Drs. Ingrid Zoetmulder

1. The first icons

What is an icon?

What are icons actually? The word icon is derived from the Greek word eikon, which means ‘picture’ or ‘image’. With the development of Christian art, it took on the specialized meaning of ‘sacred picture’.

The origins of this development lay in the worldview of the early Christian philosophers, which was influenced by Plato. They discerned various layers in the universe. At the top was God. Every layer beneath that was a reflection of the layer above. The lowest layers, where the temporal world existed, were more material than the layers above, which were more spiritual. An icon was a material image of a person or event, whose ‘actuality’ existed on a higher, spiritual and invisible level. When looking at an icon, the idea is that one looks through it to see what lies behind it. Icons are sometimes called Gates to Eternity. The essence of a gate is that you open it, pass through it, and enter a new place.

Icons were originally religious objects, and they therefore have religious themes as their subject, such as Christ, the Mother of God, saints, angels and important days in the Church calendar. They can be moved and carried around. Icons are used in the home for private devotion, and also play an important part in the liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church. There, the icon occupies the same place as the written word, the Gospels, and forms part of the liturgy. Icons are a tangible revelation of God. The Greek Church Father Basil the Great, who lived in the 4th century, wrote: ‘What the word conveys to us through our hearing is the same as what art shows us through representation; in this way, we receive knowledge and insight of one and the same thing.’

Icons are painted on wooden panels, and are considered to make the person whose image is on the icon actually present. This means that people do not worship the image, but rather the saint portrayed in the icon. The purpose of the icon is to make visible the invisible, bringing the viewer, through the icon, into contact with the eternal and unchangeable truth.

The icon painter

Since the icon had this deeper significance for the Orthodox believer, it was very important that the icon should be authentic. To ensure this, the production of icons was subject to certain rules. Artists followed traditional models: provided they remained true to the prototype, they were free in their choice of style and artistic interpretation. The prototypes were contained in handbooks known as Hermeneia in Greek or Podlinnik in Russian, a number of which have survived. The oldest known manual of this type dates from the 15th century and contains outlines of saints and religious scenes. The wellknown Hermeneia of Dionysius of Fourna, dating from about 1730, gives instructions on technique, colours, iconography and appropriate icon inscriptions. It belongs to the monastic community on Mount Athos.

Initially, icons were usually painted by monks, although later they were also painted by laymen. Icon artists were deeply conscious of the traditions of icon painting, and, unlike artists in the West after the Renaissance, they were not really allowed to follow their imagination: faithful adherence to radition and authenticity were more important than the artist’s own imagination.

The artist prepared for painting an icon by saying certain prayers and by fasting. His brush  trokes reflect his lifestyle. For him, painting an icon was a spiritual adventure. He was not interested in the physical world. Rather, his aim was to create a representation of an invisible and spiritual world – a world in which the temporal world was a mere reflection and in which the laws of logic and perspective did not apply. The painter saw himself as a mediator between Heaven and earth: the painting was performed through his hand, but his own individuality was not important. This explains why the vast majority of icons are unsigned. Of course, the names of some icon painters have come down to us, but the history of an icon remains primarily the history of the image itself, not the history of the artist.

Early Christian era

The first Christians lived in the Roman Empire, a society that placed a high value on art. No icons survive from this early period, although they must have existed. Icons fit neatly into the Roman artistic tradition, and may be considered a continuation of it.

Statues of gods, emperors and philosophers were found everywhere in Roman cities, and people had images of ancestors, gods and philosophers in their homes. Though examples survive only in Pompeii, the walls of the villas of the wealthy classes were also covered in murals, probably based on Greek models.1

Roman art made use of a variety of motifs, including mythological stories, landscapes, plants, animals and scenes from daily life. In addition, portraits were painted on panels, showing gods, heroes and family members. About twenty of these pre-Christian icons have been found, most of them in houses and temples in Egypt. They date from the 2nd to the 4th centuries.

The first portraits found in sufficient numbers to enable us to form a clear impression of their style were discovered mainly in the fertile and prosperous Fayoum Delta in Egypt, about 60km south of Cairo. [1–3] The first two portraits were discovered in the early 17th century by Pietro della Valle, who, while on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, ended up in Egypt. Later, in 1888, the British archaeologist, W.M. Flinders Petrie, found more portraits in Hawara. They were the first to be scientifically investigated. So far, about 1,000 of these extraordinarily beautiful portraits have been found. They are painted on thin wooden panels and are often in excellent condition. They show men and women, both young and old, as well as children. Some of the portraits are quite simple, while others are quite detailed.

1. A man, Hawara, c. 138–180, 38 · 21 cm, London, British Museum. 2. A woman, Fayoum, c. 180–211, 34 · 22 cm, Paris, Louvre. 3. Eirene, Fayoum, 37–50, 37·22 cm, Stuttgart, Württembergisches Landesmuseum

In the first three centuries of the Christian era, this part of Roman Egypt was inhabited by reeks, Egyptians, Romans, Syrians, Libyans, Nubians and Jews, all living together side by side. In this multicultural society, the culture and language was predominantly Greek, but people also had great respect for Egyptian religion and customs. One of these customs, from the period of the first pharaohs, was to place a death mask of the dead person on the sarcophagus. The Roman Egyptians imitated this tradition, mummifying the body and attaching a portrait of the deceased to the mummy.

A number of mummies which were found with the portraits still attached were examined by X-ray. This showed that there is often a discrepancy in age between the age of the deceased and the age of the person shown in the portrait. It has therefore been suggested that many of these portraits were painted during the life of the individual in question and hung in their home.

The Fayoum portraits and Christian icons clearly have a number of things in common. Besides the artistic technique and materials used, the most noticeable similarity is the expressive look in the eyes. It is possible that mummy portraits and icons existed alongside each other until the tradition of mummy portraits died out. Certainly, the icons dating from the 5th and 6th centuries that are preserved at the remote Monastery of St Catherine in the Sinai Desert, show remarkable similarities to the Fayoum portraits. [5, 40]

It must have been relatively easy for the early Christians to switch from worshipping painted portraits of gods, emperors and family members to worshipping icons showing divine persons such as Christ, the Mother of God, saints and martyrs. But it remains very difficult to imagine the religious life of the faithful in the early Christian period, as they tried to find a compromise between, on the one hand, their need for having a tangible element in their belief, and, on the other hand, the fact that idolatry was condemned in the Old Testament.

Eusebius (265–340), Bishop of Caesarea, wrote about the many portraits of Christ and of St Peter and St Paul that he had seen. He and other Church Fathers felt that icons were unnecessary and added nothing to the revelation through the word. Epiphanius (315–403), Metropolitan of Cyprus,  relates in his Epistola ad Joannem that he entered the church one evening and saw religious images on the curtain separating the sanctuary from the nave. He tore the curtain down and gave it to a guard to pass on to a poor person to use as a shroud.

But the question of whether icons were acceptable was surely not a matter for theologians alone. The faithful must also have had an opinion on how they wished to express their religion. But so far, only few icons have been found, and the earliest documents about them are not always reliable. What we do have, however, are certain symbolic representations, dating from the 3rd and 4th centuries, found in the catacombs where Christians met, as well as the oldest examples of Christian art: several murals on biblical themes found in a house dating from 232, in Dura Europos, in Syria.

The first literary reference to an icon appears in the apocryphal Acts of John, a text from the mid-2nd century from Asia Minor. Lycomedes, a pupil of John, had secretly had a portrait of the apostle painted, and placed it on an altar decorated with flowers in his room. When John saw the portrait, he asked, full of amazement, who Lycomedes was worshipping in this heathen manner. When he heard that it was he himself, he asked for a mirror, because he had never seen himself before. He disapproved of the custom, saying, ‘The portrait is like me; and yet not like me, but like my fleshly image.’

4th to 7th centuries

Following the Edict of Milan in 313, Roman citizens enjoyed freedom of religion, and a climate developed that was favourable to the development of Christian art. In 330, the Emperor Constantine [4] moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium. This city was initially renamed Nova Roma (‘New Rome’), but very quickly became known as Constantinople (‘Constantine’s City’). The foundation of Constantinople (modern Istanbul) led in 395 to the Empire being split permanently between an Eastern, Greek part and a Western, Roman part.

Fleeing earlier persecution, a number of Christians had settled as hermits along the banks of the Nile. These settlements later gave rise to monastic communities, which were to play an important part in the debate about the legitimacy of icons. This monastic tradition also spread to the city of Constantinople, which, by the end of the 6th century, was home to seventy monasteries.

Under Emperor Justinian, who reigned from 527 to 565, the Byzantine Empire prospered and art flourished. In many cities throughout the Empire, Justinian ordered the building of magnificent churches, with very fine mosaics. Most of these mosaics were later destroyed, but something of the richness and quality of the art of that period can be seen in the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna, which remained intact.

Only some twenty icons from this early period have survived, making them the oldest icons in existence. A few, dating from the 5th and 6th centuries, are preserved in St Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Desert. The most famous of these is an icon of Christ dating from the 6th century, which shows a strong resemblance to the Fayoum portraits. [5]

The Iconoclasm

The Church continued to view this rapidly spreading cult of images with suspicion. Emperor Leo III (717–741) supported the Church in limiting this unbounded worship of icons. Partly for political motives, he ordered that an icon of Christ, which hung over the main gate of the imperial palace and was the object of popular veneration, should be removed and destroyed. All icons from churches and houses were collected and burnt and replaced by crosses and other symbols and ornaments. This conflict became known as the Iconoclasm.

The opponents of the worship of images, known as the iconoclasts, pointed to the second of the Ten Commandments: ‘Thou shalt not make graven images’. The proponents, known as the iconodules, rejected this, saying that the commandment applied only to idols. They claimed that Christ himself made the first icon: ‘the icon not made by human hand’. [6]

4. Constantine and Helena with the Cross and St Agatha, 1st half 16th century, Russia (Novgorod), 116 · 89 cm, Ikonen-Museum Recklinghausen

5. Christ Pantocrator, 1st half 6th century, 84 · 45.5 cm, St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai; detail p. 9

6. The Mandylion, Russia, 1678, Simon Oesjakov, 53 · 42 cm, Tretjakov Galery, Moscow

7. Mother of God with Three Hands, Russia, 19th century, 30.5 · 27 cm, silver gilt oklad, private collection (Belgium)

There are various legends about this, the most popular being the story of King Abgar of Edessa. He was suffering from an incurable illness and sent an envoy with a letter to Jesus asking him to heal him. In the presence of the envoy, Christ washed his face, dried it on a cloth and gave the cloth to the envoy to take back to the king. The features of Christ’s face were clearly visible in the cloth, and when Abgar touched it, he was healed.

The iconoclastic conflict, which started in 726, flared up twice and was not finally resolved until 843. Those who supported the use of icons eventually won. This was in part due to the highly influential doctrine of the theologian John of Damascus (673–753). His basic argument was that every icon stands for an original, of which it is merely an impression. Those who worship the icon are not worshipping the icon as such but the original underlying it. Christ himself, in his earthly appearance, was the first icon of the invisible God. At the Second Council of Nicaea in 787, this standpoint was confirmed as the official teaching of the Orthodox Church. The final victory of the iconodules over the iconoclasts in 843 is still celebrated annually in the Eastern Orthodox Church as the Feast of the Orthodoxy.

One type of icon that arose during the Iconoclasm is the Mother of God with Three Hands. The hand of John of Damascus was said to have been hacked off when he tried to defend an icon from angry iconoclasts. John prayed ardently to the Mother of God, and his hand grew back again. Out of gratitude, he gave the Mother of God an extra hand. [7]

The crisis of the Iconoclasm was followed by a new period of great political, cultural and artistic flowering in Byzantine history. During this time, the Slavic peoples were also converted to Christianity.

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It is known that among the Ancient Greeks, painters were more numerous than sculptors. In his Naturalis Historia, Pliny the Elder (23–79 ad) describes Greek painting at length, including realistic portraits. But none of these works have survived. Vase paintings are the only form of pictorial art we have from that period. It is believed that the Greeks painted pictures on small marble panels, and that these were also exported to adorn the houses of rich Romans.

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