The Art of the Icon by Nigel Cawthorne
This is not a thick book, just 96 pages. It is mainly a collection of photographs of Orthodox church icons, with explanations on the history and techniques of painting. The printing is of very high quality. Its original price is 14.99 British Pounds. But because of the subject matter, it is rarely read. I found it in a corner of the Book Fair selling at HK$20. Strangely, the cover photo is flipped. I do not know if it was a mistake or was intentional so that Mary looked to the East.
Icons are mainly found in Orthodox churches in Eastern Europe. I found their architecture and the paintings inside fascinating as they reflected the creativity and ability of men. Icons are paintings of traditional religious figures dating back to the earliest days of formalized Christianity. Being more than symbols of faith and objects of worship, they are an art form in European civilization.
According to Exodus, Moses came down from Mount Sinai and brought back the Ten Commandments. The second commandment was “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” Thus in Judaism, and also in Islam, worship of idol in any form, including god and holy figures, was forbidden. This tradition remains the same today.
The early Christians adopted many practices of worship from the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans where the worship of idols was widespread. Thus Christian icons appeared in the early years of the religion. The Christian version of the Ten Commandments merged the text on forbidding idol worship in Exodus into the first commandment. In the early centuries AD, icons were said to have magical power of winning wars, healing diseases and many other miraculous properties. Those were the days of iconodules: the icon worshippers. However, believers in the older tradition of an invisible god condemned this as idolatry. They became the iconoclasts: the breakers of icons.
In the sixth century, Emperor Leo III of the Byzantine Empire ordered that all icons be removed from churches. His son Constantine V stepped up the crusade against the iconodules and banned the manufacture, possession and worship of icons. The war between iconodules and iconoclasts lasted until the ninth century when Theodora resumed the worship of icons. During this period, most of the icons were destroyed, except a few kept secretly at the Monastery of St Catherine at Mount Sinai, which was known as the sanctuary of icons,
(Monastery of St Catherine)
The golden age of Byzantine icon making started when Emperor Constantine established the East Roman Empire and made Christianity the official religion of the empire in the fourth century. However, owing to the destruction by the iconoclasts from the sixth to the ninth century, very little is known about the early work except a few salvaged.
(Madonna and child with St George and St Theodore, first Byzantine golden age)
After Theodora’s effort in re-establishing the icon as an object of veneration in the ninth century, there came the second golden age of the Byzantine art, also known as the Macedonian Renaissance.
(The ladder to heaven, eleventh century, monks attempting to climb the ladder, all failing except the abbot Climacus)
Before the twelfth century, the production of the finest icons was in Constantinople. By the time the empire fell in the fifteenth century, the art had spread west to Greece, the Balkan and Italy. Many locations in eastern Europe developed the art form with their own unique cultural influence.
(Serbian icon of St Demetrius, early eighteenth century)
Prince Vladimir of Kiev, ruler of Russia, lived as a pagan in his early years. In the late tenth century, he sent scouts to find a religion. He was first drawn to Islam but did not convert because Islam banned alcohol. He also rejected the church of Rome because he feared subjugation by the pope. In 988 AD, Vladimir was baptized into the Orthodox faith. He then enforced baptism of all his subjects in the Dnieper River. Thus started an era of icon worship brought from Constantinople to Russia. By the twelfth century, Russian schools were developing their own style of icon painting with clear and bright colouring.
(The entombment of Christ, Novgorod, Russia, thirteenth century)