Praying with Icons – Part 2.

Part 1 – What are icons?

Part 2 – A (very) brief history.

AD 330 – The date when then Roman Emperor, Constantine, moved his court from Rome to a fishing town on the shore of the Black Sea. Byzantion had been around from the seventh century BC but with the arrival of Constantine it grew into a fittingly imperial city and was renamed New Rome (1). It was later named after the Emperor, Constantinople.

Iconography began to develop even before Constantine and became established in the Byzantine Empire between 330 and 1453 (2). After 1453 iconography was affected to some extent by the Western Renaissance, but it’s special and distinctive qualities survived. In the West, icons were largely unappreciated during the twentieth century. During the mid-19th century Byzantine items owned by the British Museum were stowed away in the basement (3)! Icons were often seen to be outdated. More recently, however, people are discovering that Orthodox Christian art is not outdated but is beautiful in its own right. As Linette Martin notes, “there was no precise date when the visual language began because it grew out of Roman art; there was no date when it ended because it is still a living art,” (p.11).

The earliest surviving icons are dated to the 6th and 7th centuries and are now almost entirely preserved in the monastary of St. Catherine of Sinai. The remoteness of this outpost of the Empire preserved these icons from the systematic destruction of sacred art orded by the iconoclast emperors after 720 (4). All of these surviving icons are in a technique and medium called “encaustic wax”, in which powdered mineral colours were blended in hot wax, laid on with glass rods (5). This technique had been lost by the time of the restoration of icons in 843 and we are only now beginning to learn how it was done.

However, we know that icons were being made far before this time. Literary sources reveal that icons were made from the late 4th century. For example, St. John Chrysostom speaks of having a portrait of St. Paul on his desk to inspire him when writing homilies on the Epistles (6). Opposition to Christian art did not begin with iconoclasm. The fact that there was no controversy until the 8th century demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of believers had no objections. Indeed, by the late 6th century, icons were the principal focus of popular devotion among all classes throughout the eastern Roman world (7).

I mentioned above the iconography began to develop even earlier than the 4th century. According to the Orthodox tradition icons appeared very early on. The “image not-made-by-hands” is said to have been around during the time of Jesus’ own ministry. You can read more about it here. Another example of an early icon according to tradition is the image of the theotokos as painted by Saint Luke, who is said to be the founder of iconography.

(1) Martin, 10.

(2) Note how early icons appeared – at the latest early-4th century, possibly earlier.

(3) Martin, 11.

(4) Martin, 11.

(5) Martin, 12.

(6) Martin, 12.

(7) Martin, 12.


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