Iconography (from Greek: εικoνογραφία) refers to the making and liturgical 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. A person who practices the art of iconography is called an iconographer.
Images have always been a vital part of the Church, but their place was the subject of the Iconoclast Controversy in the 8th and 9th centuries, especially in the East. The Sunday of Orthodoxy, the first Sunday of the Great Fast (Lent) every year celebrates the reestablishment of the Orthodox veneration of icons. The use of iconography is considered one of the most distinctive elements of the Byzantine Rite.
From the first centuries of Christianity, icons have been used for prayer. Orthodox Tradition tells us, for example, of the existence of an icon of the Christ during his lifetime, the Icon-Not-Made-With-Hands, and of the icons of the Theotokos immediately after him written by the All-laudable Apostle and Evangelist Luke.
Egyptian death masks
Historically, the icon is thought to be a descendant of the Egyptian death masks that were painted on mummies wrapped in strips of glue and powered gypsum soaked linen. This led to the traditional icon painting technique of gluing linen on a board, gessoing it, and painting on it. The Christian icon also inherited the cultic task of the ritual mask and exalted this task. The task that revealed the deified spirit of the deceased resting in eternity. The spiritual essence of the old Cult was transfigured into a new cultural image manifesting itself more perfectly than the old.
Unlike the mask, the Christian icon is not part of a mummy or sarcophagus, it does not need to connect to a saint's body. No matter where on earth the saint's remains are, and no matter the physical condition, his resurrected and deified body lives in eternity, and the icon that shows him forth does not merely depict the holy witness but is the very witness. It is not the icon, as art, that tells us anything, it is the saint, through the icon that is teaching. This window, to the resurrected, breaks when the icon itself is separated by the observer, from the saint it depicts. At that moment the icon just becomes another thing of this world. The vital connection between heaven and earth disintegrates.
"Written" or "painted"?
The most literal translation of the word Greek: εικονογραφία (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 imaginative creations of the iconographer, they are more like scribal copies of the Bible.
While the explanation of the purpose and nature 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 γραφή (graphi), and the art of painting itself is called ζωγραφική (zographiki) while any drawing or painting can be referred to as ζωγραφιά (zographia). Ancient Greek literally uses the same root word to refer to the making of portraits and the making of icons, but distinguishes whether it is "painting from life" (ζωγραφιά) or "painting icons" (εικονογραφία). 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.
Some have suggested that icon writing be used because of the fact that for many centuries, (whether the early Church, the persecutions against the Christians by the pagan authorities, or more recently around the Orthodox World when the faithful have been subjected to non-Orthodox authority), icons were the books of the illiterate and through the depiction of an often simple image refer to and confirm the fundamental belief of the Church; the Incarnation. God's becoming human, his undertaking and sanctifying of human nature and matter in general means that He can be depicted using matter.
Icons on Glass
Painting on glass – a very ancient art introduced to Transylvania after its annexation to the Habsburg empire (1699) – had an extraordinary diffusion as a mass phenomenon as the result of a miraculous event that happened at Nicula, a village in the north of Transylvania, where on the 15th February, 1694 (some scholars say 1699) tears were seen running down the face of the Blessed Virgin on a wooden icon of the Madonna with Child in the local church. This miraculous event transformed the village into a centre of pilgrimage, the many pilgrims being anxious to obtain an image of the miraculous Madonna to take home. In this way began the great spread of the painting of icons on glass in Transylvania.
The Zosim Oancea Museum of icons on glass at Sibiel
The Fr Zosim Oancea Museum at Sibiel holds the largest existing exposition of icons on glass in Transylvania, a miracle of artistic creativity and religious inspiration born of the riches of the Orthodox Christian tradition and the imagination of Romanian peasant painters. A unique fusion of Eastern tradition and Western technique, icons on glass emerged and spread throughout this extensive region of Romania in the first decades of the eighteenth century, reaching their apogee between 1750 and the end of the nineteenth century and almost vanishing in the period between the two world wars. Begun in 1969 under the aegis of Fr Zosim Oancea, the people of Sibiel and with the help of institutions and private donors, the collection in this museum with its almost 600 masterpieces, represents all the main types of icons on glass along with works by some of the most famous icon-painters – when their names are known. A visit to the museum at Sibiel also presents the opportunity to discover the person who gave the museum its name: Fr Zosim Oancea, a truly exceptional man and priest to whose intelligent vision and indefatigable tenacity we owe this extraordinary museum in the heart of Romania.
- Forest, Jim. Praying With Icons. (ISBN 1570751129)
- Iconostasis, ISBN 0881411175 By Pavel Alexandrovich Florensky Published 2000, St Vladimir's Seminary Press
- Iconography Guide- free e-learning site
- The Icon FAQ
- Icons Explained
- A Discourse in Iconography by St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco
- The Icon: A Manifestation of Theology - Traditional Byzantine Iconography website
- On the Differences of Western Religious Art and Orthodox Iconography - Traditional Byzantine Iconography website
- Eleftherios Foulidis - Greek Orthodox Iconographer
Online icon galleries
- From Our Life in Christ:
| This article forms part of the series
Introduction to Orthodox Christianity
- http://www.sibiel.net - Published by the permission of the author: Giovanni Ruggeri