Skip to main content



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]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Icon." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . 15 Aug. 2018 <>.

"Icon." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . (August 15, 2018).

"Icon." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 15, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.