Sunday, June 23, 2019


Veneration and Production of Icons

In historical terms an icon (from the Greek εἰκών eikōn “image," "resemblance") is a Christian religious work of art, generally portable and rectangular in format.  Although painting on wooden panels is the most common medium, icons were also fashioned from metal, ivory, mosaic, ceramic, or other materials.  They may be kept for personal devotion, but most prominently the icons are displayed in churches in the iconostasis or screen separating the sanctuary from the congregational space.

Typical subjects are major figures in the Christian tradition, such as Christ, Mary, St. John the Baptists, the Apostles and other saints.  Icons may also depict events.  They are particularly associated with the Orthodox church, and so may be found in Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Russia, Georgia, and other countries where this tradition has prevailed.  Sometimes miraculous powers are attributed to such images, but such views are generally discouraged by church authorities.

Over the years a number of legends have circulated regarding the origin of icons.  Ostensibly, the first specimen was the work of the evangelist St. Luke, who took the opportunity to paint the Virgin Mary from life, showing the child Jesus as well. This purported event has been depicted by later artists such as Rogier van der Weyden and Nicklaus Manuel.  Then there is the story of the mandylion, King Abgar of Edessa in northern Syria was reputed to have sent a letter to Jesus about an illness, receiving a helpful reply.  In another version he received an image of Jesus magically rendered on a sheet of cloth.  This is the origin of the legend of St. Veronica, who is supposed to have captured the image of the Savior on a veil, as he was passing by on the way to Golgotha.  Of later origin is the story of Shroud of Turin, ostensibly a full-body image of Jesus. These primordial phenomena are not consistent with the common view among art historians that visual art began among Christians about 220 C.E.  For this reason there can be no portraits of Jesus, Mary, and the Apostles that were taken from life.

Then there are the Acheiropoieta, also known as Icons Made Without Hands, which are Christian icons said to have come into existence miraculously; ostensibly they were not created by a human artist.  As a rule these objects depict Christ or the Virgin Mary.

The art-historical precursors of icons were the panel paintings that were generally well regarded among the Romans.  Because of their perishability these have generally not survived.  A major exception was the Fayum portraits of Roman Egypt, wisome 900 of them surviving, preserved by the dry climate of the country.  They were originally attached to upper-class mummies.  The remarkable realism of the Fayum works often relied on the technique of encaustic, involving the suspension of pigments in a wax medium.  Along with the rectangular format, encaustic was passed along to Christian icons.

There are major losses here as well, owing in this instance to the ravages of iconoclasm beginning about 730 C.E.  The earliest notable specimens are dated as late the sixth century, or possibly somewhat later.  The largest repository of such icons is the collection of St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai.  Two remarkable early examples are the image of the Enthroned Virgin and Child flanked by saints and accompanied by angels; and a striking bust image of the Savior which ranks as the first surviving version of Christ Pantocrator.  

After the conclusion of the iconoclastic controversy in 842, production of icons resumed vigorously in the Byzantine lands. While a premium was placed on copying earlier works, the new work showed attention to new trends of style characteristic of the mid-Byzantine period.  The iconographic repertoire also expanded considerably, embracing narrative subjects such as the Annunciation, the Crucifixion, the Transfiguration, and the Ladder of Heavenly Ascent.

Gradually, the production of icons spread to other Orthodox countries, initially in the south Slavic sphere, where examples survive from Serbia and Bulgaria.  Yet the most notable achievements in icons outside the Byzantine empire occurred in Russia, where icons were imported from Byzantium shortly after the conversion of the Kievan Rus in 988. In due course several schools of native painters emerged, and icons assumed an important role in the country’s life, lasting down to 1917.  Andrei Rublev, creator of the ethereally beautiful masterpiece known as the Old Testament Trinity, was the most outstanding artist. Born in the 1360s, Rublev died between1427 and 1430.

Although Italy lay outside the Orthodox sphere, icons became popular there, with some emulation by native artists such as Guido da Siena and Coppo di Marcovaldo.  In Tuscany these works formed the background against which the first precursors of the Renaissance, with Giotto in the lead, reacted.

In Greece the Ottoman conquest had a stifling effect on the production of Christian icons, though not everywhere.  Under Venetian rule, a notable school arose in the island of Crete, combining some Western elements with the traditional stock. The most important artist to arise from this school was Domenikos Theotokopoulos, generally known as El Greco (1541-1614).  Yet after his move first to Italy and then to Spain he gradually shifted his style to a Western orientation.

A concluding question must be posed.  In their heyday, were Christian icons actually works of art?  Hans Belting has challenged this assumption in his 1994 book Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art.  Before the Renaissance, holy images, so Belting asserts, ranked not as "art" but as objects of veneration. The faithful were confident that these images, evoking through their likeness the person or event depicted, provided a tangible presence of the Holy. In this way the objects were deemed capable of working miracles, delivering assurance, and offering security to threatened cities. Yet this quasi-magical aura did not last, for the Renaissance and Reformation fostered a wholly new attitude toward images, centering on the primacy of aesthetic quality.  This transformation ushered in the "era of art" that still prevails.

See Also: Iconoclasm.

Further Reading:
Hans Belting, Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art,  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
Robin Cormack, Icons, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2017.
Robert S. Nelson and Kristen M. Collins, eds., Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai, Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2006.
Gerolʹd Ivanovich Vzdornov and Nancy McDarby, eds.,The Russian Icon: From Its Origins to the Sixteenth Century, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1997.  
Bissera V. Pintcheva, Icons and Power, University Park, PA. Penn State University Press, 2014.
Kurt Weitzmann, The Icon, New York: George Braziller, 1978.


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