Liturgical Art Iconography

A VERY brief history of icons, materials, and design

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He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.
-- Colossians 1:15

The Latin word icon, which comes from the Greek eikōn, means a likeness or image.

The Basics
If theology is the study of God using words, then iconography is the study of God using images, a visible gospel so to speak. It is God who is the artist, guiding the hand of the one holding the brush. Religious themes include: The Trinity, angels, sacred events, Jesus, Mary the Mother of God, and saints.

According to legend, Jesus himself produced the first icon. King Agbar of Edessa, a leper, heard of Jesus’ healing powers and sent a messenger to bring Jesus back to heal him. Along with a letter declining the invitation because of his pressing mission, Jesus sent the mandylion, a cloth on which the image of his face had miraculously reproduced. It is also known as the Image of Edessa.

Saint Luke
The second icon is attributed to Saint Luke who portrayed Mary the Mother of God and her young son. When produced today, this icon often shows Mary and Jesus posing for Luke.

Embraced, Banned, then Embraced Again
In the 730 A.D. Emperor Leo III ordered the destruction of icons as they were thought to be idols. In 787 the Seventh Ecumenical Council distinguished between worship given to God and the veneration given to saints as sacred objects. Through the Empress Theodora, the veneration of icons was publicly re-established in 843.

Also note the following from the Vatican II document Sacrosanctum Concilium, Constitution on Sacred Liturgy (CSL) (1963): “The practice of placing sacred images in churches so that they may be venerated by the faithful is to be maintained.” [125]

The icons with which I have experience are wood, covered with many layers of thinly applied gesso, and sanded between each layer. The paint is acrylic. They are expected to last 300 years – time will tell.

Gesso is a mix of animal glue binder (usually rabbit skin glue), chalk, and white pigment. A homemade version consists of talcum powder, white glue, white paint, and water.

Back in the day, before acrylic paint, a product called egg tempera was used which was made of egg yolks, water, and finely ground pigment for color. Acrylic paint is glossy and flexible whereas egg tempera has a chalky appearance and may crack.

With respect to design or layout, icons ignore time and space – they may include scenes that took place in different times and locations.

If you remember ...
If you remember anything about iconography, remember that it’s all about moving from darkness to light.

The effect of the divine radiating out from within a person, of one moving from darkness into light, is depicted by using dark colors as the base and then adding highlights of progressively lighter shades.

Let nothing be preferred to the Work of God – Rule of Benedict 43:3


King Agbar - cloth
King Agbar and cloth
Mary and Jesus posing for St Luke
Mary and Jesus posing for St Luke