Origin of Icons

The early Christians wished to decorate their catacombs with paintings, and these became our earliest form of Christian Iconography.  They used symbolism, often taken from paganism, and Roman and Greek motifs- but the symbolism was given new meanings: Christian meanings.

Catacombs were underground passageways used for burial chambers during the Roman Empire.  All Roman catacombs were located outside city walls since it was illegal to bury a dead body within the city, providing “a place…where the tombs of the martyrs could be openly marked, ” and commemorative services and feasts held safely on sacred days.

Coptic Icon of Christ and Saint Means, Sixth Century
Coptic Icon of Christ and Saint Menas, Sixth Century

Memorial Portraits

Citizens of Roman Egypt memorialized their dead by  using wax and pigments to paint on wood panels portraits of their dead. These were placed  on mummies at the time of burial. The style of the painting was Greco-Roman but they reflected Egyptian religious beliefs. For the first six centuries, Icon painting followed that tradition.

Fayum Portrait, Egypt

The style of painting that they copied was similar to popular painting of the late Roman empire.  Often Christian artists of the time used animals such as the fish, the lamb, the drinking stag, the peacock and the dove to convey Christian meanings.

Old Testament and the Gospel as Inspiration for Icons

The Old Testament appeared infrequently in the catacombs, but gradually with the spread of Holy Texts and the understanding that the Old Testament stories prefigured the Gospel, those Biblical themes began to inspire icon painters.  Motifs  such as the salvation of the soul, or Divine Mercy were depicted in scenes like Daniel in the lion’s den, the life of Moses, Jonah and the Whale, the sacrifice of Isaac, Noah’s ark, among others.

Moses Being Found by the River, Fresco
Daniel in The Lion’s Den Icon C. Hales

By the second century, knowledge of the Gospels was becoming more widespread, so images from the life of Christ began to emerge.  Favorite images were the adoration of the Magi, the Baptism of Jesus, the Resurrection of Lazarus and the healing of the paralytic. The simple image of the Madonna and Child was seen as early as the 2nd Century.

6th Century Icon from Mt. Sinai, Egypt

Third century saw the Roman Empire under attack from the East, but it survived and moved its capital to Constantinople (modern Istanbul) in 330 AD.  One Constantine legalized Christianity in 313, and made it the official imperial religion, Icons and religious imagery proliferated.

Tapestry 6th Century

THE BYZANTINE EMPIRE

The Byzantine Empire, also referred to as the Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantium, was the continuation of the Roman Empire in its eastern provinces during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Its capital city was Constantinople. The Byzantine era flourished until it fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1453.

Although the Roman state continued and its traditions were maintained, modern historians distinguish Byzantium from  ancient Rome insofar as it was centered on Constantinople and open to Eastern influences. Byzantium was also oriented towards the Greek rather than Latin culture.

Saint Peter Encaustic Icon, 6th Century

It was during the Seventh Ecumenical Council, 787 AD, that the Church Fathers declared Icons to be called sacred objects and full of grace. According to St. John of Damascus, an icon is sanctified by the name of God, and by the name of the friends of God, that is, the saints, and that is why the icon receives the grace of the Divine Spirit.

This is an account of how Icons began in the early Centuries. The period following the sixth century saw turbulence and widespread destruction of Icons and that is why we have so few early Icons existing today.

I hope this article proves helpful and gives perspective that aids Iconographers today.

Until next month, be blessed , safe and healthy.

Christine Simoneau Hales

Icon Website Online Icon Classes

Canons of Iconography?

Greetings Fellow Iconographers:

Canons of Iconography?

Reflecting on the current interest in icon painting we are experiencing in this last thirty years, it is interesting to note the many and varied styles of icon writing that are emerging.  How are we able to discern what is a true Icon?  By what standards do we judge the authenticity of our own work?  In my early days of Icon study I often heard the words “The Canons of Iconography” referred to as our standard of comparison.  However, upon closer investigation, it became clear that these Canons were more mythical than reality.  There is no Bible of Icon writing. 

Traditions of the Past

So, how can we carry on the valuable traditions of icon writing from the past? In the same way that artists have always learned their craft- we need to copy from the masters.  In an articulate and well- researched article on just this subject, Romanian Iconographer Todor Mitrovic has written two articles for the Orthodox Arts Journal this month.

In the first article, published online, June 23, 2020, Todor Mitrovic writes about the high achievement of  Byzantine art as a very high expression of European culture for its time.  He speaks of the canons, or canonicity, of iconography as not sufficiently representing what great church art was in the middle ages or being able to serve the needs of iconographers today.  Understandably, the need to distinguish between what is Christian and what is not was a legitimate need in the early centuries of Christianity.

“Very early, disputes arose as to what was genuinely Christian.  Hence, the Church was constantly forced to set up norms, e.g., for doctrine, for life, for accepting books as Scripture, for worship. It thus felt the need for a word that would unmistakably denote what is valid and binding in the Church…”  T. Mitrovic

However, slavish adherence to an imaginary canon can only limit the authentic expression of God’s Holy Spirit in Icons today.

“…the image of the list of icon-painting rules, however imaginary it might have been, hangs over the heads of contemporary iconographers, and radically defines the entire artistic production of the Orthodox Church.” T. Mitrovic

Are There Rules and Where to Find Them?    Part II

In the second installment of Mr. Mitrovic’s article in the Orthodox Arts Journal, he speaks of how the canons of the seventh ecumenical council only proclaim the need for icons to be painted, but they do not attempt to  interfere with their artistic execution.

That seems that the Byzantine Church never attempted a legal codification of its artistic production, so why do we attempt to do so now?

Instructions for medieval icon painting were general canons which apply to  diverse forms of artistic creation.  “…in the most famous manual, compiled by Dionysius of Fourna, for example, where there is a recipe for mixing the colors for painting the face, and norms for the proportions of the human figure, the author subverts any concept of a rule, since he states that this is only one among many possibilities …we cannot find there any set of direct prescriptions on producing an icon that would be “canonical” in the narrow sense. Moreover, some clumsy attempts to codify any such prescriptions, especially with ever-advancing reproductive technology, has led to cold and sterile results in church art, which could hardly be compared with the genuine achievements of Byzantine art.”   Todor Mitrovic

Language vs Canon

Could  the traditional aspect of church art be designated not by the term canon, but by the term language? Mr. Mitrovic asks the question:what would happen if the normative aspect of church art were treated in a linguistic manner?”

Linguistic structures are extremely conservative and slow to change, not because of some ideology, but because their primary purpose is to communicate and understand.  Surely, good icon painting is about communicating and bringing the viewer into God’s presence through the visual image.  And there are many aspects of  creating icons that help to make this possible.  It’s just that there are different ways to use these creative elements- the application of paint for example, or line quality, or color density, and still be within the validity of icon painting language and form.

I suggest you read these articles in order to understand the nuances and implications for your own icon writing.  Mr. Mitrovic closes with;

“Although the terms canon and language have some semantic affinity, their use as paradigms, in the end, might have quite a different impact on the development of church art.”

In my lifetime, there has never been more need than that of the present for Christian artists to support one another in this quest for an authentic visual language that represents a theology that can heal and speak to our times.

Until next month,

Prayerfully,

Christine Hales

Icon website         ONLINE Icon Painting Class