A History of Iconography

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Iconography is a special modeof Christian sacred art, combining the natural and the symbolic in a unique stylized way to convey the spiritual dimension of what is depicted. As the famous Greek iconographer wrote, "Icons raise the soul and mind to the realm of the spirit."

Iconography is the original tradition of Christian sacred art, and has been an integral part of the worship and mystical life of Christians since the times of the Apostles. Referred to in the Eastern Christian tradition as "windows into heaven," icons have inspired and uplifted millions of the faithful, and many times have been the instruments for demonstrating God's miraculous intercession in the life of mankind.

Church tradition teaches that the first iconographer was Saint Luke the Evangelist. He painted the holy image of the Virgin Mary, a face which he himself had seen, and brought his first icons to the Mother of God herself, who approved them and proclaimed: "May the grace of Him Who was born of me, through me, be imparted to these icons." There are at least five highly-venerated icons of the Blessed Virgin painted by Saint Luke which are still venerated today. And he is also known to have painted icons of Saints Peter and Paul.

The beginnings of iconography can also be found in the catacomb paintings of the second and third centuries, including the first discovered house-church of Dura-Europos in Syria from that time. Because of the persecutions of the church in these earliest days of Christianity, not many icons have been preserved from that era. But contemporary writings indicate the use of icons even then. (examples) Iconography was given special attention and favor by the early Byzantine Empire. The emperor Constantine the Great relieved of all taxation the artists who made the mosaics for the churches. Iconography flourished throughout the Empire in the form of mosaics, frescoes (or wall paintings), and panel icons. And it became most fully developed and widely spread in the sixth century, under the rule of Justinian the Great.

It was the custom of the early Church father Saint John Chrysostom to keep an icon of Saint Paul before him whenever he studied the Epistles of Saint Paul, for inspiration and to invoke the Apostle's blessing. Once when Saint John looked up from the text, the icon of Saint Paul seemed to come alive and the Apostle spoke to him. As another Church Father, Saint Basil the Great, said, "With a soundless voice the icons teach those who behold them."

But iconography became a subject of great controversy in the seventh and eighth centuries. The Iconoclasts (or "icon-smashers") were suspicious of any sacred art which represented human beings or God, and demanded the destruction of icons. The Iconodules (or venerators of icons) vigorously defended the place of icons in the life of the Church. Iconoclasm may have been influenced by Jewish and Moslem ideas, and also reflected a "puritan" outlook in Christianity which saw in all images a latent idolatry.

The veneration of icons was upheld by the Seventh and last Ecumenical Council, which met in Nicaea in 787 A.D. Another attack on icons by the Emperor Leo III during the next century was overturned when the Empress Theodora permanently reinstated the veneration of icons in the year 843, a victory which is commemorated annually in the Orthodox Church as "the Triumph of Orthodoxy."

One of the greatest champions of icons during this contentious period was Saint John of Damascus, who wrote in his famous "Defense of Icons": "Through the icons of Christ we contemplate His bodily form, His miracles, and His sufferings, and we are sanctified...The icons of the Saints are filled with the Holy Spirit."

Although many of us associate iconography 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 the artistic tradition common to both Western and Eastern Christianity up to the twelfth century.

Over the succeeding centuries there were times of decline in the Church's use of traditional iconography and even sacred art per se. During the 15th and 16th centuries the Italian Renaissance began this erosion by its fascination with the so-called classical humanity of the pre-Christian era and its purely naturalistic, fleshly approach to art. But in response to the Renaissance there emerged the "Cretan revival" of the Byzantine tradition, led by painters such as Theophanes of Crete, Michael Damaskinos, Manuel Panselinos, and Emmanuel Tzanes and others. And some of the greatest icons and frescoes were created in the monasteries of Mt. Athos and in Serbia.

A similar revival has occurred in our own times. In the 19th century and even earlier a decline in the iconographic traditions re-emerged, and naturalistic styles were again being used in Eastern churches. In the mid-20th century in Greece, an artist, writer, and philosopher, named Photios Kontoglou revived the cause of Byzantine sacred art through his research and the icons and frescoes he created - a revival that spread throughout the world, even to America, and is still with us today. Due to Kontoglou's influence, Eastern Orthodox churches and monasteries began to prefer traditional sacred art to Western style art. Monastery Icons was one of the first sources of sacred art to join this revival, making traditional iconography easily available to the general public through the prolific work of iconographer Brother Simeon Davis, which uniquely includes iconographic presentations of both Western and Eastern saints and sacred themes.

Today in Greece, Russia, Ukraine, Serbia, the United States and throughout the world, hundreds if not thousands of iconographers continue to champion the original tradition of iconography, much of it of such an excellent artistic quality that it even surpasses that of previous generations. Iconography lives on!