The very first Christian Icons were memorial portraits from the Catacombs immediately following the Resurrection and continuing for three hundred years. They were created to keep alive the memory of the early Christian martyrs. Until Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in 313, Christians had to hide their faith or risk death or persecution.
For the early Christians, it was the memorial image that made the unseen world of their faith live in reality. The martyrs became invisible, but constant companions through portraiture and symbolism in the early icons.
The Byzantine system of sacred portraiture and narrative derives, in part, from the stylistic influences of the Egyptian Fayum period. A certain standardization of facial features in sixth century icons of Byzantine Saints developed that bears a striking resemblance to the Fayum portraits of the first and second centuries.
Some of the earliest surviving icons of Mary and the saints are from wall paintings and mosaics after the sixth century. The most common subjects of early memorial portraits were Christ, Mary, saints and angels.
After the period of iconoclasm, Byzantine portraits of saints began to place more emphasis on the functions and status of the saints depicted in addition to attempting a physical likeness. First, these distinctions were made, for the lesser saints, with words and inscriptions. Later, visual images symbolically represented status and function, but naming of the icon was still an important element visually. It allowed the viewer to “read” the icon and know exactly who the icon was honoring.
Early Christian legend has Saint Luke as the first Icon painter, as he was commissioned to paint a portrait of Mary and the Christ Child. This Icon of the Mother of God is called the Hodegetria.
A fourth century legend speaks of King Agbar who, in need of healing, had sent his messenger to Christ asking for an audience. When Jesus was unable to go, He put His face to the cloth and Christ’s image was miraculously transferred to the cloth. The messenger brought this image to the King who was instantly healed. This legend is attributed to the Mandylion Icon.
Acheiropoieta refers to the holy image that appeared miraculously, as in the case of the Mandylion and also to the Icon of Veronica’s veil. This type of icon is thought of as a true image, not made by human hands.
From the sixth century onwards, Icons began to be venerated in the church and some were believed to be miracle working images, validating and inspiring the faith of the early Christians.
During the Comnenian period, 1081-1185, icons proliferated as murals and mosaics as well as panel paintings for the Iconostasis. Similarly, the Paleologan period, c.1261 saw the flowering of many iconographic mosaics and murals commemorating the saints and the Gospel narrative.
Russian Byzantine Icons
Typically painted on wood, Russian Byzantine Icon portraits tend to emphasize the mystical connection between the saint and God. This is achieved through a softer, more diffused portrait with less sharp or hard edges than other styles. Two of Russia’s most famous iconographers, Andrei Rublev and Dionysius, not only continued the previous Byzantine Iconographic tradition, but they also were able to creatively add subtleties and nuances to it that appealed greatly to the people of their time.
In the words of Egon Sendler, ” Icons are images of the Invisible”. They are memorial portraits that capture visually for us the memories of the saints who went before us. They hint at their accomplishments, the intensity of the saints’ connection to God and His Gospel through symbols, words and pictures.
Making the invisible world of our faith visible has never been more important. Our world and culture are crying out for vision, a perspective, that will help to make sense of the chaos. May God inspire each of us, in the individual way He has for each of us, to reach out and make His world visible and accessible to our loved ones, our neighbors and our world.
During this Covid isolation period, I am offering my icon painting classes online. Click here if you’d like to see a schedule.
May God continue to bless you and keep you, and bless the work of your hands.
Please contact me if you’d like to write an article for the American Association of Iconographers. We would like to hear about your Icon painting practice and the effect icons have on your community.