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An icon (from Greek εἰκών eikōn "image") is a religious work of art, most commonly a painting, from the Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodoxy, and certain Eastern Catholic churches. The most common subjects include Christ, Mary, saints and/or angels. Though especially associated with "portrait" style images concentrating on one or two main figures, the term also covers most religious images in a variety of artistic media produced by Eastern Christianity, including narrative scenes.
Icons may also be cast in metal, carved in stone, embroidered on cloth, painted on wood, done in mosaic or fresco work, printed on paper or metal, etc. Comparable images from Western Christianity are generally not described as "icons", although "iconic" may be used[by whom?] to describe a static style of devotional image.
Eastern Orthodox tradition holds that the creation of Christian images dates back to the very early days of Christianity, and there it has been a continuous tradition since then. Modern academic art history considers that, while images may have existed earlier, the tradition can only be traced back to the 3rd century, and the images that survive from Early Christian art were often very different from later ones. The icons of later centuries can be linked, often closely, to images from the 5th century onwards, though very few of these survive. There was enormous destruction of images during the Byzantine Iconoclasm of 726-842, although this did settle for good the question of the appropriateness of images. Since then icons have had a great continuity of style and subject; far greater than in the images of the Western church. At the same time there has been change and development.
Aside from the legend that Pilate had made an image of Christ, the 4th-century Eusebius of Caesarea, in his Church History, provides a more substantial reference to a "first" icon of Jesus. He relates that King Abgar of Edessa (died ca 50 CE) sent a letter to Jesus at Jerusalem, asking Jesus to come and heal him of an illness. In this version there is no image. A later account found in the Syriac Doctrine of Addai mentions a painted image of Jesus in the story; and even later, in the 6th-century account given by Evagrius Scholasticus, the painted image transforms into an image that miraculously appeared on a towel when Christ pressed the cloth to his wet face. Further legends relate that the cloth remained in Edessa until the 10th century, when it was taken to Constantinople. It went missing in 1204 when Crusaders sacked Constantinople, but by then numerous copies had firmly established its iconic type.
The 4th-century Christian Aelius Lampridius produced the earliest known written records of Christian images treated like icons (in a pagan or Gnostic context) in his Life of Alexander Severus (xxix) that formed part of the Augustan History. According to Lampridius, the emperor Alexander Severus (reigned 222–235), himself not a Christian, had kept a domestic chapel for the veneration of images of deified emperors, of portraits of his ancestors, and of Christ, Apollonius, Orpheus and Abraham. Saint Irenaeus, (c. 130–202) in his Against Heresies (1:25;6) says scornfully of the Gnostic Carpocratians:
"They also possess images, some of them painted, and others formed from different kinds of material; while they maintain that a likeness of Christ was made by Pilate at that time when Jesus lived among them. They crown these images, and set them up along with the images of the philosophers of the world that is to say, with the images of Pythagoras, and Plato, and Aristotle, and the rest. They have also other modes of honouring these images, after the same manner of the Gentiles [pagans]".
On the other hand, Irenaeus does not speak critically of icons or portraits in a general sense – only of certain gnostic sectarians' use of icons.
Another criticism of image veneration appears in the non-canonical 2nd-century Acts of John (generally considered a gnostic work), in which the Apostle John discovers that one of his followers has had a portrait made of him, and is venerating it:
"...he [John] went into the bedchamber, and saw the portrait of an old man crowned with garlands, and lamps and altars set before it. And he called him and said: Lycomedes, what do you mean by this matter of the portrait? Can it be one of thy gods that is painted here? For I see that you are still living in heathen fashion."
Later in the passage John says, "But this that you have now done is childish and imperfect: you have drawn a dead likeness of the dead."
At least some of the hierarchy of the Christian churches still strictly opposed icons in the early 4th century. At the Spanish non-ecumenical Synod of Elvira (c. 305) bishops concluded, "Pictures are not to be placed in churches, so that they do not become objects of worship and adoration". Bishop Epiphanius of Salamis, wrote his letter 51 to John, Bishop of Jerusalem (c. 394) in which he recounted how he tore down an image in a church and admonished the other bishop that such images are "opposed . . . to our religion".
Elsewhere in his Church History, Eusebius reports seeing what he took to be portraits of Jesus, Peter and Paul, and also mentions a bronze statue at Banias / Paneas under Mount Hermon, of which he wrote, "They say that this statue is an image of Jesus" (H.E. 7:18); further, he relates that locals regarded the image as a memorial of the healing of the woman with an issue of blood by Jesus (Luke 8:43-48), because it depicted a standing man wearing a double cloak and with arm outstretched, and a woman kneeling before him with arms reaching out as if in supplication. John Francis Wilson suggests the possibility that this refers to a pagan bronze statue whose true identity had been forgotten; some have thought it to represent Aesculapius, the Greek god of healing, but the description of the standing figure and the woman kneeling in supplication precisely matches images found on coins depicting the bearded emperor Hadrian reaching out to a female figure – symbolizing a province – kneeling before him.
When asked by Constantia (Emperor Constantine's sister) for an image of Jesus, Eusebius denied the request, replying: "To depict purely the human form of Christ before its transformation, on the other hand, is to break the commandment of God and to fall into pagan error."
After the emperor Constantine I extended official toleration of Christianity within the Roman Empire in 313, huge numbers of pagans became converts. This period of Christianization probably saw the use of Christian images became very widespread among the faithful, though with great differences from pagan habits. Robin Lane Fox states "By the early fifth century, we know of the ownership of private icons of saints; by c. 480-500, we can be sure that the inside of a saint's shrine would be adorned with images and votive portraits, a practice which had probably begun earlier."
When Constantine himself (reigned 306-337) apparently converted to Christianity, the majority of his subjects remained pagans. The Roman Imperial cult of the divinity of the emperor, expressed through the traditional burning of candles and the offering of incense to the emperor’s image, was tolerated for a period because it would have been politically dangerous to attempt to suppress it. Indeed, in the 5th century the courts of justice and municipal buildings of the empire still honoured the portrait of the reigning emperor in this way. In 425 Philostorgius, an allegedly Arian Christian, charged the Orthodox Christians in Constantinople with idolatry because they still honored the image of the emperor Constantine the Great, the founder of the city, in this way. Dix notes that this occurred more than a century before we find the first reference to a similar honouring of the image of Christ or of His apostles or saints, but that it would seem a natural progression for the image of Christ, the King of Heaven and Earth, to be paid similar veneration as that given to the earthly Roman emperor. However, the Orthodox, Eastern Catholics, and other groups insist on explicitly distinguishing the veneration of icons from the worship of idols by pagans. See further below on this topic.