Iconography of angels

In some icons containing angels, their hands are covered, as in this one: http://www.rdrop.com/~/stmary/tss060.jpg.

Here they are holding the instruments of the passion, but in other icons they hold nothing and the hands are still covered. What is the significance of the covering?

They are often portrayed in two garments, one over the shoulders and the other around the waist. If there is a pair of angels, the colors may be reversed: one angel with red over the shoulders and blue around the waist, while the other has blue over the shoulders and red around the waist. What does that mean?

Thanks for your help!


Анелы изображают с руками, покрытыми плащом в знак благоговения перед Тем, Кому они служат.

Angels are illustrated with their hands covered with a cope in sign of reverence toward Him whom they are serving. Such an image is borrowed from Eastern custom taken from court etiquette of Byzatium. Objects given to or by the Imperor were received with covered hands in a sign of special respect to him, such imperor.


These clothings are those of most icons are from Greek - called хитон and гиматий or in English Chiton and Hemation. Chiton is belted garment and hemation is like a cope or cape. The colors are indicating who is person and what is role.

Ilya Profet in such clothing: Dark red khiton, white/brown himatij:

This is one of my favorite icons of St. Michael


[LEFT]It’s called St. Michael of the Apocalypse[/LEFT]

Test message please ignore

Thank you Volodymyr, that information is very helpful.

Perhaps I wasn’t attentive to it, but I never before noticed the Lord painted completely without clothes as in the Baptism icon you posted.

I like that icon of St. Michael, and generally speaking I much prefer Orthodox depictions of the angels.

Me too. All in all, I also prefer Byzantine (and medieval western) depictions of angels; late Renaissance and 18th century depictions of angels in western art are too ‘cute’ or too feminine for my liking.

The_Prodigal, depicting the Lord either without any clothes or with at least a loincloth in His baptism is actually the original ‘standard’ way of depicting the event. It was only that many later artists in the west took this further and started to show Jesus as being fully clothed.

This practice may actually come from depictions of baptisms in early Christian art, where the candidate is shown as not wearing any clothes:

Thank you for this Volodymyr. :thumbsup:
If I might add, covered hands, as a sign of respect, is not limited to angels. Bishops are also at times depicted in iconography as carrying the Gospel Book with their hand/s covered (though this may be more common in earlier than later art).


In other early depictions, in imitation of the Byzantine court gesture, clerics or others are symbolically shown ‘presenting’ their churches to Christ or Mary by holding a model of the church with their hands covered:

A mosaic from the basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy (which was back then an exarchate of the Byzantine empire and a center of Byzantine power in Italy). Note that both St. Vitalis, who here receives a crown, and Bishop Ecclesius, who is in the act of presenting the church, had both their hands veiled in the presence of Christ.

And, as for final instances of non-Angelic veiling of hands:

The three magi as depicted in a 7th-century mosaic, from the basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. Note that aside from the magi in the middle, the two are shown as presenting their gifts with their hands veiled.

From the 6th-century Arian Baptistry in Ravenna, originally erected by Ostrogothic king Theodoric the Great and later passed into orthodox hands after the condemnation of Arianism. Notice that the hands of the apostles are all veiled (compare with the earlier Baptistry of Neon, also in Ravenna).


In spite of its age and fading, St. Andrei Rublev’s St. Michael is one of my favorites:

This practice may actually come from depictions of baptisms in early Christian art, where the candidate is shown as not wearing any clothes:

**That’s because anciently the baptizand was nude, following the precedent of the Rite of Mikveh.

The liturgical practice of covering the hands is still seen in the Roman practice of the humeral veil and vimp.

In the Byzantine Church, people sometimes cover their hands when marching in procession with icons, such as during Pascha.**

I’m not sure if it is related, but for us, deacons never hold the chalices or platter {holding the consecrated host} with our bare hands… always with cloth.

Your Profile says Church of the East… yeah, it’s probably related.

Here’s one that shows the contrast in colors I mentioned. Is it just for symmetry of appearance?

Yes, that’s because they are the Archangels Michael and Gabriel.

St. Michael is always in red and St. Gabriel is always in blue…

Hope this helps…

really thanks for those pics and the explain!
good post!

One more question…

What are the upside down v-shaped things that appear behind the head (sometimes)?

What do you mean?

I suspect you’re referring to the wings, which may not always be obviously so.

Also, note that sometimes, St. John the Forerunner is portrayed with wings.

I believe that he is talking about the ribbons that are shown near the heads of angels. These ribbons symbolize the fact that the angels are hearing/attentive to God’s commands.

St. John the Baptist has wings often on him to symbolize his role as a message bearer, a role which angels serve as well. He was the voice crying out “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

I’m not by any means an expert on icons, but I am an iconophile and love learning from all those who post on this forum… listening attentively, I learn some stuff. These bits are a few that I picked up on the way. :slight_smile:

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.