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The Apostle Luke painting the first icon

Iconography (from Greek εικωνογραφια) refers to the making and use of icons, pictorial representations of Biblical scenes from the life of Jesus Christ, historical events in the life of the Church, and portraits of the saints. Icons are usually two-dimensional images and may be made of paint, mosaic, embroidery, weaving, carving, engraving, or other methods.

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"Written" or "painted"?

The most literal translation of the word εικωνογραφια (eikonographia) is "image writing," leading many English-speaking Orthodox Christians to insist that icons are not "painted" but rather "written." From there, further explanations are given that icons are to be understood in a manner similar to Holy Scripture—that is, they are not simply artistic compositions but rather are witnesses to the truth the way Scripture is. Far from being imaginitive creations of the iconographer, they are more like scribal copies of the Bible.

While the explanation of the purpose of icons is certainly true and consistent with the Church's Holy Tradition, there is a linguistic problem with the insistence on the word "written" rather than "painted." In Greek, a painted portrait of anyone is also a γραφη (graphi), and the art of painting itself is called ζωγραφια (zographia). Greeks literally use the same root word to refer to the making of portraits and the making of icons, but distinguish whether it is "painting from life" (ζωγραφια) or "painting icons" (εικωνογραφια). Thus, from a linguistic point of view, either all paintings—whether icons or simple portraits—are "written" or (more likely) "painted" is a perfectly usable English translation, simply making a distinction between the painting appropriate for icons and that appropriate for other kinds of painting, just as Greek does.

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