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Praying With Icons: A Short History of Icons

extract from Praying With Icons by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Book, 1997; revised 2008; endnotes and illustrations have been removed:

He is the image [Greek: ikon] of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.
— Col 1:15

That … which we have heard and seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands … we proclaim also to you.
— 1 John 1:1-3

Christianity is the revelation not only of the Word of God but also the Image of God.
— Leonid Ouspensky

We are the only creatures that make visual records of the things that matter to us. When we meet friends or relatives after a time apart, we not only tell what has happened since our last meeting, we also share photos. At home, similar photos are on display in photo albums and on computer screens.

It’s a trait that seems to reach very nearly to Adam and Eve. The prehistoric paintings found in the Chauvet Cave in Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, France, made about 28,000 BC, are among the witnesses to this dimension of being human.

It is not surprising that those who saw Christ took pains to recall what he looked like.

“I have seen a great many portraits of the Savior, and of Peter and Paul, which have been preserved up to our time,” Eusebius recorded in his History of the Church early in the fourth century. While visiting Caesarea Philippi in Galilee, he also noted seeing a centuries-old bronze statue of the Savior outside the house of the woman who had been cured of incessant bleeding by Christ. Eusebius’s witness is all the more compelling as he was one of those who regarded religious images as belonging more to the pagan world than to the Church.

The first icon, according to ancient accounts, was made when King Abgar of Osroene, dying of leprosy, sent a message begging Jesus to visit him in Edessa, a city in what is now Turkey, and cure him. Hurrying toward Jerusalem and his crucifixion, Christ instead sent King Abgar a healing gift. He pressed his face against a linen cloth, making the square of fabric bear the image of his face. The miraculous icon remained in Edessa until the tenth century, when it was brought to Constantinople. Then, after the city was sacked by the Crusaders in 1204, it disappeared. We know it only through copies. Known as “Not Made by Human Hands” or the “Holy Face,” versions of the icon have often been reproduced down to our own day.

In the western Church, a similar story is associated with the name of Veronica, one of the women who comforted Jesus as he was bearing the cross. She offered him a cloth to wipe the blood and sweat from his face and afterward found she had received a miraculous image. In Jerusalem, a building along the Via Dolorosa associated with Veronica is today home to a community of the Little Sisters of Jesus who, appropriately, support themselves by selling icon prints mounted on olive wood.

The Evangelist and physician Luke is regarded as the first person to paint an icon. Saint Luke is credited with three icons of Mary, in one case using the wood of the table where Christ’s mother and Saint John ate their meals.

The best known is “Our Lady of Tenderness” in which the face of the child Jesus is pressing his face against his mother’s. It was given in 1155 to the recently baptized Church in Russia by Patriarch of Constantinople; because it was kept in the cathedral in Vladimir, it came to came to be known as the Vladimir Mother of God.

Another, the “Hodigitria,” meaning “She Who Shows the Way,” has a more formal arrangement, showing Mary presenting her young son to the viewer.

Finally Luke is credited with painting an icon of Mary in prayer, with outstretched arms, an image sometimes seen in Orthodox churches in the sanctuary above the altar. The placing of the icon near the altar serves as a reminder that Mary became the bridge linking heaven and earth.

Ancient icons often bear layer upon layer of paint, as later iconographers renewed by overpainting work that had become too darkened by candle smoke or too damaged with the passage of time. It is only since the beginning of the twentieth century that icon restorers found safe ways to remove overpainting and reveal the original icon. Perhaps at the foundation level of one or another ancient icon are brush strokes that were made by the hand of Saint Luke. Or perhaps not. Nearly all ancient icons were destroyed during times of persecution in the first three centuries of the Christian era or during the iconoclastic periods in the eighth and ninth centuries, while many others have been lost to fires, earthquakes and vandalism. What can be said with confidence is that icons have come down to us that faithfully bear witness to the work of iconographers of the early generations of the Church.

Even though most early icons have been lost or destroyed, it is surprising how many Christian images from the early Church have survived, most notably in the Roman catacombs and burial houses, but also in many other places, from Asia Minor to Spain. Mainly these are wall paintings — simple and sober images, made with few brush strokes and a narrow range of colors, with such subjects as Christ carrying a lamb, the three young men praising God from within a furnace, the raising of Lazarus, the ark of Noah, the eucharistic meal, and such symbols as fish, lamb and peacock. The catacombs bear witness that, from the Church’s early days, wherever Christians prayed, they sought to create a visual environment that reminded them of the Kingdom of God and helped them to pray.

Many early icons of a more developed style survive in Rome, though they are chiefly mosaics and have a monumental aspect, a type of public Christian art that only became possible in the fourth century, after the age of persecution ended.

In one of Rome’s earliest major churches, Santa Maria Maggiore, there are mosaics from the fifth century, but, as they are high up on the walls, the average visitor will need binoculars to see the detail. One mosaic shows Abraham and Sarah with their three angelic guests — an event Christian theologians came to recognize as an early revelation of the Holy Trinity. The large and vivid mosaic icons above and behind the altar, however, are easy to see and deeply moving; at the center Christ is shown crowning his mother.

Among other Roman churches that contain impressive examples of iconography from the first millennium of Christianity are Saints Cosmas and Damian, Saint John Lateran, Santa Sabina, Santa Costanza, San Clemente, Santa Prassede, Santa Agnese fuori le Mura, Santa Maria in Trastevere, and San Paolo fuori le Mura.

The most significant collection of early icons to survive into our time is at the desert monastery of Saint Catherine at the foot of Mount Sinai deep inside the Sinai desert. Here we find icon portraits of Christ and the apostle Peter, both dated by art historians as having been made in the sixth century. Both have an almost photographic realism. The style has much in common with Roman and Egyptian portraiture of classical times. These are probably similar to the images mentioned by Eusebius.

Whether or not any original icons from the apostolic age have survived, one is impressed to see how, generation after generation, devout iconographers have sought to make faithful copies of earlier icons, a process that continues to the present day. Thus images of Christ and the leading apostles are recognizable from century to century despite occasional changes in style. We know, for example, that Peter had thick curly hair while Paul was bald. One of the earliest images to survive, a bronze medallion of Saints Peter and Paul, both seen in profile, was made in the second or third century; it is now part of the collection of the Vatican Museum in Rome.

Most important, the memory of Christ’s face is preserved: a man in early middle age, with brown eyes, a piercing gaze, straight dark brown hair reaching down to his shoulders, a short beard, olive skin, and regular features of the Semitic type.

Just as in our own time there is controversy about icons, so was there dispute in the early Church. Early opponents of icons included Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Minucius Felix and Lactancius. Eusebius was not alone in fearing that the art of the pagan world carried with it the spirit of the pagan world, while others objected on the basis of Old Testament restrictions of imagery. Christianity was, after all, born in a world in which many artists were employed doing religious, political and secular work. Idolatry was a normal part of pagan religious life. Thus we find that in the early centuries, in the many areas of controversy among Christians, there was division on questions of religious art and its place in spiritual life. It is instructive to notice that some of those who were reluctant to accept that Christ was God incarnate were also resistant to icons.

At the heart of all theological disputes, from that time into our own day, is the burning question: Who is Jesus Christ?

Some argued that Jesus was simply a man of such exemplary goodness that he was adopted by God as a son. Going further with this idea, others believed God so overwhelmed Jesus the Galilean that his manhood was gradually absorbed into divinity. Then there were those who argued that Jesus merely appeared to be a person of human flesh, but he was in reality pure spirit. Because the flesh is subject to passions, illness and decay, they argued that God could never become incarnate. Those who held this belief rejected Jesus’s death on the cross — a being of pure spirit is deathless — and thus also rejected the resurrection. A being who couldn’t die had no need of being raised from death.

The orthodox Christian answer — that in the womb of Mary the Second Person of the Holy Trinity became a human being, thus Jesus was both true God and true man — was both too simple and too radical for many people. How could the all-powerful God clothe divinity in that which can suffer pain, death and corruption?

Discussion of this issue and its implications constituted the center point for the Church’s seven Ecumenical Councils held during the first eight centuries of the Christian era. Though we find the Orthodox teaching already expressed in the creed of the first Council, held in Nicea near Constantinople in 325, still it took centuries for the Church to shake off the influence of heresies which, in a variety of ways, denied the Incarnation. In fact, these ancient arguments continue with renewed vigor in our own day.

Each church assembly which affirmed the icon was reaffirming the Incarnation. For example the Quinisext Council in Trullo, in 692, while condemning “deceitful paintings that corrupt the intelligence by exciting shameful pleasures,” recognized the icon as a mirror of grace and truth. “In order to expose to the sight of all what is perfect,” the Council declared, “even with the help of painting, we decide that henceforth Christ our God must be presented in his human form…”

The argument over icons reached its boiling point in the eighth and ninth centuries at the time when Islam was rapidly spreading in areas that had formerly been Christian. In 725 the Emperor Leo III, ignoring the opposition of both Patriarch Germanus of Constantinople and Pope Gregory II in Rome, ordered the removal of icons from the churches and their destruction. Perhaps he hoped his order would help stop the spread of Islam, which firmly opposed images in places of worship. Many iconographers from the Byzantine world fled to Italy, finding protection from the Pope. It was a period in which many who upheld orthodox belief suffered loss of property, imprisonment, beatings, and even mutilation.

Some iconoclasts argued that images of Christ, representing as they did his physical appearance, diminished his divinity by revealing only his humanity. It may be that one beneficial consequence of the iconoclastic movement was that makers of icons searched for better ways to represent in paint the hidden, spiritual reality rather than merely the physical aspects of the person represented.

There had been, of course, many earlier defenders of icons, among them Saint Basil the Great in the fourth century, who taught the basic principle that icons are devotional images serving not as ends in themselves but as bridges. He introduced an important verbal clarification. Icons were not adored — God alone is adored — but rather venerated. Even the veneration offered to an icon is given not to the materials that form or support the image, but rather to its living prototype. To kiss an icon of Christ is to send a kiss to Christ himself.

It was a distinction also made in the fourth century by Saint Augustine, bishop of Hippo in North Africa. As he wrote in City of God:

For this is the worship which is due to the Deity; and to express this worship in a single word, as there does not occur to me any Latin term sufficiently exact, I shall avail myself … of a Greek word. Latreia, whenever it occurs in Scripture, is rendered by the word “service.” But that service which is due to men, and in reference to which the apostle [Paul] writes that servants must be subject to their own masters [Eph. 6:5], is usually designated by another word in Greek [douleia], whereas the service which is paid to God alone by worship is always, or almost always, called latreia…

In the age of iconoclasm, the theologian who best defended the use of icons in Christian life was Saint John of Damascus (676-749), a monk and poet kept safe from the power of the iconoclastic emperor through ironic circumstances — his monastery, Mar Saba, in the desert southeast of Jerusalem, was in an area under Islamic rule, thus out of reach of imperial edicts. Here he wrote his essay “On the Divine Images” in which he reasoned:

If we made an image of the invisible God, we would certainly be in error … but we do not do anything of the kind; we do not err, in fact, if we make the image of God incarnate who appeared on earth in the flesh, who in his ineffable goodness, lived with men and assumed the nature, the volume, the form, and the color of the flesh…

Saint John also responded to the arguments of those who regarded Old Testament prohibitions of religious imagery as also applying to the Church:

Since the invisible One became visible by taking on flesh, you can fashion the image of him whom you saw. Since he who has neither body nor form nor quantity nor quality, who goes beyond all grandeur by the excellence of his nature, he, being of divine nature, took on the condition of a slave and reduced himself to quantity and quality by clothing himself in human features. Therefore, paint on wood and present for contemplation him who desired to become visible.

Saint Theodore the Studite (758-826), another defender of icons in the time of iconoclasm, links Gospel and icon with the senses of hearing and seeing:

Imprint Christ onto your heart, where he already dwells. Whether you read about him the Gospels, or behold him in an icon, may he inspire your thoughts, as you come to know him twofold through the twofold experience of your senses. Thus you will see through your eyes what you have learned through the words you have heard. He who in this way hears and sees will fill his entire being with the praise of God.

The first iconoclastic period lasted until 780. Seven years later, at the Seventh Ecumenical Council, the bishops rose in defense of the icon. The Council affirmed that it is not the icon itself which is venerated but the prototype whose image is represented in the icon. Iconoclasm was condemned.

Nonetheless, a second iconoclastic period, less severe than the first, was initiated by Emperor Leo V in 813. Orthodox resistance included an impressive act of civil disobedience — an icon-bearing procession in Constantinople by a thousand monks. With the death of the Emperor Theophilus in 842, imperial objections to icons ended. In 843, Theodora, widow of the former Emperor, convened a Council which reaffirmed the teaching of the Seven Ecumenical Councils and confirmed the place of the icon in Christian life. Henceforth the first Sunday of Great Lent was set aside to celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy, a custom maintained to the present day in the Orthodox world when the faithful bring at least one of their home icons to the church. A text sung on the Sunday of Orthodoxy declares:

The indefinable Word of the Father made Himself definable, having taken flesh of thee, O Mother of God, and having refashioned the soiled image of man to its former estate, has suffused it with Divine beauty. Confessing salvation, we show it forth in deed and word.

If in Byzantium the encounter with Islam initially had a devastating effect on icons, further north the Tartar invasion and occupation of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was to have a disruptive impact on every aspect of religious life among the Russian people, themselves latecomers to Christianity, their conversion having begun in Kiev at the end of the tenth century.

Very little iconography of the first few centuries of Christian culture in Russia survives. The early center of Christianity, Kiev, was almost entirely destroyed during the Mongol invasion in 1240. As a consequence, Russian culture was driven north. But from the late fourteenth to the mid-sixteenth centuries, iconography was to reach heights in Russia that many regard as unparalleled before or since.

The most renowned figure of the period is Saint Andrei Rublev, first noted in 1405 while working in a cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin as a student of the master iconographer Theophanes the Greek. In 1425 Saint Andrei painted the Old Testament Holy Trinity icon, widely regarded as the highest achievement in iconographic art.

Saint Andrei’s other masterpieces include the Savior of Zvenigorod, remarkable for the profound sense of love and mercy communicated in Christ’s face.

For generations Russia was a paradise of iconographic art characterized by simplicity of line, vivid, harmonious colors, grace of gesture, an amazing freshness and transparency. But in the mid-sixteenth century one begins to notice signs of decay. Complexity of design begins to take the place of simplicity, while colors become duller and darker. Russian art historians attribute the change, at least in part, to the influence of prints imported from the west. By the seventeenth century artistic decay was well advanced.

“Decline was the result of a deep spiritual crisis, a secularization of religious consciousness,” writes the iconographer and scholar Leonid Ouspensky, “thanks to which, despite the vigorous opposition of the Church [which ordered the destruction of icons influenced by the artistic methods of the Renaissance], there began the penetration not merely of separate elements but of the very principles of religious art.”

Czar Peter the Great (1672-1725) played a major role in speeding the process of the secularization of religious art. He avidly promoted imitation of all things western in every field, including church architecture and iconography, a process carried further by his successors. By the middle of the eighteenth century only a few painted icons in the traditional way, nor was their work welcomed in many local churches. Traditional iconography was replaced by third-rate imitation of second-rate western religious painting — “caricatures of icons,” as Bishop Ignaty Brianchaninov, a nineteenth century Russian prelate, remarked.

Peter the Great also abolished the office of Patriarch of Moscow. Afterward the Russian Orthodox Church was treated as a department of government. State control lasted until the abdication of the Czar Nicholas II in 1917 — and then came the Bolshevik Revolution and a period of persecution such as Christianity hadn’t experienced since Nero and Diocletian. Not only were countless icons destroyed, but millions of Orthodox believers perished as well.

It was not only in Russia that iconographers were influenced by western approaches to religious art. Similar influences were at work in other Orthodox countries. As a result, today one finds in many Orthodox churches, no matter in which country, an odd mixture of classic iconography and much that, at best, can be appreciated for its sincerity and, at worst, dismissed as suitable only for the basement.

An important event in the renewal of iconography occurred in Russia in 1904. This was the year that a commission was created to restore Rublev’s Old Testament Holy Trinity icon. As was the case with many other old icons, over time the smoke of candles had been absorbed by the varnish, gradually hiding the image beneath the varnish. As no method then existed for removing the varnish without harming the image, the cure for blackened images was the repainting of icons. Thus a similar image was painted over the older one. Some cases, ancient icons bear several layers of paint. A more permanent solution was to place an oklad over the icon: a relief image in metal — silver or gold — that covered everything but the faces and hands. In 1904, the restoration commission carefully removed the oklad that covered the Holy Trinity icon. Then began the slow and painstaking removal of the layers of overpainting that masked Rublev’s work. It took years, but what their effort finally revealed has ever since amazed those who have been privileged to stand in front of the actual icon. The uncovering of the icon was a momentous event, doing much to inspire the return to classic iconography — and the restoration of a great many other old icons.

Thanks largely to the recovery of many ancient icons, the past century has witnessed a startling re-birth of appreciation of classic iconography. Today one finds good reproductions of iconographic masterpieces, not only in churches but in homes and even in offices. But it is not only a matter of reproductions. Increasingly iconographers are being trained in traditional methods and in the spiritual life that sustains iconography. The result is that good hand-painted icons are more often found not only in churches but in private homes.

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