The icon (Greek eikōn, meaning "image") plays an essential part in the religious life of the Eastern Orthodox church. Most commonly a portrait of Christ, the Virgin, or one of the saints, an icon may also represent an episode from the Bible or from a saint's life. Icons usually were painted on wooden panels, although several miniature mosaic icons from Constantinople have survived. The preeminent place for the exhibition of icons is on the iconostasis of an Orthodox church, but portable icons can also be carried in processions, set in roadside shrines, or even kept in the home, as was especially common in Russia. Whatever their location, however, icons are not primarily aesthetic but are, rather, sacred images; as the focus of prayer and devotion the icon is as essential to the Orthodox church as statues are in Roman Catholic popular devotion.

The icon as a special type of sacred image developed in Byzantine art in the 6th century, and many stories from that period tell of miracle-working icons and of others "not made by human hands" but regarded as produced by or descended from heaven. Such stories reflected and encouraged the veneration of the icon by many Christians and led, not surprisingly, to a puritanical reaction by those who saw this practice as little removed from pagan idol worship. Iconoclasm, the prohibition and deliberate destruction of religious images, became official Byzantine policy in 726. In reaction to this policy many Byzantine theologians, among whom Saint John Damascene (d. 754) was most important, developed an elaborate theory and defense of holy images and their place in worship; this theory led to the restoration of the icons in 843 and remains the Orthodox view to this day. Drawing on the doctrine of the incarnation of Christ and on Neoplatonic philosophical ideas, John argued that the holy icon through divine grace partook of the spiritual essence of the figure it depicted and, as the product of the emanation of its holiness, constituted the essential point of direct contact between the human and divine realms.

Icons of an established type, because of their sacred function and relationship to a heavenly prototype, changed relatively little throughout the centuries, although new types occasionally appeared. Thus the beautiful icon known as Our Lady of Vladimir (c.1130; Tretykov Gallery, Moscow), depicting the Virgin and Child embracing, painted in Constantinople, reflects with its tender lyricism a new trend toward emotional and humanistic values in Byzantine art of that period. After this icon was taken to Russia, it established a type, Umileniye ("merciful" or "compassionate"), reproduced there for seven centuries.

Lawrence Nees

Bibliography: Evdokimov, Paul, The Art of the Icon, trans. by S. Bigham (1989); Giakalis, Ambrosios, Images of the Divine: The Theology of Icons at the Seventh Ecumenical Council (1993); Grierson, Roderick, ed., Gates of Mystery: The Art of Holy Russia (1992); Lazarev, V. N., The Russian Icon, trans. by C. J. Dees (1997); Maguire, Henry, The Icons of Their Bodies: Saints and Their Images in Byzantium (1996); Onasch, Konrad, and Schnieper, Annemarie, Icons: The Fascination and the Reality (1997); Ousterhout, Robert G., and Brubaker, Leslie, eds., The Sacred Image East and West (1995); Smirnova, Engelina, The Dawn of Faith: Icons of Early Russia (1996); Weitzmann, Kurt, The Icon (1978) and The Monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai: The Icons (1976); Zibawi, Mahmoud, The Icon: Its Meaning and History (1993).