History of Icons                                                       HOME

Icons have formed an aspect of worship in the Christian tradition from earliest times, with the first mention of the use of an icon appearing in the apocryphal Acts of John. Early Christian iconographers developed their images by including elements from Greek, Roman and Egyptian art. The robed figure of the bearded philosopher, with fingers raised in a “teaching” gesture, and clasping a book, was familiar throughout the ancient world, and it is not surprising that this respected and venerated image should become equated with that of Christ – although some early images show Christ without a beard.

The earliest icon of Christ, still extant, is thought to be the Pantocrator (Ruler of All), in Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai, which dates from the 6th century. The first icons were painted in encaustic (wax), which continued the practice of the Romans. Later, egg tempera paint was used. Icons were painted on wooden boards, making them easy to handle, but also susceptible to attack by insects or damp. The practice of lighting candles near them has also resulted in loss and damage. However, the greatest loss of icons has come about through periodic, deliberate destruction (iconoclasm); huge numbers were destroyed by the Mongols in Russia, and almost all surviving Russian icons date from after the 15th century. In England, the image has not played a prominent part in the majority of churches since the iconoclastic period of the Reformation, although in the Anglican tradition, the arts continued to enrich worship, with music taking the primary role.

Various schools and styles of icon painting have evolved, emanating from particular national or ethnic groups. Orthodox icons from Russia differ from Greek or Macedonian forms, although certain established poses, or icon types, seem to exist in all traditions. There is also a folk tradition in icon painting, with examples from Czechoslovakia and Ethiopia amongst the best known.

Icon painting passed to Western Europe at the time of the Italian primitives, around the 13th century. As the Renaissance developed, sacred painting moved towards a renewed Classicism, and differences from the earlier Orthodox tradition became evident. In particular, a naturalistic portrayal was now striven for, whereas the earlier images had been stylised, and remain so in the Eastern Orthodox Church. The style in which an icon is painted may still be relevant today. One school of thought will prefer naturalism, as it most closely resembles the created world. However, to others, the stylisation traditional in icons is helpful, as it emphasises that this is not a realistic portrayal of outer events, but an aid to inner contemplation. The same type of arguments have been used, for example, about the language used in the liturgy.

An icon seeks to evoke an experience of stillness, or unchangingness. The gaze of the image seems directed at the viewer in an intimate and personal way. Many people find that this helps them to identify qualities, which for them, are eternal.

The icon is designed to enable the viewer’s own religious practice; it is not intended to be an object of veneration for its own sake. This issue comprises one of the principal concerns of iconoclasm, and one which has never been fully resolved in the West. In the Eastern Church the position of icons was resolved in the 9th century, following a period of iconoclasm and debate. The status of the icon was defined and the use of the image became generally accepted. Perhaps because of this acceptance, in Orthodox culture, icons are found as much in private homes as in the Church.

Interest in the use of icons has re-emerged more recently in the West, a development which may accompany the greater prominence being given to mystical approaches within Christianity. An icon is often compared to a window, or a door. It is as if some kind of opening appears, through which the individual may gain a deeper understanding. Perhaps something has the chance to come out; or perhaps something new is given access to the self.

Jenny and Roy Summerfield (Lincoln 2014)

Angelus Workshop