Byzantine Iconography refers to the distinct tradition and style embodied in the Orthodox religious images painted during the Byzantine Empire which lasted from the 5th century to the fall of its capital, Constantinople, in the year 1453. This rich tradition continues to this day, over 1,500 years after the first images were created! This enduring heritage is a testament to the powerful religious experience that these images evoke.
The word icon is Greek for "image", although it has come to be applied to a specific category of panel painting associated with Byzantine art. Dating back to at least the 6th century, icon painting usually involves portrait-like depictions of Christ, the Virgin or saints. Such images were meant not only to represent the original subject or prototype, but also to evoke its real presence and thus encourage prayer and veneration.
The process of creating an icon is accurately referred to as iconography, from the Greek, meaning "icon writing". Icons were typically painted or "written" on wooden panels which were covered in a layer of linen onto which several thin coats of gesso (a chalk-based primer) were applied. Egg tempera, combined with raw pigments, provided a basic medium for the painting of icons. The background was usually given a layer of gold leaf. Such materials and methods of icon writing are still used today.
The purpose of icons is first to create reverence in worship and second to serve as an existential link between the worshipper and God. Icons have been called prayers, hymns, and sermons in form and color. They are the visual Gospel. As St. Basil said, "What the word transmits through the ear, the painting silently shows through the image, and by these two means, mutually accompanying one another we receive knowledge of one and the same thing."
The icon offers an external human expression of the holy transfigured state, of a body filled with the Holy Spirit. By omitting everything irrelevant to the spiritual figure, the figure becomes stylized, spiritualized, not unrealistic but supra-realistic. The icon figure is thereby set aside from all other forms of pictorial art.
The work of icon painters (iconographers) had very much in common with priest's duties, merely the work differed, for a priest taught with words and an iconographer with a form and a hue. There Dionysius of Mount Athos demanded in his manual: "Let him (a painter) pray in tears, so the Lord may penetrate into his soul. Let him go to the priest, so that he could pray for him and read the praise of Transfiguration". Having been fitted that way, an iconographer could start his work.
The painting of an icon always begins with the background. Once the background is completed, the painting of the architecture, mountains and garments, can begin leaving the faces and hands to be dealt with last. The eyes of a saint, almost always supernaturally enlarged, are directed towards the transcendental world. Narrow, ascetic-looking lips are intended for chanting the praises and preaching the Glory of the Lord. A high, clear forehead emphasizes the supremacy of thought over deed. The purpose of the dark tone of the nude parts of bodies is to remove any realistic and, more so, sensorial traits. The frontal pose of a saint is also important, as it does not distract the attention of the spectator to any dramatic trait. The figures emanate their internal calmness and self-communion, emphasized with their gaze pointed directly towards the spectator. Contrary to the representations of saints, the figures of sinners and demons are represented in profile, with impetuous gesticulation precluding internal calmness and contemplation, as a rule. According to the doctrine- there is no chiaroscuro (light- and-shade effects) in icons, as the sun never sets in the world of icons. The above statement is the essential ascertainment in the art of icon painting. Light is inherent in an icon itself, so its source may not be visible.
The foregoing statements constitute a doctrinal theology of an icon. It should be added, however, that the East-Christian cult paintings become icons only after a priest has consecrated them. The sacral traits of an icon are lost in course of time for the benefit of its esthetic beauty, while its religious essence becomes obliterated in favor of narrative features. Nevertheless, an icon accompanied an orthodox member of the Orthodox Church throughout his life- from his birth until his death. His godparents presented a newborn child with an icon representing its patron. According to custom, the icon had to be the size of the infant. The newly married couples were given wedding icons. The bride turning towards her house would ask her parents for their blessing. The icons used for private devotion were frequently buried with their owner, in the close vicinity of his coffin.
As we already know, the origin of icons is related to the Byzantine Empire. There are old tales which testify that sacred paintings were placed in the room of prayer. They were most often the scenes from Christ's life (so-called: historiai) and images of a symbolic character. Icons are more than just a painting of who or what they physically represent. Someone not familiar with this art form generally misses all the symbolism contained within an icon.
The number of the images of the Virgin rose abruptly after the council of Ephesus in 431, when the formulation of the features of the Virgin as the Mother of God was done. During the subsequent century icons became the element of everyday life. Pilgrims streamed from everywhere to the icons renowned for being miraculous (eg. to the image of the Virgin the Life-Giving Source). Shortly afterwards, in the early part of the 8th century, as a result of the coincidence of circumstances in the Byzantine Empire, the icon cult was prohibited, as the venerating of sacred paintings was then considered to be idolatrous.
The dark and cruel epoch in the East-Roman Empire was called iconoclasm. Many early and valuable icons were destroyed at this time. The destruction of icons was accompanied by other atrocities aimed at creators of sacred paintings and monks (monasteries were liquidated). There were even death penalties performed in exceptionally cruel ways on painters and defenders of icons. In 842 Empress Theodora assembled a council which finally put an end to the iconoclastic controversy. From then on, icon painting fully regained its rights and potential for full growth, which was even more intensified due to the numerous events that had taken place during the period of iconoclasm.
Who was the first icon painter? According to legend, St.Luke the Apostle and Evangelist was the one who originated the art of icon painting. He is the one who is credited with painting a number of icons, in particular, the image of the Virgin with the Child. The legend of the Evangelist as an icon painter was reflected in legends related to the iconography of the Virgin Mary.
The art of icon painting is bound to a religious tradition
that disallows loose alterations.
This preserves the pure form and protects the specific theological and religious concepts being presented through the icons. A special discipline is essential for icon painters in conformity to ecclesiastical requirements. The icon is a consecrated object, thus demanding the painter to paint and pray for divine inspiration. The icon becomes, in a very real sense, the work of the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 12:4-11).
Icon painting is a special vocation. The icon painter keeps in mind the true Source of his works.