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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Icons and Iconoclasm in Byzantium

Definition of Icons
Icons (from the Greek eikones) are sacred images representing the saints, Christ, and the Virgin, as well as narrative scenes such as Christ’s Baptism (2013.980a–d) and Crucifixion. While today the term is most closely associated with wooden panel painting, in Byzantium icons could be crafted in all media, including marble, ivory, ceramic, gemstone, precious metal, enamel, textile, fresco, and mosaic.

Form and Function of Icons
Icons ranged in size from the miniature to the monumental. Some were suspended around the neck as pendants, others (called “triptychs”) had panels on each side that could be opened and closed, thereby activating the icon. Icons could be mounted on a pole or frame and carried into battle, as has been suggested for the Saint Demetrios icon (1970.324.3). Alternatively, icons could be of a more permanent character, such as fresco and mosaic images decorating church interiors. In Byzantine theology, the contemplation of icons allowed the viewer direct communication with the sacred figure(s) represented, and through icons an individual’s prayers were addressed directly to the petitioned saint or holy figure. Miraculous healings and good fortune were among the requests.

Acheiropoieta, or Icons “Not Made by (Human) Hands”
Icons created by divine agency were known as acheiropoieta (“not made by (human) hands”). This category of miraculously created image was accorded special veneration throughout the history of Byzantium. A significant number of acheiropoieta originated in the Early Byzantine period, before the advent of Iconoclasm in the early eighth century. The most famous acheiropoieta included the Mandylion, a white cloth imprinted with the face of Christ, and the Keramion, a ceramic tile which received the impression of Christ’s face from the Mandylion. The ability to miraculously replicate was a common feature of acheiropoieta.

The Icon of the Virgin Hodegetria
By the twelfth century, a wooden panel image of the Virgin Hodegetria (“the guide”) was attributed to the miraculous creation of the evangelist, Saint Luke. In this composition, the Virgin cradles the Christ Child in her left arm and points toward him with her right hand.

One of the most famous Byzantine icons of all time, the Virgin Hodegetria image was copied widely in Byzantium in all media (17.190.103). The original wooden panel icon attributed to Saint Luke was housed in the Hodegon Monastery in Constantinople, a foundation made famous by its sacred spring whose waters cured the blind, guided to the spring by the monastery’s brethren. The Hodegetria image was not only enormously popular in the East, but also had an enormous impact on representations of the Virgin and Christ Child in western Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance (60.173).

Definition of Iconoclasm
Iconoclasm literally means “image breaking” and refers to a recurring historical impulse to break or destroy images for religious or political reasons. For example, in ancient Egypt, the carved visages of some pharaohs were obliterated by their successors; during the French Revolution, images of kings were defaced.

In the Byzantine world, Iconoclasm refers to a theological debate involving both the Byzantine church and state. The controversy spanned roughly a century, during the years 726–87 and 815–43. In these decades, imperial legislation barred the production and use of figural images; simultaneously, the cross was promoted as the most acceptable decorative form for Byzantine churches. Archaeological evidence suggests that in certain regions of Byzantium, including Constantinople and Nicaea, existing icons were destroyed or plastered over. Very few early Byzantine icons survived the Iconoclastic period; notable exceptions are woven icons, painted icons preserved at the Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai, Egypt, and the miniature icons found on Byzantine coins, including those of Justinian II (r. 685–95; 705–11).

Iconoclasm: The Source of Debate
The Iconoclastic debate centered on the appropriate use of icons in religious veneration, and the precise relationship between the sacred personage and his/her image. Fear that the viewer misdirected his/her veneration toward the image rather than to the holy person represented in the image lay at the heart of this controversy. Old Testament prohibitions against worshipping graven images (Exodus 20:4) provided one of the most important precedents for Byzantine Iconoclasm. The immediate causes for this crisis have been hotly contested by scholars. Among the many suggested causes are the rise of Islam and the emperor’s desire to usurp religious authority and funds.

Icons after Iconoclasm
The Iconoclastic controversy had a profound effect on the production of Byzantine images after their reintroduction in 843. Changes shaped by the Iconoclastic debate included the evolution of distinct portrait types for individual saints; the development of more standardized programs of church wall decoration in mosaic and fresco; and the growing popularity of certain subjects such as Christ’s Anastasis or the “Harrowing of Hell” (17.190.715a,b), and the Koimesis or the “Falling Asleep” of the Virgin (17.190.132).

In the Middle and Late Byzantine periods, venerable icon types from earlier centuries continued to be copied, while new icon compositions also developed. One example is the biographical icon, with scenes from a saint’s life added around the periphery of an icon portraying the saint at center. A second new form is the icon in miniature mosaic, as seen for example in the Metropolitan’s Virgin and Child icon (2008.352). The addition of precious metal revetments, or sculpted covers, to icons was also increasingly popular in the Middle and Late Byzantine periods (17.190.644).