Well, it finally happened. I opened my blog site to write a couple of days ago, and found the WordPress format had changed. And I discovered — to my horror — that my old computer could not deal with the new format. That meant I could no longer post these endless, tiresome messages about icons, unless I coughed up the cash to buy a new computer with the new software my old computer and software cold no longer handle.
The result is that I reluctantly and with great sorrow opened my wallet, and after the moths had flown out, I took enough money to buy a new computer yesterday, so now I can post on this blog site again. Yes, that means you will have to endure even more postings on Icons and Their Interpretation.
Given that the computer I am typing this on (while reclining, a first ever for me with a computer) is my first laptop, you are likely to see some oddly-formatted postings for a while. And I am going to have to find how to use images on this new software — which is why there is no new photo at all in this posting — and such photos are essential to an icon blog. I hope to quickly learn how to add photos before my next posting (the laptop software functions differently than my now unusable desktop).
So, today’s posting is a very basic trial run on my new laptop, minus new photos for now. So don’t worry. Eventually things will get even worse.
Here is a quick summary of some of the most common icon myths. All are explained further by past postings in the archives.
Are the statements in bold type accurate?
- The first Christians painted and used icons.
No. There is no evidence that the first Christians painted or used icons for veneration. Though there is archeological and literary evidence of Christian art around the beginning of the the 3rd century, there is no evidence for the painting and use of venerated icons as they later became known in Christianity.
2. There are icons of Mary painted by St. Luke.
No. There is no evidence that any icon of Mary attributed to Luke dates to the 1st century. All are later, most much later. And of course there is no evidence that Luke or any other Christian of New Testament times painted or used icons.
3. Icons are “written,” not painted.
No. That mistake is the result of a misunderstanding of language. In Greek and in Russian, the words for “paint’ and “write” were the same. The same word was used for both, and context determined which was meant. In English, however, we have distinct words for “write” and “paint,” so in English, icons are painted, not “written.” Saying to “write” an icon is a mistake new immigrants might make, but not once they learned correct English.
4. Icons are “windows to heaven.”
No. They are windows only into how a particular religion and culture chose to depict its traditional religious figures.
5. Icons depict saints accurately.
No. Most of the images of saints depicted in icons are entirely imaginary and often simply generic images distinguished only by the style and color of hair, the presence, absence or shape of beards, And the kind and color of garments worn. So when people venerate — for example — an icon of St. John (by tradition apostle, evangelist, and theologian), they are venerating an imaginary image of John that became standardized in painting at some point in history. Even the depictions of Jesus and Mary are imaginary.
6. “Stylized” icons — that is, icons depicting saints with stylized rather than realistic features and proportions — were always the way icons were painted in Eastern Orthodoxy.
No. Stylization of figures in icons is a tradition that developed over time in Eastern Orthodoxy, but was not always used. In Russian icons, for example, stylization was common prior to the separation of the State Church and the “Old Believers” in the middle of the 17th century, but after that, the State Church began using more and more realism in the painting of icons. The Old Believers were, in general, the preservers of stylization in icon painting after the 17th century. Most people do not realize that a great many of the stylized icons they consider so characteristic of Eastern Orthodoxy today were actually painted by Old Believers who considered the State Orthodox Church (the “Russian Orthodox Church”) to be heretical.
7. Icon painters never signed their completed icons.
No. Many icons — even some going back centuries — were signed by the painter, both in Greek icon painting and in Russian. There are countless examples of old signed icons.
8. Icons were never painted for money.
No. Icon painting developed into a big business. For example, there was a vigorous trade in icons painted by Cretan icon painters and sold to buyers in the Venetian Republic. Icon painting in Russia was a huge business, and prices were charged according to the size, complexity, and quality of the icon.
9. The saints and events painted in icons were real and historical.
No. Some saints actually existed and some never existed. Even in the case of historical saints, their lives and actions are often partly, heavily, or even entirely fictionalized. Some icon saints — like St. Joasaph/Josaphat, were actually borrowed from non-Christian traditions, in that particular case from the life of the Buddha. The events depicted in icons are often as fictional as fairy and folk tales.
10. All icon depictions of Mary — including those on so-called “wonder-working” icons — originated in Eastern Orthodoxy.
No. A number of Marian icons — including some classified as “wonder-working” — were actually borrowed from the Roman Catholic tradition. And many icons in general were painted after models copied from Western European Catholic or Protestant religious engravings.