Last modified on May 16, 2023, at 00:23


The word icon comes from the Greek "eikon" which mean "image". An icon can also mean somebody symbolizing a movement (i.e. conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly, civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.).[1] Whatever and whoever is a representative icon is regarded as iconic. There are iconic representatives or exemplars of art, history, literature, medicine, science, philosophy, and religion. An iconic archetype is any image that expresses a deeply universal concept residing in the common psyche of the human race as a whole.

Computer icons

In computing, an icon is a pictogram or ideogram displayed on a computer screen in order to help the user navigate a computer system. The icon itself is a quickly comprehensible symbol of a software tool, function, or a data file, accessible on the system and is more like a traffic sign than a detailed illustration of the actual entity it represents.[2]

Cultural icons and iconography: Ethnic, Pagan, Jewish and Christian, Secular and Political

The class of graphic art forms of iconic imagery of any culture or people or religion is termed by art historians and historians in general as a particular iconography, roughly divided into ethnic, pagan,[3] and Jewish and Christian iconographies.[4] Vexillology is the study of the iconography of flag imagery and flag worship from ancient times to the present.[5] An example of U.S. political iconography includes the National Statuary Hall in the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.,[6] and the various memorials and monuments around the Washington Mall, including the Pacific War Memorial of the United States Marine Corps based on the famous World War II photograph taken by Joe Rosenthal on top of Iwo Jima.

Christian adaptation

In "Christian Adaptation of Pagan Iconography"[7] Spencer Alexander McDaniel presents a multitude of examples of how Christians adapted and redefined the imagery of pagan art for the purpose of illustrating to illiterate persons the purely moral and virtuous doctrines of Christianity. There is a striking total absence of images of polytheism, of fertility goddesses and gods.

Eastern Christianity

In Christianity, an icon is a holy image which is an art form of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Icons are based off the Cherubim of the Ark of the Covenant. Because they tell stories, they are considered windows to heaven and cannot be considered idols. The icon is not simply decorative. Many Orthodox churches have icons on the walls and the ceilings. In the ceiling or dome is the icon of Christ the Almighty, the Pantocrator.

The Eastern Orthodox Church does not permit icons representing God the Father. In addition, icons cannot be 3-dimensional (statues). The Eastern Orthodox Church also does not permit the Virgin Mary to be depicted in an icon without Christ (excluding the icon of the Annunciation).

It is common practice for iconographers not to sign their work in the belief that the glory goes to God, not to the artist.

The Iconoclastic controversy was a dispute over the veneration of icons within Christianity.

A Brief history of Icons

First and Second centuries

Byzantine iconography is the oldest and only Christian art form which has continued unchanged for the past 2000 years. The Eastern Orthodox believe that the first icons of Christ and the Virgin Mary were painted by St. Luke the Evangelist. St. Luke is the Patron Saint of iconographers.

Iconography is considered to have begun the day our Lord Jesus Christ pressed a cloth to His face and imprinted His divine-human image thereon.[8][9] According to Tradition, Luke the Evangelist painted the image of the Mother of God; and, also according to tradition, there still exist today many Icons which were painted by him. An artist, he painted not only the first Icons of the Mother of God, but also those of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, as well as possibly, others. Many early Church fathers from the 2nd century through the 3rd and 4th centuries before the time of Constantine supported the "underground" (literally, in the catacombs) use of relics, statues and images including icons.[10]

Iconography did not develop further during the time of the Roman persecutions A.D. 64–313, but Christians did attempt to express in symbols what they wished to convey. In the catacombs Christ is portrayed as the Good Shepherd and in the guise of various personalities from pagan mythology.

Second to Third centuries

The early church appears to have inherited the opposition to icons inherent in second temple, Talmudic Judaism. Hence, early Christians were accused of being "atheists" by Romans who assumed the absence of images meant the absence of belief in gods.[11]

Origen (184-254) responded to the charge of "atheism" by admitting that Christians did not use idolatrous images in worship, following the Second Commandment.[12]

Fourth through Eighth centuries

Directives concerning Iconography were recorded in the first ecumenical councils, from Fourth through the Eighth centuries.

Fourth century

When Constantine became emperor, after the Edict of Milan Christians were free to express themselves. As Christianity quickly transformed the Roman Empire and replaced paganism, iconography flourished with full force. But there were abuses.

The Council of Elvira, Canon 36[13] (c. 305) states, “Pictures are not to be placed in churches, so that they do not become objects of worship and adoration.”

The early church historian Eusebius (c. AD 263 – 339) about the year 327 wrote, "To depict purely the human form of Christ before its transformation, on the other hand, is to break the commandment of God and to fall into pagan error."[14]

However, the same Eusebius of Caesarea Church History, Book 7 (A.D. 295–340) testifies to the approved proper use of images of Jesus, Peter and Paul: "They say that this statue is an image of Jesus. It has remained to our day, so that we ourselves also saw it when we were staying in the city. Nor is it strange that those of the Gentiles who, of old, were benefited by our Savior, should have done such things, since we have learned also that the likenesses of his apostles Paul and Peter, and of Christ himself, are preserved in paintings, the ancients being accustomed, as it is likely, according to a habit of the Gentiles, to pay this kind of honor indiscriminately to those regarded by them as deliverers."[10]

Basil Letter 360 (A.D. 329–379) cites with approbation the approved use of images, saying, "I acknowledge also the holy apostles, prophets, and martyrs; and I invoke them to supplication to God, that through them, that is, through their mediation, the merciful God may be propitious to me, and that a ransom may be made and given me for my sins. Wherefore also I honor and kiss the features of their images, inasmuch as they have been handed down from the holy apostles, and are not forbidden, but are in all our churches."[10]

Epiphanius (inter 310–320 – 403), bishop of Salamis, in Cyprus wrote, in Letter 51 (c. 394), to John, Bishop of Jerusalem about an incident of finding an image in a church in his jurisdiction: "I went in to pray, and found there a curtain hanging on the doors of the said church, dyed and embroidered. It bore an image either of Christ or of one of the saints; I do not rightly remember whose the image was. Seeing this, and being loath that an image of a man should be hung up in Christ's church contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures, I tore it asunder and advised the custodians of the place to use it as a winding sheet for some poor person." He goes on to tell John that such images are “contrary to our religion” and to instruct the presbyter of the church that such images are “an occasion of offense.”[15]

John Chrysostom Homilies 10 Ephesians [A.D. 347-407] praises the use of images overlaid with gold as contributing beauty and grace, and condemns those who destroy them as a destructive fire lighting on the Church: "For like a conflagration indeed, or like a thunderbolt hurled from on high, have they lighted upon the roof of the Church, and yet they rouse up no one; but whilst our Father's house is burning, we are sleeping, as it were, a deep and stupid sleep. And yet who is there whom this fire does not touch? Which of the statues that stand in the Church? for the Church is nothing else than a house built of the souls of us men. Now this house is not of equal honor throughout, but of the stones which contribute to it, some are bright and shining, whilst others are smaller and more dull than they, and yet superior again to others. There we may see many who are in the place of gold also, the gold which adorns the ceiling. Others again we may see, who give the beauty and gracefulness produced by statues. Many we may see, standing like pillars. For he is accustomed to call men also on account of their beauty, adding as they do, much grace, and having their heads overlaid with gold.[10]

John Chrysostom Homilies 21 on the Statues paragraph 10 [A.D. 347-407] admonishes those who were disconsolate over the destruction of holy images by the iconoclasts: "Were your Statues thrown down? You have it in your power again to set up others yet more splendid."[10]

Fifth century

Council of Ephesus Extracts from session 1 (A.D. 431) "Theodosius, the humble Christian, to the holy and Ecumenical Synod: I confess and I agree to (suntiqemai) and I receive and I salute and I venerate in the first place the spotless image of our Lord Jesus Christ, our true God, and the holy image of her who bore him without seed, the holy Mother of God, and her help and protection and intercessions each day and night as a sinner to my aid I call for, since she has confidence with Christ our God, as he was born of her. Likewise also I receive and venerate the images of the holy and most laudable Apostles, prophets, and martyrs and the fathers and cultivators of the desert. Not indeed as gods (God forbid!) do I ask all these with my whole heart to pray for me to God, that he may grant me through their intercessions to find mercy at his hands at the day of judgment, for in this I am but showing forth more clearly the affection and love of my soul which I have borne them from the first. Likewise also I venerate and honor and salute the reliques of the Saints as of those who fought for Christ and who have received grace from him for the healing of diseases and the curing of sicknesses and the casting out of devils, as the Christian Church has received from the holy Apostles and Fathers even down to us to-day."[10]

Sixth century

Gregory the Great Letters Book 4 letter 30 (A.D. 540–604) testifies to the reverent dread in respect given even the silver over the body of the apostle Peter: "The Serenity of your Piety, conspicuous for religious zeal and love of holiness, has charged me with your commands to send to you the head of Saint Paul, or some other part of his body, for the church which is being built in honor of the same Saint Paul in the palace. And, being desirous of receiving commands from you, by exhibiting the most ready obedience to which I might the more provoke your favor towards me, I am all the more distressed that I neither can nor dare do what you enjoin. For the bodies of the apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul glitter with so great miracles and terrors in their churches that one cannot even go to pray there without great fear. In short, when my predecessor, of blessed memory, was desirous of changing the silver which was over the most sacred body of the blessed apostle Peter, though at a distance of almost fifteen feet from the same body, a sign of no small dreadfulness appeared to him."[10]

Gregory the Great Letters Book 9 letter 105 (A.D. 540–604) attempted to correct a distortion or misrepresentation regarding the proper use of iconic pictorial images in the minds of a certain Fraternal Order, counselling them to preserve the images and also prohibit the people from adoration of them: "Furthermore we notify to you that it has come to our ears that your Fraternity, seeing certain adorers of images, broke and threw down these same images in Churches. And we commend you indeed for your zeal against anything made with hands being an object of adoration; but we signify to you that you ought not to have broken these images. For pictorial representation is made use of in Churches for this reason; that such as are ignorant of letters may at least read by looking at the walls what they cannot read in books. Your Fraternity therefore should have both preserved the images and prohibited the people from adoration of them, to the end that both those who are ignorant of letters might have wherewith to gather a knowledge of the history, and that the people might by no means sin by adoration of a pictorial representation[10]

Gregory the Great Letters Book 11 letter 13 (A.D. 540-604) explains that images are permitted by him but that adoration paid to them is improper: "If for this instruction for which images were anciently made you wish to have them in the church, I permit them by all means both to be made and to be had. And explain to them that it was not the sight itself of the story which the picture was hanging to attest that displeased thee, but the adoration which had been improperly paid to the pictures.[10]

Seventh century

John of Damascus Apologia Against those who Decry Holy Images (A.D. 676-749)—From the Life of the Abbot Daniel, on Eulogius the Quarryman: "Then he went away dejected, and threw himself before an image of Our Lady, and crying out, he said: "Lord, enable me to pay what I promised this man."[10]
—"St Basil says, ‘Honouring the image leads to the prototype.’ If you raise churches to the saints of God, raise also their trophies."[10]
—"A tradition has come down to us that Angaros, King of Edessa, was drawn vehemently to divine love by hearing of our Lord,and that he sent envoys to ask for His likeness. If this were refused, they were ordered to have a likeness painted. Then He, who is all-knowing and all-powerful, is said to have taken a strip of cloth, and pressing it to His face, to have left His likeness upon the cloth, which it retains to this day."[9] (Shroud of Turin?)[10]
—"If you say to this that blessed Epiphanius clearly rejected our use of images, you must know that the work in question is spurious and written by some one else in the name of Epiphanius, as often happens. A father does not fight his own children. All have become participators in the one Spirit. The Church is a witness of this in adorning images, until some men rose up against her and disturbed the peace of Christ's fold, putting poisoned food before the people of God."[10]
—"Listen to what I am going to say as a proof that images are no new invention. It is an ancient practice well known to the best and foremost of the fathers. Elladios, the disciple of blessed Basil and his successor, says in his Life of Basil that the holy man was standing by the image of Our Lady, on which was painted also the likeness of Mercurius, the renowned martyr. He was standing by it asking for the removal of the impious apostate Julian, and he received this revelation from the statue. He saw the martyr vanish for a time, and then reappear, holding a bloody spear."[10]

Constantinople/Trullo/Quinisext canon 82 (A.D. 692): "In some pictures of the venerable icons, a lamb is painted to which the Precursor points his finger, which is received as a type of grace, indicating beforehand through the Law, our true Lamb, Christ our God."[10]

Avenging of the Savior (A.D. 700)[16] gives testimony to the martyrdom of Veronica, the woman who, according to tradition, was healed of the hemorrhage she had suffered for 12 years, and to the iconic image she kept: "It is the woman called Veronica who has the portrait of the Lord in her house. And immediately he ordered her to be brought before his power. And he said to her: Hast thou the portrait of the Lord in thy house? But she said, No. Then Velosianus ordered her to be put to the torture, until she should give up the portrait of the Lord. And she was forced to say: I have it in clean linen, my lord, and I daily adore it. Velosianus said: Show it to me. Then she showed the portrait of the Lord." (Veronica was the woman who suffered for 12 years with the issue of blood)[9][10]

Eighth century

In A.D. 726 or 730, Byzantine Emperor Leo III the Isaurian banned all images of Christ that showed him in human form. The Iconoclasts argued that any image depicting God in human form either omits His divine nature or confuses it with His human nature.

The Second Council of Nicaea, during the time of Pope Stephen II [A.D. 787-788] authoritatively asserted: "We, therefore, following the royal pathway and the divinely inspired authority of our Holy Fathers and the traditions of the Catholic Church (for, as we all knoweth Holy Spirit indwells her), define with all certitude and accuracy that just as the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross, so also the venerable and holy images, as well in painting and mosaic as of other fit materials, should be set forth in the holy churches of God, and on the sacred vessels and on the vestments and on hangings and in pictures both in houses and by the wayside, to wit, the figure of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady, the Mother of God, of the honorable Angels, of all Saints and of all pious people. For by so much more frequently as they are seen in artistic representation, by so much more readily are men lifted up to the memory of their prototypes, and to a longing after them; and to these should be given due salutation and honorable reverence not indeed that true worship of faith which pertains alone to the divine nature; but to these, as to the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross and to the Book of the Gospels and to the other holy objects, incense and lights may be offered according to ancient pious custom. For the honor which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres in it the subject represented....[10]

The Seventh Ecumenical Council (787) thus defended image veneration, believing that to venerate an image is to venerate not its substance but the shared likeness. An icon of Christ affirms the reality of the human and the divine.

Ninth century through Seventeenth century

Ninth century

In the year 843 icons and their veneration were restored on the first Sunday in Lent. This Sunday is referred to as the "Sunday of Orthodoxy".[17]

Sixteenth century

During the English Reformation of King Henry VIII and the adoption of Protestantism by his son Edward VI, Catholic churches, shrines, monasteries, and convents were plundered for their gold and silver and jewels which were stripped off of Bible covers, altars and images. An attempt in the 16th century by Mary I [18] to restore Catholicism failed because of her treatment of the English Protestants as sacrilegious blasphemers, executing 300 of them including the Archbishop of Canterbury. Her sister Elizabeth I struck back against Catholicism by restoring Protestantism in the Church of England, and persecuting all Catholics within her realm and seeking to eliminate from the churches all forms of identifiable Catholic iconography.

Seventeenth century

Following the Reformation, Protestant and Puritan reformers in the 17th and 18th centuries (the 1600s and 1700s) also engaged in iconoclasm, believing religious imagery to be idolatrous and sinful, and a sure and certain evidence of apostasy.

Catechism of the Catholic Church

Iconography is an element in the prayer life of the Catholic Church according to the Cathechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), paragraph 2663[19]

"In the living tradition of prayer, each Church proposes to its faithful, according to its historic, social, and cultural context, a language for prayer: words, melodies, gestures, iconography."


See also

Orthodox Mysteries

Ecumenical council


Eastern Catholic Churches

English Reformation

Oliver Cromwell

Protestant Reformation

Great Apostasy


  1. Icon definition, Dictionary - MSN Encarta
  2. Rosenblatt, Joel (August 7, 2012). Former Apple Designer Kare Testifies at Samsung Patent Trial. Businessweek. Bloomberg LP. Retrieved on August 7, 2012.
  3. Pagan Iconography - Voynich Portal (
  4. Helios in the Synagogue and Sol Invictus Burial with the Saints: Iconography in Judaism and Christianity in Relation to the Roman World, Elena Marie Durnbaugh, Anthropology/Linguistics, Oakland University–pdf (
  5. Members of some religious sects, for example, Jehovah's Witnesses, do not participate in the Pledge of Allegiance because they have been taught that it is an act of idolatry.
  6. National Statuary Hall is a chamber in the United States Capitol devoted to sculptures of prominent Americans. The hall, also known as the Old Hall of the House, is a large, two-story, semicircular room with a second story gallery along the curved perimeter. It is located immediately south of the Rotunda. —National Statuary Hall - Wikipedia
  7. "Christian Adaptation of Pagan Iconography", Spencer Alexander McDaniel, Posted on December 11, 2017, Categories: Ancient art, Early Christianity, Greek mythology, Jesus
  8. This is according to tradition the Veil of Veronica ("true image") which she offered in pity to the Lord with which He (or she) wiped the sweat and spit from His face, also simply called the Veronica. The Holy Face: Veil of Veronica (
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 According to the tradition associated with an ancient document purporting to be "The Letters of Jesus Christ the Lord and Abgarus king of Edessa" this image was impressed on the cloth by Christ before the Lord's passion, death, crucifixion and resurrection. See Letters of Christ and Abgarus (
  10. 10.00 10.01 10.02 10.03 10.04 10.05 10.06 10.07 10.08 10.09 10.10 10.11 10.12 10.13 10.14 10.15 10.16 Early Church Fathers on Relics, Statues and Images ( Includes apologetic quotations from Ante-Nicene Fathers in support of the use of images in early Christian worship and devotion.
  11. For example, Martyrdom of Polycarp, chapter 9; cited by John B. Carpenter, "Icons and the Eastern Orthodox Claim to Continuity with the Early Church," Journal of the International Society of Christian Apologetics, Vol. 6, No. 1, 2013, p. 111.
  12. Origin, Contra Celsus, Book VII, Chapter 64; according to John B. Carpenter, "Icons and the Eastern Orthodox Claim to Continuity with the Early Church," Journal of the International Society of Christian Apologetics, Vol. 6, No. 1, 2013, p. 112.
  13. The Council of Elvira was a local synod of bishops, not an Ecumenical council. It was called to address an abuse that had arisen involving a deviation from the custom of the devout use of religious imagery for the benefit of illiterate Christians in true Christian worship.
  14. David M. Gwynn, “From Iconoclasm to Arianism: The Construction of Christian Tradition in the Iconoclast Controversy” [Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 47 (2007) 225–251], p. 227.
  15. John B. Carpenter, "Icons and the Eastern Orthodox Claim to Continuity with the Early Church," Journal of the International Society of Christian Apologetics, Vol. 6, No. 1, 2013, p. 118.
  16. Avenging of the Savior (–text
  17. Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America
  18. Mary I (18 February 1516–17 November 1558), was Queen of England and Queen of Ireland from 19 July 1553 until her death in 1558.
  19. From The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part Four, Section One, Chapter 2, Article 2 2663-2682 (scborromeo)

External links


  • Carpenter, John B. "Icons and the Eastern Orthodox Claim to Continuity with the Early Church," Journal of the International Society of Christian Apologetics, Vol. 6, No. 1, 2013.