Origins of the Use of Icons
Most scholars admit that the concept of the icon pre-dates Christianity and probably originated with an ancient Egyptian funeral portrait.5 This is an example of the relatively common occurrence of the church borrowing from culture. “To develop its language, the Church used, as we have seen, form, symbols and even myths of antiquity, i.e., pagan forms of expression. But it did not use these forms without purifying them and adapting them to its own goals. Christianity absorbs everything that can serve as a form of expression from the world around it.”6
The first evidence of Christian art is found in the Catacombs. During the times of persecution, various symbols such as fish and loaves were painted on the walls of these secret places.7 These were places where early Christians gathered and where the church leaders (clergy) were buried.8 The primary purpose of these pictures was to convey the stories of the gospels and to portray their inner meaning.9
4 Ouspensky, 1992, p. 137
5 Mahmoud Zibawi. The Icon: Its Meaning and History. (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1993), p. 79
6 Ouspensky, 1992, p. 86.
7 Zibawi, 1993, p. 79.
8 Ouspensky, 1992, p. 38.
9 Ibid. p. 27.
While the origins of Christian art may be traced, in a general way, to the pictures of the Catacombs, principles of Icon painting are not seen here. The first instance of a Christian icon is traced to the story of the image created by Christ Himself. The story is told of an ancient King Abgar of Osroene, who was dying of leprosy and sent a message begging Jesus to visit him. According to the story, Christ created an image of himself by pressing his face on a cloth. Apparently, this image remained in Edessa until the tenth century, when it was taken to Constantinople. After the destruction of the city in 1204CE, it disappeared.10 This is called the image “made without human hands” or the “holy face” or the Acheiropoietos.11 While there is virtually no physical evidence to support this event, it is considered a reliable story of the origin of the icon of Christ.
In the History of the Church by Eusebius, the author says that he has seen many portraits of the Savior, Peter and Paul. This indicates that images of the Lord were present during the first centuries of the church.12 This is somewhat significant in that, by many accounts, Eusebius was antagonistic to icons. For example, there is a record of a request of Eusebius for an icon. This came from Constantia, sister of Constantine the great. His decidedly negative response was surprise. He claimed he did not understand what she could possibly have meant.13 Many iconoclasts appeal to Eusebius’s response as evidence against the use of icons.
10 Jeremy Begbey, Ed. Beholding the Glory: Incarnation Through The Arts. [Jim Forest. Through Icons: Word And Image Together] (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), p. 84.
11 Ouspensky, 1992, p. 51.
12 Ouspensky and Lossky, 1983, p. 25.
13 This discussion is preserved in “…a fragment from the Testament of Epiphanius of Cyprus.” Ambrosios Giakalis. Images of the Divine: The Theology of Icons at the Seventh Ecumenical Council. (New York, NY: E. J. Brill, 1994), p. 25. also Georges Florovsky, Christianity And Culture. (Belmont, MA: Nordland Pub. Co., 1974), p. 108.
In any case; “By the time of Justinian it was accepted that iconography was to be used as a servant of the Christian faith.”14
Another legendary origin of the icon is the account of St. Luke painting icons of Mary and the Christ child.15 Orthodox tradition holds that Luke painted three of these icons.16 Again, we have no evidence of such occurrences. There is very little evidence that paintings or icons were used in the church prior to 250CE.17
14 John Baggley. Doors of Perception: Icons And Their Spiritual Significance. (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988), p. 17.
15 Zibawi, 1993, p. 29.
16 Ouspensky, 1992, p. 60.
17 Baggley, 1988, p. 8.
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