Icons, such as those depicting the Virgin, are despised in the West because they are misunderstood both in intention and in use. For example, in the West they will be automatically assumed to be a type of “portrait” that gives us a view of a particular subject’s physical form. If that be the Virgin, then we are given a reproduction of the physical characteristics of the Virgin, at least as they existed in the artist’s imagination. In this respect, both the work and the artist come off as inferior and even childish in comparison to the portraits of the Renaissance. But that is to judge them by a standard that does not apply, and it is in fact quite arrogant to assume that, had the intent of the creator on an icon matched that of the Renaissance painter, that the former’s skill would be so inferior as to have failed so miserably.
In actuality, the intent of an icon of the Virgin is to convey the universal reality of which the Virgin herself was only an expression within history. In other words, the icon conveys or at least supports the contemplation of an eternal truth, whereas naturalistic art reproduces a fact. The first approach supports the intelligence, the second merely shows us that Mary was a woman. Or, if the subject is Jesus Christ, the icon shows us the God in the man, whereas the portrait only shows us the man. At the risk of sounding repetitive, we can summarize by saying that the naturalistic portrait depicts a historical fact, while the icon conveys the transcendent principle that gave rise to that fact, hence its concern for symbolism over detail and realism.