About icons

There is a lot to write about icons. A few aspects I like to explain.
These are: Icons, what are they?
                The origin of icons
                The iconoclastic periods
                The current use of icons
 

 


Icons, what are they?

The word icon derives from the Greek word εικον (eikoon) which means image or picture. Because icons are images and therefore every image, drawing or painting can be called an icon. This is not done for several reasons. With an icon is meant a painting of a saint, a part of the life of a saint or a Biblical story for example the Birth of John the Baptist or the Baptism of Christ in the River Jordan. The scene has to be seen by human eyes and be written down. The picture must be painted according a few rules before is can be called an icon.
You can read with technique how an icon is painted in the style of the Cretan School.
The old icons are from countries where the orthodox Christian faith was or is the most important faith. In the past these countries were the Byzantine Empire and Russia. Greece and Russia today are important countries. The current list of countries is a lot longer due to the fact that many orthodox Christians live in the USA or Australia for example. Due to the spread of orthodox Christians all over the world modern icons are painted everywhere. Not only by members of the Orthodox Church but also by members of the Roman Catholic Church or protestant churches. These modern icons are copies of the old icons from Greece, Russia or Constantinople.

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The origin of icons

Strangely enough the origin of the icon is in Egypt. The Fayum region is known for the excavations of many mummy portraits. These portraits date from the Roman period of ancient Egypt. The people in this period were descendents of Greek who migrated to Egypt in an earlier period. The descendents were influenced by the old customs of Egypt like the mummification of the dead.
During the mummification process a portrait of the deceased was woven in so the mummy became a face. The mummies were placed in special temples for ancestry worship and later to be dumped in simple graves. These portraits, also called Fayum portraits, were painted in a special manner; the pigments were mixed with molten wax to an suspension and then applied to wood. You can say that these Fayum portraits are the precursors of the icons. When Christianity came to Egypt the dead were buried instead of mummified and the portrait painters lost their income. They went to the churches to get commissions. The oldest icons in the world originate from the 6th century and are in the St. Catherine monastery in the Sinai, Egypt. Like the Fayum portraits these icons are painted with molten wax. A given moment molten wax was no longer in use to paint. Egg yolk was the preferred binding agent for the pigment. This paint is easier to use and is still the paint which is used to paint icons. See technique.
When the great Roman Empire divided in the Western and Eastern Roman Empire the art of icon painting took a flight. Constantinople became the capital city of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire. It had a great force of attraction to all sorts of people so it became soon the largest city. During the reign of Justinian I (527 565 AD) the fame of Constantinople was at his highest. Justinian built the Hagia Sophia and decorated is with the most beautiful mosaics. These mosaics were the examples for the styling and composing of the garments on icons. See technique.
After the conversion to Christianity of Russia, the art of icon painting appeared in Russia. In the Byzantine Empire and Russia were several areas which can be called icon painting centres. What we today call the Greek style in icon painting is a continuation of the art in the Byzantine Empire. In this Greek style the Macedonian and Cretan School are well known. In the Russian style the Schools of Novgorod and Moscow are examples. The Greek and Russian styles are distinguishable by the clothes. In the Russian styles the clothes are more natural than in the Greek style. Russian old icons often are darker in colour. Greeks loved and love brighter colours.

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The iconoclastic periods

Black pages in the history of the icons are the two iconoclastic periods. The word iconoclasm derives from the two Greek words εικον (eikoon, image, see up) and κλαζειν (kladzein, make noise). In these periods painting and venerating of icons was prohibited. Icons ever were destroyed and venerators sabotaged or even killed.
The first iconoclastic period began between 726 and 730 AD when in order of Emperor Leo III a famous icon of Christ was destroyed. In 730 AD the emperor forbade the veneration of icons because he believed it was in contradiction with the Second Commandment of the Ten Commandments. Images of the emperor or symbols like the cross without corpses were not under this ban. From 730 AD Leo III confiscated icons and after removal of all valuable materials they were destroyed. The successors of Leo III continued the iconoclasm till Empress Irene came to power in 780 AD. Irene called together the Second Council of Nicaea and discussed with the members the subject of the veneration of images. Stated was that images, thus also icons, can be venerated but not worshipped. In 815 AD began the second iconoclastic period when Emperor Leo V ordered new laws against veneration of icons. Empress Theodora as regent of Michael III in 843 AD restored the old laws and ended the second period.

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Current use of icons

In countries where most of the population is orthodox icons are an important part of daily life. Almost all orthodox Christians have in their home an icon and the walls of orthodox churches in these countries are covered with murals or frescoes. Icon designs were models for these murals or frescoes.
When you walk into a church you will find two icons at the door. One is of the saint or feast to which the church is dedicated. The second is the icon of the day. The icon of the day is specified by the church calendar. So it is possible that there are two icons with the same subject at the door. Throughout the church are places where icons are an analogia. A very important an eye catching element in an orthodox church is the iconostasis, a sort of dividing wall with three doors. This wall contains several rows of icons in a set order and separates the sanctuary from the nave. Orthodox Christians believe that the icon depicted saint is truly present in the icon. They venerate these icons by kissing, bowing for and light a candle for it. Because the saint is present in the icon orthodox services are services with the past and present church. The presence of the depicted saint in the icon give an icon the function of a window to the Eternal. Icons let us see a piece of heaven and Gods Kingdom.

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