A Brief History

Icons developed from the early Egyptian and Roman Empire’s funerary traditions of painting a sign commemorating the deceased person. Click to learn more about Egyptian Fayum portraits.  Also, any function of the Roman Empire was not considered valid unless the Caesar or a likeness of him was in full view of the assembly. Later, these symbols became portraits and then palace, temple and house decorations created in colored glass or tile, often as floor decorations…what we now call mosaics.

During the anti-Christian repressions in early times, Christians would mark walls and doors with symbols of an anchor, a fish and somewhat later, the Cross, to alert other Christians to their presence. When Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, Christians were no longer restrained from making religious and devotional decorations or “art”.

Icons initially appeared as floor mosaics, wall frescoes and murals. When it became desirable to carry images as teaching tools, a more practicable substitute had to be found and today’s panels, in effect a portable fresco or mosaic, became known as icons. In practice today, only these panels are now called icons. The earliest icons as panels, were known to exist perhaps as early as the 6th Century but few of these have survived. Most that have survived are done in the encaustic technique, using colored wax to achieve what we now create with paint. The heyday of icons is probably the late 15th Century or early 16th Century, when schools were created in Byzantium, Russia and parts of the Baltic area.

The schools in Kiev, Novgorod and Suzhdal, and of the noble family, the Stroganoffs – in Moscow and St. Petersburg, are all very well represented in contemporary collections in every great art museum in the world. Most of the very old icons are to be found in St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai desert, Egypt and in the Monasteries on Mt. Athos in Greece.

In a roughly 120 year period from about 726 to 843 there erupted a violent revolt in Byzantium, against the use of icons, which were considered “blasphemous” and “idolatrous”. The so-called “Iconoclastic Movement” primarily comprised of Turks, headed by (Byzantine) Emperor Leo III, went about destroying icons (and many of the people who made them); however, in accordance with terms and conditions set by the Second Council of Nicaea, also known as the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787) and a subsequent Synod Meeting in 843 that together ended the iconoclastic movement, use of icons for spiritual purposes was approved and restored.  As a compromise and to preclude new charges of idolatry, iconographers are now required to write in the name of the subject of the icon to demonstrate that they are not saying, “this is Jesus (or whomever)” which would be considered idolatry, but that “this is a representation of Jesus”.

In the year 1054, following the “Great Schism” of European Christianity, the Eastern part of the Roman Empire was to become what we now call “Orthodoxy”, with its Patriarch located in Constantinople – an extremely influential part of the Byzantine Empire. The Western part became catholic (universal) territory with its Patriarch (later re-named “Pope”) eventually headquartered in Rome (hence Roman Catholicism). This branch of the Church would later become extremely influential in the whole of European and South & Central American history.

The Eastern Church believed itself to be the true or “Orthodox” Church and claimed the West had left true Christianity. In 1054 Orthodoxy placed “anathemas” on the Western Church – the Western Church retaliated with excommunication of Orthodoxy and of whole nations and their leaders who followed it. A mutual lifting of these occurred only in 1968.

Orthodoxy retained the religious uses of and authority over, all aspects of icons, including those who painted them, while Western Christianity gave up the use of icons. To this day, most iconographers paint icons following the Byzantine traditions, with subjects’ costumes being those of that period and that Imperial Court or of Orthodoxy’s liturgical vestments. Some present-day Western painters have departed from the Orthodox Canons, with respect to the subjects and subject matter.

Why Are Icons So New to Us?

Following the Great Schism of 1054, the Western Church moved away from its previous liturgical practices and language because of the native languages spoken. Eventually, this part of the Church would adopt Latin as its universal liturgical language and the Italian Romance art forms took over from the stark, flat dimensional form used in Byzantine art.

As the influence of Raphael’s painting techniques took prominence in the early 16th Century, introduced as early as Giotto, later da Vinci, Michelangelo and others, the influence of humanism appeared in paintings as realism and beautiful, poetic pictures.  Following the division of the original catholic (universal) Church, in the 16th century into principally the Roman, Lutheran and Church of England – the Episcopal Church grew from that split. Consequently, the prevalent art forms were continued in America and wherever the Anglican communion was established. It is only in, perhaps, the last several decades that Western Christianity has returned to its religious “roots” and became interested in the use of icons.

The Episcopal Church in the United States, and especially, the Trinity Iconography Institute,  have been in the vanguard of this renaissance of the use of icons.