we admire: heroes of the faith who are remembered and whose earthly lives are regarded as instructive and worthy of imitation. As a result, it is natural that, in addition to being depicted in a stylized "spiritual" manner, the Saints are also depicted as recognizable people with distinct features. This guide is simply a brief description of how the Holy Apostles are depicted in Icons, so that they can be identified more easily when encountered in churches, monasteries, or anywhere else an icon can be found.
Saint Peter the Apostle
Peter, the fiery and impulsive Leader of the Twelve, is easily identified by his white, short, curly hair and beard. He is frequently depicted holding a scroll with words from one of his Epistles written on it. In some icons, he may be depicted with keys dangling from his belt, a reference to Jesus' words to him: "And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." He is frequently depicted in icons alongside St. Paul, both of whom were martyred in Rome, holding together the Church and demonstrating their shared preeminence among the Apostles.
St John the Theologian
The Apostle John is commonly depicted in two ways: as the "Beloved Disciple" and as "the Theologian." The former Icon depicts the young Apostle John – the John who rested his head on Christ's breast during the Last Supper. St. John is depicted as the beardless brown-haired youth, little more than sixteen years old, in any icon depicting scenes from Christ's life (e.g., the Transfiguration, the Crucifixion) or those depicted in the Acts of the Apostles (e.g., the Ascension or Pentecost).
When John is depicted in a "portrait" rather than as part of a Biblical scene, he is typically depicted as the elderly John "the Theologian." This is the John who, sixty years or so after Christ's Resurrection, is exiled on Patmos and writes the Gospel of John as well as the Book of Revelation. He is depicted with a long white beard and a high forehead, holding the Gospel book that earned him the title "the Theologian," which is frequently shown open to reveal some verses from the book. He may also be depicted with an eagle, which is both a symbol of John and his Gospel.
St. Matthew the Evangelist
St. Matthew, like St. John, wrote a Gospel account and is often depicted holding a large Book. Matthew has a long, wavy, white beard and close-cropped hair in portraits and Icons depicting Biblical scenes. In Icons with Christ depicting Biblical scenes, he may be shown holding the Gospel Book as a deliberate anachronism to aid identification. Matthew is sometimes depicted with a winged man, the symbol of his Gospel.
St. Andrew “the First-Called”
Andrew, the Apostle Peter's brother, was a disciple of St. John the Baptist. As a result, Andrew is depicted with long, unkempt hair, similar to the prophet he followed. When depicted in scenes depicting Jesus' earthly ministry, he is one of the most recognizable of the Apostles. Andrew holds a small scroll, not to indicate that he wrote any famous works, but to identify him as a Gospel preacher, "one who is sent out," i.e. an Apostle.
Nathaniel, also known as Bartholomew, is depicted as a middle-aged man with a short beard and hair. He is also shown holding an Apostle's scroll. St. Bartholomew appeared to a number of people in vision and dream after his martyrdom, so his appearance can be deduced. He appeared to St. Joseph the Hymnographer, blessing him and saying, "Let heavenly water of wisdom flow from your tongue!" He also appeared to Emperor Anastasius I (491-518), promising to protect the new town of Dara.
St. Simon the Zealot
The Apostle Simon, not to be confused with St. Peter, who was previously known as Simon bar-Jonah, was from Cana and was the bridegroom at the famous Wedding at Cana. He is always depicted with grey curly hair and a beard, but with a higher brow than St. Peter.
The Apostle Thomas is best known as "Doubting Thomas" because he refused to believe the other disciples' accounts of Christ's resurrection. Despite being mocked for it, it is recognized in Orthodox teaching that through his initial doubts, Thomas came to confess Jesus Christ as "Lord and God" – a greater confession of faith than any of the Apostles had previously uttered. In icons depicting Thomas, this confession of faith is sometimes held in his hands, but more commonly, the scroll denoting his rank as an Apostle is shown. The most striking aspect of Thomas' Icons is that he is depicted as a beardless youth, a teenager like John. This is a recurring feature of how Thomas is depicted in icons, such as this Icon of Thomas touching Christ's wounds. When considering his "doubts," the Apostle Thomas' youth is something to consider.
St. James, Son of Zebedee
James is the name of two Apostles. The son of Zebedee is James, also known as "the Greater" in the West. This is largely due to his membership in the "inner-circle" of the Twelve, which also included St. Peter and St. John. The Apostle John is also James's brother, and the two were dubbed the "Sons of Thunder." James has medium-length brown hair and a beard. Though he is often difficult to identify by sight alone in Icons of the Twelve, he is recognizable in the bottom-right of this Icon of the Transfiguration, which James was privileged to witness alongside the young John and curly-haired Peter. In all icons, he is depicted as a young man (short beard, not white), as he was martyred a little more than ten years after the Resurrection.
St Jude Thaddeus
Jude is also sometimes called Levi or Thaddeus, and “Jude” is sometimes rendered Judas. Nevertheless, he is not to be confused with the Apostle Matthew (also called “Levi”), St. Thaddeus one of Jesus’ seventy disciples, or especially Judas Iscariot. The author of the Biblical Epistle which carries his name, the “Apostles’ Scroll” in his hand may sometimes show a quote from his own writing. Otherwise, St. Jude is identified as a mature man with curly brown (sometimes grey) beard and hair. As he was related to Jesus Christ through Joseph, husband of Mary, the appelation “brother of the Lord” (or “adelphos” in Greek) may be found on Icons.
St. James Alphaeus
James, the son of Alphaeus and the Apostle Matthew's brother, is depicted with brown wavy or curly hair and a pointed beard. He is not to be confused with St. James, who is known as "Adelphos," which means "Lord's brother." The two Jameses are easily distinguished in iconography because "the brother of the Lord" is always depicted in the robes of a bishop, being the first bishop of Jerusalem.
According to Holy Tradition and Scripture, the Apostle Philip was well versed in Old Testament prophecies and eagerly awaited the arrival of the Saviour. He immediately responded to Jesus' call, recognizing him as the Messiah (John 1:43), and later led Nathaniel (the Apostle Bartholomew) to become a follower of Jesus as well. As a result, coming into contact with icons of the Apostle Philip – who is always depicted as a beardless youth – is remarkable. It is something worth considering, much like Thomas' youth.
Matthias is a disciple of Christ who took the place of Judas Iscariot as one of the Twelve Apostles following the latter's betrayal and suicide. His depiction in icons is entirely consistent with what is known about him. Matthias was already a mature man before becoming a disciple of the adult Christ, having been educated in the Law by the Prophet Simeon, who received the infant Christ in the temple. Matthias would be the elderly man depicted in Icons of him by the time of his martyrdom in 63A.D.
While Judas is clearly not a saint and is not depicted in icons of "the Twelve," he is depicted in icons of the Last Supper or kissing Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. He is easily identified in icons of the Last Supper as the one dipping his hand into the dish, revealing his future betrayal of the Lord. Often, the Apostles are not shown with halos in scenes prior to Pentecost, but when they are, Judas is conspicuous by his lack of one.
Whatever it is worth – and it may be nothing – in Orthodox Iconography, Judas is almost always depicted beardless, like John, Philip, and Thomas; thus, like them, he was probably still a teenager when he betrayed his Saviour.
Published by Samantha Brown