Byzantine Iconography

5 Key Facts about Byzantine Iconography

It is known that Russian iconography descended from Byzantine iconography. Antique Russian and Byzantine icons have plenty of similarities that make it almost impossible to distinguish one from the other. However, one must understand that Byzantine icon painting is still a unique type of religious art, with a number of peculiarities. Below we have gathered five facts about Byzantine icons to help you understand them better.

5 key facts about Byzantine iconography 

Fact 1: The first known Byzantine icons were created not with tempera like Russian icons but with wax paints.

This method of iconography is called “encaustic.” The iconographers used hot wax and paints to keep the images in their original form much longer than usual. On the other hand, Russian icons were created using mineral pigments and powder paints.

Fact 2: Byzantine iconography influenced not only the Old Russian tradition but also other cultures.

Byzantine icon painting art was a widely known phenomenon throughout the Eastern Christian world, including Bulgaria, Palestine, Italy, Serbia, Egypt, Georgia, and many other countries. Given such an impact, it is rightly considered the ancestor of the world’s iconography.

Fact 3: The first Byzantine icons were marked by asceticism and simplicity.

Byzantine iconographers tried to convey a sacred spirit and divine presence. Icons of saints were not portraits of people; the figures and forms were unnatural and devoid of human emotion. The best known antique examples of Byzantine iconography are the following:

  • Christ Pantocrator;
  • Icon of the Apostle Peter;
  • Icon of St. George the Victorious;
  • Theotokos Enthroned.

Fact 4: In the 14th century, iconographers began to depict divine light.

Byzantine masters used gold to give the image depth and spirituality. It was applied to the levkas and then smoothed out. The gold color in icons symbolizes the presence of God and the Heavenly Kingdom. Therefore, one can often notice a gold background or gold details in the saints’ garments. This symbolism was later adopted by the Old Russian tradition.

Fact 5: Byzantine iconography received recognition thanks to St. John of Damascus.

The writings of this famous saint, monk, and theologian had a tremendous influence on the systematization of Christian dogma and iconographic canons. The theologian defined the significance of the religious icon in general and supported the adornment of Christian churches and monasteries with icons and frescoes.

Byzantine iconography is indeed a key component of global religious art. Do not miss our new blog posts to learn more about Byzantine and Russian icons!