70 Byzantine Iconography

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Icon painting, as distinct from other forms of painting, emerged in the Early Byzantine period as an aid to religious devotion. In contrast, earlier Christian art had relied more on allegory and symbolism. For example, earlier art might have featured a lamb or a fish rather than Christ in human form. Before long, religious figures were being depicted in their human form to emphasize their humanity as well as their spirituality. While this issue would be debated and challenged during the later Iconoclastic period, for a time, images of the saints in icon paintings flourished.

After the adoption of Christianity as the only permissible Roman state religion under Theodosius I, Christian art began to change not only in quality and sophistication but also in nature. Paintings of martyrs and their feats began to appear, and early writers commented on their lifelike effect. Statues in the round were avoided as being too close to the principal artistic focus of pagan cult practices, as they have continued to be (with some small-scale exceptions) throughout the history of Eastern Christianity.

Icons were more religious than aesthetic in nature. They were understood to manifest the unique “presence” of the figure depicted by means of a “likeness” to that figure maintained through carefully maintained canons of representation. Therefore, very little room is made for artistic license. Almost every aspect of the subject matter has a symbolic aspect. Christ, the saints, and the angels all have halos. Angels, as well as some depictions of the Holy Trinity, have wings because they are messengers. Figures have consistent facial appearances, hold attributes personal to them, and use a few conventional poses.

Color plays an important role, as well. Gold represents the radiance of Heaven. Red signifies divine life, while blue is the color of human life. White is the Uncreated Light of God, only used for scenes depicting the resurrection and transfiguration of Christ. In icons of Jesus and Mary, Jesus wears a red undergarment with a blue outer garment (God as Human), and Mary wears a blue undergarment with a red outer garment (humanity granted divine gifts). Thus, the doctrine of deification is conveyed by icons. Most icons incorporate some calligraphic text naming the person or event depicted. Because letters also carry symbolic significance, writing is often presented in a stylized manner.[1]

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