Art Blog


Posted by FAINOMENON on October 5, 2013 at 9:25 AM

The word iconography literally means "image writing", and comes from the Greek εικών (image) and γράφειν (to write). Hagiography (hagios = saint) is the painting of holy subjects. 

Icons are used by many different religions including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity.


Technically, the early basis of iconography was the burial portraits of Fayum (1st-2nd century) and the catacomb paintings of the 2nd and 3rd centuries.

The Orthodox tradition teaches that the first icons (of Christ and the Virgin Mary) were painted by St Luke.

The phrase "Byzantine Icons" is often used because Iconography was the most important art form of the Byzantine Empire. The emperor Constantine the Great (272-337 AD) relieved iconographers of all taxes. Iconography flourished in Byzantium, in the form of mosaics, wall paintings (frescoes), panel (portable) icons & manuscript illuminations (miniatures).

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, only flat images or low relief images are used in religious art. The Greeks, having a long association with sculpture since the ancient, pre-Christian times, thought that the three-dimensional representations glorify the human aspect of the flesh rather than the divine nature of the spirit and so they oppose three-dimensional religious images. The Roman Christians, on the other hand, did not adopt these prohibitions and so we still have religious sculpture among the Roman Catholics to this day. The Byzantine style of iconography developed a highly stylised manner that emphasizes the spirituality rather than the human aspect of the subjects. Symbolism allowed the icon to present very complex theological context in a very simple way, making it possible to educate even the illiterate. The interiors of Orthodox Churches are often completely covered in icons and many people commission or buy icons privately to keep them at home. Traditionally icons are commissioned as presents to married couples and also as votive gifts to the local parish. In the West it was the rich patrons of the arts who commissioned religious artefacts, but in the East Christians consider it essential to have the icon of Christ, Mary, the Saint they are named after or other holy image at home, as an act of devotion; blessed in the church, these holy images bring the church home, in a sense, by helping the believer to feel closer to the saint he or she are directing their prayers to; this way, they become essential focal points that aid the people concentrate during their daily prayers.

In the 6th century AD, a controversy appeared within the Eastern Church about Icons. The Iconoclasts ("icon-smashers") consider their use to be idolatry and destroyed icons wherever they found them, replacing them with the only depiction allowed, the cross. The Iconodoules ("icon-worshippers"), on the other hand, argued that icons were mentioned in the Bible and had always been used by Christians. Finally the Iconodoules, supported by the Empress Theodora (500-548 AD), upheld the use of icons as an integral part of Christian tradition.

After the fall of Constantinople (1453), the Holy Mountain of Athos in Greece became a great centre of iconography. The Byzantine tradition of iconography had spread in the Serbian and Russian regions, and styles of iconography have undergone their own topical evolution over the centuries. That gave rise to several artistic "schools" of iconography, most famous of which are the Cretan school (Domenico Theotokopoulos, the famous master painter "El Greco", was Cretan and a master icon-painter also), the Moscow school, the Macedonian school and others.

Although iconography is mainly associated with the Church of the East, it is also the original tradition of sacred art in the Western Church. Mosaics, frescoes, and paintings in Rome, Spain, and France bear witness that the Byzantine style was a prominent and common art form in both Western and Eastern Christianity up to the twelfth century.

Today, Icons are still used extensively by the Eastern Orthodox and to a lesser extent by Roman Catholics. Icons are kissed, carried in procession, and venerated. Some are associated with miracles.

Although in the earlier times iconography was confined to monasteries, gradually the art became a popular form of folk art and today many icon-painters, men & women, exist & work outside the monastic life.


While icons tend to look like the original person they are depicting, everything within the frame is symbolic. Christ, the saints and the angels all have halos (symbolising the divine light which enlightens the faithful). Angels (and often St John the Forerunner / the Baptist) have wings, because they are messengers (like Hermes, the pagan god & messenger of the gods of the ancient Greeks; wings signify divine communication). Most Orthodox can identify the saints depicted at a glance, because they are so stylised they are recognizable - they have become, in the modern sense, "icons". St George and St Demetrius are shown slaying dragons, a symbol of sin and temptation. St Marina shows her fortitude and strength against sin by gripping the devil by his hair.

Colour plays an important role. Gold represents the radiance of Heaven; red, the divine life. Blue is the colour of human life, white is the uncreated essence of God, used especially in the icons of the resurrection of Christ. Jesus wears red undergarment with blue outer garment (God becoming Human) and Mary blue undergarment with a red over garment (so humans can actually reach God); this way the Orthodox doctrine is taught by iconography. The background too gives us information. Mountains usually mean the scene took place outside, while buildings and walls mean the event took place indoors. Letters are symbols too. Most icons incorporate calligraphic text (Byzantine letters) naming the person or event depicted.

In Roman Catholic depictions, most of the symbolism survives, though there is far less consistency. Artistic license allows the western painter more freedom and personal interpretations of each picture. And yet, despite the imagination and brilliance of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, for example, it is still quite easy to identify the Saints depicted, because of, and thanks to, the long-established symbolism.

The purpose of Icons

Icons are used in worship and also collected by art lovers for their style and aesthetic values. Describing the religious purpose of icons, the early Fathers used the Greek word anagogic, literally meaning "leading one upward." Photios Kontoglou, the renowned contemporary Greek iconographer, expressed this perfectly: "Icons raise the soul and mind of the believer who sees the icon, to the realm of the spirit, of the incorruptible, of the kingdom of God, as far as this can be achieved with material means." So iconography is an art form with a function that is essentially spiritual.

The Style

Described as "theology in line and colour" iconography traditionally uses particular artistic codes to communicate the spiritual world to the beholder. The folds of the clothes are depicted by means of geometric forms (ovals, rectangles, triangles), demonstrating a heavenly order. However, the trained eye can tell a Greek icon from others: the two-dimensional treatment of the clothes in the best Greek iconic examples echoes the classic sculpture, and even the style of the compositions still carry some of the classical forms (the military saints on horseback, for instance, like St. George, look remarkably close in posture & theme to the heroic burial sculptures of ancient Greece). The face of Mary or the angels, and their expressions, refer directly to the classic ideals for the human form. But the icon has further idealised the human form: the long, fine noses do not smell ordinary perfumes but the otherworldly fragrance of divinity; the large, luminous, serene eyes have seen the triumphant God; the small, shell-like ears are deaf to temptation. The small, delicate mouths are not preoccupied by eating but by singing hymns and praising God.  The elongated figures and hands are not subjected to earthly toils any more – they are dedicated to heavenly worship. (So the unique later style of El Greco can thus be easily explained and understood, as a natural progression from his iconographic background).

The stylization also appears in all the elements of the faces and body members of the persons in the icon. The hands have long, elegant and expressive fingers, in various gestures of blessing. The halos around the heads of the Saints form a clearly delineated circle, signifying their sanctity and drawing our attention to their faces.

Buildings, mountains, trees and animals are usually depicted in a very simplified, schematic way, rather than attempting to render a naturalistic likeness. The icon is not bound by time or space: events that took place at different times are represented as if they took place simultaneously - such as is in the Nativity of Christ, for example, where we see in the icon the Virgin with the swaddled Infant, the midwives bathing the Child Jesus, the angel announcing the Saviour’s birth to the shepherds, and the Magi (the three Holy Men) coming to adore the Messiah. The iconographer frequently uses an inverted perspective: objects in the foreground are smaller than the spiritually more significant objects or persons behind them.

In many icons the saints hold a scroll that quotes their own words (such as Saint Patrick, whose scroll quotes his words on the Trinity from his famous Lorica). How does the iconographer know how to depict a particular saint? The appearances of hundreds of saints are described in various iconographers' manuals. Some icons are created with the help of contemporary descriptions or paintings done during or shortly after the saint's own lifetime, such as the icons of Saint Francis or Saint Thomas More. And with the help of photography, there are now actual photographs of the saints that the iconographer can refer to, for contemporary saints.

This is a short introduction to iconography. But iconography is much more than just a technique or style. As the great modern iconographer Photios Kontoglou wrote, "The art of the icon painter is above all a sacred activity...its style is entirely different from that of all the schools of secular painting. It does not aim to reproduce a saint or an incident from the Gospels, but to express them mystically, to impart to them a spiritual character..."



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