Greek Orthodox icon

Greek icon

Materials:  printed plastic, stamped metal, mounted on MDF
Dimensions: 10 centimeters tall
Place acquired:  Tourist souvenir shop, Athens, Greece, 2003
Original sale/use:  as above
Place of manufacture:  Unknown, probably Greece

Machine-stamped tin stuck on top of a piece of printed plastic, all mounted onto a little block of MDF board – this little item cost me five Euros. It’s amazing how easy and cheap it is to produce a credible imitation of a Greek Orthodox icon, especially as the real thing is designed to show exquisite craftsmanship and precious, conspicuous value. Instead of printed plastic on MDF, a proper icon would be beautifully hand painted in egg tempura onto a block of seasoned mahogany or poplar wood. Instead of pressed tin sheet, it would be covered with a revetment of silver in chased relief with gold and precious stone inlays, cut through to show just the symbolic parts of the painting beneath and protecting the rest.

But the basic construction of this little souvenir is essentially the same, and it shows perfectly well the artistic and theological tenets on which the Orthodox icon is founded. The image is of ‘Christ Pantocrator’ or Christ ‘all powerful’. This version, with the open gospel is also known as ‘Christ the Teacher’. The figure of Christ is royally robed in the Byzantine tradition which connects right back to the early Greco-Roman style of depicting Christ as a king, but he has long hair and a beard which breaks with the classical depictions and establishes the Christian identity we are now more familiar with.

The stiff conventionalised style of the depiction is important. The Eastern Orthodox church has careful theological rules as to how and in what form an icon must be made. The artists and craftspeople must be devout and in a state of spiritual purity. The painting must follow a set template, supposedly from divinely given originals. The revetment and decorations are a gift, a ‘sacrifice’ of real monetary value to show respect and devotion to the subject. All this is for a reason, and that reason is that in the eyes of the Orthodox Church an icon thus made is a sacred object. It can be prayed to. It is in some sense a physical manifestation of the divinity that it is depicting. It is potentially a conduit to that divine person and it could therefore be responsible for miracles.

So here is the big difference between my five euro souvenir and a real icon. It looks a bit like the real thing but with it’s cheap mass-production and its purely commercial objectives it has precisely five euros worth of sacredness. In other words, non at all.