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The Savior (1410s, by Andrei Rublev)
The Savior (1410s, by Andrei Rublev)
For other uses, see Icon (disambiguation).

An icon (from Greek εἰκών, eikon, "image") is an image, picture, or representation; it is a sign or likeness that stands for an object by signifying or representing it, or by analogy, as in semiotics; in computers an icon is a symbol on the monitor used to signify a command; by extension, icon is also used, particularly in modern popular culture, in the general sense of symbol — i.e. a name, face, picture or even a person readily recognized as having some well-known significance or embodying certain qualities.

In Eastern Orthodoxy and other icon painting Christian traditions, the icon is generally a flat panel painting depicting a holy being or object such as Jesus, Mary, saints, angels, or the cross. Icons may also be cast in metal, carved in stone, embroidered on cloth, done in mosaic work, printed on paper or metal, etc.


Images in Religion

Throughout history religion has often made use of images, whether in two dimensions or three. Some, such as Hinduism, have a very rich iconography called murti, while others, such as Islam, severely limit the use of visual representations. The function and degree to which images are used or permitted, and whether they are for purposes of ornament, instruction, inspiration, or treated as sacred objects of veneration or worship, thus depends upon the tenets of a given religion.

Icons in Christianity

Christianity originated as a movement within Judaism during a time when there was great concern about idolatry.

There is no evidence of the making and use of painted icons or of similar religious images by Christians within the New Testament writings. Says Eastern Orthodox theologian Steven Bigham, "[in the New Testament] there is a total silence about Christian and non-idolatrous images" (Orthodox Research Institute, Rollinsford, 2004). Though the word eikon is found in the New Testament (see below), it is never in the context of painted icons.

The first stage of the history of Christian art is aniconic; there are no recognizably Christian images before the 3rd Century, other than simple symbols such as the cross and ichthus. Then comes what may be termed the Symbolic Period, represented by the first recognizably Christian art--the wall paintings of the house church at Dura Europos (no later than 256 c.e.), the art of the catacombs and of early Christian sarcophagi. In this Symbolic Period, Christians depicted what Finney calls "salvation paradigms"--deliverance, redemption, salvation--through borrowed or modified "pagan" and biblical motifs (see Finney, Paul Corby, The Invisible God, Oxford University press, 1995; also Prigent, Pierre, L'art des premiers chrétiens, Desclée de Brouwer, Paris 1995; Jensen, Robin Margaret, Face to Face , Fortress, Minneapolis 2005; et al.)

We first encounter mention of Christian images treated like icons in a pagan or Gnostic context. Alexander Severus (A.D. 222–235) kept a domestic chapel for the veneration of images of deified emperors, of portraits of his ancestors, and of Christ, Apollonius, Orpheus and Abraham (Lampridius, Life of Alexander Severus xxix.). Irenaeus, in his Against Heresies 1:25;6, says of the Gnostic Carpocratians, “They also possess images, some of them painted, and others formed from different kinds of material; while they maintain that a likeness of Christ was made by Pilate at that time when Jesus lived among them. They crown these images, and set them up along with the images of the philosophers of the world that is to say, with the images of Pythagoras, and Plato, and Aristotle, and the rest. They have also other modes of honouring these images, after the same manner of the Gentiles [pagans].”

A criticism of image veneration is found in the apocryphal Acts of John (generally considered a gnostic work), in which the Apostle John discovers that one of his followers has had a portrait made of him, and is venerating it: (27) “...he [John] went into the bedchamber, and saw the portrait of an old man crowned with garlands, and lamps and altars set before it. And he called him and said: Lycomedes, what do you mean by this matter of the portrait? Can it be one of thy gods that is painted here? For I see that you are still living in heathen fashion.” Later in the passage John says, "But this that you have now done is childish and imperfect: you have drawn a dead likeness of the dead." This last remark is in keeping with the notion generally held by early Christian apologists that paints can only depict matter and not spirit.

In addition to the legend that Pilate had made an image of Christ, the 4th Century bishop Eusebius, in his Church History, provides a seed that grew into another legend of the “first” icon of Jesus. He relates that King Abgar of Edessa sent a letter to Jesus at Jerusalem, asking Jesus to come and heal him of an illness. In this version there is no image. Then, in the later account found in the Syriac Doctrine of Addai, a painted image of Jesus is introduced to the story; and even later, in the account given by Evagrius, the painted image is transformed into an image that miraculously appeared on a towel when Christ pressed the cloth to his wet face (Veronica and her Cloth, Kuryluk, Ewa, Basil Blackwell, Cambridge, 1991). Further legends relate that the cloth remained in Edessa until the 10th century, when it was taken to Constantinople. In 1204 it was lost when Constantinople was sacked by Crusaders.

Elsewhere in his Church History, Eusebius reports seeing what he took to be portraits of Jesus, Peter and Paul, and also mentions a bronze statue at Banias / Paneas, of which he wrote, "They say that this statue is an image of Jesus" (H.E. 7:18); further, he relates that locals thought the image to be a memorial of the healing of the woman with an issue of blood by Jesus (Luke 8:43-48), because it depicted a standing man wearing a double cloak and with arm outstretched, and a woman kneeling before him with arms reaching out as if in supplication. Scholars today think it more likely to have been a misidentified pagan statue whose true identity had been forgotten; some have thought it to be Aesculapius, the God of healing, but the description of the standing figure and the woman kneeling in supplication is precisely that found on coins depicting the bearded emperor Hadrian reaching out to a female figure symbolizing a province kneeling before him (see John Francis Wilson's Caesarea Philippi: Banias, the Lost City of Pan; I.B Taurus, London, 2004). It is noteworthy that in the later icon tradition, three-dimensional statues were forbidden in Eastern Orthodoxy, in keeping with the canons of the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 781.

When Christianity was legalized by the emperor Constantine within the Roman Empire in the early 4th Century, huge numbers of pagans became converts. This created the opportunity for the transfer of allegiance and practice from the old gods and heroes to the new religion, and for the gradual adaptation of the old system of image making and veneration to a Christian context. "By the early fifth century, we know of the ownership of private icons of saints; by c. 480-500, we can be sure that the inside of a saint's shrine would be adorned with images and votive portraits, a practice which had probably begun earlier" (Pagans and Christians, Robin Lane Fox, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1989). Consequently it is in popular practice that we see the first evidences of Christian image veneration, and only much later that we find first, a general ecclesiastical acceptance of such images, and second, the even later creation of a detailed theological justification for the making and veneration of images occasioned by the Iconoclast controversy of the 8th century.

Images from Constantine to Justinian

Constantine to Justinian (337-430)

After the legalization of Christianity under Constantine, and its adoption as the Roman state religion under Theodosius I, Christian art began to change remarkably not only in quality and sophistication, but also in nature. Paintings of martyrs and their feats began to appear, and early writers commented on their lifelike effect, one of the elements Christian writers most criticized in pagan art — the ability to imitate life. Nilus of Sinai, in his Letter to Heliodorus Silentiarius, records a miracle in which St. Plato of Ankyra appeared to a Christian in a dream. The Saint was recognized because the young man had often seen his portrait. This recognition of a religious figure from likeness to an image was also a characteristic of pagan pious accounts of appearances of gods to humans.

It is also in this period that the first mention of an image of Mary painted from life appears. Theodorus Lector, in the History of the Church 1:1 (excerpted by Nicephorus Callistus Xanthopoulos) stated that Eudokia (wife of Theodosius II , died 460) sent an image of “the Mother of God” from Jerusalem to Pulcheria, daughter of the Emperor Arcadius (this is by some considered a later interpolation). The image was specified to have been “painted by the Apostle Luke.” In later tradition the number of icons of Mary attributed to Luke would greatly multiply.

The first depictions of Jesus were generic rather than portrait images, generally representing him as a beardless young man. It was some time before the earliest examples of the long-haired, bearded face that was later to become standardized as the image of Jesus appeared. And when they began to appear there was still variation. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) said that no one knew the appearance of Jesus or that of Mary (De Trinitatis 8:4-5). Gradually, however, paintings of Jesus took on characteristics of portrait images.

At this time the manner of depicting Jesus was not yet uniform, and there was some controversy over which of the two most common forms was to be favored. The first or “Semitic” form showed Jesus with short and “frizzy” hair; the second showed a bearded Jesus with hair parted in the middle, the manner in which the god Zeus was depicted. Theodorus Lector remarked (Church History 1:15) that of the two, the one with short and frizzy hair was “more authentic.” He also relates a story (excerpted by John of Damascus) that a pagan commissioned to paint an image of Jesus used the “Zeus” form instead of the “Semitic” form, and that as punishment his hands withered. However the "Zeus" form eventually prevailed.

Though their development was gradual, we can date the full-blown appearance and general ecclesiastical (as opposed to simply popular or local) acceptance of Christian images as venerated and miracle-working objects to the 6th century, when, as Hans Belting writes, "We first hear of the church's use of religious images...(Likeness and Presence, University of Chicago Press,1994). "...As we reach the second half of the sixth century, we find that images are attracting direct veneration and some of them are credited with the performance of miracles" (Patricia Karlin-Hayter, The Oxford History of Byzantium, Oxford, 2002). "Beginning in the sixth century, emperors tolerated the reproduction of icons, and they used them for their personal acts of devotion" (Alain Besancon, The Forbidden Image,University of Chicago Press, 2000). "In the post-Justinianic period the icon assumes an ever increasing role in popular devotion, and there is a proliferation of miracle stories connected with icons, some of them rather shocking to our eyes" (Cyril Mango, The Art of the Byzantine Empire 312-1453, University of Toronto Press, 1986).

The Iconoclast Period

Main article: Iconoclasm

There was a continuing opposition to misuse of images within Christianity from very early times. "Whenever images threatened to gain undue influence within the church, theologians have sought to strip them of their power" (Belting, Hans; Likeness and Presence, Chicago and London, 1994). Further,"there is no century between the fourth and the eighth in which there is not some evidence of opposition to images even within the Church (Kitzinger, Ernst; The Cult of Images in the Age before Iconoclasm, Dumbarton Oaks, 1954; repeated by Pelikan, Jaroslav; The Spirit of Eastern Christendom 600-1700, University of Chicago Press, 1974). Nonetheless, popular favoritism for icons guaranteed their continued existence, while as yet no systematic apologia for or against icons, or doctrinal authorization or condemnation of icons existed.

The use of icons was seriously challenged by Byzantine Imperial authority in the 8th century. Though by this time opposition to images was strongly entrenched in Judaism and in the rising religion of Islam, attribution of the impetus toward an iconoclastic movement in Eastern Orthodoxy to Muslims or Jews "seems to have been highly exaggerated, both by contemporaries and by modern scholars" (see Pelikan, The Spirit of Eastern Christendom).

Though significant in the history of religious doctrine, the Byzantine controversy over images is not seen as of primary importance in Byzantine history. "Few historians still hold it to have been the greatest issue of the period..." (Patricia Karlin-Hayter, Oxford History of Byzantium, Oxford University Press, 2002).

The Iconoclastic Period began when images were banned by Emperor Leo III sometime between 726 and 730. Under his son Constantine V, an ecumenical council forbidding image veneration was held at Hieria near Constantinople in 754. Image veneration was later reinstated by the Empress Regent Irene, under whom another ecumenical council was held reversing the decisions of the previous iconoclast council and taking its title as Seventh Ecumenical Council. The council declared all who refuse to venerate icons anathema (cursed). Then the ban was enforced again by Leo V in 815. And finally icon veneration was decisively restored by Empress Regent Theodora.

The "Theotokos of Vladimir" icon (12th century)
The "Theotokos of Vladimir" icon (12th century)

Icons in Greek-speaking regions

Icons are used particularly among Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Coptic and Eastern-rite Catholic populations.

The icon painting tradition developed in Byzantium, with Constantinople as the chief city. Few icons from early Constantinople have survived, first because of the Iconoclastic reforms during which many were destroyed, second because of plundering by Venetians in 1204 during the Crusades, and finally the taking of the city by the Islamic Turks in 1453. Still, both some panel paintings and mosaics, etc. still exist. Early icons such as those preserved at the Monastery of St. Catherine at Sinai are realistic in appearance, in contrast to the later stylization. They are very similar to the mummy portraits done in encaustic wax and found at Faiyum in Egypt.

In the Comnenian Period (1081-1185), religious sculpture was abandoned in favor of panel painting. The style of the time was severe, hieratic and distant. In the late Comnenian period this severity softened, and emotion, formerly avoided, entered icon painting. This was particularly evident in outlying regions influenced by Byzantine culture, now in Macedonia and the former Yugoslavia.

The tendency toward emotionalism in icons continued in the Paleologan Period, which began in 1261. Paleologan art reached its pinnacle in paintings such as those of the of the Kariye Camii (former Chora Monastery). In the last half of the 1300s, Paleologan saints were painted in an exaggerated manner, very slim and in contorted positions.

After the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, the Byzantine tradition was carried on in regions previously influenced by its religion and culture--the Balkans and Russia, Georgia, and in the Greek-speaking realm, on Crete.

Crete, at that time, was under Venetian control and became a thriving center of art of the Scuola di San Luca, the "School of St. Luke," an organized guild of painters. Cretan painting was heavily patronized both by Catholics of Venetian territories and by Eastern Orthodox. For ease of transport, Cretan iconographers specialized in panel paintings, and developed the ability to work in many styles to fit the taste of various patrons. In 1669 the city of Heraklion, on Crete, which at one time boasted at least 120 painters, finally fell to the Turks, and from that time Greek icon painting went into a decline, with a revival attempted in the 20th century by art reformers such as Photios Kontoglou, who emphasized a return to earlier styles.

Icons in Russia

Main article: Russian icons

Russian icons are typically paintings on wood, often small, though some in churches and monasteries may be as large as a table top. Many religious homes in Russia have icons hanging on the wall in the krasny ugol, the "red" or "beautiful" corner. There is a rich history and elaborate religious symbolism associated with icons. In Russian churches, the nave is typically separated from the sanctuary by an iconostasis (Russian ikonostás) a wall of icons.

The use and making of icons entered Kievan Rus' (which later expanded to become the Russian Empire) following its conversion to Orthodox Christianity in 988 A.D. As a general rule, these icons strictly followed models and formulas hallowed by usage, some of which had originated in Constantinople. As time passed, the Russians widened the vocabulary of types and styles far beyond anything found elsewhere. The personal, improvisatory and creative traditions of Western European religious art are largely lacking in Russia before the 17th century, when Russian icon painting became strongly influenced by religious paintings and engravings from both Protestant and Catholic Europe. In the mid-1600s changes in liturgy and practice instituted by Patriarch Nikon resulted in a split in the Russian Orthodox Church. The traditionalists, the persecuted "Old Ritualists" or Old Believers," continued the traditional stylization of icons, while the State Church modified its practice. From that time icons began to be painted not only in the traditional stylized and nonrealistic mode, but also in a mixture of Russian stylization and Western European realism, and in a Western European manner very much like that of Catholic religious art of the time.

Icon Traditions in Other Regions

In Romania, icons painted as reversed images on glass and set in frames were common in the 19th century and are still made. "In the Transylvanian countryside, the expensive icons on panels imported from Moldavia, Wallachia, and Mt. Athos were gradually replaced by small, locally produced icons on glass, which were much less expensive and thus accessible to the Transylvanian peasants..." (Romanian Icons on Glass, Dancu, Juliana and Dumitru Dancu, Wayne State University Press, 1982).

The Egyptian Coptic Church and the Ethiopian Church also have distinctive, living icon painting traditions.

The Protestant Reformation

The abundant use and veneration historically accorded images in the Roman Catholic Church was a point of contention for Protestant reformers, who varied in their attitudes toward images but were unanimous in rejection of their veneration. In the consequent religious struggles many statues were removed from churches, and there was also destruction of images in some cases.

Lutherans tended to be moderate, finding doctrinally-acceptable images unobjectionable if what was seen as the abuse of veneration were avoided; followers of Zwingli and Calvin were more severe in their rejection.

Icons and Images in Contemporary Christianity

Today attitudes can vary even from church to church within a given denomination, whether Catholic or Protestant. Protestants generally use religious art for teaching and for inspiration, but such images are not venerated as in Orthodoxy, and many Protestant church sanctuaries contain no imagery at all.

After the Second Vatican Council declared in the 1960s that the use of statues and pictures in churches should be moderate, most statuary was removed from many Catholic Churches. Eastern Orthodoxy, however, continues to give such strong importance to the use and veneration of icons that they are often seen as the chief symbol of Orthodoxy. Catholicism has a long tradition of valuing the arts and patronized a significant number of famous artists. Present-day imagery within Roman Catholicism varies in style from traditional to modern, and is often affected by trends in the art world in general.

The Feodorov icon  (copy: 1703), following the same Byzantine "Tender Mercy" type
The Feodorov icon (copy: 1703), following the same Byzantine "Tender Mercy" type

Icons are often illuminated with a candle or jar of oil with a wick. (Beeswax for candles and olive oil for oil lamps are preferred because they burn very cleanly, although other materials are sometimes used.) The illumination of religious images with lamps or candles is an ancient practice pre-dating Christianity.

Historically and even today among conservative Eastern Orthodox there are reports of miraculous icons that exude a fragrant, healing oil. When these reports are verified by Orthodox clergy, they are still explained as miracles performed by God through the prayers of the saint, rather than being magical properties of the painted wood itself.

Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic teaching about Icons

Icons are used particularly in Eastern Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Eastern-rite Catholic churches.

The Eastern Orthodox view of the origin of icons is quite different from that of mainstream scholarship and even from the contemporary Roman Catholic view: "The Orthodox Church maintains and teaches that the sacred image has existed from the beginning of Christianity" (Leonid Ouspensky, Theology of the Icon, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1978). Accounts that non-Orthodox writers consider legends are, within Eastern Orthodoxy, accepted as history, because they are a part of Church Tradition. Thus accounts such as that of the miraculous "Image Not Made by Hands," and the weeping and moving "Mother of God of the Sign" of Novgorod are accepted as fact: "Church Tradition tells us, for example, of the existence of an Icon of the Savior during His lifetime (the "Icon-Made-Without-Hands") and of Icons of the Most-Holy Theotokos [Mary] immediately after Him." (These Truths we Hold, St. Tikhon's Seminary Press, 1986). Eastern Orthodox further believe that "a clear understanding of the importance of Icons" was part of the church from its very beginning, and has never changed, although explanations of their importance may have developed over time.

Eastern Orthodox find the first instance of an image or icon in the Bible when God made man in His own image (Septuagint Greek eikona), recorded in Genesis 1:26-27. In Exodus, God commanded that the Israelites not make any graven image; but soon afterwards, he commanded that they make graven images of cherubim and other like things, both as statues and woven on tapestries. Later, Solomon included still more such imagery when he built the first temple. Eastern Orthodox believe these qualify as icons, in that they were visible images depicting heavenly beings and, in the case of the cherubim, used to indirectly indicate God's presence above the Ark.

In Numbers it is written that God told Moses to make a bronze serpent and hold it up, so that anyone looking at the snake would be healed of their snakebites. In John 3, Jesus refers to the same serpent, saying that he must be lifted up in the same way that the serpent was. John of Damascus also regarded the brazen serpent as an icon. Further, Jesus Christ himself is called the "image of the invisible God" in Colossians 1:15, and is therefore in one sense an icon. As people are also made in God's images, people are also considered to be living icons, and are therefore "censed" along with painted icons during Orthodox prayer services.

Orthodoxy believes that those who refuse to venerate icons also "refuse to worship God's Son." According to John of Damascus, anyone who tries to destroy icons "is the enemy of Christ, the Holy Mother of God and the saints, and is the defender of the Devil and his demons." This is because the theology behind icons is closely tied to the Church's teaching about the humanity and divinity of Jesus, so that attacks on icons typically have the effect of undermining or attacking the Church's teaching about Jesus himself.

The Eastern Orthodox teaching regarding veneration of icons is that the praise and veneration shown to the icon passes over to the archetype (Basil of Caesarea,On the Holy Spirit 18:45: "The honor paid to the image passes to the prototype"). Thus to kiss an icon of Christ, in the Eastern Orthodox view, is to show love towards Christ Jesus himself, not mere wood and paint making up the physical substance of the icon. Worship of the icon as somehow entirely separate from its prototype is expressly forbidden by the Seventh Ecumenical Council; standard teaching in the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches alike conforms to this principle. The Catholic Church accepts the use of religious images, but it did not entirely agree with the Eastern Orthodox viewpoint that led to icons being almost a symbol of the Orthodox Church today.

The Latin Church of the West, which after 1054 was to become separate as the Roman Catholic Church, accepted the decrees of the iconodule Seventh Ecumenical Council regarding images. There is some minor difference, however, in the Catholic attitude to images from that of the Orthodox. Following Gregory the Great, Catholics emphasize the role of images as the Biblia Pauperum, the “Bible of the Poor,” from which those who could not read could nonetheless learn. This view of images as educational is shared by most Protestants.

Catholics also, however, accept in principle the Eastern Orthodox veneration of images, believing that whenever approached, images of the cross, saints, etc. are to be reverenced. Though using both flat wooden panel and stretched canvas paintings, Catholics traditionally have also favored images in the form of three-dimensional statuary; just the opposite is true of Eastern Orthodoxy, which refuses to use statuary (which was forbidden by the Seventh Ecumenical Council) and prefers the flat panel icon.

Eikon in the Septuagint

The Greek word eikon means an image or likeness of any kind. Anything that represents something else is an eikon. Nothing is implied about sanctity or its absence, or veneration or its absence by the word itself.

The Septuagint is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures used by the early Christians, and Eastern Orthodox consider it the only authoritative text of those Scriptures. In it the word eikon is used for everything from man being made in the divine image to the "molten idol" placed by Manasses in the Temple. The word eikon is found in:

  1. Genesis 1:26-27;
  2. Genesis 5:1-3;
  3. Genesis 9:6;
  4. Deuteronomy 4:16
  5. 1 Samuel (1 Kings) 6:11 (Alexandrian manuscript);
  6. 2 Kings 11:18;
  7. 2 Chronicles 33:7;
  8. Psalm 38:7
  9. Psalm 72:20;
  10. Isaiah 40, 19-20;
  11. Ezekiel 7:20;
  12. Ezekiel 8:5 (Alexandrian manuscript);
  13. Ezekiel 16:17;

Ezekiel 23:14; Daniel 2:31,32,34,35; Daniel 3:1,2,3,5,7,11,12,14,15,18; Hosea 13:2

Be aware that Septuagint numberings and names and the English Bible numberings and names are not uniformly identical.

Eikon in the New Testament

In the New Testament the term is used for everything from Jesus as the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15) to the image of Caesar on a Roman coin (Matthew 22:20) to the image of the Beast in the Apocalypse (Revelation 14:19). Here is a complete listing:

  1. Matthew 22:20;
  2. Mark 12:16
  3. Luke 20:24
  4. Romans 1:23
  5. Romans 8:29;
  6. 1 Corinthians 11:7;
  7. 1 Corinthians 15:49
  8. 2 Corinthings 3:18;
  9. 2 Corinthians 4:4;
  10. Colossians 1:15;
  11. Colossians 3:10;
  12. Hebrews 10:1;
  13. Revelation 13:13;
  14. Revelation 13:15;
  15. Revelation 14:9;
  16. Revelation 14:11
  17. Revelation 15:2
  18. Revelation 16:2
  19. Revelation 19:20;
  20. Revelation 20:4.

Icons in Hinduism

In Hinduism, the icon is called murti.

See also

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External links; various points of view

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