Icon Myths! Some thoughts...

 Icon Myths!!!

A friend of mine made a long post on Facebook which begins:
"Here is a quick summary of some of the most common icon myths."
It is at times a hugely inaccurate piece, but at the same time it does highlight some of the important areas where a lot of people have got some pretty odd ideas about icons. So, I thought I might have a go at answering what he has posted, step by step.

The post is in black, my comments in read.
1 .The first Christians painted and used icons.
No. There is no evidence that the first Christians painted or used icons for veneration. Though there is archeological and literary evidence of Christian art around the beginning of the the 3rd century, there is no evidence for the painting and use of venerated icons as they later became known in Christianity.

Well there is mention in one of the apocryphal parts of the New Testament, dating to the 2nd century, which describes how the Apostle John healed someone, and they wanted to make a devotional image of him. In the Acts of the Apostle we see how the Apostles were often revered by healed people as some sort of gods, so that is more than possible as we know that pagans had shrines with such images in their homes.

The development of the style and use of such devotional images is unknown. What we can say is that as soon as there is any evidence for the existence of Christianity, which is literary at first and archaeological later, images play a key part. (The word ikone is simply Greek for 'image'.) Therefore it is very likely that the Christians used images of the saints in their life of prayer from the earliest times.

The images that we call 'icons', that is Byzantine icons, developed directly from these ancient origins. However, how the Church understood the place and spiritual power of images developed over many centuries, as for example did the doctrine of the Holy Trinity or of the Holy Eucharist. It took many centuries and just like the other major doctrines of the Christian faith emerged after being hammered out in debates that were often violent and led to martyrdom.

It was out of an extended period of such controversy, over 150 years, that the Church in the east came to the fundamental understanding about icons that it still basically holds today (please note this includes Melkites, Byzantine Catholics who are all Roman Catholics, as well as the many Orthodox Churches of the east). Latin Christians never went through that process but nevertheless hold to the Orthodox understanding of icons as taught in the 7th Ecumenical Council. In the east this is celebrated as The Sunday of Orthodoxy, and indicates how fundamental images became for Christian life and faith by the 9th century.

2. There are icons of Mary painted by St. Luke.
No. There is no evidence that any icon of Mary attributed to Luke dates to the 1st century. All are later, most much later. And of course there is no evidence that Luke or any other Christian of New Testament times painted or used icons.

To say there is or is not evidence begs a question. What is evidence? Perhaps better to say that there are many associations of very old icons with St Luke, over 700 I think I read once. It is an idea that seems to have caught on very early. Having said that, as Ouspensky says, there is no icon in existence now that is in an original form from such an apostolic date as all the most ancient icons have been over painted many times.

Could Luke have painted an icon of Mary? Well its possible. Certainly he alone of the Evangelists paints a description of Mary in words in his Gospel. He obviously had met her, and heard her story. Was he an artist? There is no indication of that in the Gospel, nor any ancient sources that say this. So, its a pious conjecture to affirm that the Holy Apostle who certainly did paint a portrait in words of the Blessed Mother also took up a brush and did so in paint. And certainly this idea has had much traction among the faithful for many centuries, so it is an idea that been well 'received' by God's people. So it is important to respect the idea even if, as is said here, there is no evidence we can rely on to assert this with absolute certainty.

3. Icons are “written,” not painted.
No. That mistake is the result of a misunderstanding of language. In Greek and in Russian, the words for “paint’ and “write” were the same. The same word was used for both, and context determined which was meant. In English, however, we have distinct words for “write” and “paint,” so in English, icons are painted, not “written.” Saying to “write” an icon is a mistake new immigrants might make, but not once they learned correct English.

I agree with this point. I would also point out that I use a brush, and I paint with a brush, so I can't deny I paint icons. Those who make icons with pens could, perhaps, claim they write icons. I find it pretentious to say 'writing' icons as though we were in some special category of creativity. We aren't. We use paint, brushed, panels, gold leaf, humble painting materials. Iconography is also an extension of the Incarnation, where the point is that God gets involved in matter, the stuff of creation, that he takes mud and makes man, and then Himself becomes Man, becomes mud. Therefore it is important to affirm this by saying paint icons, as saying 'write' is an attempt to distance icons from other art, whereas the point is that it reveals what all art is about: the revelation of the glory of God in all things.

4. Icons are “windows to heaven.”
No. They are windows only into how a particular religion and culture chose to depict its traditional religious figures.

While I agree that 'window' is a bad term to describe icons, it's because they are actually doors from heaven where God meets us in our material existence as He did when becoming flesh and being held in the arms of Mary. At that moment God took on and showed himself with a human face, and the whole relationship from God to humanity shifted radically.

Now if you want a sociology of religion view, you would indeed say they give an insight, a window, into how the Christian faith understands itself, God, humanity, creativity, prayer etc etc... which is exactly the role that icons serve in the life of the faithful. However, that role is to be not an insight about our faith, but to be an active function within it, and that is as a door from heaven to earth, which of course those who don't hold to our faith would dismiss as nonsense.

5. Icons depict saints accurately.
No. Most of the images of saints depicted in icons are entirely imaginary and often simply generic images distinguished only by the style and color of hair, the presence, absence or shape of beards, And the kind and color of garments worn. So when people venerate — for example — an icon of St. John (by tradition apostle, evangelist, and theologian), they are venerating an imaginary image of John that became standardized in painting at some point in history. Even the depictions of Jesus and Mary are imaginary.

This is inaccurate. Firstly because what ancient people meant by a true likeness was more about embodying the truth about that person, their character. Secondly because it was also about being a recognisable likeness, and for example the images of St Peter or St Paul have been clearly and identifiably distinctive since the very first examples, in the catacombs in the 3rd century.

Henry Maguire in his scholarly work 'The Icons of Their Bodies' explains all of this in great detail and while it is true that in some cases generic imagery was used of saints, for many there is ample evidence that images of them were known by their contemporaries and understood to be a 'good likeness'.
6. “Stylized” icons — that is, icons depicting saints with stylized rather than realistic features and proportions — were always the way icons were painted in Eastern Orthodoxy.
No. Stylization of figures in icons is a tradition that developed over time in Eastern Orthodoxy, but was not always used. In Russian icons, for example, stylization was common prior to the separation of the State Church and the “Old Believers” in the middle of the 17th century, but after that, the State Church began using more and more realism in the painting of icons. The Old Believers were, in general, the preservers of stylization in icon painting after the 17th century. Most people do not realize that a great many of the stylized icons they consider so characteristic of Eastern Orthodoxy today were actually painted by Old Believers who considered the State Orthodox Church (the “Russian Orthodox Church”) to be heretical.

This is correct. Byzantine iconography developed as I said earlier over centuries, and in time MANY DIFFERENT styles of iconography emerged. Greek and Russian, Georgian, Romanesque, Balkan, Crusader, Coptic, Palestinian/Syrian and so on. However, over time certain key elements predominated and they form the kernal from which authentic Byzantine iconography continues in many different cultures and contexts even today.

7. Icon painters never signed their completed icons.
No. Many icons — even some going back centuries — were signed by the painter, both in Greek icon painting and in Russian. There are countless examples of old signed icons.

This over states it. Icon PAINTERS were simply a class or artisans, like stonemasons, architects and so on, and signing your work was rarely done before the late Middle Ages. So there was a tradition of artists remaining invisible, and rather the focus being on WHAT they painted rather than on WHO painted it. It wasn't an exercise in self expression or glory, but of giving glory to God. Putting your name on it would therefore be simply bizarre. Occasionally people put names to their work but this was not generally the case at any time until perhaps the 17th century when the influence of Renaissance and baroque art had a profound influence on Orthodox culture.

8. Icons were never painted for money.
No. Icon painting developed into a big business. For example, there was a vigorous trade in icons painted by Cretan icon painters and sold to buyers in the Venetian Republic. Icon painting in Russia was a huge business, and prices were charged according to the size, complexity, and quality of the icon.


9. The saints and events painted in icons were real and historical.
No. Some saints actually existed and some never existed. Even in the case of historical saints, their lives and actions are often partly, heavily, or even entirely fictionalized. Some icon saints — like St. Joasaph/Josaphat, were actually borrowed from non-Christian traditions, in that particular case from the life of the Buddha. The events depicted in icons are often as fictional as fairy and folk tales.

This is eye-rolling in its over simplification and is worthy of a post all on its own.

10. All icon depictions of Mary — including those on so-called “wonder-working” icons — originated in Eastern Orthodoxy.
No. A number of Marian icons — including some classified as “wonder-working” — were actually borrowed from the Roman Catholic tradition. And many icons in general were painted after models copied from Western European Catholic or Protestant religious engravings.

Yes, the interaction between east and west is not as some Orthodox like to maintain. The flow of styles and ideas and devotions is very fluid throughout Christian history.


Popular Posts