Show Summary Details

Page of

 Printed from Grove Art Online. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Subscriber: null; date: 21 October 2019

Icon [Gr. eikon: ‘image’]locked

  • Richard Temple

Wooden panel with a painting, usually in tempera, of a holy person or one of the traditional images of Orthodox Christianity (see fig.), the religion of the Byzantine empire practised today mainly in Greece and Russia (see Early Christian and Byzantine art, §VI, and Post-Byzantine art, §II, 1). The word also has a range of related but disparate meanings, from the abstract and philosophical to the purely literal. For example, it is still used in modern Greek to mean an image or picture in the ordinary sense. In antiquity, Platonists and Neo-Platonists held that the material, earthly world reflects, or is the image of, the higher and divine cosmos; the Old Testament provides the theme of man as the icon of God in the temple of the world; and St Paul declared that ‘Christ is the icon of God’ (2 Corinthians 4:4). Thus the idea of the icon is associated with cosmology and the theology of the Incarnation. In the Early Christian period, disputes over such questions as whether or not God can be known or depicted or the invisible can be seen were part of an intense debate surrounding the acceptability, meaning and function of images of Christ. All this was bound up with the complex questions of Christology that exercised the best minds of the period. Whole communities and nations were divided into Orthodox and heretics over the problem of defining the two natures of Christ, the relationship between his humanity and his divinity. The theory and belief system of icons was developed by theologians between the 4th and the 9th centuries, though only a few icons survive from then and up to the 12th century. Once established, however, the doctrinal principles never changed, and the study of icons is as much a matter of theology as of art. Subject-matter, form and composition did not deviate from the established dogma on which they depended; indeed, icons have been called theology in colour (Trubetskoy).

Icon of the Virgin Hodegetria, embossed silver, 13th century (Ohrid, Icon Gallery); Photo credit: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY

1. History.

Except among Jews, the cult of images in Late Antiquity was widely established. Christianity, spreading in a Hellenistic milieu, had inherited traditions from Greece, Rome, Egypt and the Near East, where gods, demi-gods and even emperors were commemorated or worshipped in the form of statues and paintings. It is not extraordinary, therefore, to find painted images of Christ with the attributes of the sun god Helios and other pagan figures from as early as the 3rd century ad (see Early Christian and Byzantine art, §I, 2, (i), (a)). Christian scenes on the walls of the catacombs (see Catacomb, §3) and in relief carvings on sarcophagi also date to this period (see Early Christian and Byzantine art, §IV, 2, (ii)).

From early on there was opposition to icons. The idea of the representation of a holy person has always had associations with mysterious, not to say magical properties, and the cult of icons depended to a degree on popular belief in their miraculous powers. The principal argument against icons derives from the Old Testament prohibition ‘Thou shalt not make unto thyself any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath’ (Exodus 20:4). Many Church Fathers, including Eusebios of Caesarea, argued that the invisible God could not be worshipped in an image and that icons could not be venerated as holy objects. An early defender of icons was St Basil the Great (329–79), who declared that in venerating an icon, one worships the prototype represented there rather than the icon itself.

Antipathy to icons reached a climax in 726, when Emperor Leo III Isaurikos (reg 717–41) gave his support to a group of bishops condemning them. Orders were given for the destruction of icons, and the patriarch of Constantinople resigned. These events inaugurated the period known as the iconoclastic controversy (see Iconoclasm). In 754 Constantine V Kopronymos (reg 741–75) summoned the Council of Hieria, at which icons were condemned on the grounds that they either separated Christ’s human nature from his divine nature or that they confused them. Iconophiles (lovers of icons) held that the Council of Hieria was illegally constituted, but iconoclasts (destroyers of icons), relying on imperial support, began a series of violent actions against icons and against the iconophiles themselves, some of whom were executed.

There was a lull in iconoclasm after Empress Eirene convened the Second Council of Nicaea (787), which condemned the policy and put forward the theological arguments in favour of icons. Chief among these were the formulation of St Basil the Great, referred to above, and the idea that God’s appearance on earth in human form was a precedent that justified the physical depiction of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity in a tangible form, as in a painted image. (It is for this reason that God the Father is not represented in icons but only the Son.) Secondary arguments held that icons could have miraculous powers and that they aided the illiterate in knowing the Gospel. The reinstatement of iconoclasm in 813 lasted until 843, when it was finally defeated with the triumph of Orthodoxy; this victory is marked by an annual feast in the Orthodox Church on the first Sunday in Lent.

The theological background to the problems of iconoclasm forced the Church into defining the use and meaning of icons in the light of the highest philosophical and intellectual ideals. Through icons the faithful were in touch with the holy persons and events they depicted. For the Orthodox believer the saints are actually present in the church during the liturgy.

2. Categories and function.

Icons can be divided into two main categories: portrait images and scenes illustrating church feasts. The transition from Roman portraits as bust-length frontal images into icons of Christ or of saints is almost imperceptible. This tradition remained more or less unchanged from the 6th to the 16th century. Likewise, icons depicting the feasts of the Church are founded on compositions that were adapted in many cases from antiquity: for example the Entry into Jerusalem is based on the iconography of the arrival of a visiting emperor at the city gates. In neither portraits nor festival scenes was the artist free to introduce any subjective element into the composition. A painter would no more think of altering the established iconography than the officiating priest would alter the liturgy, in which icons form an essential component (see Christianity, §III, 2, (i), (b), and Church, §IV, 2).

Implicit in all icons and central to their meaning is Christianity’s doctrine of salvation: ‘God became man in order that man might become God.’ The spiritual implications of this idea are evident in icons where techniques of naturalism are not employed; the appearance of visible objects and the three-dimensional world is altered and adapted so that, as in a dream, another reality is discerned in which the logic of sense perception is suspended. The sacred events are not located in earthly space and time. Icons do not convey the rhythms and energy of ordinary life; instead there is an absence of agitation: angels, saints and apostles enact scenes against a background of silence and eternity. Light and shade are not rendered in the western way because, in icons, Christ and the saints are themselves the sources of illumination.

The pictorial language of icons is primarily symbolic. Literal and narrative values are secondary. An icon is a mystical commentary that goes beyond the face value of the historical event. If this is lost, if the image becomes merely narrative or sentimental and decorative, it is no longer an icon, since it is no longer an image of the divine expressed in the physical world.

The icon becomes a living reality when the painter, through prayer and spiritual endeavour, realizes the divine within himself. With this achievement the Incarnation is spiritually re-enacted, transforming the idea into an actual event. This is why the art of icon painting is at its highest when it is associated with schools of mystical prayer such as the hesychasts (from Gr. hesychia: ‘stillness’), who aimed at transcendental states or gnosis (‘knowledge of God’). The confluence of mysticism and art reached a climax in Byzantium in the Palaiologan period (1261–1453). In Russia Andrey Rublyov and his school were the greatest exponents of this type of art, as can be seen in his icon of Christ Pantokrator (1420). Although the function of icons was theological, the highest technical and artistic standards were demanded as part of the artist’s work of moral perfection and self-transformation. While many icons can be considered works of art, aesthetic delight was not the artist’s intention; in the case of Rublyov, his artistic genius, equal to that of his greatest western European contemporaries, is entirely subordinated to his religious mysticism.

From the 12th to the 16th century icons, adhering more or less to the Church’s hard-won principles, were expressions of a great medieval culture: powerful, dignified, spiritual, human and often intensely beautiful. After the 16th century, with the decline of Byzantine cultural influence, icon painting in Greece, Russia and eastern Europe gradually weakened and, compromising with Western influence, became increasingly insignificant.


  • St Basil the Great: De spiritu sancto (c. 358–79), PG, xxxii (Paris, n.d.), p. 149C
  • E. Trubetskoy: Umozrenie v kraskakh [Speculation in colours] (Moscow, 1915–16); Eng. trans. as Icons: Theology in Color (New York, 1973)
  • L. Ouspensky and V. Lossky: The Meaning of Icons (New York, 1982)
  • K. Weitzmann and others: The Icon (New York, 1982)
  • A. P. Kazhdan, ed.: ‘Icons’, The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, 2 (Oxford and New York, 1991), pp. 977–81
  • L. Ouspensky: Theology of the Icon, 2 vols (New York, 1992)
  • M. Vassilakis: ‘An Icon of the Entry into Jerusalem and a Question of Archetypes, Prototypes and Copies in Late Byzantine Icon-Painting’, Deltion tis christianikis archaiologikis etaireias [Bulletin of the Christian archaeology service], 17 (1993)