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Italian Renaissance Learning Resources

In collaboration with the National Gallery of Art

Virgin and Child

The Power of Icons

The question of multiple copies goes to the heart of what an icon is: “icon” is simply the Greek word for “image” (eikon). Art historians conventionally apply the term to a particular sort of devotional image used in the Eastern church, usually painted on a gilded panel in an abstract, static, and hieratic style. But an icon is not a representation—it is a reproduction. For Byzantine Christians and Orthodox Christians today, any icon, no matter its iteration or material (not limited to painted panels), is a true copy of its model. The model is not the image per se; rather, it is the holy personage or event depicted. Byzantine theologians used the analogy of a wax impression and seal to describe the relationship. The seal (the holy person) can impress the image (the icon) over and over again.

A person venerating an icon, then, is part of a direct encounter: icons are windows through which viewer and holy subject make contact. Because icons connect to an infinite space beyond the temporal physical world, they avoid reference to earthly reality, to specific time or place. Their gold backgrounds dematerialize them and set them outside human experience. Icons do not aim to re-create the world of the senses, as Renaissance art would come to do. To modern eyes, icons seem almost unchanging over fifteen centuries. This is the point: the icon painter works faithfully to reproduce the model. So, for that matter, does the person who venerates an icon, as Saint Basil (c.320–379) noted:

Just as painters in working from models constantly gaze at their exemplar and thus strive to transfer the expression of the original to their artistry, so too he who is anxious to make himself perfect in all the kinds of virtue must gaze upon the lives of saints as upon statues, so to speak, that move and act, and must make their excellence his own by imitation.5