In the early fourth century, the Roman Emperor Constantine decriminalized Christianity and began funding churches and works of art. He also moved the capital of the Empire from Rome to Byzantium, a wealthy city in modern-day Turkey, which he then renamed Constantinople after himself (today we call this city Istanbul). While at the time, its inhabitants still called their empire Rome, we now refer to it as the Byzantine Empire, which lasted about a thousand years, ending in the 15th century, when the army of the powerful Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople. The most characteristic creation of the Byzantine period is the icon—an image of a holy figure or event from Christian tradition, often presented against a gold background and thereby separated from any worldly context.
One of the most common subjects for such icons is the Virgin Hodegetria, literally “She Who Shows the Way” in Greek. These are images in which the Virgin Mary holds Jesus and gestures toward him, guiding the viewer to Jesus and therefore, according to Christian belief, to salvation. Because of its common appearance from Late Antiquity to the present, Hodegetria icons are useful examples of the remarkable continuity of copies of icons throughout time.
At a glance, Byzantine icons strike many viewers as repetitive, that is, as being more or less the same. Their similarity, though, is by careful design. Their makers sought to preserve information about the appearances of their subjects, and traditions of their representations, and thereby to produce images that were both accurate and magically or divinely powerful.
To be clear, the icons discussed here are a few examples out of thousands of this same subject, and there is no evidence that these particular images were directly copied from one another. Rather, they were part of a large network of icons, all based on related models.
One of the earliest known versions of the Virgin Hodegetria is now housed in Santa Francesca Romana, in Rome, Italy. This work has been altered more than once, and has been extensively restored, so its details do not accurately reflect its original state, but do record some of the ways it changed over the centuries. The two faces are the oldest parts, painted in encaustic (pigment suspended in wax) on canvas. Sometime in the Middle Ages, these heads were cut out and inserted into a new painting, which is why the faces seem out of place. They are different in technique (the medieval portion of the icon is tempera on wooden panel) but also in color and scale. Jesus’s face seems far too small for his head. Mary’s face seems too large for hers, and is much paler than her hands. It is also likely set at the wrong angle; her neck meets her body at an angle, suggesting that in the original work, her head was inclined toward Jesus.
But despite these later interventions, what we see in this image is quite typical of Hodegetria icons: a bust-length image of Mary, holding Jesus with one hand and gesturing toward him with the other. She wears a dark blue robe, as does Jesus. He holds a scroll in one hand and raises the other toward Mary in a two-fingered gesture of blessing. Her face is quite pale and, surrounded by her dark clothing and the gold background, draws our eyes. In this case, she looks out at us, while he looks up at her. Her eyes are dramatically enlarged, and their irises are very dark against their whites, so that they become the focal point for the work. We are compelled to make eye contact with Mary, as she then encourages us to look to Jesus. Behind them, on the restored golden background, we see two haloes, with Mary’s radiating waves of light that again guide our eyes back to her face.
Almost a millennium later, little has changed. An icon of the Hodegetria from the thirteenth century preserves many of the features of the earlier icon. Again, there were changes made to the icon over time, including the addition of embossed silver, covering the original gold background, which now shows through at the edges where the silver has been lost.
The changes made to these icons over time indicates both their usage, which results in wear and tear, and their importance—damaged works can always be replaced rather than repaired. The whole image has been reversed, so that Jesus is now to Mary’s left, which will remain more common. Some features are strikingly similar. In addition to their basic gestures and poses, Mary’s very long nose, sharply cut brows, and very small mouth are quite similar. Again, she looks out at us, though her eyes are no longer so dramatically oversized. Jesus still holds a scroll in his left hand and raises his right in blessing. Jesus’ attention, though, has been shifted quite significantly from Mary to us. He looks out as us, and his hand, with the same gesture as in the earlier icon, is now turned toward us. The impact for a devout Byzantine Christian would be quite different, now that he or she is the object of Jesus’s blessing.
There is something peculiar about the size and shape of Jesus’ head. It may be intended to suggest that, though he is here a baby, he already bore adult (and divine) wisdom. On the other hand, it may be an echo of the strange medieval reconstruction of the earlier icon, where the earlier, smaller face of Jesus was set into the larger head of the later work.
Moving forward another three hundred years to a sixteenth-century Russian Hodegetria icon, we find that much is again copied from earlier models. The two figures are posed as before, Mary in her blue robes against a backdrop of gold. Mary’s features are quite similar to the earlier works—her long, narrow nose, her sharp brows, and her small mouth. And again, Jesus bears the curiously enlarged forehead. He is yet smaller, though, and more doll-like in her arms, and his proportions are less child-like. He is proportionally taller and thinner, more like an adult. This effect furthers the implications that he has adult wisdom. The figures also seem more cheerful—their lips curve up ever so slightly at the corners.
The Byzantine icon tradition carries on in the present, especially in Greece, Russia, and eastern Europe, though it is present all throughout the world. Contemporary London-based icon painter Christabel Helena Anderson created her The Theotokos of the Don in 2011. Its connection to the 1500-year tradition that preceded its creation is clear. Again, Mary bears her long nose and sharp brows and Jesus’s head is oversized and bulbous. The sixteenth-century icon—or any of the many like it—seems to have been a direct inspiration for Anderson, as the robes are strikingly similar. Anderson has, however, made her own alterations. Most importantly, she has made the scene significantly more tender, with the child pressing his cheek against his mother’s. Jesus looks up at Mary, and his two-fingered gesture of blessing is turned toward her, rather than toward us. Instead of making eye contact with us, Mary looks off into the middle-distance, her gaze seemingly unfixed, and her expression ambiguous. Is she perhaps contemplating the sorrowful fate of her baby? In a sense, this is not a Hodegetria, properly speaking, because Mary does not “show us the way” by guiding the viewer toward Jesus. The pair is more self-contained, sharing what seems to be a private emotional moment. The work is clearly and deeply rooted in the very long icon-painting tradition, but like many icon painters before her, Anderson finds a way to create something new out of a very well-worn formula.
Each artist who turns to this subject has a challenge: how does one preserve the perceived accuracy and authority of the image, while creating a work that is new, fresh, and effective? The goal is not “originality,” since a genuinely original work would break the connection with the works of the past from which the new icons draw their power. But a work of simple, rote copying is likely to be less effective than one that finds a way to bring nuance to an old theme.
Cultural context: Byzantine Icons
Hodegetria icons were considered particularly important and authoritative, since it was believed that the first version was painted by St. Luke, author of one of the four Gospels—the core texts of Christianity. This version was therefore considered accurate and authoritative; artists strove—and still strive—to copy it as exactly as possible, in order to preserve its record of what they believe to have been an actual, historical moment when Luke painted Mary and Jesus from life. There is debate over what happened to this first image. Some believe it was destroyed when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453. Others believe it was smuggled out of Constantinople, and survives in Western Europe, though this camp has not reached consensus on which of several possible icons is the one painted by Luke. Most art historians, though, believe that the form of the Hodegetria developed in the Early Byzantine period, perhaps in the fifth or sixth century.
Icons were quite controversial in the Early Byzantine period. At the time, Christianity was still working to demonstrate its difference from Roman polytheism (the worship of many gods, in this case Jupiter, Juno, Mars, Venus, and the rest of the Roman pantheon of deities). One of the main differences that early Christians and their Byzantine successors sought to emphasize was their rejection of polytheistic worship of idols, that is, of statues believed to represent and house gods. Some Christians, following the Second Commandment, which prohibits idol worship, saw any images as problematic, but many others embraced images. The ways that icons were often used by Byzantine Christians did not help their critics to feel any more at ease. Numerous records survive that indicate that many Christians were treating the physical objects (as well as the figures they represented) as powerful, magical, or divine. Icons were dipped into poisoned wells to purify them. Sick people would shave off bits of icons to make medicinal drinks. Icons were carried as protective talismans before armies heading into battle. All of these practices indicate that, whatever highly educated Christian writers thought about the difference between worship of idols and veneration (honoring) of icons, many people clearly confused the two, and treated Christian icons in much the same ways their families had treated polytheistic idols, only a few generations earlier.
When the Byzantine Empire was threatened by the spread of new powers and religions, particularly by the rise of Islam and the attendant Muslim conquests of territory, images were placed at the center of internal debates. Tensions between iconophiles (those who favored the use of icons), and iconoclasts (those who opposed icons) led to the Iconoclastic Controversy (the first phase of Iconoclasm, 720s–787 and the second phase of Iconoclasm, 815–843). This was probably the longest sustained debate on the use of art in the world’s history. The extent of the destruction of images and persecution of iconophiles is a subject of current debate among scholars, and it is worth bearing in mind that the early sources we have describing these events were written by iconophiles after the controversy ended. Whatever the cause, though, only a handful of icons survive from before the Controversy. The debate centered on the use of the images. In particular, did the veneration of icons violate the Second Commandment?
You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand of those who love me and keep my commandments.Exodus 20:5-6
To make their case, iconoclasts simply pointed to this fairly strict regulation of images, though the Bible contains other passages that provide direct instruction on the creation of three-dimensional images, so this case is not as simple as it is often presented as being. The iconophiles, in contrast, made intricate arguments in favor of the use and veneration of images. They held that Jesus, whom they considered to be the son of God and therefore God, himself, became an incarnate human being and thereby allowed himself to be seen. If, the argument ran, God allowed himself to be seen in physical form, making images of that form could be seen as following this divine example. Those in favor of images ultimately triumphed, not only because of their theological arguments, but undoubtedly also because, on the whole, people love images. The Byzantines resumed creating and venerating icons in 843 C.E., and Byzantine Christians (modern day Orthodox Christians) have been copying and reinterpreting their earliest surviving models, ever since.