A Short History of Iconography
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 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 who couldn’t read. As a result, the Christian message was no longer confined to the understanding of a few. 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 its definitive form. The result was the creation of a symbolic language that expressed the Christian faith by way of images–a visual theology.
Iconography was 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 Saviour 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 when the use of icons was prohibited, many monks and the 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 are also part of the Eastern mystical tradition, while the Western Churches view them moreover as a symbol of faith.
Follow the link below for understanding the spiritual symbolism involved in icon writing.
The word “iconography” is derived from the Greek words “eikon” meaning “image” and “graphos” meaning “to write.” The icon image is a visual symbol of the invisible. Icons express in images the spiritual realities that are inexpressible in words and inaccessible to our rational mind.
The Church developed the symbolic language and technique for the sacred art of iconography between the fourth and sixth centuries A.D. The purpose of this canon of representation is to ensure that the teachings of the Gospels remain clear and undistorted. Thus, the iconographer merely strives to represent accurately the spiritual truths as set forth by the Church instead of his/her personal interpretation of these truths. This is the main difference between icons and religious paintings which show the artist’s opinion or perception of a particular religious figure or event. Figures, features, and faces in icons are not the subjects’ realistic portraits but their symbolic likenesses as their bodies are transfigured by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is for this reason that icons are sometimes referred to as windows into heaven.
The practice of icon-writing is a form of contemplation, meditation and prayer which extends beyond the studio to every aspect of the iconographer’s life. It is a liturgical art form, which leads to a liturgical way of life.
A member of our church, who is Albanian and who not long ago converted to our faith, explained what is the most significant feature of Orthodox worship, it is the image. For Orthodox worshipers, the image is canonical, that is, it is scripture; in fact, if I understand it right, it is more pure scripture than the written word.
I have since learnt that the process by which an icon is created is itself an act of worship and is described as ‘writing’, not painting, drawing or sculpting. These images should never carry an inscription revealing the one who has produced it because an iconographer believes it is really the Holy Spirit who is responsible for the end result. Below are some interesting quotes, mainly from iconarts.com.
Within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, although the church is less than two centuries old, visual media is a significant part of our tradition. Whilst no visual media is allowed in that part of our buildings where the sacrament is administered, in all other areas paintings and in particular the moving image, plays a significant role in representing aspects of our faith. Is any of it iconic? Generally no, although one subject, which is full of symbols, that has caught the imagination of many artists is Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life. But generally the artist is known and the art produced, while stimulating the imagination, is not used as part of any worship service.
Is the use of images in the Christian religion the return to Paganism and idolatry?
Is Iconography used in Temple worship?
But there is one area of our tradition that I believe is
not far from that of Orthodox iconography and that is in the presentation of the endowment. Since the 1950s, when temples began being built wherever numbers of members was large enough, so the presentation of the endowment has developed too, from a dramatised version, using live actors with painted murals, to state of the art moving image. Any one of these presentations, of which there are a number of versions, may be shown during an endowment session. Whilst the narrative and dialogue remains the same, each portrayal will teach us differently, penetrating the very deepest parts of our spiritual lives and that is where we keep their influence.
Like icons, of course, there are no credits and they are not for public viewing. They symbolically represent spiritual truths. They are, I believe, iconic. Now, of course we do not venerate these portrayals themselves, nevertheless we do reverence them. We do not discuss their details or the interpretations we glean from them.
So, although the Restored Church and Gospel may seem a million light-years from Orthodoxy, the more I look into it, perhaps it is simply that unfamiliar forms of worship seems strange and perhaps we need to examine the spiritual effects on those who devoutly follow it, rather than it’s outward portrayal.
In the Orthodox tradtion St. Luke is believed to have been the first writer of icons and 'wrote' three icons of Mary, however they vanished, probably during the crusades