An icon (from Greek εικων, eikon, "image") is an artistic visual representation or symbol of anything considered holy and divine, such as God, saints or deities. An icon could be a painting (including relief painting), sculpture, or mosaic.
By extension, icon is also used in the general sense of symbol — i.e. a name, face, or picture that is readily recognized by most people to represent some well-known entities or attributes.
Icons in early Christianity and Judaism
The first mention of holy images in Judeo/Christian tradition is in the 2nd book of Chronicles where the King Solomon decorates the Temple with the images of cherubs (2 Chron 3:10):
"And in the most holy house he made two cherubims of image work, and overlaid them with gold."
Archeologists discovered a number of mosaics depicting the biblical events in the remains of ancient synagogues.
Iconography gained importance in the Christianity because of the belief in incarnation of the Divine in visible material form.
Eusebius of Caesarea, a bishop and early church historian, reports one popular story of the first Christian icon. In this story, Abgarus of Edessa sent a letter to Jesus at Jerusalem, asking Jesus to come and heal him of his sickness. As the legend developed after Eusebius, Jesus took a linen cloth and pressed it against his own face, leaving the imprint of his face on the cloth, and sent that to the king. This cloth reportedly remained in Edessa until the 10th century, when it was taken to Constantinople. In 1204 it was lost when Constantinople was sacked by Crusaders. This is one version of the first icon. In Latin this image was referred to as the Vera Icona or "True Icon" which is probably where the legend of Veronica originates in the West.
Eusebius also reports seeing many icons of Jesus, Peter and Paul that were of some age, as well as seeing a bronze statue of Jesus outside the house of the woman who was healed of a twelve year hemhorrage; the woman is mentioned in the Gospels, though the statue is not.
There are also simple paintings of Jesus as well as depictions of Old Testament scenes found in early Christian catacombs, where Christians were not only buried but also lived in to hide from their Roman persecutors. Luke the Evangelist is also credited with painting at least three icons of the Virgin Mary, at least one of which is believed to be still extant, having been returned to Tikhvin, Russia in 2004. Iconography flourished during the Byzantine Empire beginning in the fifth or sixth century.
Iconoclasms and the reformation
Starting in the eighth century, Christianity has seen many heated, sometimes bloody disputes about the veneration of images, which some regarded as innocuous or commendable, while other saw as a form of idolatry. These disputes often led to iconoclasms, the widespread destruction of icons. The most notable ones were the total ban imposed by Leo III in 730 throughout the Byzantine Empire, and the less successful repeat by his successor Leo VI in 813.
Religious imagery was also a point of contention for the Protestant reformers, who incited or organized iconoclasms in various parts of Europe, and still generally avoid the use of such icons, in churches or at home.
Icons in the Eastern Christian traditions
The use of icons developed further in Russia following its conversion to Orthodox Christianity in the late tenth century. They came to be used particularly in Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Eastern-rite Catholic jurisdictions. as a general rule, these icons strictly followed formulas hallowed by usage, which had originated in Constantinople. The restless, personal, improvisatory traditions of iconographic novelty familiar from Western religious art are largely lacking.
In such use, icons are typically paintings on wood, often small. Many religious homes in Russia, for example, have icons hanging on the wall. There is a rich history and rich patterns of religious symbolism associated with icons. The Orthodox sometimes call them "windows into heaven". In the churches of those Eastern denominations, the nave is typically separated from the sanctuary by an iconostasis a wall of icons.
One usually speaks of an icon as having been "written," rather than "painted" or the like.
Icons are often illuminated with a candle or jar of oil with a wick. (Beeswax for candles and olive oil for oil lamps are preferred because they burn very cleanly.) Besides the practical purpose of making them visible in an otherwise dark church in the days before electricity, this symbolically indicates that the saint(s) depicted are illuminated by the Christ, the Light of the World.
When Orthodox Christians venerate or show honor and respect for icons, they understand that they are merely expressing those feelings for the people and events depicted, and not for the icons themselves. To make this clear to the laity, worship of icons was forbidden by the same council that defended their use, the Second Council of Nicaea (also known as the Seventh Ecumenical Council). By venerating icons, Orthodox Christians acknowledge that matter is not inherently evil, but can be used by God. Saint John of Damascus observed that the iconoclasts, who attacked the use of icons, often found themselves denying the goodness of matter (part of the heresy of Gnosticism), to the point of doubting the real incarnation of Jesus as fully human (the heresy of Docetism), or that he was resurrected with a real physical body.
Some of the most venerated Orthodox icons are treated in separate articles, e.g. Our Lady of Vladimir, Our Lady of Smolensk, Our Lady of Kazan and The Black Madonna of Czestochowa. Probably the most famous icon-painter was St Andrei Rublev (active from 1405 to 1427).
Icons in Hinduism
In Hinduism, the icon is called murti.
Last updated: 10-17-2005 14:16:57