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of The Icon
Icon is a Greek word meaning
image. The very first icon can be said to have been made by
Christ himself, as an imprint of his face on cloth was sent to Edessa at the plea of King Abgar, to cure
him from leprosy.
King Abgar was healed by the
touch of the cloth and it was kept, with much veneration, in the
city. This image has been painted in an icon called ‘The Holy Face’
which is still very much loved and used.
Other early types of icons that still remain are found in
the Roman catacombs, where they were painted onto the walls.
Here Christ was often depicted as the lamb, symbolising '
The Good Shepherd'.
Images from mythology were frequently used to
incorporate the Christian message and sometimes, for
instance, Hermes can be seen carrying a lamb on his
shoulder. An early image of Christ can also be seen, going
heavenwards in a quadriga, haloed by the rays of the sun, representing the Ascension of Christ.
Images of The Mother of God were painted,
in the type called Orante (or Praying One). Here she stands
in prayer with her hands stretched up, interceding. She is dressed
veiled, in the traditional style of the time and as we still
Old Testament scenes were also
depicted in the catacombs, such as the sacrificial offering of Isaac by Abraham, the
bronze serpent held up in the desert, and Jonah being
swallowed by the whale. These scenes each prefigured
Christ's Crucifixion and Resurrection in some way,
encouraging the Christians in time of martyrdom. Feast scenes
developed slowly over a period of time and can be seen in
early illuminations, where the details evolved.
The first icons, made on wood, were painted in a
technique called 'encaustic'. Pigment was either mixed
with hot wax or else with cold wax and
oil /or egg. Encaustic was generally used in the
antique world for painting on wood but it was very
complicated to apply. From the eighth century icons were
painted in egg tempura. Almost the only remaining early icons exist at Saint
Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, because iconoclasm did not
The theology of the icon was worked
out, especially, during a time of great suffering in the Orthodox
Church, when between (approximately) 720-787 AD and also 815-843AD a huge and
violent controversy erupted, brought about by a group of
iconoclasts. At this time many Christians were tortured and martyred
for their use of images. A huge proportion of the early
icons were destroyed in the struggle.
The Mother Of God Orante. Catacombs
of Main Cemetery Rome
Saint John of Damascus and Saint Theodore the Studite both
wrote treatises in response, showing that the icon was not
an idol but a witness to sanctity and a vehicle for prayer,
that it should be venerated but not adored. They explained
theologically the difference between the Old Testament and
the New Testament which had heralded God Incarnate. They
defended the icon, saying that because Christ appeared in
the flesh he could be depicted in icons, but that God the
Father should not be represented as he is Spirit and
Many icons are vehicles of miracles, with healing powers.
Some are given special properties that draw people to them,
such as exuding fragrant myrrh . Icons have
become so deeply respected and venerated that Christians,
and even some people from other faiths, are drawn to pray
before them for God's intervention and help.
The Mother of God has an very important place in
iconography. Saint Luke painted the very first icon of her
during her life time. She is always portrayed with three
little crosses or stars on her mantle to depict her
virginity. Her outer mantle of wine-brown shows her humanity
and her inner garment of blue reminds us of her holiness.
At the Council of Ephesus in the third century she was
proclaimed to be truly The Mother of God and Ever Virgin
Mary. After this her icon developed rapidly. There are very
many variations of her icon which come from four
different basic types . The oldest of these is 'The
Mother of God of The Sign' (similar to The Orante, but
including an image of the Infant Christ) . Next there
developed a more commanding icon called 'The
Hodigitrea Mother of God' (or The One Who Shows the
Way). After this a very gentle type of icon emerged known as
'The Mother of God of Tenderness'. The last type of
icon to develop was 'The Mother of God Enthroned'.
of God Of Tenderness
The Mother of God
is always depicted with Christ, guiding us to him and
praying for us in her very special role as intercessor. In
the history of the Orthodox Church her icons have been
carried in procession through
besieged towns, saving them miraculously from their enemies.
They have been preserved, copied and loved because of the
great help that she gives.
People travel from afar to pray before her icon for succour
Today, in modern times the icon is still an object of great
veneration. Many people are drawn by its mysterious beauty,
by the peace and stillness that radiate from within. One
feels a timeless quality, an encounter with another world.
Through the media, the icon has become widely celebrated,
creating the possibility for more people to discover it, who
are searching for a spiritual encounter in this modern age.
Tichvine Mother Of God