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  • Marc Melich-Mautner

What is an icon?

In early Christian times, Constantinople was a melting pot of many races and peoples and a cultural center of the world. Here the Orient and Occident collided. The creative thinking of Greek antiquity was still alive, mixed with the pragmatic of the Romans who had conquered the country, was permeated by the enthusiasm and exuberance of the sensual oriental peoples, the Syrians, Egyptians, Persians. The intellectual violence of young Christianity had a penetrating effect. A lifestyle was formed in this city in which piety, solemnity and sensual pleasure, splendor and asceticism, greed for power, intrigue and statesmanship had their place. The art of that time is made up of formal elements of the most varied origins and different forms and merged into a new whole, in which the spirit of this new great empire is reflected, which emerged from the old Roman empire.

The Roman Emperor Constantine the Great founded this city in 324 and gave it his name. He had no intention of creating a second Rome, but further east of Rome a base for the powerful empire that reached as far as the Caucasus. Caesar had already toyed with the same idea - in his day the Roman Empire was still intact - but never put it into practice.

The Greek settlement from which the city emerged was called Byzantium. Greeks made up the vast majority of the population, so people still speak of the city of Byzantium and Byzantine art. In 360 Constantinople received its own Senate, and since the Ecumenical Council in 381 it has been said that Constantinople is a "new Rome". In 395 the Roman emperor Theodosius I died. He left his empire to his two sons for better administration: Honorius received the west, Arcadius the east. Now the division of the Roman Empire was on the way. The Eastern Empire comprised Libya, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, Bulgaria, Romania, Southeast Yugoslavia, and Greece. There was an emperor in the Eastern Roman Empire, but not a pope, but only a patriarch, who, however, had a higher rank than those in Antioch and Alexandria.

Byzantine art experienced its first great heyday under Emperor Justinian I (527-565) - it must also have been a heyday of icon painting. But only very few works from this and the following century have survived. Today they are kept in St. Catherine's Monastery at the foot of Mount Jebel Musa on the Sinai Peninsula. There are hardly any older icons.

In 527 Emperor Justinian had the monastery built. It is thanks to the skill of the monks who prevented the conquering Arabs from entering the monastery in the 7th century that the art treasures that had accumulated here over the centuries escaped destruction by those of different faiths.

The word icon is derived from the Greek "eikön" and means "image", "image". In the days of early Christianity, every religious image - mosaic, fresco, or panel - was an egg king. Today we understand the term icon to be the religious cult image of the Eastern Church. Many icons turned into works of art: the painters tried to use creative means to overcome the tension between the original and the image. They were concerned with being true to nature and the authenticity of the person depicted. The features are carefully and precisely drawn, but despite all the movement of the lines, especially on icons of later times, there is something rigid and unapproachable about the figures.

The person portrayed is at the same time shockingly present and entranced, tangible with the senses and yet incomprehensible - a mystery. The icons were called “Window to Eternity”. The Greek-Hellenistic thought related to this world received a new characteristic through Christianity - pointing into the transcendent, beyond this world to the absolute. It is artistically designed in the icons. Forerunners and in a certain way also models of the icons - that can be considered safe today - are the Egyptian-Hellenistic mummy portraits. Numerous have been found in the tombs of Fayum south of Cairo. They date from the 2nd to 4th century AD. These portraits of the deceased, painted on panels with wax paint, are characterized by the highest degree of naturalness and impress with the immediacy of the depiction: the faces seem to be alive. The plaque was placed between the mummy bandages at the level of the neck or head.

According to the Egyptian view, the immortal part of the human being now, since the body had died, needed a new shell in which to live. The portrait panels were part of this shell. The lifelike features made it easier for the bereaved to remain in a kind of metaphysical connection with the dead. The wide-open eyes of the person depicted are striking: they illustrate the mysterious world of the afterlife that the dead person has already seen The picture became a means of communication between the living and the deceased, and it was believed that those around him were still useful could.

This view was founded philosophically by various theories of Neoplatonism, above all by the emanation theory (emanare - to radiate), according to which small particles of the divine gradually enter the world of things and penetrate it. Soon the image and the person depicted were equated. This was also and especially true of images of the deity, because, it was said, that according to the law of sympathy created by the hand of an artist, the image of a deity is connected with its being or participates in it. It is a very natural longing of people to take a picture of what they love, adore or consider sacred, to let it become more alive in the picture, if the imagination is insufficient or threatens to wane. For the ancient people it was something quite natural to make divine visible with material means - the Greeks had always depicted their gods in pictures. For them the gods were similar to humans, the Greek sculptures tell of them. Gods were drawn into people's lives and dwelt among them. But in spite of all humanity in the figure, the Greek gods did not lack the numinous, the demonic and the ultimately incomprehensible for humans.

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