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(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Sacred icons are a form of Christian art especially identified with Eastern Orthodoxy, the form of Christianity that emerged in the Eastern half of the Mediterranean Basin and then spread into Eastern Europe and Russia. The two-dimensional representations of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints developed from the earliest forms of Christian art scrawled on the walls of the catacombs in the centuries prior to the legalization of Christianity under Constantine in the fourth century CE. As the church became a public and even privileged institution, the use of iconic representations accompanied the improvement in their quality and their development in a stylized format.

Not everyone approved of the use of icons, of course. An extremely iconoclastic movement (opposing icons) arose in the lands immediately east of the Orthodox strongholds in Constantinople, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Iconoclastic strength peaked in 754 when the Council of Constantinople moved to abolish icons. However, church leaders faced an immediate negative reaction, leading to a reversal of its position in 787 at the second Council of Nicea (the seventh Ecumenical Council), which authorized the veneration of icons. The battle continued over the next seventy years as critics of icons found support from the Byzantine Emperor. Theophilus (r. 829–842) was decidedly anti-icon, but following his death, the rulings of 787 were reaffirmed, and the iconoclasts steadily lost support from that point.

To Eastern Christians, icons are not just pictures but “windows to Heaven,” a doorway through which the believer can see truths beyond what is revealed by mere words. One particular truth demonstrated by icons is that of the incarnation, God becoming flesh in Jesus Christ. When Christ incarnated, he demonstrated that God’s creation—the world and humanity—is good, and that even flesh is not inherently evil.

Iconic art developed in several stages. The Russian icon came to the fore in the tenth century. The fourteenth century is considered the “Golden Age of Icons.” By this time, the painting of icons was governed by a strict code of rules concerning design, symbols, style, and colors, and these rules, in turn, were governed by a set of theological principles. Uppermost, the representations of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the saints were meant to capture spiritual realities. Far from being mere realistic portraits of their earthly appearance, they were meant to be visible pictures of their embodied spirit, now seen by the eye of faith.

In developing the symbology of the icon, each element was assigned a definite meaning. For example, eyes were slightly enlarged to remind the believer of the need for eyes of faith. Hands were often depicted giving a blessing. Color was placed appropriately relative to the figure to show, for example, gold as representing the divine light, blue as faith, or purple as royalty. The process of producing an icon is termed “writing” rather than drawing or painting, and the process of understanding its truth is called “reading” it.

Some images on icons became very popular and gave their names to different types or styles of icons. The most popular pictures of Christ portray him as Pantocrator, the Ruler of All. Here he is pictured with a book, his right hand raised in a blessing with two fingers uplifted signaling his two natures. Mary, possibly even a more popular subject than Jesus of iconographers, comes in a variety of styles—holding the baby Jesus and pointing to him (Hodegetria), touching her cheek to the baby Jesus (Eleousa), and sitting on a throne with the Baby Jesus on her lap (Panakranta), among others.

Many icons have become known because of miracles associated with them, including some known to exude blood or tears. Others are famous for the healings that have been experienced by devotees. The oldest known icon is known for its association with a miraculous snowfall. The icon known as Salus Populi Romani (“Protector of the Roman People”) is attributed to Saint Luke, author of the biblical gospel, and is one of the many items discovered in the Holy Land by Saint Helena, the mother of Constantine. It is currently housed at Saint Mary Major Basilica in Rome. That church was the result of an apparition of the Virgin Mary to Pope Liberius and two other people, whom she told to build a church on Esquiline Hill. She would mark the spot with a snowfall, which would be quite apparent as it was August. At celebrations marking the anniversary of the church, white rose petals are dropped on worshipers.

Another famous icon attributed to Saint Helena is Our Lady of Czestochowa, one of the so-called Black Madonnas. This icon eventually found its way to Poland. In the 1380s Ladislaus, the Prince of Opole and regent for King Louis of Poland, offered a prayer to the Virgin asking where her image should be placed, and in a dream she pointed to a hill at Czestochowa. Ladislaus endowed a monastery and left the image with the monks. In the 1430s the monastery was attacked. A soldier attempting to steal the icon slashed the cheek of the image three times, and he died as he made the third cut. Since that time, attempts to repair the image have remained unsuccessful. Two hundred years later, Swedes invaded the land. That the army was unable to capture the monastery led King John Casmir to name Mary the Queen of Poland.


Ivanov, V. Russian Icons. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1988.
Onasch Konrad, Schnieper. Icons: The Fascination and The Reality. New York: Riverside Book Company, 1997.
Pasierb, Janusz. The Shrine of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. Warsaw: Interpress Publishers, 1980.
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