From Fayum Portraits to Holy Icons

It is sometimes said, as a criticism with some hostility, that Christians have appropriated, or even stolen, the timing of many pagan festivals–for example, like Christmas instead of a solstice celebration, or Easter in place of a rite of spring.   Without going into detail about this, I say both “of course” and “so what”.

In every culture, and in every human soul, there is a spiritual longing and striving towards God. We all make use of the physical things of the earth to express ourselves. We are all living on our beautiful planet, and it is not surprising that there are some parallels in choice of how to celebrate, some links through nature, and even similar ways to express our spiritual being, according to our understanding of God.

The same is true in art.  All peoples have found ways to express themselves in art, to create beauty both in functional items and to honor others.  In general, people do not try to reinvent the wheel, they look around and re-interpret what others have done, building on a foundation, adding their own ideas and purposes to create works of originality that are constantly evolving.

The icon is the earliest Christian art.  In seeking create images to express their faith in Jesus, the early Christians naturally turned to the art they were most familiar with, and reworked it.  They adapted it to their own physical appearance, to their own cultural understandings, and also to the local materials and resources that they had to work with.  They certainly were influenced by their neighbors, and found beauty in many forms of art to use as a foundation for their own expression.  Art historians and other scholars sometimes like to point out how derivative the icon is, how it was just borrowed from the pagan world around them. Of course.  And so what.  What the icon became is a totally unique expression of Christianity.

Asian, Egyptian, Roman, and classical Greek art all influenced the development of the Byzantine icon.  It seems that the classical Greek art forms themselves, with their glorification and idealization of the body, were not as inspiring for the new Church.  However, some of the mediums in which they were created were learned and utilized, notably fresco and mosaic, were widely adapted, yet with a new intent.

Jesus heals a bleeding woman-- from Marcellinus-Peter catacomb in Rome

Jesus heals a bleeding woman– from Marcellinus-Peter catacomb in Rome


Chinese horse      

The Asian art world, both Near East and Far East, likely inspired the use of iconography’s beautiful calligraphic line, 2-dimensional look, and relatively flat shapes.

St.George and the Dragon: Russian icon        


One of the most important influences on the development of the icon were the Fayum images created in Egypt as funeral portraits.  Like the early Christians, these artists were more interested in the spiritual than the physical world.  There are many similarities:  close ups of a face, an idealizing of the subject, the large solemn eyes.

2 soldiers: Fayum 110 AD

2 soldiers: Fayum 110 AD

They were painted in  encaustic, a painting method using colored wax.  Most of the earliest known icons were done the same way, including the oldest icon image of Jesus that has survived till today.

icon of Jesus, Sinai Monastery

icon of Jesus, Sinai Monastery

But the icon was not a mere copy of the Egyptian funeral image. It was carefully thought out, differing in intent and presentation.  New elements were added, each with deep significance for believers. The Fayum portraits were intended to idealize a memory. Highly skilled artists depicted a person’s physical likeness at their most beautiful stage of life.  Like the icon, the Fayum portrait was to call to mind the presence of the deceased, whose spirit was still with the family.

The icon was intended to witness to theology, through the presentation of a “spiritual portrait”–a person transformed by the grace of God through Jesus Christ.  Many iconographers were highly skilled, but that was less important than the deeply spiritual, theologically learned painter’s prayerful witness to the Incarnation, and to the communion of saints, still present to us through love and grace.

The Vladimir Mother of God

The Vladimir Mother of God

As time went on, Church fathers established specific canons for the depiction of Jesus and the saints, and symbolism and richness of meaning were understood by all believers–so much so that the icon is considered the Gospel told in line and color.  These were totally unique concepts, and ways of expression, which have had vast influence on the development of Western Art, including the work of many secular artists of the modern era.

About reinkat

I am an iconographer, and have been studying Russian/Greek icons since 1995. I'm married with 3 children. I love hiking, camping, animals, my family and church--and icons.
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4 Responses to From Fayum Portraits to Holy Icons

  1. SR says:

    I loved this post! Thank you so much for explaining it all in so much detail. I have a question though. “Whose spirit was still with the family.” Could you explain that in a little more detail for me. Did they believe the “spirit” was actually with them? Was the spirit there because of the memories in which they carried? Okay, call me dumb, 🙂 but I am trying to understand how they pieced that into their artwork? Was it in memory of the deceased person’s life, or did they actually think said spirit was directing them to paint in the first place? Just some questions I had. If it had not been such a wonderful post, I would never have thought of them. Thanks for doing it and God Bless, SR

    • reinkat says:

      Hi SR,
      thanks for the comment and question. I am not an expert on Egyptian spirituality, but I do know that they believed in the afterlife, and the deceased were with their families more than one. The bodies of loved ones were mummified and put into caskets. The portraits were attached to the casket, and the casket was stored in the house, arranged with other caskets around the table, to be with the family for meals and celebrations and daily life. As far as I know, it was to keep the memory of the dead person alive in the family. I do not think that they believed that the spirit was directing the artist’s hand, it was more a matter of a spirit kept alive in the memory of descendants. The art was spiritual in the sense that it tried to link the afterlife with the present, and to remind the family that their ancestors were still with them, part of their lives. Naturally the Christian beliefs were totally different in details, but both Christian and Egyptian artists were trying in the artwork to depict the belief in the spiritual world and death, and to communicate the reality of that to the living.
      If anybody else knows anything about this topic, don’t hesitate to chime in! I’d love to learn more!

  2. Very fascinating!I love reading your posts and learning more about icons. Great post!

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