The St. Luke Icons

The tradition of the Orthodox Church holds that St. Luke the Evangelist was the first iconographer. Shortly after Pentecost, he painted 3 icons of the Mother of God, painted directly from life.  As Christians were being actively persecuted, these particular treasures were kept hidden and secret, perhaps only mentioned in a handed-down oral tradition to trusted members of the early church at this point.

A Byzantine historian named Theodore, in the first half of the 6th century, refers in writing to such an icon having been sent a hundred years earlier to Constantinople by the Empress to her sister.  This is the oldest historical evidence of the existence of these icons.

In the early 700s, both St. Andrew of Crete and St. Germanus of Constantinople speak of an icon attributed to St. Luke, which was sent to Rome to Theophilus (the same person mentioned in the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles).   Once Christianity became an official, legal religion, it became safe to move the sacred images from hiding places in private homes into public churches where all could see them.

Some background history:  None of these images, nor any others, (with the exception of a very few in the distant monastery of St. Catherine of the Sinai)  survived the early church’s period of iconoclasm in the 700s, which divided Christians into bitterly opposing groups.  One faction honored and venerated images, and the other wanted them destroyed as idolatry.  The second group, the iconoclasts, gained power initially, and systematically destroyed nearly every existing icon.  Feelings ran high.  People were actually killed just for owning or painting images, and even for simply expressing their opinions on this matter.  Eventually the tide turned, and the icon became the official liturgical art. Images were not again removed from churches until the Protestant Reformation.

So, any original icons actually made through the hand of St. Luke himself would have been destroyed during this 8th century Iconoclast Period.  What did survive was the tradition, both in oral instruction and within written prayers and liturgical texts,  describing the prototypes which the Evangelist established.  As the Church recovered from the controversy and rapidly expanded, icons were once again needed. Iconographers made sacred liturgical images according to carefully handed down instructions and later reproductions of St. Luke’s originals, approved by bishops.  Thus were icons kept consistent and doctrinally correct, as handed down through the Church.  They spread throughout the Christian world.

These are examples of the types of three images of the Theotokos (Mother of God) said to be made by the hand of St. Luke (in no particular order) .  One type is called Elousa/Our Lady of Tenderness.  The most famous example of this prototype is the miracle-working icon of Our Lady of Vladimir, beloved in Russia.

Our Lady of Vladimir

The second type is called Hodegritria/She Who Shows the Way.  An example of this type is Our Lady of Czestochowa, the most beloved icon of Poland.  An earlier example is the Smolensk Mother of God.

Our Lady of Smolensk

Our Lady of Czestochowa

The third prototype attributed to St. Luke is one of Our Lady standing alone, without her Child, hands upraised in prayer, the Virgin Orant.

Virgin Orant Great Panagia

All of these types of icons are called “St. Luke Icons” not because he painted them personally but because he established the prototype.  Each one is a new translation of the work of St. Luke the Evangelist.  Handed down by the apostles and evangelists through the centuries, they are greatly venerated and loved by the faithful all over the world.

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About reinkat

I am an iconographer, and have been studying Russian/Greek icons for about 15 years. I'm married with 3 children. I love hiking, camping, animals, my family and church--and icons.
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18 Responses to The St. Luke Icons

  1. Interesting. There is such beauty in the traditions of the Church. What strikes me is that even in the darkest moments of the history of the Catholic church, the artistic representations of that beauty somehow survive………just like the Catholic Church.

    • reinkat says:

      God always pulls blessings out of darkness and accomplishes His will no matter what we are doing to the contrary. Special gratitude is also due our Orthodox brothers and sisters, who are the ones who kept this particular tradition and teaching alive.

  2. Biltrix says:

    Great post! Thanks for filling in the historical and traditional elements and for clarifying my misconceptions about Our Lady of Czestochowa. I really love coming here to learn more about icons and iconography. It does so much for my spirituality. Please, keep it coming!

  3. SR says:

    Hey Girl,

    Loved this post! You are so good at what you do. Sorry have not responded to your email, but when you read post you will know why. Have just now got back to doing all of this again. Will be back later to catch up. Thanks Reinkat for all of your prayers. Will email you soon. Love ya and God Bless, SR

  4. geloruma says:

    Hi ReinKat,
    Very interesting – My Icons tend to be of the western tradition, however all icons interest me; I was brought up on ” Our Lady of Pertpetual Help” please can you clarify if the Iconoclasm of the 700′s due to the invasion of Moorish hoards? thank you.

    • reinkat says:

      I am sure there were many roots to the Iconoclasm period in the early church. Christians were surrounded by other faiths–some of whom did not believe that any image of a human face was permitted by God. The literal reading of the Bible would support this point of view. Arguments in favor of iconography, and explanations of veneration and honor vs. worship were still being formed. In fact, many understandings of the meaning of the life of Jesus and the Bible were still being hashed out during those first few centuries as the Church formed. Gnostic, Arian, and other heresies were widespread and not yet rejected during these times. I would think that the invasion of the Moors was only part of the environment that led to iconoclasm.

      I would love to hear your thoughts on icons of the Western tradition–been mulling about doing a post on that myself.

      • geloruma says:

        Hi,
        western iconography is also symbol – filled, and viewed as windows to heaven to use for contemplation of the same. We don’t have to adhere to the monastic disciplines which grew up with eastern Iconography,e.g. the length of the brush- stroke and so on being a means to and reflection of humility. The gold represents heaven, and we have the same meanings for halos.
        The Western icon is more free in its choice of mediums and techniques; basically its the finished image and not so much how it is produced that is important; except to say that some people; including myself are aware of prayer being part of the process, and that is a big part of it. I tend to paint in acrylics, and like to experiment with different techniques; I am beginnin gto develop my own style I think… unless someone specifically asks me to produce something resembling ” modern art” I tend not to go there!

  5. reinkat says:

    I read your reply with interest. I feel a great debt of gratitude to the Orthodox for keeping the icon tradition alive and totally respect their definitions and establishment of the icon since the earliest days of Christianity. The Western church moved in quite a different direction with its artistic expression, and many exquisite and meaningful religious paintings and sculptures have been created over the centuries.
    I am not sure where or with whom you studied, so I can only speak to my own experience in exploring icons. I did not learn of any techniques with such rigidity. I totally agree with the necessity of prayer being part of the process. One factor that does affect iconography is that it is not a personal expression of the artist, but an expression of the dogma of the church, and its intent is liturgical. Thus changes may not be made lightly. New icons/icon designs need be approved by bishops and patriarchs. Icons have a consistent form and logic that makes the “language” of the image accessible to every believer. This is not as restricting as it sounds, the artist has great freedom in style and color and composition, but always with the greatest respect for the expression of doctrine, Scripture and prayer as part of a community and a Tradition. Although certainly I strive to make every icon beautiful, it is the prayer and intent, and not the finished product that matters more than its aesthetic appeal. Within the Eastern Church, an icon is not regarded as a peice of art per se, but a proclaiming of the Word of God and a visible expression of prayer and faith.
    I use both acrylics and egg tempera for my icons, but have not experimented with fresco or wall painting techniques. I like the look and feel of egg tempera quite a bit.

    • geloruma says:

      Hi Reinkat,
      thank you foar ayour interesting reply.
      All of the above applies to western Iconography – my works are more ecclectic having studied as a designer and sculptor – (not per se as an Icon artist!) God led me gradually into using this background for Icon works; these include influences from icons in illuminated manuscripts, Eastern Icons, Celtic sources, stained glass and so on.
      The main difference I see is that Eastern artists tend to define the work of western artists as less spiritual because of the tags “fine art” and “Self expression” associated with them.
      As Greek Icons seem to use larger brush strokes and oils, while Eastern traditions use egg -tempera – one cannot be more or less correct than the other. If I understand correctly – Eastern Icons are possibly more spiritual than westsern renditions ( if I am correct in beleiving) because Eastern traditions view the icon as imbueing the presence of God within them – rather than the Western view, which uses artworks to raise the mind and heart to God, (but do not contain the spirit of God…) Words are failing me here – I am sure you could define the spirituality of Eastern Icons more adeptly! I hope you will.
      The west do view Eastern Icons as works of art in that it takes a certain level of skill and ability to produce such beautiful imagery, that isn’t to detract from them as spiritual religious works; its more an “also and” rather than an “either or”.

    • geloruma says:

      Hi Reinkat,
      I admire that you use egg tempera. Would love to have a go at that but it seems such a specialist technique and difficult to do. The thought of getting very long thin lines with the egg sounds appealing.Very – long -lasting too I beleive.
      I have some riggers down to size 00. (and use a magnifying glass sometimes!)
      wondered if you use brushes smaller than that?
      I think they use egg in the wall frescoes too don’t they?WOuld love to have a go at a wall fresco, I love Fra Angelico’s work.

      • reinkat says:

        Egg tempera is not all that difficult. Just a little practice.
        I love it. It is smooth, rich, glowing. Kind of like glazing with oil paints in some ways. It most resembles gouache in texture and feel.
        It lasts for thousands of years, as does dried egg yolk on a dish that doesn’t get rinsed quickly enough :-)

        No, 0 is the smallest brush I have, and I use Isabey #1 round most of the time for detail. I love those Isabey brushes.

        As far as I know, they do not use egg on wall frescoes. The dry pigment is mixed directly with the plaster and applied quickly onto the white base plaster. I think.
        I love Fra Angelico as well. Especially his Resurrection. It is exquisite.

  6. reinkat says:

    Hey, g, I am really enjoying this dialogue. It is making me think! I am not going to pose myself as an expert in Eastern spirituality or interpretation. I am Roman Catholic. I have studied icons for almost 2 decades, but there is a difference between knowing about something, and understandint nuances through living it. It would be wonderful to have an Orthodox person chime in.
    I was an illustrator for 25 years, and dropped it all to devote myself to iconography. It has been a struggle to learn Byzantine style and forms after so many years of naturalism and self-expression. It has proved to be far more complex than I had realized–and in many ways more like “modern art” than classical art.
    some random thoughts in response to your words:
    Eastern artists defining western religious art as less spiritual: I am sure there are very territorial artists on both sides. Dare I say it: snobbery on both sides. I think that the two schools of philosophy come from different places in looking at religious images. Orthodox religious art, the icon, is liturgical and absolutely integral to each and every liturgy. It is actively used during services in every way.
    Western religious art is largely decorative. However, as I consider statues, I think that they more closely resemble the icon in the sense that it is used in private devotional prayer–the lifting of mind and heart to God. When I think of paintings, say, a Raphael madonna, for example, it is more valued as “fine art” and a museum piece, appreciated for its beauty rather than its theological basis. A communal use of art in a Catholic church might also be a parish saying the Stations of the Cross using bas relief or painted images along the walls of the church. This is close, but still not as embedded as the use of icons in Divine Liturgy or in the Sacraments.

    The presence of God in the works: yes, the icon is a representative of the depicted one, but not anything like the Real Presence that both East and West adore in the Eucharist. Once long ago, emperor and kings could not be everywhere at once to rule their subjects, so they sent a representative with a picture of the king to stand in official judgement or award-giving or whatever, and this image certified that this was indeed the words of the ruler. The image stood in for the king. I think that the presence of God in an icon is more along those lines.
    Maybe like talking to an absent loved one’s photograph stuck on your fridge. Certainly it isn’t them, but it stands in for them, puts their beloved face before you in a concrete sacramental way.
    Also, the icon is the Gospel of the Lord written in line and color, and is theologically and doctrinally in accord with the teachings of the Church through the bishops and patriarchs. There is no interpretation by the artist.
    All of these things make the Eastern Orthodox icon different from Western religious paintings in concept and execution.
    Also, since beauty is not the aim–theology is–icons can run the gamut from very crude folk art to magnificent transcendent pieces such as Rublev’s masterpieces. All are equal in the eyes of the Orthodox believer, as they are all prayer and truth regardless of the skill of the artist. Only the latter are valued by Western eyes, who are accustomed to judging images by different criteria.

    Anyway, those are just some thoughts on the subject. I hope it helps.

    • geloruma says:

      Hi Reinkat,
      of course I had some profound insightful answer to give ;- until hubby asked ” cup of tea?” and the moment was lost forever!!! (-:
      I liked your analogy of the king’s picture being his representative rather than a representation of him.
      Representations usually aim at a likeness of the person; rather like the photo on the fridge; its just a reminder.
      I can’t quite agree that Western religious art is mainly decorative… Do you mean that most Eastern art is of a religious nature? (I am not sure?)
      Michaelangelo’s Sistene chapel may look merely decorative ; (Just for the record I don’t like Michaelangelo’s Sistene chapel by the way) however, he was assigned the best theologians to advise on the composition; so it is a theological work.
      Beauty and theology is in the eye of the beholder;
      God laughs at all our debate on these finer points anyway – didn’t he tell sister Faustina ” the power of this image is not in the skill of the painter or the beauty, but in MY grace..”
      ( I have paraphrased of course) So God will use the work he has called us (both) to for his purposes despite ourselves!

      • reinkat says:

        I am not all that profound this morning at all–at least you had a moment!
        Just some quick replies to several of your sentences:

        Icons do not aim at a likeness. that is why they always have the person’s name on there, for identification, plus a few special details for some particular saints (color of robe, hairstyle, beard length, etc). They are a spiritual portrait, showing how God’s grace has transformed a life and entered into the world through it.

        I don’t know about “most” Eastern art, but all true icons are religious, doctrinal, and liturgical in every detail. A true icon is one that, with the approval of a bishop/patriarch past or present, is created to witness to a truth of the faith. There is no artistic interpretation of the elements contained in the image, but much artistic style.

        I didn’t know that Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel had theological advisors. Interesting. I believe he himself was estranged from the church, (not 100% sure of that though) so it was good that he did his research carefully, considering the location of his commission.

        Jesus’ comment to Sr. Faustina fits in well with the observation that Holy Icons vary from crude folk art by unschooled artists to magnificent masterpieces in cathedrals. The power is indeed in God’s grace and not the skill of the painter.

        And no matter what or where artworks come from or through, God will use them all for His own purposes despite ourselves. We are in total agreement on that, and hopefully both of us will continue to praise him through our own creations for many years to come.

  7. geloruma says:

    Oops, for some reason my reply has ended up further up our discussion thread…

  8. Pingback: What Did Jesus Look Like? | reinkat

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