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    Icon with the raising of Lazarus, 12th century, tempera on wood, Athens, Byzantine and Christian Museum

    The subject is one of Christ’s miracles: the raising of Lazarus from the dead. His two sisters kneel at Christ’s feet, while the apostles Andrew and Peter witness the resurrection. Lazarus stands at the entrance to his tomb, still in his burial shroud, which a youth is beginning to unwind. Instead of the usual gold background, the artist used less expensive red pigment for the sky, another way to situate the event in a timeless, otherworldly realm.

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    Icon of the three hierarchs, probably Thessaloniki, first half of 14th century, tempera and gold on wood, Athens, Byzantine and Christian Museum

    The three great church fathers, Saints Gregory, John Chrysostom, and Basil, lived in the fourth century and advocated the doctrine of the Trinity. Each hierarch bears an omophorion, a white stole decorated with crosses that Orthodox bishops wore to signify their spiritual authority.

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    Icon of the Crucifixion, probably Constantinople or Thessaloniki, first half of 14th century, tempera and gold on wood, Athens, Byzantine and Christian Museum

    Narrative details described in the Bible — the Roman soldiers, mocking priests, and two thieves crucified with Jesus — all are eliminated here to focus attention on Christ flanked by the grieving figures of pencil-thin Mary and the youthful Saint John. The result is a work of austere beauty, with only a low crenellated wall to indicate that the scene takes place in Jerusalem. Probably after the Ottoman occupation of Greece in the mid-15th century, the faces were scratched or gouged, perhaps with the tip of a sword. An image of the Virgin and child is painted on the other side of the icon.

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    Icon of the archangel Michael, Constantinople, first half of 14th century, tempera and gold on wood, Athens, Byzantine and Christian Museum, Gift of a Greek of Istanbul, 1958

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    Icon of Christ Pantokrator, the Wisdom of God, Thessaloniki, late 14th century, tempera and gold on wood, Thessaloniki, Museum of Byzantine Culture

    Images of Christ Pantokrator (Almighty or All-Ruler) dominate the most important areas of Orthodox churches, appearing in the dome, in the apse above the altar, or on the templon screen in front of the sanctuary, which was likely the original location of this icon. The large expressive eyes and fine golden highlights enliven the figure, who holds the Gospels opened to a passage emphasizing the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 6:14 – 15). The artist created the illusion of light striking the halo from the left, giving it a slightly raised appearance in imitation of actual relief haloes found on other 14th century icons painted in Thessaloniki.

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    Icon of the hospitality of Abraham, Constantinople (?), late 14th century, tempera and gold on wood, Athens, Benaki Museum

    The Old Testament patriarch Abraham and his wife Sarah generously received three strangers, unaware that they were messengers of God (Genesis 18:1). Christians interpreted the event as symbolic of the Holy Trinity and depicted the strangers in their angelic form. The gilded bowls, glass vessels, and cutlery on the table would have been familiar dinnerware to Byzantine aristocrats of the time.

Icons

crucifixion

Icon of the Crucifixion, probably Constantinople or Thessaloniki, first half of 14th century, tempera, and gold on wood, Athens, Byzantine and Christian Museum

The word icon (from the Greek eikon, or image) signifies a holy image that provides a conduit from the worshipper to Christ, his mother Mary, or other saints. According to the Council of Nicaea (787),"The honor which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who does worship to the image does worship to the person represented in it."

The eighth-century theologian John of Damascus urged the faithful to" embrace [icons] with the eyes, the lips, the heart, bow before them, love them . . ."

The Byzantines accorded icons extraordinary, even miraculous powers to answer prayers, heal the sick, and provide protection. They were worshipped at home and in church, and were carried in public processions along streets and into battle. In 626 an icon of Christ was credited with saving Constantinople from a Persian assault. On the eve of the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453, the patriarch paraded a precious icon around the city walls in a last effort to prevent the inevitable collapse of what little then remained of the Byzantine Empire.

Icons were made in different media, but most were painted in tempera on wood. Although panel painting declined in Western Europe after the end of antiquity, knowledge of how to mix and blend pigments to model figures and give them a sense of volume continued in Byzantium. The importation of Byzantine icons would trigger a demand in the West for works alla greca and spurred the revival of panel painting in Europe.

Banner image by Velissarios Voutsas of the mosaic of Judas’ Betrayal of Christ from the narthex of the mid-Byzantine church of Daphni, Greece