A BRIEF INTRODUCTION TO THE ICON


The icon has had and continues to have a central place in the tradition of Orthodox Christianity. (1) The display and the embrace of these objects mark both churches and homes. While the term icon can notionally include any image, it is normally understood to refer to panel paintings that show portraits of Christ, the Theotokos, and the saints or scenes from the Old Testament, Christ's life, and church history. The perhaps repetitious subject matter has often led to a disregard for the qualities of icon painting. Yet, the history of the icon presents a persistent, powerful, fluid, and still unfolding tradition within the story of painting. (2)



While the icon has become a defining aspect of the Orthodox tradition, its actual entry into the life of the church is less clear. Ancient Roman culture had bequeathed a domestic cult of portraits and evidence of panel depictions of the gods. (3) The third-century apocryphal Acts of John show that Christians had at this early date already adopted devotional practices from these potential influences. (4) Unfortunately, our earliest surviving examples of Christian icons can only be dated to the sixth century. These are from the very important and extensive collection of the monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai in Egypt, from the churches of Rome, and from excavations in Egypt. (5) These survivals indicate the widespread existence of icons by this date; a point already indicated and expanded upon by numerous texts. (6)

Although the physical existence of icons in the church can be demonstrated, the precise nature of their role at this early date remained unclear. One consequence of this lack of clarity can be seen in sporadic writings both for and against the use of icons by the church. This emergent discussion reached a crescendo in the course of the eighth- and ninth-century iconoclastic dispute within the Byzantine church. The limits of this dispute can be marked by two ecclesiastical canons that specifically addressed the role of art in the church. These were published in the acts of the Quinisext Council of 691/2 and the Constantinopolitan Council of 869/70. The 82nd Canon of the Quinisext Council attempted to define an iconographic preference for depictions of Christ in human form. This was not well formulated and, indeed, it might well have provided the immediate catalyst for the ensuing heated discussion of images that was to last for a further one hundred and seventy-eight years. The second and seventh canons of the Constantinopolitan Council were less prescriptive. They did, however, affirm the necessity of the visual for Christianity and also elevated the status of the artist to the ranks of the theologians and philosophers. In addition to these legal texts, we have the lengthy discussions, declaration, and canons produced by the seventh ecumenical council held at Nicaea (modern Iznik in Turkey) in 787. This council confirmed the tradition of images within the church, although it did not resolve all of the theological questions raised by the dispute. Patriarch Nikephoros of Constantinople and Theodore of Stoudios completed this work in the ninth century. (7)

The primary outcome of the iconoclastic dispute was a definition of Christian art and its place within the church. Henceforth, the icon was to be understood as a necessary visual proof of the incarnation. This theological role was safeguarded by a precise analysis of how an icon shows its subject, a relationship that was defined in primarily formal terms. While the church did not assume a prescriptive role over the production of works of art (beyond that common to the process of patronage), the assumption that an icon always showed an historical reality necessarily narrowed the themes that an artist might explore. This limit leads at first glance to a sense of repetition as one looks from icon to icon. Yet, a greater familiarity with icons not only demonstrates an enormous range of styles, but also real iconographic innovation. It is only in the fifteenth century and later, when the production of re-usable cartoons and the appearance of verbal and visual manuals become identifiable within the Byzantine and post-Byzantine tradition, that we can begin to speak of a prescriptive narrowing of possibilities. This was a process that seems to have been both shaped and resisted by the artists themselves. (8)

The post-iconoclastic period also provides evidence for the official integration of icons into the devotional practices of the church. For example, in the early eleventh century the trial of Symeon the New Theologian offers evidence of the official churchÕs ability to control an individual's promotion of the cult of an icon. (9) Symeon's promotion of the cult of his deceased spiritual father included icons of this figure. When the cult was repressed, the spiritual father's change of status was marked by the removal of the word "Saint" from his icons. The implication is that by this act the icon was returned to the world of secular portraiture. On a more positive note, the eleventh and twelfth centuries witness the emergence of guilds devoted to the public cult of such icons as the Theotokos Hodegetria in Constantinople. (10) This is indicative of a communal role for these objects that underscores the lack of a clear differentiation between secular and sacred space in Byzantium. It is only in the thirteenth century, however, that it is possible to identify liturgical texts that show the incorporation of icons into the actual liturgy of the church itself. (11)

Beyond Byzantium, one finds that in the thirteenth century and later the Latin West proved to be receptive anew to the icon. Increased contacts brought about by the Crusades and the influence of Mendicant spirituality encouraged the use of icons. (12) This almost ubiquitous presence of Byzantinizing works in Late Medieval Italy was perhaps most bitingly characterized and dismissed in the sixteenth-century art-historical writings of Giorgio Vasari. For him, this maniera greca represented an alien betrayal of the good Tuscan and Italian values he sought to nurture in his own works. (13) The thirteenth-century icon of the Theotokos and Child in this exhibition exemplifies this pervasive presence of Byzantine influenced art in thirteenth-century Italy, the very style that Vasari argued that Giotto overthrew. Vasari notwithstanding, the icon continued to maintain popularity in the West. Our most significant insights into the production of icons for this market are found in the records produced during the Venetian rule of Crete. (14) These reveal large numbers of artists at work producing icons in massive quantities for relatively low cost. For example, in 1499 two merchants, George Basseggio from Venice and Peter Varsama from the Morea in southern Greece, commissioned three Cretan artists to produce seven hundred icons of the Theotokos for them. Five hundred of these will be in accordance with the maniera latinar, while two hundred will be in accordance with the maniera greca. The precise implications of these terms here remain an open question.

It is notable that the contract was signed on July 4th and the delivery date for these seven hundred works was August 15th. (15) This is remarkably swift work, for which these artists were to be paid the relatively low rate of 40 bezzi, 1 hyperperon, or 1 marcello for the three sizes of icon commissioned. Such works were distributed throughout the Mediterranean and northern Europe. The vigor of the icon continued and continues until this day. Much innovative work can be found in the sixteenth century, when artists such as El Greco and Michael Damaskinos worked in the medium. (16) Among these innovations was an iconography of the Divine Liturgy created by Michael Damaskinos, in which the manner of portraying the Holy Trinity betrays a compromise between Orthodox and Catholic notions of the Holy Trinity. In contrast, the Snite's icon of the Holy Trinity presents a unique response to this Damaskine tradition, by offering a rigorously Orthodox rendering of the same subject. (17)

The icon is not a Medieval medium. Its value remains strong today. Even as its visual language appears increasingly detached from the post-Renaissance conception of the artwork, its function in the life of the Orthodox community remains powerful. The Euthymios of Sardis icon is a notable example of such late icons. The image was painted by George Chaliomidis (?) in May 1830. The narrative of the saint's life seen in this icon is indebted to the life included in an Akolouthia published on the saint in 1828. (18) Together these testify to the continuing power of the cult of saints and their icons into the modern era.




ENDNOTES
1. Useful introductions to the icon as an aspect of Orthodoxy indulge: Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons (Olten: Urs Graf-Verlag, 1951) and Konrad Onasch, Icons: The Fascination and the Reality (New York: Riverside Book Co., 1997). For the purpose of this catalogue I have, as far as possible, restricted my references to English language publications. There is a vast and important literature on this topic in all European languages, particularly Greek and Russian.
2. Two remarkable studies are noteworthy for their discussions of the history of the icon: Hans Belting, Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994) and Robin Cormack, Painting the Soul: Icons, Death Masks and Shrouds (London: Reaktion Books, 1997).
3. Cormack, Painting the Soul, 64-76 stresses the importance of the funerary portrait. Thomas F. Mathews, The Clash of Gods: A Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art, revd. ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 17-190 examines the roles of Pagan and Christian icons in Late Antique religion.
4. Edgar Hennecke and Wilhelm Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha, trans. R. McL. Wilson, vol. 2. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964), 220-21.
5. The St. Catherine icons are published in Kurt Weitzmann, The Monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai. The Icons, vol. 1 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976). The Roman icons are published together in Pietro Amato, De Vera Effigie Mariae: Antiche Icone Romane (Milan: Arnoldo Mondadori editore, 1988). Good Coptic examples can be found in Marie-Hélène Rutschowscaya, La peinture copte (Paris: Ré des musées nationaux, 1992).
6. The classic study in English remains Ernst Kitzinger, "The Cult of Images in the Age before Iconoclasm," Dumbarton Oaks Papers 8 (1954), 85-150. A recent criticism of this study is to be found at Leslie Brubacker, "Icons before Iconoclasm?" Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull'Alto Medioevo 45 (1998), 1215-54
7. The prevailing art-historical study remains André Grabar, L'iconoclasme byzantin: dossier archéologique, 2nd ed. (Paris: Flammarion, 1984). An alternative reading of this crisis will be found in Charles Barber, Figure and Likeness: On the Limits of Representation in Byzantine Iconoclasm j(Princeton, Princeton University Press, forthcoming).
8. For the relation between the church and the artist see: John Yiannias "Reexamination of the 'Art Statue' in the Acts of Nicaea II." Byzantinische Zeitschrift 80 (1987), 348-359. For an example of a Painter's Manual consult The 'Painter's Manual' of Dionysius of Fourna, tr. Paul Hetherington (London, Sagittarius Press, 1974).
9. Vie de Syméon le Nouveau Théologien, ed. and tr. Irénée Hausherr, Orinetalia Christiana Analecta 45 (1928), 98-129.
10. John Nesbitt and Jan Wiita, "A Confraternity of the Comnenian Era," Byzantinische Zeitschrift 68 (1975), 360-384 and Christine Angelidi and Titos Papamastorakis, "The Veneration of the Virgin Hodegetria and the Hodegon Monastery," in Mother of God: Representations of the Virgin in Byzantine Art, ed. Maria Vassilaki (Milan: Skira, 2000), 373-387.
11. Sharon E.J. Gerstel, Beholding the Sacred Mysteries: Programs of the Byzantine Sanctuary, College Art Association Monograph on the Fine Arts LVI (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1999), 9.
12. On Crusader contacts see Kurt Weitzmann, "Crusader Icons and Maniera Greca," in Byzanz und der Westen. Studien zur Kunst des Europäischen Mittelalters, ed. Irmgard Hutter (Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1984), 143-170. On the spiritual life of the icon in the West consult Jeffrey F. Hamburger, The Visual and the Visionary: Art and Female Spirituality in the Late Medieval Germany (New York: Zone Books, 1998)
13. Giorgio Vasari, Le vite de' più eccelenti pittori scultori ed architettori, vol. 1, ed. Gaetano Milanesi (Florence: G. C. Sansoni, 1878), 372. Important discussion of the problems of describing the Byzantine presence in Italy can be found in Anthony Culter, "Misapprehensions and Misgivings: Byzantine Art and the West in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries," Mediaevalia 7 (1981), 41-77; Anthony Culter, "La 'questione bizantina' nella pittura italiana: una visione alternativa della 'maniera greca'," in La pittura in Italia. L'Altomedioevo, ed. Carlo Bertelli (Milan: Electa, 1994), 335-89; Anthony Cutler, "The Pathos of Distance: Byzantium in the Gaze of Renaissance Europe and Modern Scholarship," in Reframing the Renaissance: Visual Culture in Europe and Latin American 1450-1650, ed. Claire Farago (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955), 22-45; Anthony Cutler, "From Loot to Scholarship: Changing Modes in the Italian Response to Byzantine Artifact, ca. 1200-1750," Dumbarton Oaks Papers 49 (1995), 237-67.
14. Much of this material has been published by various authors in the journal Thesaurismata: 9 (1972), 202-235, 10 (1973), 101-23 and 291-380, 12 (1975), 35-136 and 292-308, 14 (1977) 157-98 and 199-238.
15. This contract is published in Mario Cattapan, "Nuovi elenchi e documenti dei pittori in Creta dal 1300-1500," Thesaurismata 9 (1972), 211-213. A brief introduction to these documents can be found in Maria Constantoudaki-Kitromilides, "Taste and the Market in Cretan Icons in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries," in From Byzantium to El Greco: Greek Frescoes and Icons, ed. Myrtali Acheimastou-Potamianou (Athens: Greek Ministry of Culture, 1987), 51-53.
16. This vigor is precisely characterized in Cormack, Painting the Soul, 167-217
17. See the catalogue entry that follows for notes on these issues.
18. See the catalogue entry that follows for these identifications.