Post-classical history

Icons, a New Christian Art Form

When the husband [who had commissioned a gilded wooden icon of St Michael the Archangel] felt he was about to die, he took his wife’s hand and put it upon the hand of the archangel saying: ‘O Archangel Michael… behold, in thy hands I place my wife Euphemia as a deposit, so that thou mayst watch over her.’ And after his death, Euphemia continued offering the icon incense, keeping a lamp lit before it at all times, and venerating it three times a day, she begged the saint to help her and protect her from the Devil.

Sermon of Eustathios of Thrace, probably seventh century

In this simple story, we learn how an elderly couple expressed their faith, thanks to an icon of St Michael the Archangel. The painted image they had commissioned was kept by the widow Euphemia in her bedroom, where she performed acts of veneration before it. Not only did it defend her from the Devil’s attempts to destroy her faith, which are described in vivid detail, but also, after her death, it was placed over her face as a protective cover. The local bishop then witnessed the appearance of the archangel himself, accompanied by many other angels all clad in golden robes, who came to take Euphemia’s soul to heaven. The icon disappeared temporarily, but later it was found suspended in the air in the episcopal church, where it performed many miracles.

Burning incense and lighting a lamp in front of an image was of course an ancient way of showing respect. All imperial images had to be honoured in this way, and in the third and early fourth centuries the Christians’ failure to do so had unleashed official persecution against them. Public statues of gods and emperors, sometimes colossal, dominated the urban landscape and received marks of respect in special rites. At pagan festivals, statues of the gods were washed, dressed and paraded through cities; they were set up on altars, decorated with flower garlands and worshipped. In temples of Asclepius, patients slept close to the god’s statue and offered prayers requesting medical cures. Inside private homes, the family lares (household gods) were also venerated; women in particular attended to these in domestic shrines and made offerings to the gods. This strong tradition of seeking protection within the home provided a context in which Christian icons gradually replaced ancient ones. Although there is no record of this process, it seems likely that when Christians adopted their new monotheistic faith, they would have removed the old lares and set up new protecting images. As Christianity became established, pictures of Christ, the Virgin and saints took over the role of securing the well-being of the family. While this domestic form of veneration is rarely stressed, it may have been the means by which Christian icons came to be regarded by the faithful as indispensable.

Recently, Thomas Mathews has shown that in Late Antiquity icons of the pagan gods were also displayed inside houses. They could be framed and hung on a wall; sometimes they had hinged side panels which could cover the painted area or lids which fitted over them. They are painted in encaustic, using heated wax which could be coloured and applied to thin pieces of wood to create life-like portraits. These images of gods and local deities have intense large eyes that address the viewer directly. Incense and lamps were burned in their honour. Often they were associated with funerary practices. Mummified bodies from the Fayyum area of Egypt, for instance, preserve portraits placed over the face of the deceased. Not only rich women, wearing their golden jewellery, but also old men, young children, athletes and pagan gods were all commemorated in this way. Their compelling personal characters make us feel that we know them as they were when alive. Thanks to the dry conditions in Fayyum, many survived, while elsewhere, though ubiquitous in the Roman world, they decomposed.

Mathews suggests that these pagan portraits are the forerunners of Christian icons painted using the same technique, and that images of Isis provided a model for the Mother of God, those of Zeus and Sarapis for the first images of Christ. These ancient icons are found in a private, domestic setting as well as in cult temples. Evidence that icons derived from pagan models may be supported by the stories of miraculous punishments suffered by painters when they tried to depict Christ as Zeus (one or both hands were temporarily withered). Even as late as the 580s, pagans were discovered commissioning icons so that they could appear to venerate Christ when, in fact, they were devotees of Apollo. This deception provoked trials in which the pagan worshippers of Apollo were condemned to death; it also implies that distinguishing encaustic panels of the pagan gods from icons of Christ might be difficult. Artists also worried whether Christ was to be shown with long hair and bearded, or with short curly hair. While some Christian authors praised the long-haired image modelled on what they called ‘Nazarene’, others claimed that the short frizzy hairstyle was more authentic.

The Greek term eikon can refer to any image, but by the fourth century it seems to relate particularly to the early encaustic portraits of Christ, the Virgin, the saints, local martyrs and bishops and monks (plates 21 and 27). In contrast to the domestic use of icons within the home, religious images were common in tombs. Christians buried in marble coffins (sarcophagi) chose symbols and images to reflect their religious convictions, and these elaborately carved monuments were often placed inside churches. Imperial patronage in association with holy relics frequently provided a stimulus to Christian art, for instance when Leo I (457–74) and his wife Verina brought the girdle and veil of the Mother of God to Constantinople and constructed special shrines within her church at Blachernai to house them. These chapels were decorated with large icons of the Virgin with the imperial couple and the two senators responsible for identifying the relics. On her feast days the icons were processed through the city. In less official celebrations, images of holy men, bishops, martyrs and saints were also commemorated in mosaic, painted in fresco and displayed in public places. Painted panels were rapidly copied in metal, mosaic, enamel and less precious materials; they were framed and covered with silver covers embellished with gems; silk veils were hung in front of them to protect the painted surface. Icons created a new art form, which remains particularly associated with Byzantium. They not only attained paramount importance within the empire, but also exercised immense influence outside it.

How did icons gain such a dominant place in Byzantium? Despite some theological reservations, related to the Old Testament prohibition of graven images, religious images are mentioned in early Christian texts. While there is no evidence for their existence during the life of Christ, a story that St Luke had painted the Virgin and Child, and that all later copies were endowed with that authentic power, associated such icons with the holy qualities of their subjects. Other images miraculously created, such as the Mandylion, the towel on which it was believed Christ had impressed his features, were called acheiropoietai (not made by hand), and were particularly cherished. At Edessa (in Syria) and Kamouliana (in central Asia Minor) icons modelled on this holy cloth performed the role of city protectors, and were paraded around the walls whenever enemies appeared. Similarly, after the First Oecumenical Council, images of the 318 Fathers were held responsible for protecting Nicaea, while the most important icon of the Mother of God played a highly significant part in the defence of the capital. As we have seen, this gave rise to Constantinople’s additional name: Theotokoupolis, the city guarded by the Theotokos, she who bore God.

Belief in the power of icons was related to the theory that the icon in some way captured the essence of the holy person depicted, and that through the icon communication with that person could be established. St Basil of Caesarea (c. 329–79) enshrined this notion in a famous comment on imperial images: the honour made to the image passes to the prototype. Icons, therefore, could serve as intercessors: prayers directed to them passed on to the holy persons depicted on them. This understanding was reinforced by the manner in which icons addressed the viewer. The figures represented a dignified authority in a direct frontal manner, with large eyes which gazed out from the panel as if inviting communication. Through this immediate contact, the icons demanded attention. In response, Christians gave the images their total devotion. Visions and conversations were alleged to take place in front of Christian icons. When a childless couple visited the shrine of St Glykeria at Herakleia, for instance, the husband reported that the saint appeared and spoke to him, reassuring him that they would have a child, and in due course St Elizabeth was born. Icons thus facilitated a method of spiritual communication that did not depend on the consecrated power of a priest or bishop. They functioned in a domestic setting as well as in church and gave particular solace to individuals who made their devotions privately, as stories record. In this respect, they performed the same function as the pre-Christian household gods.

Icons were also created in other media: craftsmen continued the ancient skill of carving precious metals and expensive materials – ivory, gemstones, enamel and rock crystal. Secular ivory diptychs commissioned by Roman consuls died out with that institution in the sixth century, though emperors continued to commission ivory panels to commemorate a coronation or a marriage. Most surviving medieval ivory plaques carry Christian themes, such as St Michael the Archangel, or scenes from the life of Christ. Frequently these religious objects preserve the form of consular diptychs, joined by hinges at the centre, or triptychs (in three sections), which means that the central part can be covered; on some triptychs all external and interior surfaces are carved. Individual panels were combined to decorate large pieces of church furniture, for example ivory thrones such as the sixth-century one belonging to Bishop Maximian of Ravenna. When elephant tusk became too expensive, walrus and other bone was used for combs, needles and small round boxes. In the West, Byzantine ivories with Christian subjects were often reused as medieval book covers. Mounted on metal frames decorated with jewels and ancient cameos, they create glowing golden guards at either end of parchment manuscripts.

A set of silver plates decorated with scenes from the life of David reflects Old Testament inspiration for Byzantine art: the use of silver stamps to guarantee quality means that many of these pieces can be securely dated to specific years of the reign of Herakleios (610–41). Other silver objects are identified by dedicatory inscriptions commissioned by Syrian villagers for local rural churches, which can in turn be dated from inscriptions set into the mosaic floors. Crosses, patens, chalices, spoons, altar and book coverings intended for liturgical use suggest that at all levels of society these offerings were widespread.

Just as the cults of the ancient gods had been spread through art (sculpture and paintings), so icons became an effective way of disseminating the stories of particular saints. When pilgrims went in search of miraculous cures, achieved by contact with a saint’s relics, they found churches often decorated with images – of Demetrios in Thessalonike, Artemios in Constantinople, Menas accompanied by his camels near Alexandria, and Symeon on his column near Antioch. Sometimes the icons exuded a healing liquid that proved a powerful cure; oil that burned in lamps in front of them also had healing powers. In the late sixth century, Patriarch Sophronios of Jerusalem had personal experience of this in Alexandria where he witnessed the crowds of pilgrims; individuals who believed themselves cured then purchased clay or silver flasks decorated with the healer’s image (plate 9). Portable icons were made with lids which protected the painted surface and tiny icons were worn on necklaces for personal protection. Together with pilgrim flasks and small metal icons in cheaper material, they did as much to spread the fame of the healing saints as the written Lives and collections of their miracle stories.

Despite this concentration on religious images, Byzantine craftsmen never lost their ability to portray characters from pagan stories, and their patrons continued to order whatever they wished. Recent discoveries in the late antique provinces of Syria, Palestine and Transjordan confirm a fascination with the ancient myths – the doomed love of Phaedra and Hippolytus, Prometheus creating the first humans or the drinking contest between Dionysus and Heracles – depicted on mosaics laid in the eighth century, under Muslim rule. Images of the rape of Europa and loves of Zeus were depicted with great realism on ivory boxes. Similarly, gold- and silversmiths, traditionally restricted to guilds, which limited their numbers and ensured quality, continued to decorate their products with images from ancient mythology, for example representations of Bacchus and Silenus with scantily dressed maenads. The use of encaustic for secular portraits also continued into the sixth century and many are commemorated in verse:

I was a harlot in Byzantine Rome, granting my venal favours to all. I am Callirrhoe the versatile, whom Thomas, goaded by love, set in this picture, showing what great desire he has in his soul, for even as his wax melts so melts his heart. The range of art decorated with what the Church considered thoroughly unsuitable subjects reminds us of the Byzantine delight in pre-Christian imagery, which extended into the twelfth century and beyond.

Apart from symbols such as the Cross, Christian images were not introduced on the coinage until 692–5, when Justinian II minted gold types with portraits of Christ, using both the long- and short-haired representations (plates 11a and 11b). Thereafter, the Virgin or saints were more commonly shown on coins to invoke their special protection and support; Emperor Alexander (912–13), for instance, introduced the image of John the Baptist, crowning him as emperor on the reverse of his coins. In the 860s, Patriarch Photios’ seal displayed an image of the Virgin holding the Christ Child in a medallion, known as the Blachernitissa type after a famous icon kept in her church at Blachernai, and shortly afterwards Emperor Leo VI put an image of the Virgin on his gold coins. The fact that Photios copied the image of an icon for his own seal reflects the importance of icons in Byzantium. By the ninth century they formed the quintessential element in Byzantine art and inspired devotion in orthodox worshippers, then as now.

Nearly all the components of Byzantine art were ancient and drew on older techniques. In the case of icons, encaustic had been used to great effect to commemorate pagan gods and Roman individuals from all walks of society. In Christian Byzantium, however, the devotional icon created a new art form which became its most characteristic feature. Together with other luxury objects, made of gold, silver and ivory or coloured silks, icons were appreciated by Christians as evidence of the superior culture of Byzantium. The same artistic traditions also sustained imperial ideology, in images which portrayed the rulers as donors, on coins which associated holy figures with them, as well as in secular works of art depicting victorious emperors, patrons of manuscripts, crowns and other imperial symbols. In this way, art sustained the empire in its transition to a medieval state and artistic products remained symbolic of Byzantium even after 1453. And because of the personal devotion they engendered, Christian icons were at the centre of a great debate which shook the empire from 730 to 843.

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