FROM ART TO ICON

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.

 

THE NURSING GODDESS: FROM ISIS TO MARY

I mentioned in an earlier posting (“Protection Images East and West”) that the earliest written prayer to Mary was found in Egypt — Rylands Papyrus #470. It is generally known by its first words in Latin translation, Sub Tuum Praesidium — “Under Your Protection.” Though it is fragmentary, the missing parts may be supplied to read:

Ὑπὸ τὴν σὴν εὐσπλαγχνίαν………..”Under your compassion
καταφεύγομεν, Θεοτόκε………………We flee for refuge, God-birther
Τὰς ἡμῶν ἱκεσίας……………………….Our petitions
μὴ παρίδῃς ἐν περιστάσει…………….Do not disregard in affliction
ἀλλ᾽ ἐκ κινδύνων λύτρωσαι ἡμᾶς….But rescue us from danger
μόνη Ἁγνή, μόνη εὐλογημένη………Only Pure, only Blessed.”

We can paraphrase it as:

We flee under your compassion for refuge, Birthgiver of God; do not despise our prayers when troubles surround us, but deliver us from danger, only pure one, only blessed one.

In this prayer, Mary is not approached as an intercessor or intermediary, but rather directly for her powers of deliverance.

I wrote in that earlier posting that It is not surprising we find this earliest-known prayer to Mary in Egypt. Egypt was the land of the goddess Isis — the mother of the god Horus, and one of her titles was Mut Netjer,” “Mother of [the] God,” which we may liken to Theotokos — “Birthgiver of God” in Greek.  The worship of Isis spread in the Roman Empire, with processions, temples, paintings, and images such as this one, from the 2nd century c.e.:

(Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)
(Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)

As I have said before, as Christianity spread in the Greco-Roman world (which included Egypt at that time) under Roman imperial patronage, the worship of the old gods was first discouraged, then persecuted; and as that happened, the places and functions of the old gods were gradually taken over by Christian saints, the most prominent of which was Mary, who took on the role of the new Mother Goddess.

While the veneration of Isis was fading in the Empire, the veneration of Mary was growing.  As the old saying goes, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

The use of Theotokos as a title of Mary was officially authorized at the Council of Ephesus in 431 c.e., after a controversy over whether Mary should be called “Birthgiver of Christ” or “Birthgiver of God.” The latter won out.

At the far southern edge of Egypt lay the Temple of Isis at Philae.  In spite of the 392 edict of Emperor Theodosius closing all temples in Egypt, the Isis temple and the other temples at Philae remained open until they were finally officially closed only in the reign of the Byzantine Christian Emperor Justinian, in 535 – 537 c.e.  That is considered the symbolic end of the old Egyptian religion.

Temple at Philae; mid 19th century
Temple at Philae; mid 19th century

But in life, such boundaries are rarely so distinct.

Images of Isis as Mother of Horus frequently depicted her nursing her divine child, as in this Egyptian example:

(Walters Art Museum)
(Walters Art Museum)

It is not a great step from that three-dimensional image to this wall painting of Mary nursing the child Jesus, found in the Coptic Monastery of Apa Jeremiah (Deir Apa Jeremiah) at Saqqara, Egypt, generally dated 6th – 7th century c.e.:

And from that, it is but another short step to icons of the type known in Greek as the Galaktotrouphousa and in Russia as Mlekopitatelnitsa.  Here is a Russian example.

(Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com)

The smaller images of St. Nicholas and John the Forerunner at lower left and right are not a part of the type.

Let’s look at the title inscription:

mlekipinsc

It reads:  МЛЕКОПИТА          ТЕЛНИЦА ПРе[святая] Б[огоро]д[и]ца

Joining the two sides, we get in transliteration:
MLEKOPITATELNITSA PRESVYATAYA BOGORODITSA
“[THE] MILK-FEEDING MOST HOLY MOTHER OF GOD”

As is typical in traditional Russian iconography, conscious effort is made to remove the image from reality.  That is why Mary’s breast is so oddly depicted and placed near her shoulder — an attempt to avoid any trace of sensuality:

mlekopdet1_1

The Russian Mlekopitatelnitsa type is said by tradition to be based on the Galaktotrophousa (“Milk-nursing”) icon once kept at the Monastery of St. Sabbas the Sanctified, not far from Jerusalem. The hagiographic tradition relates that St. Sabbas, near death, said prophetically that the icon would be given into the hands of a relative of the Serbian Royal Family who would also bear the name “Sava.” (Sabbas).  St. Sabbas died in 532, during the reign of Justinian.  In the 13th century, the first Archbishop of Serbia, named Sava (Sabbas) (1174-1236), visited the monastery, and was given the icon (together, supposedly, with the “Three-handed” icon of Mary).  On his way back, the Archbishop came to Mount Athos, where he eventually had the Khilandar Monastery restored as a Serbian monastery, and gave to it the “Milk-nursing” icon from Palestine.

Now strangely enough, there is another and more rare icon type primarily associated with Cypriot iconography.  Obviously based on the imagery discussed above, it replaces the nursing mother Mary with her (apocryphal) mother, St. Anne/Anna — and the child being fed is Mary herself.  This type is known as “St. Anna Galaktotrophousa.”

(Maronite Eparchy of Cyprus)

WHEN DID CHRISTIAN ICONS BEGIN?

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.

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:
https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2017/09/08/from-art-to-icon/
https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2017/08/28/from-polytheism-to-the-panoply-of-saints-the-beginning-of-christian-icons/
https://russianicons.wordpress.com/2011/08/28/the-real-origin-of-the-eastern-orthodox-icon/

THE NEW TESTAMENT TRINITY

If you talk to the “true believers” in modern Eastern Orthodoxy (who are often enthusiastic  Protestant converts), they will frequently tell you that Russian Orthodoxy does not paint icons of God the Father shown as an old man.  But that is just doctrinal theory, not the reality of Russian icon painting, and as you know, we deal in reality here rather than in  theories or wishful thinking about icons.

The truth is that the painting of icons of God the Father as an old man has a history in the Russian Orthodox Church of at least some 600 years; such depictions became increasingly common, until by the 18th and 19th centuries there were countless icons in existence featuring God the Father.  They are found in all the Eastern Orthodox countries, from Greece to Bulgaria and Serbia to Russia.  They were (and are) seen in  in churches, in monasteries, and of course in the home.

When the Council of Moscow decreed in 1667 that “the image of Lord Sabaoth shall no longer be depicted or made into an icon, because no one has seen Lord Sabaoth, that is, the Father, in the flesh,” it made not the slightest difference to icon painters or to Eastern Orthodox worshippers.  They painted and venerated what their fathers had painted and venerated.

We need not go into all the theological quibbles over this matter, because our concern here is not with what this or that person thinks icon painters should have done, but with what they really did; and what they really did was to paint images of Lord Sabaoth — God the Father — in huge numbers over the centuries.

Today I would like to take a look at such an icon, which goes under the general name “The New Testament Trinity.”

Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com
Courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com

The painter, however, has given this icon its own title, written at the top in condensed form, meaning in very decorative cyrillic calligraphy, with words abbreviated and some letters written in smaller form as superscription above the larger letters.  In Russian this ornate style of writing is called Vyaz, from the verb meaning to join or tie together.

The inscription on this example, expanded to its full form (Russian font), looks like this:

И возшедшаго на небеса, и седяща одесную Отца
I Vozshedshago Na Nebesa, I Sedyashcha Odesnuiu Otsa

It is a line from the Simvol Verui — the “Symbol of Faith,” which is the Russian term for the Nicene Creed; it reads, ” And he ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right [hand] of the Father,” which perfectly describes what the icon depicts — Jesus sitting in Heaven at the right of God the Father (Gospod’ Savaof / Lord Sabaoth).

The Father is shown with his typical long beard and eight-pointed halo (termed a slava — a “glory” in this case).  The eight points symbolize the seven days of Creation and an added eighth day — the Day of Eternity.  The Holy Spirit is seen as a dove above the Father and Son, which is how he is described at the baptism of Jesus in the New Testament.

Above the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a gathering of archangels and angels.  We see Michael (Mikhail), Gabriel (Gavriil), Uriel (Uriil), Yehudiel (Yegudiil), Selafiel (Salafiil), Raphael, and a number of others each identified only as “Angel of the Lord”

God the Father — Lord Sabaoth — holds a scroll, as we see in this closeup:

Photo courtesy of Jacksonsauction.com

It is a Church Slavic quote from Ezekiel 33:11, and it says, “I do not want the death of the sinner, but that he should turn from his way and live.”  In more modern form it is:

Не хочу смерти грешника, но чтобы грешник обратился от пути своего и жив был.

Here is an illustration from a menaion printed in Moscow under the direction of the “Holy Governing Synod” in the reign of Catherine the Great in 1784:

New Testament Trinity (courtesy of Jacksonsauctioncom)
New Testament Trinity
                                                                                                                (courtesy of Jacksonsauctioncom)

As you see, it depicts the Holy Spirit as a dove at the top of the circle, with Jesus on the left and “Lord Sabaoth” on the right — God the Father depicted as an old man.

By the way, aside from the fact that this illustration comes from a book authorized by the Holy Synod, the governing body of the Russian Orthodox Church from 1721-1918, it is also  obvious that this illustration is not from an Old Believer book because it uses the IHC abbreviation for the name Jesus, something the Old Believers considered a sign of heresy, keeping to the traditional IC abbreviation.

So remember, as a student of icons, go with what painters actually painted, with historical reality, not with what religious enthusiasts say they should have painted.

David