The image controversy around orthodox icons | Iconoclasm

The Christian man of the early times thought quite differently. He refused to make the divine present in the image. Painters and sculptors were to refrain from depicting the divine, it was said at the time. This view may also have its reason in Judaism’s hostility to images. The different opinions led to tensions, especially in Byzantium, which was rich in people, and from which a dispute ignited that was conducted with great passion. Conviction stood against conviction; the iconodules, the image worshippers, fought against the iconoclasts, the opponents of image worship. The question of images had been simmering since the 4th century. There were voices for image worship and voices against it. The most famous churchmen of the time discussed it with each other and commented on it in writings, such as St. Augustine (354-430) and especially St. John Chrysostom (344-407). Both show a positive attitude towards the. The artists of the time, however, did not yet fundamentally deal with the veneration of images.

There are three outstanding teachers of the Eastern Church who were ready to accept Christian image-making because they saw the benefit for the piety of people who did not know how to read. Moreover, the representations from the lives of saints and martyrs were able to make people be unwavering in their faith better and more forcefully than written or recited words. Basil the Great (330-379), for example, encouraged painters to summon all their skill to depict scenes vividly and artfully, dignified the characters and victorious the new faith. The lives of female saints are also depicted pictorially, such as the Passion of Saint Euphemia, from her torture by the executioners to her death by flame, which she endures without pain in the sign of the cross, in the certainty of blessed life. Gregory of Nazianzus (330-390) and Gregory of Nyssa (335-394) expressed themselves similarly to Basil. The criterion for the quality of a picture at this time is the statement, the effect of which must be so strong that genuine piety arises or is promoted in the soul of the viewer. Martyrs and saints are people who participate in the divine because of their pious lives and extra-ordinary deeds. But was this also true for Christ? The question of whether and how he should be portrayed touched on the fundamental question of Christianity, which was still open at the time: Is Christ consubstantial with God? The presbyter Arius in Alexandria (died 336) denied this question – for him Jesus was a godlike man -, the Greek church teacher Athanasius (around 293-373) affirmed it. The church assemblies of Nicaea in 325 and Constantinople in 381 proved Athanasius right and confirmed the consubstantiality of Christ and the Father. Nevertheless, among the Germanic tribes, which had become Christian, the teachings of Arius persisted until the 7th century.

But according to both the Western Roman and Eastern Roman conceptions, Christ was divine in nature, and the question now arose: Is it permissible to depict the Lord’s humanity detached from his divinity in the image? Or is the divine representable, and how can it be embraced in the image? Is it possible to fix the real figure of Christ at all, who, according to reports, appeared differently to different people, who was infinitely changeable by virtue of his divinity?

The solution was found in a compromise. The portraits of that time – frescoes, mosaics and icons – show Christ as a human appearance, but endowed with the dignity and majesty of the heavenly, whose most important symbol is the aurole, the mostly golden halo, they show him as a God-human entity. The main arguments that it was not impossible to represent God-man were the Incarnation of the Second Trinitarian Person and that passage from Genesis which says that God created man in His image. But the Church had not yet sanctioned this view. It is only centuries later that she is forced to take a stand.

The friendly attitude towards cultic or religious images according to Greek tradition and Byzantine conviction began to falter in the 8th century.

It was the Byzantine emperor Leo III who unleashed the image controversy in 730 by banning images. How can this rather sudden change of heart be explained in the otherwise so image-friendly Byzantium? Doubts about the legitimacy of artistic activity had never completely died down; they found new nourishment in the concept of Islam, which now began to spread powerfully. For some time already, the Arabs had been storming the Byzantine Empire and threatening Constantinople. In Islam, the human form of God or his prophet could only be suggested as an abstract ornament on pictures. In 720, the Caliph Jazid II had issued a strict ban on images, which also applied to the Christians in his country. He had all the images removed from their churches. The persuasive power of this young religion, which carried the new message of salvation to the peoples of Asia, Africa and Europe with sword and fire, was not without effect on Christianity, although Leo III considered the defense of Christianity against Islam as his Holy War. His decision against the images also had a political reason: he was striving for the independence of the Eastern Church from the Pope and at the same time wanted to emphasize his power, the power of the Emperor, over the Church in his empire.

Popes Gregory II and Gregory III condemned iconoclasm, the prohibition of images. The Greeks also resisted, and Byzantium in particular became the scene of this hot and bloody conflict. Imperial troops, supported by an elite Armenian force, fought against crowds of monks who used underground methods against the well-organized army. The imperial spokesman was overrun and slain in the open street by an angry crowd. The response was crowbars and poles with which the imperial and the churches and homes destroyed the images. Many followers of icon worship emigrated to lower Italy and the Crimea, creating reserves of icon painting here.

The Synod of Hiereia in 754 wanted to end the image controversy once and for all by banning images and ordered the destruction of images. But the Pope objected and deprived the law of its ecumenical effectiveness. Nevertheless, a new storm of images began in the Eastern Roman Empire. There are not many icons that escaped destruction, about 40 to 50 from the so exceedingly creative Justinianic period (6th-7th century) and the period of the iconoclastic controversy (726-842), when people had not stopped painting in secret. From the early period (4th and 5th centuries) we have not preserved any icons at all.

The controversy over images came to a temporary end with the Empress Eirene, a staunch supporter of image worship – she came from Athens – who reigned over her underage son Constantine VI and later became sole ruler. The West also took a stand on the image issue. The Synod of Frankfurt in 794, presided over by Charlemagne and attended by Pope Hadrian I, opposed both the veneration of images and the destruction of images.

The 7th Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 787, which Eirene convened together with the Patriarch of Constantinople and to which Pope Hadrian I himself did not appear, but his legates did, stated: All holy images of Jesus Christ, the Mother of God, the saints may be painted or otherwise designed and set up. Everyone may show them reverence and veneration, but without worshipping them in the actual sense, which is only due to God. This veneration does not concern the image, but the person depicted in it.

Once again the dispute seemed to be decided in favor of the iconoclasts, a synod in 815 revoked the decisions of Nicaea, but in 843 the Empress Dowager Theodora finally ended iconoclasm at a synod in Constantinople. In a solemn procession icons were carried through the streets, churches and houses were decorated anew. The enthusiasm in Constantinople was boundless, and even today, to commemorate this day, the Greek and Russian churches celebrate the “Feast of Orthodoxy,” or orthodoxy, on February 19.

The decisions of the Synod of Constantinople had even more far-reaching political consequences: They deepened the separation of the Eastern Church from Western Rome, the division of European Christendom. The Eastern Church remained the state church. In 1054 its independence from the Pope was finally sealed. Eminent churchmen had led the fight on both sides. Point by point, the Abbot Theodore, called Studita, and the Patriarch Nikephoros of Constantinople, based on the thought of John of Damascus and the statements of the Bible, refuted the arguments of the iconoclasts. Their justification of image making also simultaneously established the meaning and goal of icons for the next centuries, they created, so to speak, a theology of icons.

But in addition to their astute arguments, they also found very simple reasons: Human nature is designed to look. The people around Jesus wanted to see their Savior. We would like to get a picture of him. And by this is meant not only the simple image that captures the outward appearance, but an image that encompasses the whole holy person. And those who look at the picture, look not only with the eyes, but also with the heart.

The market for Orthodox icons

Behind the symbol and through the image, the eternal truths of faith shimmer and shine,” raved the German theologian Wilhelm Bousset more than a hundred years ago. Presumably, the Protestant was not thinking specifically of icons, but for the Orthodox Church, the church-consecrated wooden images are indeed windows into the spiritual world. In the materialistic world of this world – that is, in the art market – it is less a matter of spiritual values than of financial values, and in this respect hardly any other niche shows such dramatic developments as icons.

Russian icons became popular in the 1970s, when the West discovered this spiritually powerful art form. Prices rose and rose, from a few hundred to hundreds of thousands of dollars, pounds and Deutschmarks. The recession in the 1980s abruptly slowed this boom, and it wasn’t until after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the Orthodox Church in Russia also regained its standing, that prices picked up again with the economic boom.” At that time, many wealthy Russians in Europe and the United States bought icons to bring back to the “motherland.” Ironically, most of these icons had been bartered away to the West by Stalin in the 1930s to obtain hard currency. For enameled icons from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially those by famous artists such as Pavel Ovchinnikov or Ivan Klebnikov, six-figure sums were again paid at international auctions around the turn of the millennium – until the next economic crisis. Since then, the wheat has been separated from the chaff: average goods are left behind, while high-quality icons in good condition and of outstanding provenance continue to sell well.

What are orthodox icons worth?

In any case, it’s not age alone, because most collectors value appearance – and that’s usually not as decorative in antique pieces as it is in works from the 19th century. At present, icons of all subjects are in great demand, the oklad (the metal covering that covers the surroundings of the painted figures in some icons) is made of gold or silver and is decorated with enamel, pearls or precious stones. Such icons were created mainly in and around Moscow in the 18. and 19th century manufactured. It is of great importance that hallmarks and masters’ marks are present, special emphasis is placed on the insignia of famous silver and goldsmith masters. Another important point is the state of preservation of the icon. Many of the remaining antique icons are in very poor condition, mainly due to their storage, but if the icons were carefully stored, usually by collectors, the value increases enormously.

The following factors are important:

  1. Painting quality: For icons – just like for paintings – the most important thing is the painting quality. One must therefore ask: is the icon particularly finely drawn? Perhaps painted with a magnifying glass? What is the significance of it? Is the icon made on canvas and with gold background?
  2. Radiance: The colorfulness and gold background of an icon, this usually in conjunction with a silver base, give the icon a very special expressiveness. Painting quality and charisma are understandably closely related.
  3. Age: The age of an icon, as with a painting, is important, but not the sole determining factor. Just as a painting of the 19th century can be classified more expensive than one of the 17th century, the age of icons is to be considered in the price determination only in connection with the mentioned criteria.
  4. Patina: In connection with age, patina is of great importance because it is precisely it that gives a peculiar charm to an icon with or without a gold background.
  5. Provenance: The origin of the icon is also important for determining the price. Russian icons today are priced about % higher than Greek icons. Russian icons show a calming aura due to their brownish base coloration, in conjunction with the wide border they usually have. Greek icons are often more cheerful, with a bluish ground color and thinner border; also, Greek subjects are usually more loosely drawn on, perhaps in keeping with the Southern temperament. In the case of most icons on sale today, their exact origin can only be roughly distinguished, e.g. from northern Russia, central Russia, southern Russia or the Balkans. On the other hand, if the classification is correct, it is possible to determine their school exactly only for less than 5% of the icons offered.
  6. State of preservation: The condition of the icon is often determined by the way it was kept, i.e. whether it was part of an iconostasis or was in the icon corner in a private house, whether candles were constantly placed in front of it, leaving traces, or whether it was taken to the procession, kissed and frequently touched. Older icons in particular are often heavily rubbed, especially if they have been improperly restored and overhauled – which, by the way, is also a reason why the older icons are not always the more valuable ones. Finally, the condition of the wood also plays a role, especially if the wood is infested with worms, which usually eat away at the wood itself, that is, the back and not the colored surface.
  7. Size of icons: While the normal size of the icons is about 30 x 35 cm, the icons from the iconostasis are often much larger, reaching up to 2.50 m in height. In addition, there are also wooden icons in postcard size or even smaller. Although the painting quality is decisive in the difference in size ratios, dimensions cannot be disregarded in pricing.
  8. Rarity of subject: The choice of subject must also be taken into account when determining the price. The most frequently encountered of all the approximately 12,000 saints venerated by the Orthodox Church is Saint Nicholas. Likewise, among the approximately 250 different motifs of the Mother of God, some themes are quite rare, others are frequently transmitted (Mother of God of Kazan, etc.). At present, icons with St. George (“Fight with the Dragon”), as well as with the saints of doctors and pharmacists, Cosmas and Damian, and St. Panteleimon are particularly sought after.
  9. Restoration: In principle, an icon should be restored as little as possible, that is, only as far as absolutely necessary. If the restoration is done professionally, it generally does not affect the price determination unfavorably. Basically, it must be assumed that especially icons, which have played a great role in the life of an Orthodox Christian, have had to “suffer” over the years. They were not just wall decorations, such as a painting. They were often taken in hand, not only in the procession, and in daily “use” are often darkened by incense or candlelight. If the restorer managed to professionally repair the damage, such an icon is definitely preferable to a damaged one.
  10. Conservation: The ongoing conservation of icons should also be left to the professional. A thin coat of varnish every few years is enough to prevent the icon from drying out. The same varnish can be used to protect paintings.

In summary, it can be stated that the price valuation of icons is more difficult than one would initially assume. In any case, not only the age is decisive for the price of icons, as one often hears erroneously, but a number of equally important factors, such as in particular the charisma and painting quality of an icon in connection with its condition, colourfulness and patina.

How are icons painted/written?

Icons are not painted, but “written”! Icons are sacred images. They are subject to fixed rules derived from their purpose and goal. Painting icons is prayer. During the work, the painter is in a mental dialogue with the depicted person. Not everyone is allowed to paint or write icons. The holy councils established the following: The painter should be peace-loving, humble and pious. He should not talk lightly or make jokes, be quarrelsome or spiteful. For his own salvation, he should maintain purity of soul and body, and -if he cannot remain unmarried, he should at least get married ecclesiastically and legally. He should seek advice from his confessor and, according to his instruction, fasting and praying with abstinence and humility, living without naughtiness and shame, painting with great zeal and devotion the images of our Lord Jesus Christ and His most pure Mother, the holy prophets, apostles, martyrs, blessed women, high priests and blessed fathers.

The master steps back behind his work, remains anonymous. His work is service to God, another form of worship. We know only a few icon painters by name, the earliest from the 11th century. Generally, icons were created in painting schools of monasteries. They already existed in Justinian times in many places in the Eastern Roman Empire, in the Balkans and Crete as well as in Syria, called podlinniks, created by individual painters or the schools of painting. Only a few have survived and only those from recent times. But they contain the views on the design of themes and motifs as well as painting instructions handed down from time immemorial. The most comprehensive of this kind is the Hermeneia from the 18th century. Monks on Mount Athos, where there is still a famous icon painting school, wrote it. From the Russian Stroganov school, which existed from about 1580 to 1620, there are painters’ books with outline drawings.

Despite all the rules, no two icons are painted alike. The stronger and finer differences and nuances give the icons their special charm. They reveal the handwriting of the painter or the view of the school of painting. In later times, they show – but less attractively – the influences of art historical currents of Western Europe. The way an icon was made has changed almost nothing over the centuries. At the beginning of the 8th century, shortly before the outbreak of iconoclasm, a new technique appeared that has been maintained until today: painting with egg tempera paints. Until then, as with the mummy portraits, encaustic had been used, a painting method in which heated mineral colors bound by wax were applied with a palette knife. Since it was necessary to work quickly – cooled colors could not be spread – icons painted in encaustic often seem improvised and impressionistic. The putty line is usually clearly visible. As a base for the icons take boards of non-resinous tree species, for example, beech, birch, alder, poplar, cedar and cypress, in Byzantine schools mainly pine, walnut and olive. The size of the icons, which are hung in the icon corners of the apartments, is generally about 30 x 35 cm; they are consistently portrait format, only exceptionally landscape format.

Recognize real and fake icons

The question of dating and stylistic analysis is often followed by the question of whether the icon is real or fake. In the case of icons, one must speak of a forgery when an attempt has been made to copy an old style in order to simulate an old icon. There are hardly any known forgeries of Russian icons. In Greece, on the other hand, certain schools of painting have achieved great perfection in forgery in recent times. Even museums could be fooled until recent times.

If parts of the old icon are still preserved, -but others have been added later, without explicit reference to this restoration in the catalog or by the dealer, it is called a partial forgery. It also sometimes happens that an old icon has received a young basma, made in the old style. This cladding is a good way of concealing edge damage, for example. Again, it should be explicitly mentioned that this is not an original plasma.

A professional with great experience will usually be able to determine very quickly whether it is a real or fake icon. But various criteria can acquire even the layman:

The reverse side shows whether the wood was hewn with an axe, as is the case with very old icons. The age of the icon can also often be inferred from the way the cross braces, the “sponki”, are inserted on the back. Wormholes do not always show the true age of the icon. To deceive, in the 20th century icons were painted on old wood, which already had wormholes. Artificially created wormholes have straight passages unlike the irregular natural worm passages. The craquelure, the cracks in the layers of paint and varnish, also often indicate the approximate age of the icon. But even here you are not safe from deception. Indeed, when recently painted icons are exposed to great heat, cracks appear, but their shape is different from those caused by natural aging.

In all cases of doubt, consult a specialist or institutes and research laboratories that determine the age and authenticity of art objects by examining materials. When buying an icon, you should definitely insist on a certificate of authenticity (expertise). It should first of all indicate the provenance of the icon. For some icons it is possible to determine the school from which they originated. This is especially the case with those from the Palekh, and often with those from the Moscow and Novgorod schools. But it does not affect the value of an icon if the origin is indicated only as “Russian”, “Greek” or “Bulgarian”.

The approximate age of the icon should also be listed in the certificate. However, since a subject has been represented in the same way down to the details over a long period of time, two centuries are not uncommon as a possible date of origin, and in exceptional cases the period is even longer. Also, an indication of when the icon theme in question arose will often be possible.

Finally, the certificate should describe the subject in detail and list the persons depicted by name, possibly including their name days. A reputable art dealer specializing in icons and a knowledgeable collector will generally be able to issue an appraisal that meets the requirements.

What is a Russian or Greek or orthodox icon?

Constantinople was a melting pot of many races and peoples and a cultural center of the world in early Christian times. This is where Orient and Occident collided. The creative thinking of Greek antiquity was still alive, mixed with the pragmatic thinking of the Romans who had conquered the country, interspersed with the rapturous and exuberant nature of the sensual Oriental peoples, the Syrians, Egyptians, Persians. The mental violence of young Christianity had a pervasive effect. A lifestyle was formed in this city, in which piety, solemnity and sensuality, splendor and asceticism, lust for power, intrigue and statesmanlike prudence had their place. The art of that time is composed of formal elements of the most diverse origins and coinage and merged into a new whole, reflecting the spirit of this new great empire that emerged from the old Roman Empire.

The Roman Emperor Constantine the Great founded this city in 324 and gave it his name. He did not intend to create a second Rome, but he did intend to create a base for the powerful empire further east of Rome, which reached as far as the Caucasus. Caesar had already toyed with the same idea – at his time the Roman Empire was still intact – but never realized it.

The Greek settlement from which the city emerged was called Byzantium. Greeks formed the majority of the population, so people still talk about the city of Byzantium and Byzantine art. In 360 Constantinople was given its own senate, and since the Ecumenical Council in 381 there has been talk of Constantinople being a “new Rome.” In 395, the Roman emperor Theodosius I died. He left his empire to his two sons for better administration: Honorius received the West, Arcadius the East. Now the division of the Roman Empire was in the offing. The Eastern Empire included Libya, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, Bulgaria, Rurnania, southeastern Yugoslavia, and Greece. There was an emperor in the Eastern Roman Empire, but not a pope, only a patriarch, who, however, had a higher rank than those in Antioch and Alexandria.

Under Emperor Justinian I (527-565), Byzantine art experienced its first great flowering – it must also have been a heyday of icon painting. But only very few works have survived to us from this and the following century. Today they are kept in the Monastery of St. Catherine at the foot of Mount Jebel Musa in the Sinai Peninsula. There are hardly any even older icons.

In 527 Emperor Justinian had the monastery built. Thanks to the skill of the monks, who prevented the conquering Arabs from entering the monastery in the 7th century, the art treasures that had accumulated here over the centuries escaped destruction by those of other faiths.

The word icon is derived from the Greek “eikön” and means “image”, “likeness”. At the time of early Christianity, any religious image – mosaic, fresco or panel painting – was an eikon. Today we understand by the term icon the religious cult image of the Eastern Church. Many icons became works of art: Using creative means, the painters tried to overcome the tension between the archetype and the image. They were concerned with fidelity to nature and authenticity of the person portrayed. The features are carefully and precisely drawn, but despite all the movement of the lines, especially on icons of the later period, there is something rigid, unapproachable about the figures.

The person depicted is at once startlingly present and enraptured, tangible to the senses and yet incomprehensible – a mystery. “Windows to eternity” has been called the icons. The Greek-Hellenistic thinking related to this world received a new essence through Christianity – the pointing to the transcendent, beyond this world to the Absolute. In the icons it is artistically designed. The precursors and in a certain way also models of the icons – this may be regarded as certain today – are the Egyptian Hellenistic mummy portraits. Numerous have been found in the tombs of Fayum south of Cairo. They date from the period from the 2nd to the 4th century AD. These portraits of the deceased, painted on panels with wax colors, are characterized by the highest fidelity to nature and captivate with the immediacy of the representation: the faces seem to be alive. The tablet was placed between the mummy bandages at the level of the neck or head.

According to the Egyptian view, now that the body had died, the immortal part of man needed a new shell in which to dwell. Part of this cover were the portrait panels. The lifelike features made it easier for the bereaved to remain in a kind of metaphysical connection with the dead. The wide-set eyes of the depicted person are striking: they illustrate the mysterious world of the afterlife, which the dead person has already seen The image became a means of communication between the living and the deceased, and it was believed that could still be useful to his former fellows.

This view was philosophically founded by various theories of Neoplatonism, especially by the emanation theory (emanare – to radiate), according to which small particles of the divine gradually enter and penetrate the world of things. Soon people equated the image and the people depicted. This was also and especially true of images of the deity, because, it was said, the image of a deity created by the hand of an artist according to the law of sympathy was connected with its essence or participated in it. It is a quite natural longing of man to make a picture of that which he loves, venerates or feels to be sacred, to let it become more alive in the image when imagination is not sufficient or threatens to dwindle. For ancient man it was something quite natural to make the divine visible by material means – the Greeks had always depicted their gods in pictures. For them, the gods were similar to humans, the Greek sculptures testify to this. Gods were drawn into the lives of people and lived among them. But despite all humanity in the form, the Greek gods did not lack the numinous, the demonic and the ultimately incomprehensible for man.

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