If one begins researching the icons of Mary called chudotvornaya— “wonderworking” — in the Russian Orthodox Church (and there are some in Greek Orthodoxy too, but not nearly as many), one will quickly notice that a number of them are said (with a straight face) to have been painted by St. Luke. Yes, Saint Luke, also known as the Evangelist Luke. On conservative E. Orthodox religious sites one will see this repeated over and over again about such icons as the Vladimir Mother of God (Vladimirskaya), which was even said to have been painted by Luke on a board taken from a table used by Jesus and his family.
Well, it simply is not true. Not one bit of it. First of all, we do not know who really wrote the Gospel attributed to St. Luke. That attribution was added later. The Gospel is actually anonymous in the earliest manuscripts (that applies to the other three Gospels as well — and also to the Acts of the Apostles).
What we do know is that the Gospel attributed to Luke contains not one word about the painting or veneration of icons. Nor is there the slightest mention of it anywhere in the New Testament where a “Luke” is mentioned — or anywhere in the New Testament at all.
Not one of the icons attributed to Luke is in a style remotely connected to the 1st century A.D. All are much, much later (and from various later times chronologically). And there is not one bit of scientific analysis dating any one of the number of icons attributed to Luke to the 1st century.
Where, then, does the notion come from that several icons of Mary were painted by Luke? First of all, it comes from the desire of the later church — after the making and painting of icons had become established practice (which was beyond the period of the earliest Christians) — to retroactively inject the later doctrine of icon making and veneration into earliest Christianity, where there is really no trace of it.
The notion that Luke painted an icon of Mary, scholars relate, first appeared during the Iconoclast controversy in the 8th century, created by those favoring icon veneration. The earliest mention of icons painted by Luke is found in a work called On the Veneration of Holy Images by Andrew of Crete, who died in the first half of the 8th century — an iconophile writing at the beginning of the iconoclastic controversy. An oft-quoted and supposedly earlier mention in the history by 6th century writer Theodore Anagnostes of an icon painted by Luke and sent from Jerusalem to Pulcheria (Byzantine Empress: died 453) is found in 13th-century manuscripts of the history. But it is absent in earlier manuscripts from the early 11th century. That is a very strong indication that this story of a Marian icon painted by Luke was added much later to the original text. in In a very well-researched book — Icons and Power: the Mother of God in Byzantium (Pennsylvania State University, 2006), Bessera V. Pentcheva writes: “The myth was invented in order to support the legitimacy of icon veneration during the Iconoclast controversy [8th and 9th centuries]. By claiming the existence of a portrait of the Theotokos painted during her lifetime by the evangelist Luke, the perpetrators of this fiction fabricated evidence for the apostolic origins and divine approval of Images.”
Second, we may speculate that Luke was chosen as the prototypical first painter of Christian icons because, according to tradition, he was a physician — a doctor (“Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas, greet you.” [Colossians 4:14]) And early physicians used certain powdered medications that were also used in early and later painting — among them notably cinnabar, which provided the bright red-orange color we see in Russian icons.
An additional factor is that the gospel called “of Luke” devotes considerably more attention to Mary than the other three.
So no, there are no icons, wonderworking or not, painted by Saint Luke. Nor, we can tell from the history of the development of Christian art, were there ever any such icons. The earliest Christians simply did not paint and venerate icons as they are known later in the Eastern Orthodox Church, so attributing any icon to Luke is an obvious anachronism well known to be such by students of art history.
In spite of that, the Greek Orthodox have a legend that Luke painted three icons of Mary during her lifetime, and that she personally approved them; then after her death, he is said to have painted an additional seventy!
The supposed first three icons are said to be:
- The Kykiotissa icon, which the Russians call Kikkskaya, now at the Kykkos Monastery on Cyprus.
- The Megalospilaiotissa or “Great Cave” icon (also called Speliotissa), now at the Megaspilaion Monastery in the Peloponnese, Greece.
- The Soumeliotissa icon, once kept at the Soumela Monastery in Turkey, now at the 20th-century “monastery” (actually the Dormition Church) in Greece (named after the Turkish site), at Kastania in Macedonia.
Here is a fresco from the Church of St. Athanasios at Vermio, Greece. It depicts Luke painting a Marian icon. The winged ox at right is his symbol, and above its halo is the name Λουκας — Loukas — “Luke.”
As a sidelight on the famous “Vladimir” icon pictured on this page, it is interesting to know that out of the whole painting, only the face of the child (not the rest of his head) and the face of Mary remain from the original painting, along with a couple of other small and insignificant patches. The rest — which is the greater part of the icon we see today — is all later, all reworking.
When I say the original painting, I am not talking about the 1st or 2nd or 3rd or 4th or even the 5th century C.E. I am talking about the 12th century, when the original icon was painted by an anonymous iconographer in Byzantium. This is the most famous supposedly “Lukan” icon, and yet in fact it was not painted until the 1100s, and most of what we see today was actually painted at various later times.
But how does it happen that we think of it as a Russian icon? And why is it named for Vladimir, a place in what used to be Kievan Russia? That is because the icon was taken from Constantinople to Kievan Russia in the first half of the 12th century. And in Russia it has remained, to be copied countless times over the years as the Vladimirskaya Presvyatuiya Bogoroditsui — the “Vladimir Most Holy Mother of God.” And of course its popularity was only increased by all the tales of various miracles that became associated with the icon — the earlier equivalent of our modern-day supermarket tabloid stories with headlines such as “Face of Jesus appears on Tortilla.”