Byzantine Icons History

Icons are used particularly in Eastern Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Eastern-rite Catholic churches.

The Eastern Orthodorx view of the origin of icons is quite different from that of some secular scholars and from some in contemporary Roman Catholic circles: "The Orthodox Church maintains and teaches that the sacred image has existed from the beginning of Christianity" (Leonid Ouspensky, Theology of the Icon," St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1978). Accounts that some non-Orthodox writers consider legends are, within Eastern Orthodoxy, accepted as history, because they are a part of Church Tradition. Thus accounts such as that of the miraculous "Image Not Made by Hands," and the weeping and moving "Mother of God of the Sign" of Novgorod are accepted as fact: "Church Tradition tells us, for example, of the existence of an Icon of the Savior during His lifetime (the "Icon-Made-Without-Hands") and of Icons of the Most-Holy Theotokos [Mary] immediately after Hum." (These Truths we Hold, St. Tikhon's Seminary Press, 1986). Eastern Orthodox further believe that "a clear understanding of the importance of Icons" was part of the church from its very beginning, and has never changed, although explanations of their importance may have developed over time. This is due to the fact that iconography is rooted in the theology of the Incarnation (Christ being the eikon of God) which didn't change, though its subsequent clarification within the Church occurred over the period of the first seven Ecumenical Councils. Also, icons served as tools of edification for the faithful during most of the history of Christendom when most couldn't read nor write.

Eastern Orthodox find the first instance of an image or icon in the Bible when God made man in His own image (Septuagint Greek eikona), recorded in Genesis 1:26-27. In Exodus, God commanded that the Israelites not make any graven image; but soon afterwards, he commanded that they make graven images of cherubim and other like things, both as statues and woven on tapestries. Later, Solomon included still more such imagery when he built the first temple. Eastern Orthodox believe these qualify as icons, in that they were visible images depicting heavenly beings and, in the case of the cherubim, used to indirectly indicate God's presence above the Ark.

Image of the Saviour Not Made by Hand: a traditional Orthodox iconography in the interpretation of Simon Ushakov (1658).In addition to the legend that Pilate had made an image of Christ, the 4th Century bishop Eusebius, in his Church History, provides another reference to a "first" icon of Jesus. He relates that King Abgar of Edessa sent a letter to Jesus at Jerusalem, asking Jesus to come and heal him of an illness. In this version there is no image. Then, in the later account found in the Syriac Doctrine of Addai, a painted image of Jesus is mentioned in the story; and even later, in the account given by Evagrius, the painted image is transformed into an image that miraculously appeared on a towel when Christ pressed the cloth to his wet face (Veronica and her Cloth, Kuryluk, Ewa, Basil Blackwell, Cambridge, 1991). Further legends relate that the cloth remained in Edessa until the 10th century, when it was taken to Constantinople. In 1204 it was lost when Constantinople was sacked by Crusaders.

Today attitudes can vary even from church to church within a given denomination, whether Catholic or Protestant. Protestants generally use religious art for teaching and for inspiration, but such images are not venerated as in Orthodoxy, and many Protestant church sanctuaries contain no imagery at all.

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, although other materials are sometimes used.) The illumination of religious images with lamps or candles is an ancient practice pre-dating Christianity.

Historically and even today among conservative Eastern Orthodox there are reports of miraculous icons that exude a fragrant, healing oil. When these reports are verified by Orthodox clergy, they are still explained as miracles performed by God through the prayers of the saint, rather than being magical properties of the painted wood itself.

Last Updated on 09/20/2008
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