This icon type is called the “Triumph of Orthodoxy.” It celebrates the victory in the 8th century of those (the Iconophiles) who advocated the making and veneration of Christian icons over those who did not (the Iconoclasts). Historically speaking however, the icon represents the popular adage that it is the winners who write history. Today I would like to take a quick look at the history of Christian art as it relates to icons. But first, let’s take a look at the icon itself. This example is from the 14th century:
The central part of the image is a depiction of the Hodegitria icon supported by two angels, depicting Mary as “Shower of the Way,” which was considered a very important icon in Byzantium and another of those icons said (mistakenly) to have been painted by St. Luke. In Russia it is called the Путеводительница/Putevoditel’nitsa.
The crowned figures at left are the Byzantine iconophile Empress Theodora and her son Michael III, as well as various iconophile saints. Not all the saint titles are clear in this image, but later examples of the type usually include such figures as Methodius the Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Bishop of Synnada, Tarasius Bishop of Constantinople, St. Theodosia, Venerable Ioannikos, Theodore Studite, Theodore Graptus, and Stephen the New.
The embroidered ornamental cloth hanging just below the icon is called a podea (ποδέα) in Greek, and in Russian a pelena (пелена).
Now to the history of the development of the icon out of the Christian image.
Here is a rough and quick chronology of the appearance and development of Christian art:
Contrary to traditional Eastern Orthodox belief, icons do not go back to the earliest days of the Church. They were a later and gradual development only officially adopted centuries after the first Christians. In examining this history, we must distinguish between images (art) and icons (venerated images).
3rd century (200s): The first recognizably Christian art appears in motifs borrowed from common non-Christian art and appropriated for Christian use, as well as in simple depictions of some Old and New Testament subjects.
Examples are found on oil lamps, in Roman burial catacombs, and in the house church at Dura Europos in Syria. Depictions of persons use generic features common to Roman art of that period.
4th century (300s): This century — particularly the latter half of the 4th century — is a crucial period that laid the foundations for the eventual change in attitude from art image to venerated icon. In 313 Christianity is legalized in the Roman Empire by Constantine and Licinius through the Edict of Milan. Elaborate churches are built under imperial patronage. The first individualizing portrait images of Jesus, Mary, and other saints and martyrs appear and art becomes gradually more sophisticated and elaborate. We see the beginnings of images of saints being regarded as not only commemorative, but also protective.
Basil of Caesarea, in speaking of images of the Emperor, says that the honor given an imperial image passes to its prototype (the Emperor). With the veneration of the Christian martyrs in the catacombs, the cult of relics begins as healing and intercessory powers are attributed to body parts of dead saints and items that had contact with their bodies. Relics spread throughout the empire, often placed in elaborate containers (reliquaries). From 381-395 Theodosius begins and extends a ban on traditional non-Christian religious practices in public, closes and destroys “pagan” temples, and extinguishes many non-Christian traditional practices to eliminate “paganism” in favor of Christianity. In this century the halo, adopted from non-Christian use, first appears in Christian art, as do wings on angels, another adoption from non-Christian art. The cross in simple form appears, gradually replacing the chi-rho monogram as the century proceeds.
5th century (400s): The crucifixion first appears in Christian art near the beginning of the century.
6th century (500s): Relic images — three of the so-called “Not made by hands” images of Jesus — first come to prominence as having apotropaic (averting harm) and palladium (city protector) functions. It is in the 6th century that religious images first are found in church use, though generally still not permitted.
7th century (600s): Ex voto painted (etc.) images of saints are created in thanks for answered prayers.
The notion of the icon as conduit from believer to saint develops by the latter part of the century as images are absorbed into the healing/intercessory functions of the existing cult of relics, thus becoming “icons.”
8th century: The veneration and understanding of icons — the theology of icons — is first codified in Eastern Orthodoxy. The earlier “honor to the prototype” concept of Basil regarding images of the emperor is now applied — in a new context — to icons of Jesus, Mary, and the saints by John of Damascus and others. The Iconoclasts openly oppose the making and veneration of icons, rightly viewing image veneration as an innovation counter to the traditions of the church. The Iconoclasts are victorious for a time, having Imperial support, but with reign change that victory vanishes, and the views of the Iconophiles ultimately prevail.
So that is the evolution of the icon made brief.
This does not mean there were absolutely no images honored as Christian religious figures before the 6th century, but it does mean that this is the “mainstream” course of development. We have evidence of Christian images being treated in icon-like fashion first on the outer fringes of Christianity where it blended into “paganism,” such as the image of Christ said to have been kept in syncretistic fashion by Emperor Alexander Severus (222-235 AD)) together with other images of Orpheus, Appollonius of Tyana, and Abraham; We also have in the Apocryphal Acts of John (dating uncertain, usually in the 150-250 range) a condemnation of the creation of such images and the honoring of them with lights and decorations. Where there is condemnation there is use to some extent, but to repeat, this use is first documented in the fringe realm between “paganism” and Christianity.
What all of this means for practical purposes is that the icon as it was regarded in the Eastern Orthodox Church from the 8th century onward did not really exist openly as such in the mainstream church until the latter part of the 600s, and its theology was not codified until the 700s, when those who refused to venerate icons were cursed (anathematized) in the official declarations of the Church. Thus the practice of icon making and veneration preceded the “official” doctrine made to justify the practice.
This chronology, incidentally, is not intended to determine whether the making and veneration of icons is “right” or “wrong,” from any ethical perspective, because art history only deals with what was and is, and does not involve itself in such judgments. It is obvious, however, that from the perspective of Christian traditional usage, icons were a late innovation in the mainstream church, as the Iconoclasts declared.
Art historians consider the first Christian art just an aspect of Roman art of the time, and the elaboration of Christian art under Emperor Constantine a continuation in Christian dress of more classical aspects of Roman art. My own view is that the making and veneration of painted religious images practiced in pre-Christian Roman society never really died out with the victory of Christianity, but continued on the fringes and in private; after the Edict of Milan and the condemnation of public “pagan” religious practice under Theodosius, the making and veneration of images gradually filtered into the mainstream church through the vast numbers of new “pagan” converts, though keeping largely in the shadows and not finding full and official acceptance until after the Iconoclastic controversies of the 8th century.
If you are interested in the origin of icons, you may wish to read these related postings: