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ICONS . The term icon (from the Greek eikōn, "image") is applied in a broad sense to all sacred images worshiped by Christians in eastern Europe and the Middle East regardless of the image's media; thus icons may be mosaics, frescoes, engravings on marble or metal, or prints on paper. In its current use the term describes portable sacred images painted on wood, canvas, or glass.

Beginning and Growth of the Veneration of Icons

Portable icons first appeared in Egypt in the third century. The oldest works that have been preserved to this day bear a striking resemblance to the funeral portraits that replaced the masks on the anthropoid coffins of the Hellenistic period. The Judaic tradition, which relied on the biblical prohibition of the use of images in religious worship, was confronted in the eastern Mediterranean area with the Greek tradition, theoretically substantiated by Neoplatonism, according to which the material symbol is an expression of spiritual reality and the image has a didactic function. This latter tradition gained ground even in some Jewish communities; for example, frescoes based on biblical subjects were painted on the walls of the synagogue at Dura-Europos (present-day Salahiyeh, Syria) in the third century. It was the Greek tradition that caused the emergence as early as the second and third centuries of sacred imagery in the Christian church, which had originally used only symbols (e.g., the cross, lamb, fish, and dove). The didactic function of images was generally accepted throughout the Christian world, but the veneration of images did not spread to all areas: It remained a specific cult of Christianity in the Greco-Byzantine tradition.

The earliest icons, like the Hellenistic funeral portraits, originally had a commemorative value: They were representations of martyrs, apostles, the Virgin, and Jesus Christ. As early as the fourth century a typology of characters took shape, and their sacred nature was marked by a nimbus. The authenticity of portraits was an essential concern: The images of Christ and the Virgin were believed to be of miraculous origin, "made without hands" (Gr., acheiropoiētos ); those of the saints were rendered according to descriptions preserved by traditionaloral or writtensources. The oldest icon representing the Virgin originated in Palestine and, with the exception of the visage, was attributed to the apostle Luke; the visage was said to have been painted miraculously, without the touch of the human hand. According to tradition, the representation of Christ relied on a portrait Jesus had sent to the king of Edessa, Abgar Ukkama, "the black" (d. 50 ce), and on the veil of Veronica, said to bear the imprint of the Savior's face (recent research suggests that the name Veronica derives from the Latin vera icona, "true face").

As Christian icon painting developed after the fourth century, themes relating to the historical cycles of Christ's mission (miracles, scenes from his life) and then events from the lives of saints and from the history of the Christian church were introduced. In the sixth century icon worship spread throughout the Byzantine Empire. Icons were displayed to the faithful in churches or during processions, and they were also to be found in private homes. They were either in one piece or were combined from two or three pieces, forming, respectively, diptychs and triptychs. The strength of the development of icon worship, the miraculous powers attributed to certain icons, and the fact that in the minds of the faithful icons were identified with the character they represented, aroused, even from the beginning, opposition and hostility from some of the fathers of the church. This led in the eighth century to the iconoclastic crisis, which resulted in the destruction of a large number of icons, especially in areas under the direct authority of the Byzantine emperors. Nevertheless iconoclasm was unable to prevent the further development of icon worship at the periphery of the empire; hence the oldest icons, dating from the fifth and sixth centuries, were preserved in Georgia (Transcaucasia), on Mount Sinai, and in Cyprus. With the official restoration of the veneration of icons in 843, the practice of veneration became generalized not only in the Byzantine Empire but also in other regions where the Eastern Orthodox church had become predominant, such as the Balkan Peninsula and Russia.

Following the triumph of the doctrine claiming the legitimacy of icon worship many more wall icons were displayed in sanctuaries, and the iconostasis (Gr., eikonostasis, "support for icons") was introduced, a screen of icons that separated the altar from the nave of the church. The iconostasis apparently developed from the templon, a barrier made of stone, marble, or ivory that enclosed the main apse or chancel, where the sacred table was contained.

Theology of Icons

The final elaboration of the theology of icons resulted from the disputes caused by iconoclasm and the rules formulated by the Second Council of Nicaea (787). The earliest elements of the doctrine had already been enunciated in the second to the fourth centuries. Arguing against the Christian apologists who condemned idols as "devilish," such Neoplatonic thinkers as Celsus (latter half of the second century), Porphyry (c. 234c. 305), and Emperor Julian the Apostate (d. 363) attempted to give a metaphysical justification of sacred images and statues as material symbols expressing external and spiritual realities and fulfilling at the same time a significant didactic function. According to Neoplatonists the relationship between image and prototype is not one of sameness: Images serve only as vehicles by which to approach the divine prototype, which is hidden from humans because of the limitations of their corporeality. The arguments adduced by the Neoplatonists are to be found in subsequent developments of Christian theology. Thus, the concept according to which "sensible images are vehicles whereby we accede, as far as possible, to divine contemplation" was clearly stated by Dionysius the Areopagite (c. 500) in his treatise Ecclesiastical Hierarchy (1.2). The relationship between image and its divine prototype would be later clarified in the same vein in the writings of John of Damascus (c. 679749) and other authors of the Eastern church.

The Christian authors of the eighth and ninth centuries who formulated the theology of icons relied on a belief that icon worship was a consequence of the incarnation of the Son of God. According to Germanus I, patriarch of Constantinople (r. 715730), the Son could be portrayed because he "consented to become a man." An icon representing Christ is not an image of the "incomprehensible and immortal Deity" but rather that of the "human character" of the Logos (the Word) and serves as proof that "indeed he became a man in all respects, except for sin." Christ could be represented only "in his human form, in his visible theophany." John of Damascus, who wrote three treatises in defense of "sacred icons," gave the following definition of the painted image of the Deity: "I represent God the Invisible not as invisible but to the extent he became visible to us by partaking of flesh and blood."

John of Damascus and, especially, Theodore of Studios (759826) and Nikephoros, patriarch of Constantinople (r. 806815), further clarified the relationship between the sacred image, or icon, and its divine prototype. To them image is essentially distinct from the original: It is an object of relative veneration (Gr., proskunēsis skhetikē). Through the mediation of the icon the faithful actually address the prototype it represents, and so the relative veneration of the image becomes adoration (Gr., latreia ) that is exclusively offered to the Deity. This distinction between adoration of the model and relative veneration of its image removed the danger of turning icons into fetishes, a danger that was inherent in their worship. Theodore of Studios emphasized that "veneration was not due to the essence of the image but rather to the form of the Prototype represented by the image since matter cannot be subject to veneration."

These clarifications stressed the intimate connection between the theology of icons and the Christological question posed by the heresy of docetism, which questioned the real humanity of Christ and claimed that Christ's body was only apparent. In contradistinction, the icon was claimed to represent the image of an incarnation of the Son of God, thus, according to Germanus, "proving that he invested our nature by means other than imagination." Indescribable by his divine nature, Christ is describable by the complete reality of his historical humanity.

According to Theodore of Studios, "the fact that God made man after his likeness showed that icon painting was an act of God." The theology of icons confers upon icons an almost sacramental role. As the early painters saw it, their art did not belong to aesthetics but rather to liturgy. The perfection of form was no more than an adequate expression of the doctrine. The painter was not an artist in the modern sense of the word but a priest: His talent was a necessary, but not sufficient, condition. He was chosen and guided by a master; the beginning of his apprenticeship was marked by a ritual (e.g., prayer and benediction) quite similar to that of an initiation.

The earliest painters of icons never signed their works because their individuality was believed to be of no consequence. (The first icons to be signed, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, signaled the beginning of decadence in the art of icon making.) Seen as mere interpreters of the truth, the painters of old had to follow strict rules: The subjects of their paintings could only be previously established models, scenes from the holy books, or, more rarely, acknowledged visions; they did their work after having fasted and received the Eucharist; and some even mixed holy water with their colors.

Diffusion of the Cult of Icons

After the conclusion of the iconoclastic crisis, icon painting in Byzantium, under the Palaeologus dynasty (12611453), witnessed a remarkable period in which artistic perfection was reached; that style further influenced the art of icon making down to the present time. In the Greek territories the main icon-producing centers were Mount Athos and the imperial workshops in Constantinople, Thessalonica, and, after the fall of Byzantium, Crete. Cretan painters, having remained outside the area of Ottoman domination between 1453 and 1669, produced a great many works that were disseminated throughout the Orthodox world. Their icons displayed a certain lavishness, to be explained by the comfortable conditions in which they were produced; they were increasingly influenced by the contemporary Italian painting not only in the rendering of human visages and bodies, and of space, but even in iconography.

In eastern and southeastern Europe the cult of icons was disseminated by the early missionaries and through contacts with Byzantium. At first icons were brought from the Byzantine territories, but later they began to be produced in local workshops: at Preslav and Veliko Tŭrnovo in Bulgaria; at the courts of Serbian kings and Romanian princes; in Walachia and Moldavia; and in major monasteries in all these countries. They were characterized by their faithfulness to the Byzantine prototypes, but starting in the eighteenth century, popular local tastes made an impact on the choice of colors, the design of costumes, and the decoration of space. The union of a part of the Eastern Orthodox Romanians in Transylvania with the church of Rome gave rise to a unique phenomenon in Eastern Christian art: Icons were painted on glass by peasant artists, producing works that strongly resembled naive folk painting.

Of the oldest icons imported to Russia after the baptizing of the Russians in 988, only works of Byzantine origin dating from the eleventh century have been preserved. In the same century the earliest local icon-making centers began to emerge, first in Kiev and then in Novgorod and Vladimir-Suzdal. The earliest masters were from Byzantium, but soon a specific Russian style took shape; it developed from a spiritualized and ascetic attitude to a search for artistic and didactic effects, a taste for minute detail, and naturalism. The Council of the Hundred Chapters held in Moscow in 1551 reacted against the penetration of Western elements into the art of icon painting and put down rigid, mandatory rules to be followed by painters. This led to a proliferation of handbooks that provided authorized versions (Ch. Slav., podliniki, "outlines") of the holy images; these guides were equivalent to the ones used in the Byzantine Empire beginning in the eleventh century. The reforms enacted by Peter the Great (r. 16821725) inhibited the further development of icon painting, and the art subsequently lapsed into conservatism.

In the East after the Council of Chalcedon (451), the church (under the patriarchates of Antioch and Jerusalem) followed the orthodox doctrine upheld against Monophysitism. In the seventeenth century the style of icon painting known as Melchite developed under new influencesArabic, in terms of decoration; western European, in terms of subject matter.

See Also

Docetism; Iconoclasm; Images, article on Veneration of Images.


The scientific study of icons began in the latter half of the nineteenth century as part of the new discipline of Byzantology and enlisted especially Russian contributions; an essential bibliography is to be found in Oskar Wulff and Michael Alpatoff's Denkmäler der Ikonenmalerei (Leipzig, 1925), pp. 298299. Earlier research included icons, described as "panel paintings" or "portable images," in studies on Eastern Christian iconography, among which the fundamental work remains Gabriel Millet's Recherches sur l'iconographie de l'Évangile aux quator-zième, quinzième, et seizième siècles (Paris, 1916). In western Europe and America icons were "discovered" as works of art and spiritual creations only after World War I, when the Christian Orthodox tradition was reassessed by Catholic and Protestant scholars; see David Talbot Rice's Byzantine Art, 2d ed., rev. & enl. (Baltimore, 1968). Most experts approach icons as works of art within the general framework of Byzantine or, particularly, Russian artfor example, André Grabar's Byzantine Painting, translated by Stuart Gilbert (New York, 1953), and Tamara Talbot Rice's Icons, rev. ed. (London, 1960). The theology of icons has been systematically studied and clarified mainly by Western Orthodox authors since the 1950s; the most profound works are Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky's The Meaning of Icons, translated by G. E. H. Palmer and Eugénie Kadloubovsky, rev. ed. (Crestwood, N.Y., 1982); and Leonid Ouspensky's Essai sur la théologie de l'icone dans l'église orthodoxe (Paris, 1960). Most writings about Eastern Orthodox Christianity contain pertinent chapters on icons: Timothy Ware's The Orthodox Church, rev. ed. (Baltimore, 1964); Paul Evdokimoff's L'orthodoxie (Paris, 1959); and John Meyendorff's Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes (New York, 1979). Photographs of the oldest, fifth- to sixth-century, icons have been published in Georgios A. Sotiriou and Maria Sotiriou's Icones du Mont Sinai/Eikonec the Monha Cina (in Greek and French), vols. 1 and 2 (Athens, 19561958). New information about the role of icons during the posticonoclastic period is to be found in Manoles Chatzedakes's "L'évolution de l'icone aux onzième à treizième siècles et la transformation du templon," and Tania Velmans's "Rayonnement de l'icone à l'onzième siècle," in Actes du quinzième Congrès international d'études byzantines, vol. 1 (Athens, 1979), pp. 333366, 375419. For icons of the Middle East, see Sylvia Agémian's important study in my collection titled Les icones melkites (Beirut, 1969).

New Sources

Barasch, Moshe, Jan Assmann, and Albert Baumgarten. Representation in Religion: Studies in Honor of Moshe Barasch. Leiden, 2001.

Belting, Hans. Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art. Chicago, 1994.

Comack, Robin. Painting the Soul: Icons, Death Masks, and Shrouds. London, 1997.

Damian, Theodor. Theological and Spiritual Dimensions of Icons According to St. Theodore of Studion. Lewiston, N.Y., 2002.

Eastmond, Antony, Liz James, and Robin Cormack. Icon and Word: The Power of Images in Byzantium. Aldershot, U.K., 2003.

Jeffreys, Elizabeth, and Robin Cormack. Through the Looking Glass: Byzantium through British Eyes. Aldershot, U.K., 2000.

Nelson, Robert S. Visuality Before and Beyond the Renaissance: Seeing as Others Saw. Cambridge, U.K., 2000.

Temple, Richard. Icons and the Mystical Origins of Christianity. Rockport, Mass., 1992.

Velmans, Tania, and Elka Bakalova. Le grand livre des icônes des origines à la chute de Byzance. Paris, 2002.

Virgil CÂndea (1987)

Translated from Romanian by Sergiu Celac
Revised Bibliography


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Political regimes, religious institutions, and businesses, particularly those associated with the entertainment industries, create icons to excite the adoration of their citizenry, adherents, and customers. In Western culture since the mid-nineteenth century, many of the most successful iconic images have made the figure appear as both an ordinary person and a person who is unprecedented. Over the course of this period, the number of icons has proliferated at an enormous rate. The growth of consumer culture promoted the marketing of personalities. Promotion was also aided by the development of new media, which resulted in the dissemination of complex images quickly, and which was coupled with the expansion of potential audiences and the time they could devote toward these images. The importance of images to audience members grew as the culture bestowed greater value upon consumption and leisure time, thus upon celebrities and the entertainment world. Many LGBT people, living in a society that strove to deny their love and stigmatize their existence, developed icons as a way to escape the stresses and anxieties of daily life and the limitations and restrictions placed on them by the dominant heterosexual culture.

Several of the first LGBT iconic figures achieved their status because their images and behaviors made them objects of fantasy, figures who were desired romantically or erotically or who were perceived as living the great or passionate life with larger-than-life personalities. The rigidity of gender roles in the culture prompted many gay men to favor women who used wit, camp, and sarcasm to triumph over adversity or to criticize the world. Many lesbians favored independent, forceful figures and women who appropriated men's clothing as icons. Other figures became icons because they were so spectacular that they allowed LGBT people to escape from the troubles of daily life into a more positive environment. Performers also attained iconic status because their transition from ordinary to extraordinary status was a path most LGBT followed or wanted to follow, enabling LGBT people to form strong identifications with them as models of triumph over adversity. Most recently, people who have become icons have lived openly LGBT lives, offering the experience of strength and pride to LGBT communities. Since the Stonewall riots in 1969, the LGBT communities have recognized particular historical figures as icons. These include the poet Walt Whitman, writers Gertrude Stein and Radclyffe Hall, the playwright Oscar Wilde, and performers Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.

Hollywood's film industry produced some of the first major icons for the LGBT communities. Stars like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford created characters who used bitchiness and limitless satiric powers to control circumstances, their feminine wiles enabling them to triumph while winning the man to their side. They became proxies for many gay men, who often identified with the notion of feminine power and the winning of desirable men. The actresses Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich became iconic figures in part because their adoption of masculine clothing both on-and off-screen made them proxies for some LGBT people and gave them an attractiveness that appealed to others within LGBT communities.

George Jorgensen, who had failed to break into the movies and went to Denmark in the late 1940s for three sex change operations that received notable media coverage, became Christine Jorgensen. Her triumph over adversity established her as an icon for the transgender community.

Another actress from the classical studio era attained icon status as much for her life off-screen as for her roles in the movies. Judy Garland had major roles in several major Metro Goldwyn Mayer musicals, including The Wizard of Oz (1939) and A Star Is Born (1954), in which her plaintive songs, "Over the Rainbow" and "The Man That Got Away" summarized many a LGBT person's hopes and disappointments. Her early screen image of the ordinary heterosexual girl next door contrasted with the publicity of her middle and later years, which were filled with troubles and triumphs. This made Garland into a figure that many LGBT people believed represented their lives and experiences.

Many scholars and critics say Garland helped numerous gay men realize they were gay and were members of a larger community. Attending her concerts during the last years of her life became a place to share their love of Garland with others. These concerts served as locations where LGBT people could meet friends and lovers. This connection between Garland's iconic status and LGBT people's ability to meet other LGBT people is epitomized in the question used during the 1950s and 1960s to determine if a person was in the "gay" life: Are you a friend of Dorothy? The question referenced Garland's role in The Wizard of Oz . The singer was such an institution that many New York City gay bars draped areas in black crepe in mourning when she died in June 1969. According to folklore, some participants in the Stonewall Riots in June 1969 felt rebellious in part because of their sorrow over Garland's death.

Like Garland, singer Billie Holiday attained a position as an icon because she possessed an enormous talent and because she experienced triumph and tragedy in her life and career. The emotional intensity of her singing enabled black LGBT people, in particular, to feel like she was speaking and living for them. Since the Stonewall Riots, many other performers from the music industry have attained iconic status among LGBT people. Singer and actress Barbra Streisand got her start playing in gay clubs in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. Along with sensitivity and passion, Streisand showed anger and chutzpah, embodying a sense of strength that many LGBT wanted and possessed. Bette Midler also began her career as a singer and actress in gay environments, playing the Continental Baths in New York. Nicknamed the Divine Miss M, Midler appropriated gay camp sensibilities in her performances. Singing old torch songs, offering off-color impersonations, and telling bawdy jokes, while appearing in outlandish and outrageous costumes, Midler offered gay male audiences a re-creation of their own appropriation of popular culture. Singer Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles also played the Continental Baths in the early 1970s. The group's concerts created a place for LGBT people, and especially blacks, to congregate, and spurred many of them to act out their liberation and outrageousness.

Other musicians, including Elton John, Sylvester, and David Bowie, achieved their icon positions through overt discussion of their sexuality and their flamboyance both on and off the stage. Many gay, bisexual, and transgender men identified with or tried to emulate their larger-than-life personalities. Madonna blasted on to the music scene with a high-energy dance sound and outspoken lyrics that played in gay dance bars around the world. Gay males enjoyed her overt sexuality and her focusing attention on both queer styles and past gay icons like Marilyn Monroe. Madonna flirted with lesbian chic, and whether one interpreted lesbian chic as helpful in constructing lesbian identities or hurtful in re-appropriating lesbian imagery for marketing purposes, Madonna's behavior enabled her to become an icon to some lesbians. Singer Boy George illustrated the constructed nature of gender and sexual boundaries with his rebelliously effeminate look. Over the last two decades, Boy George's personal and career resiliency and his appearances on stage and in gay movies, often playing himself, illustrate his iconic status among gay male and transgender people. Similarly, supermodel RuPaul created an image that appealed to both of these communities. Adopting what he called his male and female drags, RuPaul challenged conceptions regarding gender, race, and sex while working in the recording, movie, and television industries throughout the 1990s.

Over the last two decades, several singer-songwriters emerged with music and personal lives that led to iconic status among lesbian communities. k. d. lang songs contained lyrics that spoke to many lesbians. Media images of the singer rejected traditional femininity, providing easy identification for many lesbians, most famously in a Vanity Fair cover photo depicting lang being shaved by supermodel Cindy Crawford. Her role as a woman infatuated with another woman in Salmonberries (1990), interviews, and public appearances at events such as the Gay Games make her a figure many lesbians see themselves in or view as a role model. Melissa Etheridge made critically successful and popular music with stories that express the feelings of many in the LGBT communities. Etheridge's iconic status grew with her coming out, engaging in a very public relationship with Julie Cypher and advocating social issues, such as same-sex marriage and parental rights.

Although not as prolific an arena as either music or the movies, the sporting world has produced several icons. The most dominant female athlete of her era, tennis player Billie Jean King, attained icon status among women after her victory over Bobby Riggs in the "battle of the sexes" in 1973. She gained an iconic position among bisexual and lesbian women after acknowledging her relationship with another woman in 1981. During the early 1970s, Dr. Renee Richards emerged as an icon to transgender people. The transsexual tennis professional insisted on her right to play tennis after her operation. She was denied entry in 1976, but her ability to compete as a woman in the 1977 U.S. Open illuminated the difference between a person's biological sex at birth and their perception of their gender as an adult.

Years later, another tennis star, Martina Navratilova, gained iconic status among lesbians. The mainstream press constructed the tennis player's image in opposition to the femininity of Chris Evert. For lesbian fans, Navratilova's masculinity offered masculinity to women as both an ideal and as ordinary. The tennis star's relationships with several women were so well-known that many lesbians could identify with her. Navratilova came out on national television in 1991 and has worked as an LGBT activist. She has lent her time toward ending discrimination in the military and promoting the Gay Games.

In recent years, the arena of television has represented a new site that has produced icons for LGBT communities. Comedian and actress Ellen DeGeneres assumed icon status with one bellwether moment of television. The "Puppy" episode of Ellen represented the experience of coming out and lesbian self-identification to a national audience in 1997. Before and after this episode, Ms. DeGeneres, as her character Ellen, illuminated LGBT life experiences that informed mainstream viewers while offering members of the LGBT communities the ability to see their triumphs and tribulations performed in the popular media on a weekly basis.

Other arenas that have produced icons include theater, painting, and publishing. Harvey Fierstein emerged as an iconic figure for gay males and transgender people with his play Torch Song Trilogy . His signature voice and transgender attire have appeared in movies, on television, and in the currently popular Broadway musical Hairspray . Sandra Bernhard brought to gay males a sharp tongue and cynical wit to her discussions of relationships and politics, while her amorphous sexuality and lesbian relationships have provided her with iconic status among lesbians. The Mexican painter Frida Kahlo attained iconic status among people of Spanish descent in the United States. Her bisexual lifestyle and struggle through pain and adversity had particular appeal to bisexuals and lesbians. Writers and activists Leslie Feinberg and Kate Bornstein have created award-winning literature and advocated for the rights and recognition of transgender communities.

Some performers' bodies of work, attitudes, and images have seemed particularly important and relevant to LGBT people. While some LGBT icons appealed across gender, racial, and orientation lines, others did not. Since icons are expressions of personal notions of freedom, fantasy, and needs, complex and diverse LGBT communities necessarily have a variety of iconic figures. That most LGBT icons have emerged from the performance arena reflects the appeal of singers, because the individual LGBT listener can develop the sense of a very strong personal relationship or shared group membership with them. A person becomes an icon because their work, attitude, or image appears to reflect the personal experience of the LGBT person. The icon becomes a surrogate for the LGBT community member, acting out that person's desires and fantasies through their personal relationship or shared group membership with the individual LGBT listener. Based upon their work, attitude, or image, these figures seem important and relevant to one's life.


Allen, Louise. The Lesbian Idol: Martina, kd and the Consumption of Lesbian Masculinity . London: Cassell, 1997.

Braun, Eric. Frightening the Horses: Gay Icons of the Cinema . London: Reynolds & Hearn, 2002.

Bronski, Michael. Culture Clash: The Making of Gay Sensibility . Boston: South End Press, 1984.

Dyer, Richard. Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society . London: British Film Institute, Macmillan, 1986.

Ehrenstein, David. Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928–1998. New York: William Morrow, 1998.

Fishwick, Marshall, and Ray B. Browne, eds. Icons of America . Bowling Green, Ohio: Popular Press, 1978.

Harris, Daniel. The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture . New York: Hyperion, 1997.

Marshall, David P. Celebrity and Power: Fame in Contemporary Culture . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Rapper, Toffee. "The Gay Icons Ring." 10 January 2000. http://www.firstuniversal.clara.net/gay-icons-ring.html

Brett L. Abrams

see alsoactors and actresses; fierstein, harvey; film and video; jorgensen, christine; king, billie jean; music: broadway and musical theater; music: popular; navratilova, martina; richards, renÉe; television; theater and performance.


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Icon, from the Greek eikon meaning image, is a word now generally applied to paintings of sacred subjects or scenes from sacred histories. As established in the Byzantine Orthodox Church icons were a liturgical art, theology in visible form. By presenting the physical appearance of a holy figure the icon itself became embued with the sanctity of its divine prototype, serving as an object of religious contemplation and as a conduit for the prayers of the faithful.

Tradition names the Evangelist Luke as the first icon painter and the Virgin and Child as the first subjects. Other icons were said to be acheiropoietoi, not made by human hand. One such icon is the Mandylion, a cloth believed to have been imprinted with the features of Christ. The origins of Christian icons and their veneration can be traced with surety only to the sixth centurythe date of the earliest surviving iconsbut textual evidence documents their earlier use. Eusebius, the fourth-century bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, writes of having seen icons of Christ and his Apostles. He traces icon veneration back to "the ancients" who used icons in "their pagan customs," reflecting knowledge of Greco-Roman practices. SS. Basil the Great (Patrologia Graeca, ed J.P. Migne [Paris 185766] 31:489), Gregory of Nyssa (Patrologia Graeca 46:737) and Paulinus of Nola (Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne [Paris 187890] 61:339) also record Christian veneration of icons in the fourth and fifth centuries.

By the seventh century icons permeated nearly every aspect of Byzantine life. Multiple icons were combined into an iconostasis, or icon-screen, which separated the sanctuary from the nave in Byzantine churches. Icons were hung on church walls for veneration by the faithful and were displayed in private homes. Monumental twosided icons were processed through towns and villages and small icons were carried or worn by individuals. While the most familiar type of Byzantine icon is a painting executed in tempera on a wooden panel, icons were also made of mosaic tesserae (cubes), carved of marble, steatite or ivory and painted onto walls or the pages of illuminated manuscripts. Famous icons were copied on coins and lead seals or recreated in gold and jewels and worn as rings, necklaces and bracelets.

More than simply objects of religious contemplation, icons also protected believers, healed the sick, punished the wicked and ensured truthfulness. The Virgin, known in Byzantine theology as the Theotokos (Bearer of God), was the patron saint and traditional protector of Constantinople. An icon of the Theotokos was paraded on the walls of the city during periods of siege and was carried into battle at the head of the imperial army. Some icons wept, bled or worked miraclesthe latter sometimes on a regular schedule, as is documented by accounts of what is called "the usual miracle," performed every Friday night by an icon of the Theotokos in the Blachernai church in Constantinople.

The power and prevalence of icons in Byzantine society provoked a theological debate in which the ability to represent the divine and the role of art in Christian worship were central issues. From 726843 the Byzantine Empire was shattered by iconoclasm (imagebreaking), during which icon veneration was forbidden, icon painters were persecuted, and icons were destroyed. While there are numerous documents describing events and defining the ideologies of the iconophiles (imagelovers) and iconoclasts (image-breakers), the very nature of the contest means that little in the way of religious art survives to us from before or during the time of the destruction of images.

Icons are not portraits in the modern senseiconpainters did not strive for realism, for examplebut served as visible symbols of their divine prototypes. In this sense they are one of the more conservative forms of art: by their very definition icons must provide a readily recognizable representation of a holy person or scene. Particular costumes, emblems, and attributes were developed to indicate specific categories of holy men and women. Prophets hold scrolls, indicative of the Old Testament, while Evangelists wear antique tunics and display their codices, the more modern book-form. Soldier saints wear military costumes and some are shown on horseback while monks wear habits and healing saints display medicines and surgical instruments. Handbooks created for Byzantine icon painters list the characteristic traits of each holy figure, including facial expressions, hair (or the lack thereof) and age. John the Baptist, for example, is depicted with the tattered garments, windblown hair, and gaunt face appropriate for a desertdwelling ascetic. Church Fathers, such as John Chrysostom, are shown in venerable old age wearing the robes of their office.

While icon painters were required to faithfully replicate the traditionally-accepted physical attributes of their holy subjects, icons did not remain wholly static, but reflected doctrinal, societal, and artistic changes. Before Iconoclasm, most icons were painted in encaustic, using pigments suspended in a wax medium. This resulted in a soft, unfocused line. After Iconoclasm, encaustic was replaced by tempera, which dries to a matte finish and creates a sharp, clearly-defined line, allowing artists to achieve a new level of detail. The catalog of icon subjects was also expanded to include newly-recognized saints and martyrs, and there was an increase in the production of narrative icons, particularly scenes from the life of Christ and the Theotokos. Narrative and iconic subjects were also combined to create so-called biographical icons. These feature a central large icon of one saint enframed by a series of smaller scenes illustrating key events in the saint's life.

After Iconoclasm icons were also increasingly accompanied by inscriptions identifying the subject by name, category and/or type, further strengthening the link between the image and its prototype. These inscriptions reflect the development of different types of representations of one subject, particularly icons of Christ and the Theotokos. One famous type of Christ is the Pantokrator, or Ruler of All, which depicts Christ as a mature, bearded man in a frontal pose, raising his right hand in blessing and holding the Gospel Book in his left. The Theotokos, the most frequently depicted subject on surviving Byzantine icons, is represented by more icon types than are accorded to her son. Famous miracle-working icons of the

Theotokos such as the Hodegetria, Eleousa, and Kykkotissa show her in different guises and were named for the shrines in which they were held. Icons such as these became the focus of pilgrimage, and pilgrims commissioned copies that were then disseminated throughout the Empire.

As the production and veneration of icons spread from Byzantium into other Orthodox cultures, new subjects and styles were introduced and established images were given new artistic interpretations. Icons of holy bishops produced in Russia show their subjects wearing the local liturgical garments and thus differ from those produced in Constantinople. Despite such differences, each icon presented a faithful replication of its subject for the contemplation of the believer. Today, the legacy of Byzantine icons is evident in the many parts of the world where icons remain a vital and integral part of spiritual life.

Bibliography: h. belting, Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art (Chicago 1994); The Image and its Public in the Middle Ages (New York 1990); "An Image and Its Function in the Liturgy: The Man of Sorrows in Byzantium," Dumbarton Oaks Papers 3435 (1980-81): 116. m. chatzidakis, Icons of Patmos: Questions of Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Painting (Athens 1985). r. cormack, Writing in Gold (London 1985). g. dagron, "Holy Images and Likeness," Dumbarton Oaks Papers 45 (1991): 2333. h.c. evans and w.d. wixom, The Glory of Byzantium. Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era, AD 8451261 (New York 1997). a. grabar, L'Iconoclasme byzantin: Le dossier archéologique (Paris 1984). a. kartsonis, Anastasis. The Making of an Image, (Princeton 1986). e. kitzinger, "Reflections on the Feast Cycle in Byzantine Art," Cahiers archéologiques 36 (1988): 5173; "The Cult of Images in the Age before Iconoclasm," Dumbarton Oaks Papers 8 (1954): 81150. h. maguire, The Icons of Their Bodies. Saints and Their Images in Byzantium (Princeton 1996). j. pelikan, Imago Dei: The Byzantine Apologia for Icons (Princeton 1990). r. ousterhout and l. brubaker, The Sacred Image East and West (Chicago and Urbana, Illinois 1995). n. Ševcenko, The Life of St. Nicholas in Byzantine Art (Turin 1983). a. m. talbot, Byzantine Defenders of Images: Eight Lives in English Translation (Washington D.C. 1998). m. vassilaki, ed. Mother of God. Representations of the Virgin in Byzantine Art (Milan 2000). k. weitzmann, The Icon, Holy Images, Sixth to Fourteenth Century (London 1978).

[l. jones]


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Icons are representations, usually on wood, of sacred figuresChrist and the Virgin Mary, the apostles, saints, and miraculous events. The Greek term eikon (Russian, obraz ) denotes "semblance," indicating that the icon does not incarnate but only represents sacred objects. As such it serves to facilitate spiritual communion with the sacred; the distinctive two-dimensional flatness symbolizes an immateriality and hence proximity to the otherworldly. In rare cases this mediating role reaches miraculous proportions when the faithful believe that a "miracle-working" (chudotvornaya ) icon has interceded to save them from harm, such as the depredations of war and disease.

The evolution of icons in Russia paralleled the development of Eastern Orthodoxy itself. Initially, after Grand Prince Vladimir embraced Eastern Orthodoxy in 988, icons were produced by Greek masters in Byzantium; few in number, they were restricted to the urban elites that actually practiced the new faith. The most venerated icon in Russia, the "Vladimir Mother of God," was actually a twelfth-century Greek icon imported from Constantinople. Revered for its representation of the Virgin's tender relationship to Christ, it became the model of the umilenie (tenderness) style that dominated Marian representation in most Russian iconography.

The Crusades from the West and the Mongol invasion from the East suddenly disrupted the Byzantine predominance in the mid-thirteenth century. The new indigenous icons showed a marked tendency toward not only simplification but also regionalization. As Kiev Rus dissolved into separate principalities under Mongol suzerainty, icon-painting acquired distinctive styles in Vladimir-Suzdal, Novgorod, Pskov, Yaroslavl-Rostov, Tver, and Moscow. Some icons also bore a distinctive local theme, such as the "Battle between the Novgorodians and Suzdalians," a mid-fifteenth century icon with unmistakable overtones for Novgorod's life-and-death struggle with Moscow.

The evolution of icon painting also derived from external influences. One phase began with the resumption of ties to Byzantium in the mid-fourteenth century and culminated in the icons and frescoes of Theophanes the Greek (c. 1340after 1405). His indigenous co-workers included the most venerated Russian icon-painter, Andrei Rublev (c. 13601430), whose extant creations include the celebrated "Trinity" icon. A second phase came in the late fifteenth century, when Italian masters imported to construct an awe-inspiring Kremlinhelped introduce some Western features (for example, the clothing and gestures of the Virgin). That was but a foreshadowing of the far greater Western influence in the seventeenth century, when the official icon-painting studios in the Kremlin Armory (under Simon Ushakov, 16261686) used Western paints and techniques to produce more naturalistic, monumental icons. Such innovations elicited sharp criticism from traditionalists such as Archpriest Avvakum, but they heralded tendencies ever more pronounced in Imperial Russia.

Even as Moscow developed an official style, the production of icons for popular consumption became much more widespread. The Church Council of 1551 complained about the inferior quality of such images and admonished painters not to "follow their own fancy" but to emulate the ancient icons of "the Greek icon-painters, Andrei Rublev, and other famous painters." That appeal did nothing to stem the brisk production of popular icons, with some small towns (e.g., Palekh, Kholuy, Shuya, and Mstera) gaining particular renown. Popular icons were not only simpler (indulging fewer details and fewer colors), but also incorporated folkish elements alien to both traditional Byzantine and newer official styles. Although authorities sought to suppress such icons (e.g., a 1668 edict restricting the craft to certified icon-painters), such decrees had scant effect.

Indeed, both popular and elite icon-painting continued to coexist in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Popular icons flourished and proliferated; while some centers (such as the specialized producers in Vladimir province) exhibited artistic professionalization, the expanding production of amateur icons aroused the concern of both Church and state. But attempts to regulate the craft (e.g., decrees of 1707 and 1759) did little to restrict production or to dampen demand. A far greater threat eventually came from commercializationthe manufacture of brightly colored, cheap lithographs that pushed artisanal icons from the marketplace in the late nineteenth century. Seeking to protect popular icon painting, Nicholas II established a Committee for the Stewardship of Russian Icon Painting in 1901, which proposed a broad set of measures, such as the establishment of icon-painting schools to train craftsmen and to promote their work through special exhibitions.

Icon production for elites took a quite different path. After Peter the Great closed the icon-painting studio of the Armory in 1711, its masters scattered to cities throughout the realm to ply their trade. By the late eighteenth century, however, the Academy of Arts became the main source of icons for the major cathedrals and elites. By the mid-nineteenth century the Academy had not only developed a distinct style (increasingly naturalistic and realistic) but also significantly expanded its formal instruction in icon painting, including the establishment of a separate icon-painting class in 1856.

At the same time, believers and art connoisseurs showed a growing taste for ancient icons. By mid-century this interest began to inspire forgeries as well as orders for icons in the old style. The meaning of that old style underwent a revolutionary change in the early twentieth century: As art restorers peeled away the layers of paint and varnish applied in later times, they were astonished to discover that the ancient icons were not dark and somber, but bright and clear. The All-Russian Congress of Artists in 1911 held the first exhibition of restored icons; the new Soviet regime would devote much attention to the process of restoration.

While placing a high priority on icon restoration, the Soviet regime repressed production of new icons: It closed traditional ecclesiastical producers (above all, monasteries), and redirected popular centers of icon production such as Palekh to specialize in secular folk art. Although Church workshops continued to produce icons (by the early 1980s more than three million per yearan important source of revenue), not until 1982 did the Church establish an elite patriarchal icon-painting studio. The subsequent breakup of the Soviet Union not only generated a sharp surge in demand (from believers and reopened churches), but enabled the Church to establish a network of icon-painting schools specifically devoted to the revival of traditional iconography.

See also: academy of arts; byzantium, influence of; dionisy; orthodoxy; palekh painting; rublev, andrei; theophanes the greek; ushakov, simon fedorovich


Onasch, Konrad, and Schneiper, Annemarie. (1995). Icons: The Fascination and the Reality. New York: Riverside Book Company.

Ouspensky, Leonid, and Lossky, Vladimir. (1982). The Meaning of Icons, 2nd. ed. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.

Gregory L. Freeze


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Icons are religious images painted on wood in the Byzantine manner and used extensively in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, both in private homes and in the liturgical celebrations of the churches. The widespread use of icons is a distinctive mark of Eastern Orthodoxy all through the world, in both its Greek and its Slavic forms, and also in the Oriental churches such as the Coptic and Ethiopian communions, all of which are now represented in American religious life.

Early Christianity was ambivalent about religious paintings. The emperor cult and the practice of depicting savior gods in late antique art led to a deep suspicion among many Christian theorists that depictions of Christ should not be permitted at all. Regardless of this, however, Christian art began to flourish at an early date, as the funerary paintings in the catacombs can demonstrate, and by the fourth century the practice of depicting Christ both as a young man and as an imperial judge was gaining ground. Earliest forms of Christian art, particularly visible in Rome and Egypt, are characterized by the late antique style of Roman "realist" painting; but by the sixth century, when icons had developed a distinctive form and a much wider popularity among Christians, some distinctive "nonrealist" traits were emerging that were to be fixed by later church laws.

At this period, iconic art focused on figures of Christ, the Virgin Mary, some of the Apostles, and the martyr-saints whose shrines were becoming more popular. Icons were still largely a private matter, and the surviving panels are mostly of portable size. Very little survives from before the ninth century, as during this period a large reaction against the popularity of icons among Eastern Christians was taking place. This, the so-called iconoclastic crisis (from the Greek word for the smashing of icons), was one of the most severe internal disruptions to the life of the Christian East in the Byzantine period. Several emperors denounced Christian devotional painting as "idolatrous." The ensuing conflict led to a radical reassessment of the importance of art and culture in Christian worship practice.

Eastern theologians answered the charge by elaborating a theory of Christian art. The icon or image was painted to be a focus of Christian worship. The Christian was not worshiping the icon itself, but the figure depicted. Thus, if the image was venerated (typically with a deeply reverential bow, or with an offering of incense before it), then the worship such devotion represented would pass directly to the person depicted within the image: whether it was Christ, the Virgin, or one of the saints. The icon became, therefore, a primary medium of Christian worship. These theologians (named iconodules, or venerators of icons) created a technical vocabulary of worship, distinguishing among important concepts such as adoration, worship, veneration, and reverence. They accused their iconoclastic accusers of not having sufficient intellectual subtlety, or tolerant humility, to recognize a genuinely Christian theology of culture. And they argued that to advocate the smashing of icons was nothing short of blasphemous. The theological argument of the iconoclasts that the spiritual God cannot be depicted in material form was answered by iconodules arguing that since the Incarnation God has indeed been embodied in Christ, so he now can be depicted in graphic form. The practice of iconography was, therefore, allied with the expression of a strong doctrine of divine Incarnation, and this remains true in Orthodoxy today.

The iconodule theologians, and Eastern Christians as a whole, defended the practice of venerating icons, and to this day it is a very marked feature of Orthodox religious practice. The Western Church never elaborated a doctrine of religious art in the same intense manner. The West preferred to approach art in a pedagogical, intellectualist fashion. Thus religious art existed in churches to serve a teaching function. In the East, by contrast, the icon existed to fulfill a doxological function. Art was not to be looked at for didactic reasons but to be experienced as a medium of prayer.

Accordingly, Orthodox icons are functionally used: They are kissed in church celebrations, carried in processions, laid over people for purposes of blessing, incensed, and so forth. It is unusual for an Orthodox home to be without several icons, and the churches will have many, not least the large icons that separate the altar area, or sanctuary, from the main body of the church. This screen (iconostasis) usually holds life-size figures of Christ, the Virgin, John the Baptist, and the patron saint of the church.

In the course of the twentieth century, with a large Orthodox presence accumulating in North America, icons again became much more familiar to Western Christians, and they are once more becoming popular across a wide range of churches other than the Orthodox.

See alsoCoptic Orthodox Church; Eastern Orthodoxy.


Limouris, G. Icons: Windows on Eternity. 1990.

McGuckin, J. A. "The Theology of Images and the Legitimation of Power in Eighth-Century Byzantium." St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 37, no. 1 (1993): 39–58.

Rice, D. T. Icons and Their History. 1974.

Weitzmann, K. The Icon. 1978.

John Anthony McGuckin


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Icon (Gk., eikon, ‘image’ or ‘picture’). Sacred pictures of the Orthodox tradition. They are usually flat pictures, and painted in egg tempera on wood; but metal, ivory, and other materials may be used, and bas-relief and even high-relief icons are known, especially in Russia. They are used to decorate churches, where they are found on walls, ceilings, and stands (the iconostasis separating the sanctuary from the nave being particularly prominent), and portable icons are used in private devotions. They depict Christ, and the saints and mysteries of the Church. The symbolism of the icon is held to effect the presence of the saint or mystery depicted, and in that presence prayer and devotion are made. The painting (or ‘writing’) of the icon is itself a religious act, prepared for by prayer and fasting, and was usually reserved for monks: such was Andrei Rublev (c.1370–c.1430), the greatest of all icon-painters. Suspicion of icons as idols led to iconoclasm.

The word ‘icon’ also appears as a technical term in semiotics, with a transferred use: see SYMBOLS.


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i·con / ˈīˌkän/ • n. a painting of Jesus Christ or another holy figure, typically in a traditional style on wood, venerated and used as an aid to devotion in the Byzantine and other Eastern Churches. ∎  a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol of something: this iron-jawed icon of American manhood. ∎  Comput. a symbol or graphic representation on a video display terminal of a program, option, or window, esp. one of several for selection. ∎  Linguistics a sign whose form directly reflects the thing it signifies, for example, the word snarl pronounced in a snarling way.


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icon a painting of Christ or another holy figure, typically in a traditional style on wood, venerated and used as an aid to devotion in the Byzantine and other Eastern Churches. In transferred usage, a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol or as worthy of veneration.

In computing, an icon is a symbol or graphic representation on a VDU screen of a program, option, or window, especially one of several for selection.

The word is recorded from the mid 16th century in the sense ‘simile’ and from the late 16th century in the sense ‘likeness, image’ (see Eikon Basilike); it comes via Latin from Greek eikōn ‘likeness, image’. Current senses date from the mid 19th century onwards.


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icon, ikon †image, picture XVI; (Eastern Church) representation in the flat of a sacred personage XIX. — L. īcōn — Gr. eikṓn likeness, image, f. *ḗik- be like. comb. form icono- in iconoclast XVII. — modL. īconoclastēs — Gr. eikonoklástēs (klân break); so iconoclastic XVII. iconography †drawing, plan; illustration by means of drawings. XVII. — medL. — Gr. iconostasis screen bearing icons. XIX. — ecclL. — ecclGr. eikonóstasis (stásis position, station, f. *sta- STAND).


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Iconostasis or Eikonostasion (Gk., ‘a picture stand’). The screen in Eastern-rite churches separating sanctuary from nave. Since the 14th or 15th cents. the screen has been a wall of wood (a Russian innovation) or stone covered with icons, which follow a prescribed arrangement. Through it are three doors, the central or Royal Door admitting to the altar, and those on the right and left respectively to the diakonicon (deacon's area) and prothesis. The iconostasis conceals part of the liturgy from the view of the congregation.