An Introduction to Iconography

Icons have their origin in the funerary portraits of the Egyptians. These portraits were literally likenesses of the deceased. However, the images used in religious icons are symbolic in nature. Icons traditionally depict the people and events from the Bible.

Iconography was developed in the 4th Century A.D. in the great city of Byzantium, the Eastern part of the Roman Empire. This was possible thanks to the Christian Emperor Constantine (274[?]-337) who recognized Christianity as a legitimate religion throughout the Roman Empire through the Edict of Milan (313 A.D.) The Church was then free to create new ways to communicate the word of the Gospels to its great numbers of new converts most of whom couldn’t read. As a result, the Christian message was no longer confined to the understanding of a few, as was the case with the Christian art of the catacombs. It took about two hundred years, during the time of Justinian (483{?}-565), for the Church to develop the symbolic language of the image to it’s definitive form. The result was the creation of a symbolic language that expressed the Christian faith by way of images–a visual theology.

In the 7th century, the Roman Empire lost Syria, the Holy Land, Egypt, and North Africa. For a time, the economies of the region were the only thing overrun leaving intact many of the Byzantine institutions. However, iconography was soon threatened by the Iconoclastic controversy which began in 721 A.D. In very simple terms, the Iconoclasts claimed that the use of images in the Christian religion was a return to paganism and idolatry. They also were worried that by representing the Savior in human form, His human and Divine nature were being separated.

In response to these issues, the supporters of images affirmed that the veneration of icons was not directed at the physical icon but at the prototype of which the image was a symbol. With regards to the representation of Christ, St. John of Damascus the defender of Images, argued that it was right to represent Christ in human form because He became incarnate, He “became visible in the flesh.”

It was during the iconoclastic controversy that the Church, through its Ecumenical Councils, developed a clear theological foundation for iconography. This foundation is reflected in the writings of St. John of Damascus and St. Theodore the Studite. The result was the development of canons, or rules, of representation and the definition of symbols used in iconography, as well as, the role that sacred art was to play in the Church.

During this time of turmoil (between 8th & 9th centuries,) the use of icons was prohibited. Many monks and faithful lost their lives defending the Holy images and many icons were destroyed. It wasn’t until 842 AD that the veneration of images was finally re-established. This event is known as the triumph of Orthodoxy.

Several political, social and economic factors influenced the decisions of religious and political leaders either for or against images. Furthermore, as these Ecumenical Councils were taking place a widening gap began to emerge between the Eastern and Western Churches with regards to the canons of iconography and other theological issues. Both the East and the West agreed on the veneration of holy images; however, the mystical element so important to the Eastern Church was not present in the Western Church.

Since then, icons have been an integral part of the liturgy of the Eastern Churches; they enhance its meaning and are used as instruments of prayer, veneration and contemplation which is also part of the Eastern mystical tradition. While the Western Churches view them moreover as a symbol of faith.

For information about the Orthodox Church go to Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church or St. Elias Antiochian Orthodox Church.



Although Iconography in its truest sense does not focus on the artist there have been exceptional iconographers who have been recognized for their inspired and insightful representations of the mysteries of Faith.

First and foremost is St. Luke the Evangelist who became the first iconographer when he depicted the first image of the Theotokos or Mother of God. He is considered to be the Patron Saint of iconographers. After St. Luke, two of the most talented and admired iconographers are Theophanes the Greek and Andrei Rublev, who has been set forth by the Orthodox Church as the example for all iconographers to follow.

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