Just a quick note first to say that I am pleased so many people are finding this site both of interest and usefully instructive.
In a previous posting, I mentioned the rather disingenuous comment passed around the Internet that Eastern Orthodox believers pray “in the presence of icons” rather than “to icons.” And I discussed the actual old attitude toward icons thus:
“In short, the traditional attitude toward icons — the attitude actually held by Eastern Orthodox believers, not theoreticians or converts — was that icons behaved like living creatures — and so they were treated as such. That is why a believer would pray before such an icon, as though talking to a person, and that is why it is often said that believers would pray to an icon, because that is precisely what they did. One can see from this that the feeble notion that Eastern Orthodox believers merely pray “in the presence of” icons is, from an historical point of view, both very misleading and quite inaccurate. To discover the real situation one must go to what was actually said and written about such icons and how they were regarded by the ordinary believers of past centuries.”
An excellent example of this traditional belief is the account of the icon type known as the “Unexpected Joy” icon of Mary, which you see here. this type was very popular in the 19th century. The origin story of this icon type is found in The Dew-wet Fleece, by Bishop (and E. Orthodox saint) Dimitriy Rostovskiy (1651-1709).
A standard element of this icon type is an “icon within an icon,” the image of Mary holding the Christ Child that is seen hanging at right on a wall within a room. And before that icon a man is kneeling.
The inscription below the “icon in the icon” tells the origin story of this type, which is one of a great many known as “miracle-working” icons.
“A certain “lawless” man had a daily rule to pray to the most holy Mother of God with the words of the Archangel’s greeting” [the words of Gabriel to Mary in the Annunciation].
Well, according to the story, which, like a fairy tale, is set in no definite time or place, this fellow kneeling before the icon was an habitual lawbreaker. He was just about to leave his home to perform more dastardly deeds when, as was his custom, he paused to pray before the icon of Mary, and was astonished and horrified to see that the images in the icon were “alive” and moved and spoke to him. Wounds on the hands and feet of the Child were bleeding, and the thief, seeing that, spoke to the living image of Mary in his icon, saying, “O Mistress, who did this?”
Mary replied to him, “You and other sinners, with your sins, have crucified my son anew.”
The words of this dialogue are seen written in the lines extending from Mary’s mouth to the kneeling “lawless man,” and from the man’s mouth to Mary, like an early version of the cartoon bubble.
Of course this miracle resulted in the repentance of the thief, and the whole strange event was to him an unexpected joy, thus the title of the icon.
An additional detail shown here, but not always present in examples of this type, is the third line of words extending from the mouth of the Child to the man. Jesus is saying to him, “Now your sins are forgiven you.”
This particular example of the type shows the incised and gilt backgrounds often favored in icons of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And of course the style of painting is Westernized.
For comparison, here is another example of the same icon type, painted in a less Westernized manner:
Now of course this is not to say that every icon in every home, church, and monastery was believed to “come alive” and move and talk. But it is very important in understanding icons to know that it was common belief that every icon had the potential of such “miraculous” behavior, and one did not know when and where it would manifest. And of course that is why icons that were believed to have been miraculous in some way were copied endlessly, and some of the copies themselves entered the standard hagiography as being chudotvornaya — “wonder-working” — in turn.
Most people who encounter icons do not realize that they are the product of a mindset that is very much like that of ordinary people in Western Europe during the Middle Ages. Eastern Orthodox Russia in particular, in which illiteracy was common very late (estimated at 80% under Tsar Nicholas II) — was still largely medieval in thinking right into the beginning of the 20th century. When one reads all the stories of miraculous appearances of icons and the strange doings of some Eastern Orthodox saints, it is well to remember that what Geoffrey Blainey writes in his Short History of Christianity (page 162) was still applicable in Russia centuries after the Middle Ages had passed in Western Europe:
“In the twenty-first century most people in the western world show instant respect for concepts that seem to have a rational foundation, though some of these concepts are later disproved. In contrast most medieval people tended to marvel at myths, mysteries and rumours, and instantly assured themselves they were true.”
That is the history of icons in a nutshell.