History & Theology of Icon Painting
A Brief Introduction to the History & Theology of Icon Painting
By Geoffrey P. Moran
The “Tradition” of iconography boasts an apostolic origin with St. Luke who painted the first image (ikon in Greek) of the Virgin Mary. The earliest few surviving examples (around 500 AD) are found in St Catherine’s Monastery at Mt. Sinai and show a direct lineage to late classical portrait painting, especially funereal panels (encaustic on wood) from Romano-Egyptian culture. These panels were strongly naturalistic portraits, in contrast to the increasingly conventionalized visages and background settings of religious art throughout the medieval Christian world. Eventually Christian art in the Renaissance would rediscover naturalism and add scientific perspective. Iconography, however, eschewed naturalism in pursuit of higher goals. Although many elements of classical culture were perpetuated in the flourishing Byzantine Empire, the shift away from naturalism had less to do with contempt of earlier classical culture than with a deliberate insinuation of theological… and evangelical…considerations into sacred art.
Whereas the western Roman Empire was swamped by already Christianized Gothic peoples, the eastern or Byzantine Empire was for centuries on the defensive against pagan Sassanian Persians, Huns, & Slavs among others. Diplomacy and evangelism were the major weapons of Byzantine survival for the constantly besieged empire before it finally fell to Islam’s Ottoman Turks in 1453. Sacred images of early Christianity and its expansion against pagan and primitive cultures became locked into specific attributes and subjects best suited to illustrating the gospels. The teaching role of icons was paramount and they were considered the visual equivalent of ‘sacred learning’. For that reason, icons are ‘written’ rather than painted, and the iconographer/artist never signed the icon. He/she did not modify the ‘traditional’ image any more than one was free to revise a Gospel lesson. The concept of individual expression was totally foreign. Think of the difference between Fra Angelico or Simone Martine and Caravaggio or Piero della Francesca, to say nothing of Leonardo or Michelangelo. The rampant individualism of western European art in the 15th century, with its primary goals of personal expression in the pursuit of wealthy patrons and worldly fame, spelled the death of traditional iconography, except in the eastern Orthodox world. Even after the fall of Byzantium, this tradition continued strongly into the contemporary era, invigorated by minority status for centuries under Islamic Caliphates and Ottoman rule, and reborn after the fall of atheistic Soviet rule in our own day.
The Western aesthetic tradition since the Renaissance has been dismissive of the icon traditions as mere folk art, uninventive and distorted, naïve and childish. Iconography, however, deliberately avoids naturalist and perspective applications. The icon captures not this world but the “Kingdom Come”, a glimpse of heavenly figures and reality. The intent and goal of the Orthodox sacred liturgy was to create divine presence or heaven on earth in the sanctuary behind the altar screen (iconostasis) and sacred doors of all Orthodox churches. Nobody, at their everlasting peril, would tinker with the traditional formula. The result would be condemned as non-canonical and even blasphemous, unless it was the product of deliberations reached by a hierarchical council under the spiritual guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Writing about his experiences in Rhodes at the end of WWII, Lawrence Durrell captures the continuing spiritual influence of icons among orthodox communities throughout eastern and central Europe, the Near East, as well as the islands of the eastern Mediterranean:
“A village without an icon: a head without an eye,” says a proverb more comminatory than most, for the psychic life of these small Aegean communities is healthiest where it can be focused upon some such arbiter of fate. Lines of force radiate outwards from the shrine of a patron saint like holiness from a halo and, none the less real for being invisible, they play their part in the common adventures of the fisherman, herdsman and farmer, easing the burden of his conduct—not in the narrow theological sense, but in the sense of faith in acts.
A journey by water may be dedicated to the protection of the saint, just as an illness may be placed, so to speak, on his knees. He is ahelp against the brute adversities that face simple folk in theseislands. But it is not only in adversity that one turns to him. After asuccessful harvest, who can forget to offer the shrine a measure ofoil for his lamps? Oaths both good and bad are uttered in his name; while no material object is too small to commend to his care—a sick child, a sickly lamb, or a tattered fishing net. He stands at the confluence of those two great rivers, man and the unknown, and his job is to domesticate each for the other. He remits the temporal pains.
Today we witness a growing appreciation among many Christian faiths of the profound spiritual poise and purpose, it not the specific doctrinal ‘truths’ that resonate in this ancient sacred expression.
 L. Durrell, Reflections on a Marine Venus: a Companion to the Landscape of Rhodes.