Divine Images

Byzantine icon painting

Detail from „The oldest known icon of Christ, 6-7th C“ (1)

4th – 15th centuries

Byzantine Icon Painting – When the Religious Disagree

Byzantine icon painting can be divided into two periods in terms of painting techniques. While the early icons from the 8th century are mainly created using the encaustic technique, later paintings are created using the tempera technique, which is much easier to handle. The distinctive feature of encaustic painting is the beeswax mixed with pigments, which is heated and applied to a wooden surface. This process guarantees the long-lasting colors, which are still vibrant today. And yet only few encaustic icons have survived. The icon painters’ works were strongly condemned at the iconoclastic council of Hieria in 754. Although it cannot be proven, it is quite possible that the council’s decisions had devastating consequences for icon production in Byzantium and possibly even sealed the decline of the encaustic technique. The fact remains, however, that icons, which were produced in increasing numbers after the end of the iconoclastic crisis, were all painted in tempera thereafter.

Five Facts – Icon Painting

The word “icon” is derived from the ancient Greek word eikón meaning “picture”. Interestingly, the Greek language used the same word for painting and writing (graphein). The writing of texts and the production of icons were thus already represented in the language as one and the same activity. The “pictorial writing” was not regarded as creative art, but rather as a religious craft and therefore traditionally had no signature

1. A GOOD BACKGROUND

The tradition of icon painting is not limited to the medium of the wooden panel. Particularly in churches, we can still admire magnificent frescoes and mosaics, wonderful representatives of the pictorial tradition of icon painting.

2. BETTER BE HOT
In contrast to the tempera technique, which is much easier to handle, the use of the encaustic technique requires a high degree of craftsmanship. Color pigments are added to wax mixed with oil, and either fired onto the surface using hot tools or the hot liquid is painted onto the surface with brushes and shaped during the cooling process. Brushes, spatulas and pointed objects leave their traces when modelling the faces and make their production traceable to this day.

3. ACCORDING TO ALL THE RULES OF ART
The icons were not “invented” or “created” by the painters, but were produced according to the strict canon that each painter had to adhere to. For example, an icon of Christ was either marked with a ringed cross or the unique hand gesture. The touching fingers symbolize the two natures that Jesus unites in his person or hypostasis, the divine and the human. Three outstretched fingers stand for the Trinity.

4. SIGNIFICANT PERSPECTIVE

To our modern eyes, the Byzantine illustrations appear “shifted”. In contrast to a central perspective, the perspective of the individual elements is set to follow a narrative or meaning – the aerial and frontal perspectives, for example, are united in one picture. Because the focus is on clearly defining aspects that are particularly important for conveying the intended messages – without regard to an illusory depth effect.

5. DIVINE LIGHT
Icon painting spread beyond Byzantium, in terms of both region and time. The golden backgrounds of many icons are particularly striking. All other colors require light to glow and therefore cannot represent light. Gold, however, stands for light itself. Light is interpreted here as the divine principle that permeates the whole of creation and brings it to life. The figures on the golden background thus emerge from an ocean of divine light that surrounds them.

Detail aus „The oldest known icon of Christ , 6-7th C.” (2)

Detail from „The oldest known icon of Christ , 6-7th C.” (2)

“Jerusalem, Israel: The Peter Diswons Jesus, Icon in Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu.” (3)

“Mosaik from Ravena shows the Empress Aelia Eudokia Augusta (401-460) with her Byzantine court” (4)

A JOURNEY THROUGH THE HISTORY OF ART

Image sources:

1: „The oldest known icon of Christ, 6-7th C“ © www.BibleLandPictures.com/Alamy Stock Foto
2: Detail from „The oldest known icon of Christ, 6-7th C“ © www.BibleLandPictures.com/Alamy Stock Foto
3: “Jerusalem, Israel: The Peter Diswons Jesus, Icon in Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu.” © jozef sedmak /Alamy Stock Foto
4: “Mosaik from Ravena shows the Empress Aelia Eudokia Augusta (401-460) with her Byzantine court”
a: Lucas Cranach d. Ä. „Ungleiches Paar (Der alte Buhler)“. © bpk / Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen
b: Franz Marc „Ställe“ 1913. © bpk / The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation / Art Resource, NY
c: Gustav Klimt „Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” 1907. © John Baran / Alamy Stock Foto.
d: Detail from „The oldest known icon of Christ, 6-7th C“ © www.BibleLandPictures.com/Alamy Stock Foto
e: Detail from Hendrick Avercamp: Winter Landscape with Skaters, ca. 1608 © Peter Horree / Alamy Stock Photo
f: Detail from William Turner, The Burning of the Houses of Parliament, 1834 © World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo
g: Detail from Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer im Nebelmeer, 1818. © Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
h: Detail from Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, Jan Vermeer, 1557 © Archivart / Alamy Stock Photo