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Icons and Iconoclasm

Icons and Iconoclasm

Author: Ian McConnell
Description:

This lesson will explore the phenomenon of iconoclasm.

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Tutorial

Exploring the use of icons, and iconoclasm, in Byzantine art.

Video Transcription

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Hello. I'd like to welcome you to this episode of Exploring Art History with Ian. My name is Ian McConnell. And today's lesson is about icons and iconoclasm. As you're watching the video, feel free to pause, move forward, or rewind as many times as you feel is necessary. As soon as you're ready, we can begin.

Today's objectives, or the things you're going to learn today, are listed below. By the end of lesson today, you will be able to identify and define today's key terms, explain the influences that led to the destruction of icons. Key terms, as always, are listed in yellow throughout the lesson.

First key term is icon, a religious image of an important person from Christianity used as an aid to worship in the Byzantine tradition. Iconoclasm, the intentional destruction or deconstruction of religious or political icons, symbols, or monuments. Mandorla is an area of radiance or luminous glow in paintings that are sacred. It usually appears as a disk or halo, but can extend to include the whole body. Encaustic is a type of painting that uses beeswax as a binder. And Theotokos is the Greek title of the Christian Virgin Mary as the mother of God.

Big idea for today is that Byzantine iconoclasm refers to a period of time where the veneration of Christian images was banned, and religious images or icons were literally destroyed. And keep your eye out for required artworks. The page titles will be in purple.

The Byzantine empire is broken into three main areas, the early, middle, and late Byzantine periods. The artwork we are looking at today falls within the early and middle periods. And we're going to scoot on over to Egypt once again, but this time to the Sinai Peninsula and the location of the monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai, the biblical location, according to the Book of Exodus, where Moses received the Ten Commandments from God. A monastery, by the way, is a collection of buildings that are cared for and lived in by religious monks.

So why do we care about icons? Well, religious icons are not the same thing as idols, at least according to the Christian church. Idol worship was forbidden according to Jewish law and many adherents to Christianity, which has its roots in Judaism, were uncomfortable with the veneration of images in the early centuries of Christianity, thinking it was a form of idolatry. Now, however, the distinction was made between the veneration of images and use of images for prayer and meditation versus worshiping the idols themselves.

Now this painting of the Theotokos or Theotokos with the Virgin Mary and child, which is Jesus, with saints and angels is an example of Christian iconography from the sixth century AD located at the Monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai. It is an encaustic painting, which means the paint is made of a pigment suspended in beeswax binder. Unlike tempera paint, which is limited in its blending capabilities, encaustic paint can be blended together more easily to create greater variations in color.

Now in this image of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, Mary is the central figure and functions as a sort of throne for the baby Jesus, known by Christians as the King of Kings. They're flanked by two saints, Theodore and George, both warrior saints who are said to have killed dragons, which is a likely symbolism for Jesus conquering evil.

And notice how Mary, Jesus, and the angels in the background are rendered in a way that hints at depth and volume, while the saints are rather flat in their appearance, despite the very detailed and rather realistic-looking robes. All figures have halos surrounding their heads, but only the four in front have golden halos, which perhaps is an indication of their status with respect in comparison to the angels behind them.

Now this image of the transfiguration of Jesus is also located in the monastery of Saint Catherine in Egypt. Transfiguration refers to the moment when a person changes from mortal to divine. And this is in reference to Jesus' prophesized rise from the dead.

Now it's an interesting depiction in a number of ways. We'll start with Christ, who is shown as radiating light. But he's surrounded by a dark blue mandorla, as opposed to the usual gold coloring. Now instead, the artist chose to color the entire background gold, opting not to include any type of landscape or indication of depth and space. For example, there are no shadows cast, even in the presence of all that light.

Some scholars have suggested that this was intended, due to its use as an icon, to evoke a timeless quality that has no connection to a physical time or place. And if that was indeed the intention, I would agree that it's effective. Now, the heavenly images of Christ and the prophets Elijah and Moses that flank him are rather serene and composed compared to the disciples of John, Peter, and James, who appear to be scared out of their minds.

Also of note is the way in which the ground line appears. Now, generally speaking, the ground line is an element that sort of defines the edge of a picture. But if you look carefully, you can see how some of the figures are behind it. But the two prophets are actually stepping over it, and the central disciple is actually straddling it.

So that discomfort that I mentioned before in the reverence of images sort of came to a head during the eighth century, when a ban on religious imagery was enacted under the reign of Emperor Theo-- or Leo, rather-- Emperor Leo the III. Now, iconoclasm, as it's called, in this sense, refers to the destruction or deconstruction of religious imagery and icons. Now examples of iconoclasm be found throughout history. The Byzantine Empire experienced two periods of iconoclasm, the first in the eighth century and the second during the ninth century. Now the end of the second period of iconoclasm in Byzantium marked the beginning of the middle Byzantine period in 843 AD.

Now if we jump ahead, towards the end of the middle Byzantine period, we can take a look at this religious image of the Virgin Mary and child, called "The Virgin of Vladimir" due to its location in Russia. Now Vladimir is a city, not a person. It was likely created in Constantinople and is an example of tempera paint on wood. As I mentioned before, tempera paint is limited in its ability to blend with other colors, so the tendency is to paint with tiny or smaller brush strokes. Now this can come across as flat in its appearance or lacking in the depth that is possible with other types of paint. And you could see that evidence in this painting.

Now compared to the encaustic painting we saw before, this painting seems rather two-dimensional or flat. And the theme is a common one repeated over time of a tender scene between a mother and child, with two of them nuzzling together. Also notice the depiction of Jesus. Now I would say that until the Renaissance, more often than not, Jesus is depicted as a tiny adult or baby-dollish, sort of, in appearance.

There are exceptions, of course. In fact, the encaustic painting I showed you before depicts Jesus with a much more natural set of proportions to that of a small child. It's an interesting stylistic choice, though, that you see returning again and again in religious imagery. And it's believed to be an intentional Christian suggestion of Christ's inherent perfection, that even though he's a child, he's still the Savior of mankind.

That brings us to the end of lesson. Let's take a look at our objectives to see how we did. Now that you've seen the lesson, are you able to identify and define today's key terms? Can you explain the influences that led to the destruction of icons?

And once again, the big idea for today is that Byzantine iconoclasm refers to a period of time where the veneration of Christian images was banned, and religious images or icons were literally destroyed. And there you go. Thank you very much for joining me today. See you next time.

Citations

Theoktos of Vladimir; Public Domain: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Vladimirskaya.jpg; Encaustic Virgin; Public Domain: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Encaustic_Virgin.jpg Image of Transfiguration of Jesus, Apse Mosaic, Church of the Virgin, Monastery of Saint Catherine, Mount Sinai, Public Domain, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Saint_Catherine%27s_Transfiguration.jpg; Image of Egypt Creative Commons http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Egypt_location_map.svg

TERMS TO KNOW
  • Icon

    A religious image of an important person from Christianity, used as an aid to worship in the Byzantine tradition.

  • Iconoclasm

    The intentional deconstruction of religious or political icons, symbols or monuments.

  • Mandorla

    An area of radiance or luminous glow in paintings that are sacred, usually appears as a disk or halo but can extend to include the whole body.

  • Encaustic

    A type of painting that uses beeswax as a binder.

  • Theotokos

    The Greek title of the Christian Virgin Mary as the Mother of God.