The Martyrs and the Apostles
Historically, the painting of the icons of the Saints began with the painting of the holy martyrs. After a martyr’s martyrdom, the first Christians tried to take his holy relics and bury them in a safe place, such as in the catacombs on the outskirts of big cities.
There, above the tombs, they often painted symbols to bring to mind the resurrection. They usually painted the Saints from the front, with their hands in a stance of supplication, and in the background they painted flowers to suggest that the Saints are in a garden, in paradise. Since then, it is traditional to decorate churches withfloral decoration between the depicted Saints and iconographic scenes, which reminds the believers that in each liturgy they communicate functionally with
the last times. In the first churches, the holy martyrs were depicted in a line directed toward Christ and they offered their crowns of martyrdom to thank Him who deemed them worthy of martyrdom. Later on, they painted the divine overshadowing, as Christ in miniature blesses from the upper corner of the icon or, instead of Christ, the Lord’s hand blesses, or simply the rays of divine light illuminate the Saint.
Iconographers then began to portray personal aspects of the Saints in the icons. Saint George and Saint Demetrios were depicted as young and beautiful. Saint Peter, as an elderly man, Saint Paul was bald, Saint Theodore had a pointed beard. The holy apostles, especially because of the icon of the transfiguration, acquired a personality whose characteristics have survived to this day. The icon was a personal portrait. It was a portrait of the Saint, which preserves personal details of the one represented. Included in the icon of every Saint were their clothing and occupation (the armor of the martyrs, the sandals and tunics of the apostles, etc.). Finally, other aspects were included in icons: the builders of the churches, emperors and empresses, courtiers, and other believers not officially recognized as “Saints.” The mosaic of the transfiguration in Sinai is a wonderful example of the new understanding of painting. The big expressive eyes, the shining garments, and the lightness of the bodies all express in the visual language what we have said above about a new art, not rationally representational, but visionary, dazzling, with the other poetic vision of the future age.
From the above information, the following conclusions can be drawn: 1) The icon was originally a historical personalized portrait. It is a document of the historical identity of the figure being depicted. 2) At the same time the icon is Christ-centered. It demonstrates the relationship of Saint Peter to Christ, for whom the Saint sacrifices his life, and Who strengthens the Saint to endure his martyrdom and to defeat the fear of death. 3) But this portrait is not only historical, but mainly eschatological. It does not portray the Saint as he was in the past, as a mortal man, but as he will be in the future, that is: in paradise in the image of a garden, as an immortal Saint, in another way of being. Eventually the icon introduced a special painting, a particular portrait, which begins in history, but leads us to the end times. It is a historical-eschatological painting where the emphasis falls on the final things. 5) The icon is liturgical and eucharistic. That is, they did not paint the martyrs and the other Saints in the ancient churches to psychologically remind them, as a memory of the past, but to proclaim the Church’s faith that the Saints and Christ are living ontologically during the holy eucharist, which opens our existential horizon to the memory of the future (see Lectures in Christian Dogmatics and other writings of John Zizioulas, the Metropolitan of Pergamon, without which we could not interpret the art and technique of iconography).
It is light that distinguishes iconography from other painting traditions. Though iconography borrowed from the classical art of antiquity, which emphasized natural beauty and natural harmony, it added important innovations to the history of painting through the depiction of the Saints in expressing the overcoming of natural beauty and natural laws through the resurrection. This created a new style later called “Byzantine.” This innovation (which made iconography the “modern art” of that period) is characterized by two main ideas: The one is supernatural light, and the other is freedom from all natural laws.
The light in the painting of the holy icons is uncreated and never ending, it’s a light that does not set, but always illuminates all the persons depicted, and illuminates them centrally and steadily. As a result, it does not cast shadows on the ground, because it supernaturally illuminates both the body of the depicted Saint and the ground on which the Saint stands. The consequence of this supernatural illumination is a general hyperrealism that supersedes the natural laws of gravity, the laws of perspective, the laws of indivisibility, and the laws of bearing.
Finally, because this supernatural light never ends, the beings that are continuously illuminated lose the character of the temporal and acquire stable identities. So we have a solid ontology in the icon, as opposed to the naturalistic painting of temporary phenomena. We do not have time to explain all this in detail, but we can draw the general conclusion that the hyperrealism of the icon is a visual manifestation of the theological mystery of the transfiguration of the Lord, and of His resurrection and ascension. Only if we remember the description in the Gospels that on Tabor the Lord shone supernaturally and frightened the disciples, and also that in the resurrection the brightness of the angels was seen by the holy myrrh bearing women, only then can we understand the particular and unusual light of iconography. Again the Saints in the icon are painted not as photos, nor as copies of physical reality, but as transformed people who live in a mode of transcendent being. Iconography is a visionary divine painting, a painting of wonder and not of logical scientific observation.
The THEANTHROPIC Character (of the God-Man)
At this point it is worthwhile to refer to the formation of a new ethos in the icon. This ethos was especially developed in the fifth and sixth centuries. During this period the most characteristic icon of Christ was painted, which became the model for future icons of the Lord. As is well known, the iconographic technique took many elements from the Egyptian portraits of Fayum, which were painted while the person was alive, and after his death they placed it on his mummy according to the custom of the time. The Christ of Sinai icon follows the style of these portraits, but it reveals a different ethos. The Fayum portraits look at us with a sad countenance. Christ offers a different look that introduces into painting a new moral ethos. It presupposes an internal power that, in a calm and subtle manner, associates with us in sympathy, acceptance, sweetness, and develops, we would say, a firm and loving relationship with us. The raised eyebrow [of Christ] suggests austerity, while the other eye reveals understanding and love. We can even assume that it is not so strict. More to the point, it is raised so as to observe us with interest. He holds a heavy Gospel with a strong grip, and blesses us with His right hand, which is remarkable from the painting point of view because of its majesty. His face has a special expressiveness, which could be described as love combined with inner strength; He is a person Who associates with us and is not locked within Himself. This ethos of the God-man, the “Theanthropic Ethos,” also influenced the expression of the Saints, who are images of the God-Man.
The THEOMETORIC Character (of the Mother of God)
Along with the Theanthropic character, the character and the ethos of the Theotokos were shaped as well, starting with the well-known image of Sinai, where the Virgin is depicted in the center enthroned with Christ in her arms between Saint George and Saint Theodore, and in the second row appear two angels who look to heaven, where the hand of God (the Father) appears, blessing. We assume that the angels come from the icon of the ascension, where they surround the Theotokos and point towards the ascended Christ. The expression on the face of the Theotokos reveals a lady of honor, incredibly beautiful, with a very strong expression in her large eyes, with red lips and pink cheeks. She is not the young daughter Miriam the hesychast, who grew up in the Temple. She doesn’t have an ethos of repentance or compunction. Rather, she has the authority that comes from the fact that she was obedient in serving the great event of the divine Economy and was revealed to be “truly a Virgin.” It is an ethos that is not simply pious, but theological. She was revealed to be a person unique in the entire human race. This is what we would call a Theometoric ethos, the character of the Mother of God. Based on this icon, future paintings of the Theotokos were painted and influenced the painting of the icons of all the women Saints in Byzantium.
Contemporary Paintings of the Saints
From Byzantium to our day there has been a movement toward the compunction, spirituality, and inwardness of the depicted Saint and less toward the theological magnificence and the authority of the image of God (which every Saint bears). The fall of Constantinople may have led iconography to more of a humble ethos and less of the glorious ethos of the early Christian icons. From the brilliance of the colors of Ravenna, we have been led to the more humble colors of the icons of the Ottoman domination. From the original perception (from portraiture) that every Saint is unique, we have ended up (through copying) with a uniformity of faces. The faces of women Saints, in particular, have been treated poorly through stereotypes and uniformity. Orthodox iconographers always need to remember that the Saint is depicted not as he was in his earthly mortal life, but as he will shine in the future glory of Paradise.
Fr. Stamatis Skliris