“Icon” is the Greek word for “image”. Byzantine icons are one of the oldest forms of Christian sacred art and are produced in various media, for example, painted on wood, mosaic, fresco, glass, metal, bas relief sculpture, etc. Icon subjects are visual narratives, essential summaries of Scripture, theology or the lives of saints. As narratives, icons are not static, snapshot images but can be said to be “read” and they are often described as being “written”, rather than painted. While mosaic icons and frescoes are often seen in Roman Catholic churches of the West, in Orthodoxy, icons function as an integral component of the both the church and the liturgy and are often written on wooden panels, as well as fresco.
Traditionally produced following a canon of specific colors, symbols and geometry, icons differ from other sacred art not only in the exaggerated style of their physical appearance, but especially in their intent; icons are not created solely to be “beautiful” in human terms. Rather, icons seek to visually depict the glorified, transfigured universe from the divine, not human, perspective; in other words, visibly expressing the result of the actions of the Holy Spirit. Created for prayer, catechesis and theosis, icons are sometimes called windows or ladders to heaven.
Saint Luke the Evangelist (patron saint of artists and iconographers) is considered, by tradition, to have been the first iconographer, having painted some 60 images of the Blessed Virgin Mary. These earliest images became and remained the prototype images used for depicting the Mother of God for iconographers through the ages.
Icons of Christ, not created by human hands (such as the image transferred onto Veronica’s veil during His passion or the image from His burial shroud, “Shroud of Turin”) are the prototype images used by iconographers for depicting His Holy Face.