ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Icon Art

For centuries, icons have elevated the faithful to a spiritual plane.

Iconography is the art of representing by pictures or images sacred or religious figures. Byzantine iconography began as the continuation of early Christian painting of the catacombs and the first Churches of Rome and of the East.

The established type of the icon dates from the apostolic era, according to ancient legend, and its first recognized iconographer was Luke the Evangelist, who painted icons representing the Holy Virgin and the apostles Peter and Paul, and who disseminated this sacred custom of using icons.

Briefly retracing its history, Byzantine art had its root as an art in itself in the time of the Emperor Justinian, in the sixth century A.D. The first period of Byzantine art begins then and ends with the Iconoclastic Controversy begun by the Emperor Leo the Isaurian in the early eighth century during which time many precious icons and paintings were destroyed. From this period only a few wall paintings, portable icons and mosaics still survive from different churches in Italy, Greece, Paris and elsewhere, indicating that Byzantine art had spread throughout the civilized world.

A second period begins with the Restoration of the Holy Icons in the ninth century and continues until the capture of Constantinople by the Franks in 1204. During this second period, Byzantine art fully matured. Whereas it had been simple and primarily decorative, it now became liturgical and dogmatic. The themes which it represented in this period do not intend to simply decorate a church, but to help the congregation to pray and to experience the Holy Liturgy. In other words, the icons instruct the believer in the mysteries of his faith.

The third and final period began with the occupation of Constantinople by the Franks in 1204. In this period there was a real renaissance, one which preceded the Renaissance of the West and became its real teacher. Its masterpieces are the marvelous mosaics of the Monastery of the Chora in Constantinople.

It is said by many critics of Byzantine art that its beauty continues to radiate in Eastern churches as well as in Latin. This third period ended substantially with the final capture of Constantinople in 1453 by Sultan Mohammed II.

Byzantine icons have a deeper meaning than the figure they portray. Byzantine art is not a photographic art, intended to show the holy faces as a camera would show them. It is not an art of the flesh, intended to display the beauty of the flesh. It is intended to show more than that in depicting virtue, asceticism, holiness, the things of the spirit. It takes us beyond bodily forms, line, color and mass, and carries us to a spiritual plane to transform and elevate us.

Unlike other kinds of art, Byzantine art cannot be measured with the yard stick of the beautiful or the ugly, the natural or the unnatural. It must be measured against the worldly or the holy, the earthly or the divine. And the more successfully it carries us from the earth upward, from material things which keep us down, to the ideas which lie behind them, from the flesh to the spirit, the more valuable an art it is.

What should the iconographer show us by painting the Virgin? Should he depict the startling physical beauty which is common to many women, or the spiritual beauty of the Mother of Christ? And when he paints the ascetic St. John the Baptist, should he paint a well-fed, rosy-cheeked countenance, or the dematerialization of the flesh and its fusion with the spirit?

Byzantine icon art is intended to lift us up, to make visible to us the mysteries of the Faith, to help us spiritually. It attempts to complete the liturgy, to perfect the atmosphere so that we realize we are drawing nearer to God.

Consequently, Byzantine art has no spatial depth. It does away with the “here” and “there.” The background becomes a gold surface in the case of mosaics and blue meadows in the case of wall paintings. The Byzantine icon abolishes space because in eternity, in the spiritual world, in God, there is no “here” nor “there” or “up” and “down.” In eternity there is no “yesterday” or “today” because everything is now.

Byzantine art is not obsolete. On the contrary, it is the style of our age. It is considered a modern art by the world, because it is the first art to have been born in the souls of Christians, and has not been replaced spiritually by any other style of art, in spite of the twenty centuries which have passed since its inception.

A few years ago, Pope Paul VI addressed a circular to all Roman Catholic churches throughout the world instructing them to revere and use Byzantine style.

In Byzantine icons we do not see things as we see them in everyday life, and that is as it should be since it is exactly a different perspective on things which this type of representation is intended to give us.

John Spilio was born in Greece and studied painting in Athens, Florence, Italy and Paris. He has decorated many churches in Greece and the U.S. and is the founder of the Byzantine Icons Studio in New York City.

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