Pre-Modern – Icons in Byzantine Art

The Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire was founded in AD 330 by Constantine the first Christian emperor of Rome. The Empire foundered in 1453 when Constantinople was captured by the Turks and, as the renamed Istanbul, became the capital of the Ottoman empire.

Byzantine art was, overall, a religious art. Artists of the period worked according to traditional rules as to how artwork, including icons, could be created. Icons are sacred images representing significant figures, male and female, from the Christian faith. Today they tend to be associated with panel paintings but in the Byzantine period icons would have been crafted from a wide range of materials.

In terms of size icons could range from pendants through to large scale altarpieces or wall paintings. In Byzantine theology contemplation allowed the viewer direct communication with the figures represented in it. Through prayer individuals could make requests for help in their everyday lives. Acheiropoieta were icons created through divine means and were objects of special veneration. The most famous was the Mandylion where the face of Christ was imprinted on a handkerchief.

Visual language of icons

Iconoclasm generally refers to the destroying of images for religious or historical purposes. In the Byzantine era it referred to periods of theological debate which spanned nearly one hundred years. The debate centred on the relationship between the viewer of the icon and image they were looking at as there was concern that people were relating more directly to the icon itself and not the person represented in it. The debate changed the approach to creating icons and, after 843, images were more standardised with specific types of features dictated for figures and even specific subject matter.

The visual language of the icon developed between the 1st and 10th centuries. Through iconoclasm a new Christian style of art was created which blended classical art with that of the Middle East. It has a number of features:

  • Iconic style – the aim is to create an illusion of reality using stylised techniques. For each icon there are three stages, the drawing, colours and light.
  • Symbolism – the icons need to express invisible realities of heaven through earthly materials.
  • Beauty – the conjunction of form and colour make the viewer contemplate the beauty of the divine.
  • Light – areas of light on the icon, gold backgrounds and white highlights, represent heaven and church rituals which work with the movement of the sun.
  • Transparency – layers of colour add to the sense of purity and beauty.
  • Man – figures are shown as transformed with calm features. On the face eyes, noses, mouths and ears face inwards. Objects, attitudes and colours traditionally attributed to particular figures reflect their inner life.
  • Space – space does not recede inwards but outwards, inverted perspective, as if objects are coming towards the viewer and the icon is looking out at us.
  • Time – while icons represent specific events they are also to be seen as an updating of the event. The viewer, contemplating the image, brings his own meaning to the event and, ultimately, to his present-day situation.


Brooks, S. (2009) ‘Icons and Iconoclasm in Byzantium’ In: Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History [online] At: (Accessed on 24.05.17)

Chilvers, I. (2009) ‘Byzantine art’ definition. In: The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists. 4th edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ross, N. (s.d) Introduction to the Middle Ages. At: (Accessed on 13.04.17)

Weismann, G. (2012) Techniques of Traditional Icon Painting. Tunbridge Wells: Search Press Limited