When examining the origins of early Christian art — and the later appearance of icons as venerated images — we must be careful to make precisely that distinction:  between the image used as symbol and/or narrative illustration, and the image used as venerated icon. As I have pointed out in previous postings, Christian icons developed on the fringes where Christianity met non-Christian polytheism, and the former, over time, increasingly borrowed the venerated image from the latter and adopted it into Christian usage.  The use of venerated icons in Christianity was never without controversy, and it took many centuries before icons were officially accepted in the church, and before a theology was created to excuse them.

But what of Christian art before the venerated icon?  It consisted largely of symbols and of narrative images.  That is what we find in the earlier Christian catacombs.

We find symbolic Christian art clearly presented in the Paedagogus (Teacher/Instructor) of Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215), Book III.  He is speaking of seal rings, those bearing an engraved seal.  These were an essential part of daily life in the Greco-Roman world, and Christians needed them as well.  “Pagans” could use all kinds of images, from real people to figures from mythology, etc.  But Clement of Alexandria cautioned Christians that they must be careful in selecting their seal images:

And let our seals be either a dove, or a fish, or a ship scudding before the wind, or a musical lyre, which Polycrates [tyrant of Samos mentioned in Herodotus] used, or a ship’s anchor, which Seleucus got engraved as a device [Seleucus Nicator, founder of the Seleucid Dynasty; the anchor symbol was said to have been given by the god Apollo to Seleucus’ mother in a dream]; and if there be one fishing, he will remember the apostle, and the children drawn out of the water. For we are not to delineate the faces of idols, we who are prohibited to cleave to them; nor a sword, nor a bow, following as we do, peace; nor drinking-cups, being temperate.  Many of the licentious have their lovers engraved, or their mistresses, as if they wished to make it impossible ever to forget their amatory indulgences, by being perpetually put in mind of their licentiousness.”

The subjects mentioned by Clement were extremely common on the everyday seal market as used by polytheists, but can generally (as he suggests) be given a Christian interpretation.   Note that he forbids images of “idols,” which to him meant any of the deities of the polytheists.  Note also that he does not suggest any images of Jesus or of saints that would have had to be specially made — though he permits generic images that may call such to mind — for example a fisherman, which could remind a Christian both of Peter the Apostle and fisherman, and of baptism.  But the fisherman here is a symbol, not an iconic representation of Peter.

We find many symbolic and narrative images in the early Roman catacombs, and in fact that is what the first Christian art was — symbolic or narrative, or a combination of both — not the venerated icons that came later.  That is not surprising, given that narrative images were already to be found here and there in Jewish art of the 3rd century — itself subject to, and the result of, Hellenistic Greek influence.  In fact the representational use of  art as found on the 3rd century Dura Europos synagogue walls  is characteristic of other religions (polytheistic) of the time, and borrowed by Jews for their own purposes.

We see that syncretism, for example, in the western wall of the Synagogue at Dura Europos, which has a surprising depiction — Orpheus taming the animals with his music, borrowed directly from Greco-Roman mythology.  That shows us the extent to which Jews — and also, we shall see, Christians — borrowed motifs from “pagan” Hellenistic mythology and used them as symbols to refer to figures in their own religious traditions.  In the Dura synagogue, for example, the Orpheus figure is used to remind one of King David — a symbol, in other words, borrowed from the Hellenistic and polytheistic culture, and used much as Clement used a fisherman to call to mind both the apostle Peter and Christian baptism.

Hellenistic influence extended not merely to art, but also to Jewish and Christian theology.  Think, for example, of the allegorical biblical interpretations of the Hellenistic Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria (c. 30 b.c.e- 50 c.e.), and his discussion of the Logos, the emanation of the hidden God, which is very much the Logos (“In the beginning was the Word…” John 1:1) doctrine found in the Gospel called “of John”.  There are other examples from elsewhere of the Jewish use of the Orpheus image during this period.  We find Orpheus images used also in a Christian context in the Roman catacombs, as well as the image of the sun god Helios/Apollo, again used in a symbolic sense to call Jesus, the “sun of righteousness” to mind — another “polytheistic” image borrowed and given a Christian significance.  It is hardly necessary to mention yet another common image from polytheistic culture — the Kriophoros or ram-bearer, which was borrowed into the earliest Christian art to signify Jesus, the “Good Shepherd.”  One could add more Christian borrowings from the art of the polytheistic culture surrounding them that are found in the art of the early catacombs — and in the first Christian art in general.  In fact — because the same images may be found used both by polytheists and as Christian borrowings, context is important in distinguishing one from the other.

We also find narrative images (images that “tell a story”) in the Dura synagogue, for example this image of the anointing of the young David as king by the Old Testament prophet Samuel:

Again, this is a narrative image, but not a venerated icon such as was found among the polytheists and those later Christians who took the notion of a venerated image as icon from the polytheists and began making Christian venerated icons.  We find narrative art in the Christian catacombs as well, for example this image of Moses striking the rock to bring forth water:

So the religious image as symbol or narrative is found in the art both of Judaism and of early Christianity — but the venerated icon as understood in later Eastern Orthodoxy is something else entirely, and should not be confused with the art of the early Christians as we find it in literature and in the archeological record.

It is convenient for our purposes that a Christian Church was also found at Dura, and it too had art, though not nearly as sophisticated as that in the Dura synagogue.  It is here that we find what may be the earliest-known representation of Jesus, shown as a typical classical figure, healing the paralytic.  We find also the “Good Shepherd” image, what is apparently a representation of Jesus and Peter “walking on the water,”  and also an image generally interpreted as the women coming to the tomb after the resurrection.  All narrative/symbolic images, representing biblical stories.

So early Christian symbolic/narrative art must be distinguished from the later venerated Christian icon as found in Eastern Orthodox art.  Hellenistic, polytheistic culture influenced both early Christian (and Jewish) art of second and third centuries c.e., so it is an egregious error to imagine that Christian art developed free of influence from its polytheistic environment.  Nonetheless, the venerated icon that later developed in Christianity was a significant step beyond the use of narrative and symbol in art;  it was the adoption of the polytheistic practice of veneration of images of the gods into Christianity,  transferring that veneration of the heavenly hierarchy to Jesus and the saints —  a significant distinction that is often overlooked in “religious” discussions of the origins of Christian iconography and of Christian venerated icons.  It is a serious historical error to confuse early Christian art with later Christian venerated icons.  Though both consist of images, they are completely different in context and significance.



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:


Here is an image of Jesus from a Byzantine coin of the second reign of Justinian II, 705-711 c. e. Not what you expected?

(Photo by kind permission of
(Photo by kind permission of

I have said previously that the standard image of Jesus present in Eastern Orthodox, Western Catholic, and in much of Protestant art (with some recent exceptions) — the image with long hair, a long, thin nose, and a moustache and medium-length beard — was something created in Christianity as it became more and more deeply associated with the Roman (and Byzantine) State. But you may be surprised to learn, as the gold Byzantine coin on this page shows, that the manner in which Jesus was depicted was still not firmly fixed as late as the beginning years of the 700s.

This gold solidus, minted in Constantinople, shows us that there was more than one idea of how to depict Jesus in circulation at that time. The inscription on it reads (in Latin) “DOMINUS IESUS CHRISTUS REX REGNANTIUM — The LORD JESUS CHRIST, KING OF KINGS.”

This Jesus does not have the “Hellenic” look of what later became accepted as the standard image of Jesus. Instead, the characteristics of Jesus in this solidus are more typical of what a Semitic Jesus might really have looked like, though again, of course, only in a general way. There is even a story recorded by the historian Theodorus Lector that a man once painted a portrait of Jesus according to the “Zeus” type, (the Hellenic type) and that Heaven punished him for it by shrivelling his hands. That just confirms that the notion held by many modern art historians — the idea that the long hair and general appearance of the Hellenic type was partly based on that of the Greek God Zeus (Jupiter to the Romans) — is not just a modern theory. In addition, Theodorus Lector remarks in his Church History (1:15) that the image of Jesus with “wooly” (oulon) and short (oligotrikhon) hair (the “Semitic” type) was, of the two types, the most authentic image. Theodorus Lector (literally, “Theodorus the Reader”) was a reader in the great Church of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) in Constantinople in the first part of the sixth century.

We can be certain that both images of Jesus current at the beginning of the 700s — the Hellenic image and the Semitic image — were based on other images already in existence. In fact we can verify that by looking at the Sinai icons, preserved in the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mt. Sinai and so surviving the Iconoclastic Period of Eastern Orthodoxy. Among them we find a sixth-century example not only of the Hellenic type (the “Sinai Pantokrator” discussed in an earlier posting here) but also a rarely-mentioned example, many are surprised to learn, of the Semitic type, also from the sixth century. And it is worth noting that coins exist from the first reign of Justinian II (685-696) that are stamped with the Hellenic type of Christ, as in this example:

In short, both the Semitic and Hellenic types of Christ image were in use in the sixth and early seventh centuries. And they are obviously very different images.

Of course we know which type eventually became the favored image of the government and the religious authorities. The “Semitic” Christ image faded from use and the “Hellenic” image, so much more “Greek” and “classical” in appearance, won out and became the image of Christ that most people recognize as “Jesus,” though of course it is just an image created in the Church, an image quite unknown to much earlier Christians, who neither knew precisely what Jesus might have looked like nor seemed to have much concern about the matter. The first Christian art, which we see in the catacombs and in the house church at Dura Europos, was an art of symbols and of simple narrative depictions, utilizing generic rather than portrait images of biblical persons including Jesus, who was sometimes shown as a beardless magician holding a wand as he performed miracles such as raising Lazarus from the dead.


ASSEMBLING THE SAINTS: How Icon Figures Are Constructed

This icon depicts the Prophet Jeremiah — or does it?

Prophet Jeremiah, Russian icon from first quar...

It is a quite a few centuries too late to be pointing it out (and it was somewhat dangerous to point it out when the doctrine of icons was being formed in Eastern Orthodoxy), but there is an inherent flaw in the in whole matter — the formal rationale for icon painting.

To put it very simply, the making of icons is based upon the principle that because Jesus became incarnate, and is considered to be God in the flesh, one can therefore depict him in icons.  That was said by the chief proponent of icon-making, John of Damascus:

When He who is a pure spirit, without form or limit, immeasurable in the boundlessness of His own nature, existing as God, takes upon Himself the form of a servant in substance and in stature, and a body of flesh, then you may draw His likeness, and show it to anyone who is willing to contemplate it.

The catch here is the word “likeness.”  People in the time of John of Damascus thought they had a true image of Jesus passed down from his lifetime (the so-called “Abgar” image), but today we know better. The fact is that in ancient times no one had the slightest idea what Jesus looked like.  Moreover, the earliest Christians did not show much interest in the matter, and certainly no interest whatsoever in the making and venerating of icons.

The earliest depictions of Jesus in the catacombs show him as a generic, beardless young man, often holding a magician’s wand as he works a miracle.  The image of Jesus developed and evolved over time until finally it settled into certain characteristics, so that when one looks today at an icon of Jesus, one recognizes it; but what one recognizes is not “Jesus,” but rather the conventionalized image of Jesus that the Church eventually created.

The same can be said for the icon images of huge numbers of saints.  No one really has the slightest idea what many of them looked like, except for a very few and often late saints, such as Seraphim of Sarov, who lived in the 19th century.  There were other Russian saints who either had icons painted from their dead bodies or from the scant descriptions of contemporaries, but the great bulk of Eastern Orthodox saints in icons are merely conventionalized images that developed over time and eventually became recorded in icon painters’ manuals with their conventional characteristics.

One recognizes saints — for the most part — not by their facial features, which are often generic, but rather by the cut of the hair and beard, the type of garment, and other such representative elements.We can say, in fact, that the majority of icon saints are constructed by assembling these elements according to the patterns that have come to be traditional.

Here, for example, is how one paints the prophet Jeremiah, as described in an icon painter’s manual:

“The holy prophet Jeremiah, grey beard of John the Theologian, hair like the prophet Elijah, robe ochre with white, under [robe] blue, in the hand a scroll, and on it is written, ‘Thus saith the Lord: Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my word shall not pass away….'”

Of course no one knows what Jeremiah looked like.  But one does know the codes that developed in iconography.  So Jeremiah is a combination of the conventional characteristics of certain “model” saints like John the Theologian (the apostle and evangelist John) and the prophet Elijah.  But again, no one really knew or knows what those two model saints looked like.

An icon painter’s manual, then, is just book of instructions for painting saints, and the instructions contained in it are largely fictions — artificial conventions.  Someone at some time just “made them up.”

So here we have Jeremiah from the Stroganov manual:  He is assembled from generic elements:  a generic robe, the generic hair style used for the prophet Elijah, the generic beard  used for the Evangelist John, generic face and feet, generic halo, generic scroll, with one of two suggested inscriptions, though inscriptions often vary and the colors of the garments often vary as well from manual to manual and icon to icon.

The Prophet Jeremiah (from the Stroganov Manual)

What we have here, then, is an abstraction, nothing that was ever actually in human flesh.  The final (and really very important) touch on such an icon abstraction is the title, which in this case would be “The Holy Prophet Jeremiah.”  The title is really the chief identifying factor for a great many icon saints, because so many saints are so generic in appearance and so much alike that without the title is difficult or impossible to identify them.

One can see, then, that icon painting in reality is considerably different than the propaganda for it in “popular” icon books and icon sites would lead one to believe.

It is said in such books that icons try to depict “invisible reality” in visible form.  Well, try as one might, that is an impossibility.  One is left with the material elements of board and gesso ground and egg tempera paints and gold leaf, and all are very material elements that can only create material subjects, no matter how beautiful or skillful such depictions may turn out to be.  All the rest is provided by the human mind and imagination.