What Is An Icon?

The word icon is derived from the Greek eikon, meaning an image. Icons are popularly known as the art of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, but they are really much more. Graphically, they illustrate the life of Jesus Christ and his mother, Mary, as well as saints and stories from the Bible and later Christian experiences. Physically and spiritually, icons fulfill a prayerful role in church services and in the lives of the faithful.

Many paintings and objects in Western art have a Christian or religious theme, but they are not icons. Orthodox icons were, and still are, created for prayer and liturgical use in the church and for personal prayers at home or in travel. Icons often were so beautifully and skillfully made, however, that they also attracted the attention of private collectors and museums. Icons can be seen in churches and museums all over the world today.

Some of the most famous icons are Byzantine, Greek and Russian paintings on wood. Countless other masterpieces also were made from a variety of materials. They were produced of gold, silver and copper, some with polychrome enamels and gemstones; from carved wood, stone and ivory; from embroidered textiles and from tiny pieces of glass, ceramic and stone arranged to form mosaics.

According to custom, an icon artist was expected to be a person of high moral principle and Christian ideals who prepared for his work by fasting and praying. The iconography was neither a creation of the artist's imagination nor whim, but followed a prescribed pattern and subject according to Church tradition.

In Russia, an icon is referred to as being "written." The "icon graphics" were designed to be so explicit that no words (except for the traditional titles and abbreviations), were needed to convey the meaning, and the story of an icon remained recognizable by conforming to iconographic tradition. Thus, icons also overcame problems of language and literacy.

How is an Icon Used?

People who worship in a church are closely involved with icons. Small icons are set on portable, cloth-draped lecterns and larger ones are hung on the walls. Beeswax candles are burned nearby and the icons are kissed, touched and incensed as acts of devotion. Icons are blessed with holy water and also are carried in processions both inside and outside the church. An icon of one of the 12 special liturgical feast days is often displayed on a lectern in the center of the church, according to the day. An icon of a special saint whose memory the church is honoring or an icon of the church's patron saint may also be placed in this central location. The faithful pray, make the sign of the cross and display profound reverences such as bowing, kneeling, kissing and touching the forehead to the icon. Icons are venerated but they are never worshipped. These acts of respect handed down from ancient cultural traditions still survive worldwide in the Orthodox Church.

Icons are given as gifts on occasions of marriages, baptisms or saint's name days (commemorating the saint after whom a Christian is named). They also are donated to churches and monasteries as memorial gifts or acts of thanksgiving. Small icons were sometimes given by a father to a son going into military service and larger ones were often carried into battle on banners. Old manuscripts and recent archeological excavations give evidence of travelers, soldiers and sailors who carried small metal icons (usually on a string around the neck) with them on journeys. Icons were displayed on city gates and walls (such as the gates of the Kremlin) and in special places along the highway. Many old and even recently-made icons have been considered miraculous.

Some icons can be as tall as a human. Others are small enough to fit into a palm. Authentic icons are those that are blessed and regarded as holy. The beauty or material worth of an icon is not considered in devotion. In the 17th century, Paul of Aleppo wrote about icons when he traveled to Russia:

As the Muscovites have the very greatest affection and love for icons, they do not consider the beauty of the picture nor the skill of the artist -- for them all icons, beautiful or ugly, are on a level; they reverence even an icon, which is nothing more than a sketch on paper.

In the 20th century, a priest may even bless a photograph of an old icon and distribute it as a gift.

Sometimes icons had metal covers, oklads made for them, either to protect them from human handling in devotions, to enhance their beauty or as memorials. The oklads often were made of silver or gilded silver with the figures of the icon repeated by repoussé and chasing. The metal was cut out to reveal the painted faces, hands and feet of the icon beneath. Some oklads (donated to churches or monasteries by the very wealthy) were studded with precious gemstones, diamonds and pearls.

In Russian Orthodox homes all over the world today, icons are displayed in special places of honor, called the "beautiful corner." To the Orthodox Christian, an icon is a constant reminder of God's presence in his church, his home and in his life.

This article has been adapted by the author from An Education Guide for Art Exhibitions, Masterworks in Metal, San Diego, California, by Vera Beaver Bricken Espinola, 1989.

Source: Treasures of the Czars education guide by Vera B. Espinola.

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