In earlier postings, I noted that the making and veneration of icons (as the term was later understood in Eastern Orthodoxy) was not an “official” part of earliest Christianity, but rather came into it later, on the fringes of Christianity as it spread out of Judaism and into the polytheistic Greco-Roman world. The use of icons came from polytheistic religious practice into Christianity gradually (and not without controversy), only being accepted officially as part of Church practice centuries later.
That is why the first evidence we have of icons being venerated as sacred images is found in that border where polytheism meets Christianity, the latter being influenced by the former.
In Greco-Roman polytheism, it was common for those who believed they had received a beneficial answer to their prayer to a deity to offer some sort of gift in return to that god or goddess — a votive offering. The term comes from the Latin votum, meaning a vow or promise. Such a gift given in thanks was part of the relationship between worshiper and deity — “you do this for me, and I will do this for you.”
There were various kinds of votive gifts to the deities, but often they were images. One could donate a clay image of the deity, a stone or bronze statue small or large, and one could even donate a shrine or temple to house such images. Among these votive gifts were painted panels depicting the deity or deities. They could be donated to a temple, or placed in a home shrine. These panels are ancestors of the later Eastern Orthodox icon.
The practice of venerating such images of the gods in polytheistic practice, whether in home or temple, involved honoring them with lights, and with wreaths, crowns, and garlands woven of flowers and foliage.
That is precisely what we find in the apocryphal Acts of John, usually dated as early as 150-200 c.e. It records how a man named Lycomedes, raised from the dead by the Apostle John, had a painting — for all practical purposes an icon — made of John, enshrined it in his bedroom, and honored it with lights and garlands. Here is that portion of the account:
There came together therefore a gathering of a great multitude on John’s account; and as he discoursed to them that were there, Lycomedes, who had a friend who was a skillful painter, went hastily to him and said to him: You see me in a great hurry to come to you: come quickly to my house and paint the man whom I show you without his knowing it. And the painter, giving some one the necessary implements and colors, said to Lycomedes: Show him to me, and for the rest have no anxiety. And Lycomedes pointed out John to the painter, and brought him near him, and shut him up in a room from which the apostle of Christ could be seen. And Lycomedes was with the blessed man, feasting on the faith and the knowledge of our God, and rejoiced yet more in the thought that he should possess him in a portrait.
The painter, then, on the first day made an outline of him and went away. And on the next he painted him in with his colors, and so delivered the portrait to Lycomedes to his great joy. And he took it and set it up in his own bedchamber and hung it with garlands: so that later John, when he perceived it, said to him: My beloved child, what is it that you always do when you come in from the bath into your bedchamber alone? do not I pray with you and the rest of the brethren? or is there something you are hiding from us? And as he said this and talked jestingly with him, he went into the bedchamber, and saw the portrait of an old man crowned with garlands, and lamps and altars set before it. And he called him and said: Lycomedes, what do you mean by this matter of the portrait? can it be one of your gods that is painted here? for I see that you are still living in heathen fashion. And Lycomedes answered him: My only God is he who raised me up from death with my wife: but if, next to that God, it be right that the men who have benefited us should be called gods -it is you, father, whom I have had painted in that portrait, whom I crown and love and reverence as having become my good guide.
And John who had never at any time seen his own face said to him: You mock me, child: am I like that in form, [excelling] your Lord? how can you persuade me that the portrait is like me? And Lycomedes brought him a mirror. And when he had seen himself in the mirror and looked earnestly at the portrait, he said: As the Lord Jesus Christ lives, the portrait is like me: yet not like me, child, but like my fleshly image; for if this painter, who has imitated this my face, desires to draw me in a portrait, he will be at a loss, [needing more than] the colors that are now given to you, and boards and plaster (?) and glue (?), and the position of my shape, and old age and youth and all things that are seen with the eye.
But do you become for me a good painter, Lycomedes. You have colors which he gives you through me, who paints all of us for himself, even Jesus, who knows the shapes and appearances and postures and dispositions and types of our souls. And the colors wherewith I bid you paint are these: faith in God, knowledge, godly fear, friendship, communion, meekness, kindness, brotherly love, purity, simplicity, tranquillity, fearlessness, grieflessness, sobriety, and the whole band of colors that paint the likeness of your soul, and even now raise up your members that were cast down, and levels them that were lifted up, and tends your bruises, and heals your wounds, and orders your hair that was disarranged, and washes your face, and chastens your eyes, and purges your bowels, and empties your belly, and cuts off that which is beneath it; and in a word, when the whole company and mingling of such colors is come together, into your soul, it shall present it to our Lord Jesus Christ undaunted, whole (unsmoothed), and firm of shape. But this that you have now done is childish and imperfect: you have drawn a dead likeness of the dead.
What we see in this early pious tale is the making of a Christian icon by a former “pagan” who just adapts his old religious practice to new Christian circumstances. And that is precisely how Christian icons began — with the changing of the gods from pagan polytheism to Christian polytheism — the veneration of Jesus and Mary and all the growing panoply of saints who became the new gods in practice, if not in terminology.
Just as Lycomedes was following old polytheistic practice in his obtaining and veneration of an image of John, and his veneration of it with lights and garlands, so Eusebius of Caesarea suggests that the statue of a standing man and kneeling woman once found at the city of Paneas/Banias was a statue of Jesus and the woman with an issue of blood, made by “gentiles” (meaning non-Christian polytheists). He wrote:
“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 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.”
So again we have an association of the making of images with the traditional practices of “pagan” polytheists — though three dimensional art fell out of favor in later Eastern Orthodoxy, the panel painting survived as the Christian icon.
For more on the Banias/Panias image and its likely real nature, see this earlier posting:
Note that Eusebius does not attribute these early Christian images to Christians, but rather to “pagans” following their traditional polytheistic practices of veneration, but applying them to Christian “heroes.” As Eusebius wrote in his Life of Constantine,
“…we have learned also that the likenesses of his apostles 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.”
That is much in keeping with what Irenaeus (c. 130–202) had to say about the Carpocratians (a Christian sect founded in the 2nd century), in his Against Heresies, 1:25-6:
“They also possess images, some of them painted, and others formed from different kinds of material; while they maintain that a likeness of Christ was made by Pilate at that time when Jesus lived among them. They crown these images, and set them up along with the images of the philosophers of the world that is to say, with the images of Pythagoras, and Plato, and Aristotle, and the rest. They have also other modes of honoring these images, after the same manner of the Gentiles [‘pagans’]”.
So again we find veneration of images in the traditional polytheistic manner, this time applied to both “pagan” and Christian images — but being “according to the practice” of or “after the same manner” as the “pagan” polytheists. That is why I often say that the making and veneration of icons in Eastern Orthodox Christianity is just the continuation of the pre-Christian veneration of images of the gods, but in Christian guise. Like the saying from the old TV show Dragnet, “Only the names have been changed….”