The term icon derives its meaning from the Greek eikon, which means image or likeness. The term is used within Orthodox Christendom specifically to describe holy images – of Christ and the saints, but also narratives of major feasts. For the monks of Mount Athos, the icons are much more than just portraits or illustrations of feasts: these images are imbued with Divine Grace. As described by Theodore the Studite (759-826), icons act as mirrors that reflect God onto humanity.
In the 8th century, a controversy broke out within the Byzantine Empire about practices associated with icons and concerns over idolatry. Those who defended icons prevailed by arguing that Christ, because he became human, allowed himself to be represented. They also affirmed that true worship is given to God alone, whereas icons, like saints, are revered and not worshipped. According to Acts of the Council of Nicaea in 787, “the honor given to the icon passes to the prototype (to Christ and the saints)”. Thus it is not that material of the image, but the person represented in the image that receives prayers and homage from the faithful.
Monks and lay worshippers address Christ and the saints by kissing or embracing icons as they enter a church. Here, the liturgy is performed around the iconostasis – a screen full of icons separating the sanctuary from the rest of the church. During the liturgy, certain icons on the iconostasis and the rest of the church are strategically lit with lamps and fumigated with incense to evoke the presence of the depicted persons.
Icons come in various media – panel paintings, wall paintings, textiles, and even metalwork. Panel paintings included in the exhibition are made by artist-monks according to traditional formulas: the panel is prepared by layered applications of gesso, gold leaf, and paint. The painter follows hallowed models of earlier Byzantine icons both in style and subject as tradition sanctions the apparent efficacy of the icon as mediator of sacred presence.