From the sixth century date a remarkable series of paintings preserved at the Monastery of St. Catherine's at the base of Mount Sinai. These represent some of the earliest examples of what we know as Icons. These sacred images will be the focus of the Orthodox or Byzantine liturgy. They challenge our traditional notions of representation and the process of making an image. The texts that follow attempt to articulate the context out of which the idea of the icon developed.
Agathias Scholasticus, On a
Those who are entering on the new office dedicated Thomas, the universal Emperor's blameless Curator, close to the sacred Pair, that by his very portrait also he may have a place next to majesty.
Consular Diptych from the reign of the Emperor Anastasius, 517, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris
Diptych of Christ and the Virgin, mid 6th century.
This ivory probably made in Constantinople adopts many of the formulae from the Consular Diptychs. Like the Mt. Sinai icon of Christ, the image of Christ enthroned can be identified as Christ Pantocrator, or Chist "Almighty" or "All-powerful." The Virgin and Child panel illustrates the Theotokos, or the Virgin as the Bearer of God.
Anonymous, "On a Statue
of the Emperor Justin by the Harbor":
I, the prefect Theodorus, erected by the shore this splendid statue to Justin the Emperor, so that he might spread abroad his calm in the harbor also.
Bishop Theodosius at the Second
Council of Nicea (787):
If the Imperial effigies are sent through the cities and the provinces, the crowd comes to meet them bearing wax tapers and incense, thus honoring not a picture painted in wax but the Emperor; how much more then should this happen to the image of Christ our God painted in the Church, of his unstained Mother and of all the Saints, both Blessed Fathers and Ascetics.
Gregory of Nyssa, "Encomium
of St. Theodore" (speaking of faithful who venerate dust
collected from Theodore's tomb):
Those who behold them embrace, as it were, the living body itself in its full flower, they bring eye, mouth, ear, all their senses into play, and then, shedding tears of reverence and passion, they address to the martyr their prayer of intercession as though he were hale and present.
Nilus Scholasticus, "On
an Image of the Archangel":
How daring it is to picture the incorporeal! But yet the image leads up to spiritual recollection of celestial beings.
Agathias Scholasticus, "On
an Image of the Archangel":
Greatly daring was the wax that formed the image of the invisible Prince of the Angels, incorporeal in the essence of his form. But yet it is not without grace; for a man looking at the image directs his mind to higher contemplation. No longer has he a confused veneration, but imprinting the image in himself he fears him as if he were present. The eyes stir up the depths of the soul.
Pseudo-Dionysius, De ecclessiastica
hierarchia , I, 2:
The essences and orders which are above us...are incorporeal and their hierarchy is of the intellect and transcends our world. Our human hierarchy, on the contrary, we see filled with the multiplicity of visible symbols, through which we are led up hierarchically and according to our capacity to the unified deification, to God and divine virtue. We, however, are led up, as far as possible, through visible images to contemplation of the divine.
Hypatius, Bishop of Ephesus:
We leave material adornment in the churches... because we conceive that each order of the faithful is guided and led up to the Divine in its own way and that some are led even by these toward the intelligible beauty and from the abundant light in the sanctuaries to the intelligible and immaterial light.