Icons were in existence as early as the 5th or the 6th century, but they seemed to have disappeared in the first half of the 20th century. However, their disappearance is far from natural. They were simply prohibited: during the Soviet era in Russia it was strictly forbidden to paint icons. In spite of that, several clandestine artists secretly made or restored icons. In the second half of the twentieth century, icons made a come back...
So we can ask ourselves what's so special about icons? What could cause some people, like monks for instance, to risk their lives by painting icons? "Christ", says Saint Paul, "is the image of the invisible God" (Col 1:15). In other words: "Christian iconography expresses in images the same Gospel message that Scripture communicates by words. Image and word illuminate each other." (cf the Catechism of the Catholic Faith, Part 2: The Celebration of the Christian Mystery, section 1160)
The first images
It took a long time for the icon to take the form that we know today through its ancient representations. This evolution happened through complex historical contexts and different cultural affiliations. It also went through the battle of sacred images during which the fury of the iconoclasts destroyed innumerable icons.
The first icons that came down to us are paintings from the 3rd century catacombs. These show the Mother of God at the Adoration of the Magi. Such is their subordination to Christological themes. This isn't surprising—in the same way that Mariology was developed from Christology, the iconography of Mary is tied to the iconography of Christ.
But the faces in the catacombs aren't images for worship—they aren't venerated because they aren't true life portraits of Christ or the Virgin, and they remain in the sphere of the symbolic. And the sacred image cannot go beyond this limit since the Church hasn't yet elaborated the depth of the mystery of the Incarnation which will surface at the first Councils.
The Holy Virgin Mary is proclaimed the Mother of God
From the 4th century on, iconography will experience a very important growth. Among the many reasons for this is the reign of the emperor Constantine in the 4th century and his spectacular conversion. Christianity was instituted the religion of the state in 380, date at which the Church entered into an era of peace. Thus began an esthetic form which would determine the art of the subsequent centuries. A third ecumenical council gathered in Ephesus in 431 and proclaimed Mary the Mother of God. After this, people started representing the Mother of God solemnly, sitting enthroned with the divine Child on her lap: the Mother of God Kyriotissa (1).
Here are a few examples of the homage pronounced by the Bishop of Alexandria when Mary was proclaimed the Mother of God:
Iconoclasm: the war of holy images and the triumph of Orthodoxy
In the eighth century a great duel began between the partisans and the enemies of icons, between the defenders of Orthodoxy and the heretics -the iconoclasts—from 730 to 843. The battle is doctrinal. A first period (730 to 780) began in 730 when Leo Isaurian (c. 680 - 741) decreed the prohibition of the cult of icons which he qualified as idolatry. But this wasn't only a religious quarrel. It was the end of an era, the convergence of multiple trends—religious, political, economical—challenging the existing values in all areas.
This phenomenon is complex, although the dogmatic questions do form the bottom of the problem. A period of reestablishment of holy images followed (780 to 813), then a new iconoclastic period (813 to 842) that ended in 842. A new Council opened in 843 and Orthodoxy triumphed with the exaltation of icons in all the churches, following the solemn magisterial reaffirmation of the Incarnation of the Word:
"The indescribable Verb of the Father made Himself describable, by taking flesh of You, Mother of God."
DONADEO Maria, Icons of the Mother of God, Paris, 1987
NOUWEN Henri, Behold the Beauty of the Lord, 1991
ROUSSEAU Daniel, Icons, Paris, 1982
SENDLER Egon S.J., The Icon, Image of the Invisible, Paris, 1981
SENDLER Egon S.J., Byzantine Icons of the Mother of God, Paris, 1992
(1 ) The oldest known icon is probably the one of the "Virgin in Majesty,", preserved at St Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai. The famous icon "Salus populi Romani," greatly venerated in Rome, dates from the 7th or 8th century, like the icon of "Sancta Maria Antiqua," also kept in Rome.