About Icons

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The Icon in the Orthodox Christian Church

by Mike Piechocinski, Iconographer

The icon in the Orthodox Christian Church represents Christ incarnate. The very nature of Christ having been in the form of man in the flesh gives credence to the depiction of his image. This notion of incarnation was the foundation of the holy image. The word icon is derived from the Greek "eikon" which means image or portrait. The modern definition is simply as a symbol; which we see applied in many ways in the modern secular world. In the Orthodox Christian Church, the icon can be considered as important as the written word. The icon is a symbol of the truth as it presents a window into heaven. The visual content of the icon can have many subjects. Most importantly is the icon of Christ. Other subjects are the Mother of God (Theotokos), the Evangelists, the Apostles, the Saints of the Church, and Festal icons which depict scenes from the life of Christ.
The icon is not an object of worship but of veneration. The image of the icon is revered in the same way as the scriptural writings of the Church. The idolatrous idea of worship is a common misconception in the role of the icon. Indeed, this was a topic of debate in the early years of the Church. The image is a symbolic representation of the subject which serves as a reminder or focus to the faithful in their worship. It is not the physical object that is revered but the subject being depicted.

The visual content of the Icon in the Orthodox Christian Church is unchanging in its basic characteristics. This differs from the iconography of the Western Christian Church, which has its roots in Eastern Orthodox iconography. To change the basic visual characteristics of the iconographic content would be compared to changing the content of the Holy scriptures. This sense of unchanging continuity is a tenet that ensures the survivability of the truth. Within these parameters of continuity, however, there exist subtle differences. These differences may be attributed to historical, cultural, and media influences. It is possible to identify icons from all parts of the Christian Orthodox world ranging from Greece, Georgia, Russia, Romania, Ethiopia, Egypt, Syria, Bulgaria, Poland, Serbia, Macedonia, Finland, Cyprus, and Ukraine. In the many variations that can be discerned from these multicultural Icons, the basic characteristics and content of the sacred images remain the same.

The first icon was made by Christ himself. This is the icon called the mandylion or the holy napkin. It is "the image not made by the hand of man," also "the holy face." It is derived from the story of King Abgar of Edessa. He sent a messenger to summon Christ to his court to cure him of an affliction. The messenger found Christ busy preaching to his followers. Upon hearing King Abgar's request, Christ wiped his face on a cloth and gave it to the messenger to give to his King. King Abgar received the cloth and opened it to find the impression of Christ's face upon it. The King recovered from his affliction and placed the cloth in a special place over the city gates. The icon of the Mandylion is very important in the Orthodox Church.

In the early Christian Church, many of the images used were quite symbolic due to the persecution of Christians in the Roman world. The early symbols usually represented the Eucharist, The Baptism of Christ, and Christ the Good Shepard. These esoteric representations could easily be mistaken for pagan images and can be seen today preserved in some of the Roman catacombs. With the growth of Christianity in the fourth century, under the protective wing of the first Christian Emperor Constantine and his Eastern Roman Empire, the development of the icon began to flourish. This empire known as the Byzantine Empire grew to encompass most of the Mediterranean and Eastern world with influences reaching far beyond its political boundaries.

The Icons in the Orthodox Church are based upon prototypes. It is commonly believed that the Evangelist Luke produced several icons of the Mother of God holding the Christ child in his lifetime. Luke had some training in the classical painting style of his time. His work could have easily served as a prototype for iconographers that later followed him. Much of the representational aspects or visual devices in iconography are related to pagan art of late antiquity. Similarities can easily be found in encaustic sarcophagus death portraits of the first to the fourth century in Egypt, Roman wall paintings, and panel paintings as well as portraits in a variety of media of living individuals. This visual vocabulary was easily and effectively adopted and enhanced in the early iconography. Icons have been and continue to be produced in many kinds of media. Three-dimensional sculptural images are rarely if ever produced as icons. Encaustic, which is a form of painting with melted wax on a wooden panel is one of the earliest techniques, again pointing to origins of classical antiquity. This was later replaced by egg tempera techniques. Other manners of icon production were in ivory, stone, ceramic, and glass bas relief as well as mosaic and tapestries. Later developments were also used such as oil, distemper, and in this modern-day, acrylic.

The iconographers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have the important responsibility to carry on the faithfulness to the prototypes of those preceding them. It is important to remember that the Christian Orthodox Icon that is produced today may be the prototype of tomorrow.

gallery/st. luke paints icon

Tradition credits Saint Luke with painting the first icons of the Mother of God. “Let the grace of Him Who was born of Me and My mercy be with these Icons,” said the All-Pure Virgin after seeing the icons. Saint Luke also painted icons of the First-Ranked Apostles Peter and Paul. Saint Luke’s Gospel was written in the years 62-63 at Rome, under the guidance of the Apostle Paul. In the preliminary verses (1:1-3), Saint Luke precisely sets forth the purpose of his work. He proposes to record, in chronological order, everything known by Christians about Jesus Christ and His teachings. By doing this, he provided a firmer historical basis for Christian teaching (1:4). He carefully investigated the facts and made generous use of the oral tradition of the Church and of what the All-Pure Virgin Mary Herself had told him (2:19, 51).

St. Luke, the first Iconographer

Process of writing an icon.