An icon (from Greek εἰκών eikōn “image”) is a religious work of art, usually a portrait-style painting, used in Eastern Orthodox churches and homes. The most common subjects are Christ, Mary, and saints.
Eastern Orthodox tradition holds that the creation of Christian images dates back to the very early days of Christianity, and identifies Luke the Evangelist as the first icon painter. Icons can only be traced back as far as the 3rd century A.D. The icons of later centuries can be linked, often closely, to images from the 5th century onwards, though very few of these survive.
Though the Roman Catholic church encouraged religious art, other Christian denominations are wary about the veneration of “graven images,” forbidden in the commandments (see Exodus 20:4). Even the Orthodox church outlawed images at times. During 726-842, the Byzantine Iconoclasm destroyed most existing icons.
The iconographer is expected prepare himself for his work by following a strict discipline of fasting and prayer. Painting the icon is not a use of imagination. Instead, the icon is painted using the prescribed regimen and style passed down through the centuries. Everything from the facial expressions to the colors used is predetermined. It is understood that a person who saw him in the flesh painted the first icon of an individual; each subsequent iconographer will use the original icon as a guide.
Icons depict silence; no actions displayed, no open mouths. The icon invites the Christian to enter into contemplation, prayer, and silence. Space is not defined as three-dimensional and time is insignificant. Lighting proceeds from the character portrayed in the icon. There are never shadows in icons. And since the icon’s purpose is to lead the believer into worship, the artist never signs his work.
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