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published on 08 December 2017
Icons, that is images of holy persons, were an important part of the Byzantine Christian Church from the 3rd century CE onwards. Venerated in churches, public places, and private homes, they were often believed to have protective properties. The veneration of icons split the Church in the 8th and 9th century CE as two opposing camps developed - those for and those against their use in Christian worship - a situation which led to many icons being destroyed and the persecution of those who venerated them.
The word icon derives from the Greek eikon which is variously translated as 'image', 'likeness' or 'representation'. Although the term may apply to any representation of a holy figure (Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, apostle, saint or archangel) in a mosaic, wall painting, or as small artworks made from wood, metal, gemstones, enamel, or ivory, it is most often used specifically for images painted on small portable wooden panels. These panels were usually created using the encaustic technique where coloured pigments were mixed with wax and burned into the wood as an inlay.
The subject in icons is typically portrayed full frontal, with either the full figure shown or the head and shoulders only. They stare directly at the viewer as they were designed to facilitate communication with the divine. Figures often have a nimbus or halo around them to emphasise their holiness. More rarely, icons are composed of a narrative scene. Not produced for art’s sake, they were designed for devotional purposes and to help people better understand the figures they were praying to, and bridge the gap between the divine and humanity.
THE MOST REVERED OF ALL ICONS WERE THOSE CLASSIFIED AS ACHEIROPOIETOS, THAT IS, NOT MADE BY HUMAN HANDS BUT MADE BY A MIRACLE.
The artistic conventions seen in icons such as naturalism and the hierarchy of figures would influence Byzantine art in general. Another development was the iconostasis, a free-standing construction with the express purpose of housing an icon. These 'image stands' were often set up in the countryside, sometimes to commemorate a particular event or the site of an ancient church. Another type of iconostasis is the tall wooden screen seen in eastern churches which stands in front of the altar and is decorated with several icons.
The most revered of all icons were those classified as acheiropoietos, that is, not made by human hands but made by a miracle. These icons were often believed to have protective powers (palladia) not only over individuals but also over entire cities during times of war. One famous example is the icon of the Virgin Mary which was held responsible for protecting Constantinople during the siege of 626 CE when it was paraded around the Theodosian Walls by the bishop of the city Sergios. Indeed, this icon of Mary, in a pose where she holds the infant Jesus, known as Theotokos, gave rise to the city’s second name as Theotokoupolis, "the city guarded by Theotokos". Byzantine ships frequently carried icons on their masts and armies carried them as banners in battle for the same reasons.
Finally, many ordinary believers had their own family icons in their homes or carried one on their person for divine protection much as earlier representations of pagan gods had been used and worshipped in a domestic setting independent of priest or temple. These small icons could take the form of miniature panels with a protective lid, necklaces, or pilgrim flasks made from clay or silver bearing an image of the holy figure subject to the pilgrimage made. As in churches, icons were prayed and bowed to, kissed, and had incense and tapers lit before them.
The veneration of icons in Christianity has always had an ambiguous history, with the practice receiving as many critics as supporters. Critics of the practice cite the instructions given to Moses by God that the people of Israel should not worship idols or graven images as recorded in the Old Testament book of Exodus (20:4-5 and 34:17) and then repeated exactly in Deuteronomy (5:8-9). However, icons are known to have been produced from the 3rd century CE and to have become popular from the 6th century CE.
In the 8th century CE, the Byzantine Church was rocked by the movement of iconoclasm, literally the "destruction of images" which peaked in two periods: 726-787 CE and 814-843 CE. The historian T. E. Gregory here summarises the debate:
Iconoclast theologians began to see connections with the theological disputes of the past 400 years: they argued that images, in fact, raised once again the Christological problems of the fifth century. In their view, if one accepted the veneration of ikons of Christ, one was guilty of either saying that the painting was a representation of God himself (thus merging the human and the divine elements of Christ into one) or, alternatively, maintaining that the ikon depicted Christ’s human form alone (thus separating the human and the divine elements of Christ) - neither of which was acceptable. (212)
Defenders of icons insisted that God could never be captured in art anyway and an icon is only ever one person’s vision of that God. Consequently, there is no danger of such works becoming universal idols as they are a mere imperfect reflection of the divine reality. In addition, they have a useful function in helping the illiterate understand the divine. Such iconophile scholars as John of Damascus (c. 675 - c. 753 CE) also insisted that there was a difference between veneration and all-out worship:
When God is seen clothed in flesh, and conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honouring that matter which works my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God. (Gregory, 205)
The debate raged on for decades; Byzantine emperor Leo III (r. 717-741 CE) and his successor Constantine V (r. 741-775 CE) were particularly vehement opponents of icons, with the former infamously destroying the largest icon in Constantinople, the golden Christ above his own palace gates. Constantine V was even more zealous and actively persecuted those who venerated icons, the iconophiles. The Pelekete monastery on Mt. Olympus was infamously burned down, and many others were stripped of their treasures. Mutilations, stonings, and executions were carried out on those who did not toe the line.
A second wave of iconoclasm arrived in the first half of the 9th century CE, especially during the reign of Theophilos (829-842 CE). The emperor decided to attack the very source of icons: the monks who produced them and so such noted icon-painters as Theophanes Graptos and his brother Theodore had their foreheads branded as a warning to others.
The issue not only split the Byzantine Church but the whole Christian world, with the Popes supporting the use of icons. When Leo III formally decreed in 730 CE that all icons must be destroyed, Pope Gregory III responded by stating that anyone guilty of such destruction would be excommunicated. The fierce debate was fuelled by political rivalries and the ongoing wrestle for supremacy in the Church between the east and west.
As a consequence of the controversy, a huge number of icons were destroyed or defaced with many wall paintings repainted with simple crosses, the only symbol permissible to the iconoclasts. A large number of icons were, though, saved and spirited away to the greater safety of the eastern parts of the empire. The issue was settled by Michael III (r. 842-867 CE) and Theodora, his regent mother, who had the veneration of icons proclaimed Orthodox in 843 CE. This official ending of the icon debate is still celebrated by Eastern Christians today as the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” on the first Sunday of Lent.
The Kamoulianai icon was considered to have been created by a miracle. The image of Christ appeared on a linen cloth when it was immersed in water and this cloth was then taken to Constantinople in 574 CE. Once there, it was held responsible for certain miracles and was called upon to protect the city against the siege of 626 CE by the Avars, which ultimately failed.
The Hodegetria icon (“She who points the Way”) of Constantinople was a painted image of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus in her left arm while she points to Christ with her right hand. It was housed in the Hodegon monastery of the capital. It was believed to have been painted by Saint Luke, even if that tradition only developed from the 11th century CE. Unfortunately, the icon was cut into four pieces by the Turks who stormed Constantinople in 1453 CE and has since been lost. The image was much copied in Christian art, one of the most famous being the wall mosaic in the Church of the Panagia Angeloktistos at Kiti, Cyprus.
The Mandylion icon (the “Scarf”) was another miracle icon, probably the first of its kind, which had the image of Christ on it. According to the legend which is first recorded in the 6th century CE, Abgar V, the 1st-century CE king of Edessa in Syria became seriously ill and he called on Jesus Christ to cure him. Unable to visit in person, Christ pressed his face against a cloth, which left an impression, and then sent the cloth to Abgar. On receiving the gift, the king was miraculously cured. The image was copied in many wall-paintings and domes in churches around Christendom as it became the standard representation known as the Pantokrator (All-Ruler) with Christ full frontal holding a Gospel book in his left hand and performing a blessing with his right. Two of the most famous instances of the Pantokrator were in the Pantokrator Monastery in Constantinople and the church at Daphne (c. 1100 CE), near Athens.
The Mandylion was often cited in theological arguments for Christ’s incarnation as a real man, and it was also the basis of depictions of Christ on Byzantine coinage. The Mandylion was taken from Edessa in 944 CE when the Byzantine general John Kourkouas took it in exchange for lifting his siege of the city. From there it was taken to Constantinople and kept in the royal palace. During the Fourth Crusade when Constantinople was sacked in 1204 CE, the Mandylion was taken as a prize to France. Alas, this most precious icon of all was destroyed during the French Revolution.
Many other important icons are dotted around the world in churches and museums but an especially large number are to be found in Rome and at the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine in Sinai which has several dating to the 6th century CE, including a magnificent Pantokrator, probably donated by Justinian I (r. 527-565 CE) to mark the monastery’s foundation.
An iconographic portrait of Kontoglou.
On this day in 1965, the ever-memorable blessed Photios Kontoglou fell asleep in the Lord. He was an iconographer, chanter, and writer. He brought about the revival of traditional orthodox iconography in the mid 20th century. I will repost one of his writings in iconography.
May his memory be eternal.
The religion of Christ is the revelation, by Him, of the truth. And this truth is the knowledge of the true God and of the spiritual world. But the spiritual world is not what men used to—and still do—call "spiritual."Christ calls His religion "new wine" and "bread that cometh down from Heaven." The Apostle Paul says, "Therefore, if any man be in Christ, he is a new creation. The old things have passed away: behold, all things have become new."
In a religion like this, one that makes the believer into a "new man," everything is "new." So, too, the art that gradually took form out of the spirit of this religion, and which it invented to express its Mystery, is a "new" art, one not like any other, just as the religion of Christ is not like any other, in spite of what some may say who have eyes only for certain meaningless externals.
The architecture of this religion, its music, its painting, its sacred poetry, insofar as they make use of material media, nourish the souls of the faithful with spirit. The works produced in these media are like steps that lead them from earth up to heaven, from this earthly and temporary state to that which is heavenly and eternal: This takes place so far as is possible with human nature.
For this reason, the arts of the Church are anagogical, that is, they elevate natural phenomena and submit them to "the beautiful transformation." They are also called "liturgical" arts, because through them man tastes the essence of the liturgy by which God is worshipped and through which man becomes like unto the Heavenly Hosts and perceives immortal life.
Ecclesiastical liturgical painting, the painting of worship, took its form above all from Byzantium, where it remained the mystical Ark of Christ's religion and was called hagiographia or sacred painting. As with the other arts of the Church, the purpose of hagiographia is not to give pleasure to our carnal sense of sight, but to transform it into a spiritual sense, so that in the visible things of this world we may see what surpasses this world.
Hence this art is not theatrically illusionistic. Illusionistic art came into being in Italy during the so-called Renaissance, because this art was the expression of a Christianity which, deformed by philosophy, had become a materialistic, worldly form of knowledge, and of the Western Church, which had become a worldly system. And just as theology followed along behind the philosophy of the ancients—so, too, the painting which expressed this theology followed along behind the art of the ancient idolators. The period is well named Renaissance, since, to tell the truth, it was no more than a rebirth of the ancient carnal mode of thought that had been the pagan world's.
But just as those theologians were wading around in the slimy swamp waters of philosophy, and were in no position to taste and understand the clear fresh water of the Gospel, "drawn up to life eternal," so, too, the painters who brought about the Renaissance were in no position to understand the mystical profundity of Eastern liturgical iconography, the sacred art of Byzantium. And just as the theologians thought that they could perfect Christ's religion with philosophy, since for them it seemed too simple, they being in no position to penetrate into the depths of that divine simplicity: just so, the painters thought that they were perfecting liturgical art, more simply called Byzantine, by making it "more natural."
So they set to work, copying what was natural—faces, clothes, buildings, landscapes, all as they appear naturally—making an iconography with the same rationalism that the theologians wanted to make theology with. But the kind of theology you can get out of rationalism is exactly the kind of religious iconography you can get out of copying nature.
This is why their works have no Mystery, nor any real spiritual character. You understand that you have before you some men masquerading as saints—not real saints. Look at the various pictures of the Mother of God. "Madonnas" who pose hypocritically, and those in tears, weeping, which are even falser yet! Corpses and idols for shallow men! Our people, who for centuries have received a great and profound nurture from Christ's religion, even though outwardly they seem uneducated, call a woman who pretends to be respectable but who is really not, a Frankopanayhia, a "Frankish Virgin," thus making a clear distinction between the "Frankish Virgin" and the true Virgin, the Mother of Christ our God, the austere Odogitria, Her "more precious than the Cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim". In other words, in the simplest way possible they make a neat, sharp distinction between the art of the world and the art belonging to worship.
Western religious painters who wanted to depict the supernatural visions of religion took as models certain natural phenomena—clouds, sunsets, the moon, the sun with its beams. With these they tried to portray the heavenly glory and the world of immortality, calling certain things "spiritual" which are merely sentimental, emotional, not spiritual at all.
In vain, however. Because the blessedness of the other life is not a continuation of the emotional happiness of this world, neither does it have any relation to the satisfaction the senses enjoy in this life. The Apostle Paul, talking about the good things of the blessedness to come, says that they are such that "eye hath not seen, and ear hath not heard, neither have entered into the heart of man."
How, then, can that world, which lies beyond everything a man can grasp with his senses—how can that world be portrayed by an art that is "natural" and that appeals to the senses? How can you paint "what surpasses nature and surpasses sense"?
Certainly, man will take elements from the perceptible world, "for the senses' sake," but to be able to express "what surpasses sense" he must dematerialize these elements, he must lift them to a higher plane, he must transmute them from what is carnal into what is spiritual, just as faith transmutes man's feelings, making them, from carnal, into spiritual. "I saw," says St. John of the Ladder, "some men given over with passion to carnal love, and when they received the Light and took the way of Christ, this fierce carnal passion was changed inside them, with divine grace. into a great love for the Lord."
Thus, even the material elements which Byzantine iconography took from the world of sense were supernaturally transmuted into spiritualities, and since they had passed through the pure soul of a man who lived according to Christ, like gold through a refiner's fire, they express, as far as is possible for a man who wears a material body, that which the Apostle Paul spoke of, "which eye hath not seen, neither hath entered into the heart of man."
The beauty of liturgical art is not a carnal beauty, but a spiritual beauty. That is why whoever judges this art by worldly standards says that the figures in Byzantine sacred painting are ugly and repellent, while for one of the faithful they possess the beauty of the spirit, which is called "the beautiful transformation."
The Apostle Paul says. "We (who preach the Gospel and live according to Christ ) are ... a sweet savour of Christ unto them that are saved and unto them that perish. Unto them that have within them the small of death (of flesh), we smell of death; and unto them that have within them the smell of life, we smell of life."
And the blessed and hallowed St. John of the Ladder says, "There was an ascetic who, whenever he happened to see a beautiful person, whether man or woman, would glorify the Creator of that person with all his heart, and from a mere glance his love for God would spring afresh and he would pour out on his account a fountain of tears. And one marveled, seeing this happen, that for this man what would cause the soul of another to stink had become a reason for crowns and an ascent above nature. Whoever perceives beauty in this fashion is already incorruptible, even before the dead shall rise in the common Resurrection,"
"Be ye not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind . . ." (Rom. xii. 2)
From the Book by Constantine Cavarnos titled Guide to Byzantine Iconography Volume one
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The lamp of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be simple, thy whole body shall be full of light.
HE BLESSED ICONOGRAPHER Photios Kontoglou used to say that the holy icons are full of the light of Christ, and the Orthodox Christian who gazes upon
them and venerates them with faith and simplicity of heart is filled with this blessed light. As Christians we have found this observation to be true. That is why we never tire to look upon the holy icons and stand in prayer before them as if we were in the presence of the very persons depicted in them.
To the non-Christian, this quiet and joyous light is not per ceptible. Having eyes, he cannot see, as our Saviour tells us in the Gospels. In the icons the secular man sees colors, forms, art, culture. He can appreciate the artistic ability of the iconog rapher and will pay a price for the "mood” or “atmosphere” that the icon creates, even as he would for a painting by El Greco or Picasso, but the inner, hidden world eludes him. To the Christians, holy icons are a spiritual banquet, a feast for the eyes and the heart.