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Madonna Icon written by Christine Hales, based on Byzantine Madonna Icon

Modern Icons

Madonna Icon by Christine Hales
Madonna Icon written by Christine Hales, based on Byzantine Madonna Icon

Icons- Images of the Invisible

What is a modern Icon?  How is it different from any other kind off image or painting?  These are good questions to ask, particularly today in an age where the word “icon” is used to describe so many people, place and things!

In the Orthodox tradition, the word Icon has a very specific meaning and is used to describe often very ancient images of religious figures that have been painted on wood panels using egg tempera or encaustic wax as well as gold leaf gilding.  The compositions of these Icons are defined by a centuries old tradition that encompasses ancient Greek principles of harmony and relationship.  The Tradition also places Icons firmly within the context of Liturgy and worship in the church.

Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians all enjoy religious Iconography in today’s church.  No longer are Icons only to be found within the Orthodox setting.  However, The Orthodox tradition is a rich source of guidance and information for developing Iconographers in any Christian denomination.

Brief History of Icons

Icons are as old as Christianity.  The first Icons were painted on wood panels in the catacombs as memorials for the martyred Christians.  Later, they became a way of remembering the Gospel by telling the stories in pictures since most of the world was illiterate.  The ancient Icons were the means of educating future generations of Christians and inspiring them with hope.

Early Icons

For the first three centuries, Christianity was illegal, and there were few Icons.  When Constantine legalized Christianity in 313, Icons began to proliferate and flourish.  The period of Iconoclasm in the seventh and eighth centuries challenged the legality of creating holy images, but this controversy was eventually quelled by people like St. John of Damascus who were able to explain the centrality of Icons to the Incarnation.

In subsequent centuries, Orthodox Icon writing aesthetics gradually changed and took on more of a naturalistic style, and gradually interest in Icons faded.

Transfiguration Icon by Andrey Rublev
Transfiguration Icon by Andrey Rublev, 1450

The revival of Icons in the Russian culture came about in the early twentieth century through the discovery and cleaning of Andrey Rublev’s Trinity Icon. In discovering the depth and beauty of the medieval Icons a new enthusiasm for Icons was born.  This has carried forward to today’s Christian culture as Icons are being re interpreted and revered as vessels of beauty and holiness.

Modern Icons

Modern Icons are based upon the traditions of the Church governing theology and sacred imagery.  Modern Icons need to fit within the context of contemporary church life. They also need  to reach out to the secular culture.

Today there are hundreds of people studying Icon writing. Iconographers are learning how to paint Christian religious images that support and inspire the faithful. Newly created Icons are notably placed in churches and in exhibitions open to the public.

Many Iconographers today are working within a context of both modern and ancient principles, bringing forward the old concepts to educate and inspire new generations of Christians.

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