Among Jews and Muslims there is strict prohibition to present God in any other than symbolic way (so called Iconoclasm). In Christianity however they have not been straight followers of this tradition. This might be due the fact that Christians believe that God was born on the surface of earth in the human form. Of course there still has been those, who would have liked to prohibit pictures also from Christianity. 

Yet in eastern Christian tradition pictorial presentation of sacred is in key part of the religious life. This does not mean man could present sacred as he pleases. There are strict rules of painting and presentation like there are strict rules in recitation of bible in the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Icon (in Greek: eikón) must follow the rules set by theological thinking. There are preset types of paintings that are the most precious and most popular also. Most of them present Christ alone or as a baby with his mother. 

The Ortodox Tradition

17th century remake of the icon not made by hands

17th century remake of the icon not made by hands

According the Orthodox tradition the model of all Icons are so called Icon “not made by hand” – that is Christ face printed in his towel (look for the first comment of this text for the story) known by the Orthodox either as Image of Edessa or Holy Mandylion. Also according to similar tradition the first Icon painter would have been evangelist Luke, who was said to have painted a picture of Mary, “mother of God”. In this icon Mary is pointing Christ and thus showing a way towards him. Of course both of these types of icons are among classic ones to be painted. Icons are typically considered to be ones you can carry or move, but also murals are considered icons in Orthodox traditions and same rules apply for them.

In Orthodox Christianity the Icon is a painting of Christ, Mary, a saint (in their own terms sacred person) or a biblical event. It is usually painted on the wood disc by tempera method. Yet it can also be printed. According the Church rules it should always be blessed by a priest before working as religious agent. As I am not Orthodox, this of course has no meaning for me. I can enjoy these paintings artistically whit out them being blessed.

The Christ the Savior type of icons are my favourites, this from 19th century

The Christ the Savior type of 19th century Russian icon

For an orthodox Icon is not an piece of ordinary art, but it is a religious object. Orthodox uses Icons as a facilitators in prayer and the Church as lessons for illiterate people and those, who do not understand language in question. In some occasions certain icons are considered miraculous and are especially prayed upon, when miracle is hoped.

Orthodoxes believe that God himself has contributed in it through the painters hand. They are painted theology and are meant to reflect the orthodox doctrine and message as well as written word. In Orthodox traditions icons are not meant to be realistic paintings of the subject, but symbolic interpretation of the meaning.


Tender mercy type of an icon of St. Mary from 17th century

Tender mercy type of an icon of St. Mary from 17th century

Leaning on the writings of so called Fathers of the Church it appears that at least in the eastern parts of the Christian church the Icons were already common tradition in the 4th century CE.  The oldest wooden icons that have lasted until our days are from 6thcentury, although there are older mural, mosaics and few carvings. It appears that the early icons were born from the need to fight against gnostic teaching that Christ would not have been true human, but just shadow.

Yet the use of pictures of Christ grew in following years in such ways that finally emperor Justinian II but him in the Byzantine coins in 695. Due this Caliph Abd al-Malik stopped using Byzantine coins and started his own whit just letter inscriptions. In the following years there was growing debate on the use of religious pictures. The Question was not just discussed in the scholastic chambers, but it touched also the common believers.

A 12th century Novgorodian angel

A 12th century Novgorodian angel

Between 726-730 emperor Leo ordered to remove the image of Christ from the ceremonial entrance of his palace. Some of those assigned on the jobs were killed by so called iconodules, the icon worshippers. 730 the emperor forbade the worship of icons whit out first consulting the church. It appears that he saw the eruption of Thera volcano and military clashes whit Muslims as a sign from God. Due this the local bishop was forced to resign. In west pope held to synods to forbidding the action. 

Only his great-grandson Constantine removed the ban in 787 after the second council of Nikea. The ban of icon worship was reordered by Emperor Leo V the Armenian 815 probably also due the military losses and the ban continued until 843. One of the theological problems behind the fight was an idea that a religious painting must be exact copy of the person presented, which was seen impossible. For the iconoclast the only true icon of Christ was the Eucharist, which was believed to be his actual body and blood. Icons were in their eyes just Satan’s way to lead Christian back to paganism. During the 12th century the cult of icons spread all over the Byzantine world.

Icons as Art

14th century annunciation from Makedonia

14th century annunciation from Makedonia

Different Schools of painting were developed especially after, but already before, the iconoclast. The older icons of the Byzantine tradition have not been saved due the iconoclast. There are few icons from the 11th century. The earliest saved icons are from the highly emotional period. After conquest of the Constantinople, the Byzantine tradition was carried on in the regions highly influenced by its culture, especially in the Balkans and Russia.

Crete that was under Venetian rule since 1204 generated its own school of painting. This school of painting was patronised by both Venetian Catholics as well as Orthodoxies. The most famous painter of the school was El Greco, who moved to Italy after establishing his reputation in Grete.

Classic Russian icons are painted on the wood and have elaborated religious symbolism in them. During the centuries different schools of painting were developed inside the Russia. In the 17th century the official church adopted more realistic western style, while the for other reasons persecuted traditionalists (so called old believers) followed the traditionl style.

Also Catholics of Romania paint icons as reversed pictures on the other side of the class. This is known as reverse class painting.  Icons are also used among coptic church of Egypt. Coptic Icons had probably origin in so called mummy potraits – paintings over the coffin.


  1. Zacharias

    Good summary! Just a quick correction though, the Icon-Not-Made-By-Hands is not the same thing as the shroud of Turin. The story goes:

    According to Tradition, during the time of the earthly ministry of the Savior, Abgar ruled in the Syrian city of Edessa. He was afflicted with leprosy over his whole body. At this time report of the great miracles performed by the Lord extended throughout Syria (Matt. 4:24) and as far as Arabia. Although not having seen the Lord, Abgar believed in Him as the Son of God and wrote a letter requesting Him to come and heal him. With this letter he sent to Palestine his court-painter Ananias, entrusting him to paint an image of the Divine Teacher.

    Ananias went to Jerusalem and saw the Lord surrounded by people. He was not able to go to Him because of the great throng of people listening to His preaching; so he stood on a huge rock and attempted to produce a painting of the image of the Lord Jesus Christ, unable, however, to succeed. The Savior Himself called him by name and gave for Abgar a beautiful letter in which,’ having glorified the faith of the ruler, He promised to send His disciple in order to heal him from the leprosy and instruct him in salvation.

    After this, the Lord called for water and a towel. He wiped His face, rubbing with the towel, and on it was impressed His Divine Image. The towel and the letter the Savior sent with Ananias to Edessa. With thanksgiving Abgar received the sacred object and received healing, but a small portion, only a trace, remained of the terrible disease on his face until the arrival of the promised Disciple of the Lord.

    The Apostle of the 70, Thaddeus, came to them and preached the Gospel, baptizing the believing Abgar and all living in Edessa. Having written on the Image Not-Made-By-Hands the words, Christ-God, everyone trusting in Thee will not be put to shame, Abgar adorned it and placed it in a niche over the city gates.

  2. Raindreamer

    Ok, I did not know that – thank’s for the correction.

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