by Piet Coetzer

Final word on icons

Icons were not always as unifying as Madiba


Few people will argue that Nelson Mandela is one of the most globally recognised icons for a spirit of peace and reconciliation – a disposition worthy of inspiring the world. But there was a time when the concept of icons was cause for deep and bitter division on the religious front that lingers to this day. 

The word 'icon' comes to us via Latin’s eikenai, which, in turn, comes from the Greek word eikōn meaning 'to resemble'. The first known use of the word dates back to 1572.

During the early history of Christianity, icons were mostly religious works of art especially prominent within the ranks of Eastern Christianity. This was centred in Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) as opposes to Western Christianity, centred in Rome after the division of the Roman Empire into two parts under Constantine I.

In the broader sense of the word, an icon originally represented the likeness, and later the spirit or essence of someone or something. In this way images of a shepherd, by way of example, became the symbol of Jesus as the 'good shepherd' of the people of God. Later, images of a man carrying a child on his shoulder became representative of Saint Christopher, the guardian of travellers.

In this way, the concept of an icon developed in the modern sense of being a symbol of a name, face, picture, edifice or even a person (as in the case of Mr. Mandela) being recognised as representing some special significance or embodying specific qualities.

And, as again in the case of Mr. Mandela, serves as a source of inspiration to aspire to special qualities or achieve high levels of accomplishment.

There were times, however, when the use of icons was the source of deep division, both within Christianity and between different religions.

Based on the article in the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament that prohibits the making of "graven images", there was a strong belief among early Christians that daemons inhabited pagan sculptures. There was even strong resistance to the making of portraits of Christ and the saints.

By the end of the 6th century, the use of icons however, had become popular in the church and defenders of icon worship emphasised the symbolic nature of these images.

Then the 8th century had its version of the McCarthyism of mid-20th century America’s hunt for Communists. Byzantine emperor Leo III in 726, based on the Mosaic prohibition on “graven images, started the destruction of religious icons in what became known as the Iconoclastic Controversy. The controversy would rage on well into the 9th century before icons were again accepted in the Eastern Church.

In the meantime, in the Western Church, it became popular as is evident in the prominence of Jesus’s mother, Mary, in the Roman Catholic Church. The Iconoclastic Controversy, however, again reared its head at the time of the rise of Protestantism through people like Johannes Calvin.

To this day the use of icons is one of the dividing lines between Christianity and Islam, which still bans all icons. And iconoclasm has played a role in the conflicts between Muslims and Hindus in India.

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