Icon and Iconicity from Semiotics to Art History

The following text is an attempt to bridge the byzantine perception of sign and the modern semiotics: the relation between an icon and the archetype as important theological question in the VIII and IX centuries during the period of iconography, and the way that XX century semiotics approached this topic, consequently influencing modern art and literature

Sign /saɪn/ an object, quality, or event whose presence or occurrence indicates the probable presence or occurrence of something else1Oxford Dictionary

A sign is an object, an entity or a quality accessible to our senses that indicates something beyond itself, a mediator that informs us about its reference – aliquid stat pro aliquot, something that stands for something else. Entire human culture is based on the power of producing new signs and sign systems. The studies of signs are the main focus of modern semiology, whose foundations were laid by Ferdinand de Saussure at the beginning of the 15th century, revived in the 1960s by the French structuralists. I’ll attempt to trace the connection between the Byzantine aesthetic and its understanding of icons and different contemporary cultural phenomena.

Icon in a historical context

Byzantine art is based on the ancient Greek heritage and its anthropomorphism; however, the main focus was not the sensory perception but the spiritual content. The icon as the bearer of the key figure of ​​Byzantine culture became the mediator between the earthly and the unearthly, but also the powerful weapon of the church, that assigned exclusively didactic role to art. This intermediary role is crucial for understanding the essence of the icon, because the believer pays respect not to the image itself but to the archetype represented on the image. The problem of representation and presence is a crucial part of the theological debate that took place during the period of iconography.

The Byzantine point of view was based on the division between the world of senses and the world of spirit; the material world had its ideal reflection in a harmonious supernatural world. This division also referred to the human microcosm. In this context, the icon is understood as a symbol of incarnation, or divine inscription into the matter, a cognitive body powered by divine energy, an image connected with its archetype not through identity but rather similarity, following the basic Christian concept that humanity is made in the image of God.2D. Sretenović, New Reading of the Icon, Geopoetika, Belgrade, 1999, 9

The divine presence in the icon is also related to an act of creation. Describing the artist’s work in Byzantium, Lazarev, one of the greatest Russian experts on byzantine art, states that the artist does not create individual values ​​but interprets the reality that goes beyond an individual, he executes the divine will, as any other citizen of the Byzantine Empire. By painting the sacred person, its spiritual presence is established, so that the observer perceives the icon with both the physical and the spiritual eye.


Theotokos of Vladimir, tempera on panel, 104 x 69 cm, around 1130, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Булкин В. А. Русская икона: Альбом. СПб.: Аврора, 2008.

Byzantine culture is based on spiritual insight, contemplation, which elevates the believer from the earthly to the heavenly sphere. All cultural achievements, architecture, fine arts, poetry, and ritual worship were part of the cult, and they enabled the believer to be elevated to the unearthly world through contemplation, but also through aesthetic experience. The spiritual aesthetics of the Byzantine culture replaced the sensory aesthetics of ancient Greek culture and prevented realism in fine arts. The goal was not to show the material but the spiritual essence, an idea called the prototype: this process ensured the persistence of the Byzantine art canon over the centuries, with some minor stylistic evolution.

One of its key features was “naturally timeless and spaceless…”3V. Lazarev, History of Byzantine Painting, Belgrade, 2004, 12 with a golden background that positioned each depiction from earthly reality. Even though the images had unrealistic colors, the reverse perspective, and abstract decorative forms, the anthropomorphism remained, as a reminder of the Gods’ incarnation.

Gallery from left to right:
Miracle of the Archangel Michael at Chonae, XII century, Monastery of Saint Catherine, Sinai
St Demetrius of Thessalonica, Andrei Rublev, 1425–1427, The Trinity Cathedral in the Trinity-Sergius Lavra, Russia The Hospitality of Abraham (Old Testament Trinity), XIV century, The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia
Source: icon-art.info

This connection between the representation of the human body in art and studies of the divine incarnation was the main argument during the iconoclasm debate. The center of spirituality becomes the head, while the body loses its primacy because the eyes were the bearer of spiritual focus. Thus, the work of art put observers in the state of passive contemplation, as described by Lazarev that icons task “was not stimulation but suppression of will.”4V.Lazarev, Idem, 20 In this context, it is interesting to note that Roger Fry, English art critic and painter, considers art “the expression and stimulus of imaginary life, which differs from real life by the absence of feedback.”5Roger Fry, An Essay in Aesthetics, in Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology, edited by Francis Frascina and Charles Harrison, Harper & Row, London, 1982, 80

Understanding some of the basic features of Byzantine art and spirituality, help us recognize their influence on contemporary art and culture.


Modern culture often uses the term iconic when there is the need to emphasize the importance of a certain phenomena. Is it related to the Byzantine concept of icon? And if so, how did this concept evolve over centuries?

The starting point is the modern definition of the term icon.

The icon is an image of a deity or saint, as described in the Orthodox Christian tradition; modern concept of an icon comes from Peirce’s theory of the sign, classifies signs according to the way of denoting its object through relationships of similarity, contextual contiguity or law. Icon is one of the basic classes of signs, that Pierce defines as “a sign that interrelates with its semiotic object by virtue of some resemblance or similarity with it, such as a map and the territory it maps (a photograph of Churchill is an icon of the original item).”6The Routledge Companion To Semiotics And Linguistics, edited by Paul Cobley, London & NY, 2001, 31

Analyzing the definitions of the icon B. Dimitrijevic, Serbian writer and curator, points out the definition from the Collins English Dictionary in which the icon is defined as a symbol that is analogous to the thing that resembles to, and concludes that this definition stems from the very essence of the Byzantine theory of religious image but is formulated on the basis of the modern Semiotics terminology.7B. Dimitrijevic Ikona, ikoničnost, ikonoklazam in New Reading of Icon, Geopoetika, Belgrade, 1999, 23 These definitions can help us understand the concept of iconicity in modern culture.

Umberto Eco in the text “The iconic sign” questions Morris’s definition of the iconic sign. According to Morris, the iconic sign has some characteristics of the presented object, it “has the characteristics of its denotation”. However, Eco thinks this definition is pure tautology because “what does it mean to say that the portrait of Queen Elizabeth who painted Anigoni has the same traits as Queen Elizabeth herself?” The common-sense answers: it’s because it has the same eye shape, the same hair color, the same stature… But what does it mean “the same nose shape ? The nose has three dimensions and the picture only two. The nose, if we look closer, has pores and small protrusions, so that its surface is not smooth, but uneven … “. Morris also notices that the portrait of a person is only slightly iconic, meaning “complete iconic sign always signifies something, because it itself represents the denotatum”, and continues,” it should be remembered that the iconic sign is similar to what it signifies, in certain aspects. That’s why iconism is a matter of degree.”8U. Eco, Iconic Sign, in Culture, Information, 121, Communication, Nolit, Belgrade, 1973121

As already mentioned, the problem of representation and similarity is the foundation of the Byzantine image theory, strongly influenced by the Christian dogma. The similarity between the icon and what it represents, from the theological point of view, almost the presence of the representation itself, the icon replaces the deity, as Uspenski describes that in Russia the icons were often referred to as Gods, and during the processions people would say “Gods are walking.”9B.A.Uspenski, Poetics of compositions Semiotics of the icon, Nolit, Belgrade, 1979, 259 Thus, the Byzantine theology gave icons an extremely important role – the icon becomes iconic, and in modern language when we say that something iconic we refer to this aspect of social and cultural significance of any given concept.10B.Dimitrijevic, idem, 25

In order to better determine the relation of the aforementioned definition by Pierce, the semiotic typology of the sign and the Byzantine icon (as a sign), it is necessary to underline his definition of the icon, as a sign that labels an object that doesn’t necessarily needs to exist, like a streak of pencil that represents a geometric line.11symbol, index, icon from http://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/symbolindexicon.htm A similar conclusion will be made by Bal and Bryson, pointing out that “any identification of icon and the entire domain of the visual is wrong. As Peirce clearly states, the iconic is a quality of the sign in relation to its object; it is best seen as a sign capable of evoking nonexistent objects because it proposes to imagine an object similar to the sign itself. Iconicity is in the first place a mode of reading, based on a hypothetical similarity between sign and object.”12Semiotics and Art History, Mieke Bal and Norman Bryson, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 73, No. 2, 190 They cite an interesting example, as we look at the portrait of Frances Hals, we imagine a person who looks like a person depicted, and we do not doubt that it existed in Hals’ time and we do not require any other proof. We will also consider ourselves able to recognize the face of a self-portraitist, for example, Rembrandt (even if others painters represented the Rembrandt’s face quite differently), only because we adopt an iconic way of reading while we look at the Rembrandt’s self-portraits.”13Mieke Bal and Norman Bryson, idem, 191

Images from left to right
Self-portrait with dishevelled hair, c. 1628, Rijksmuseum
Rembrandt Self-Portrait, 1642, Royal Collection
Self Portrait, 1652. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
Self Portrait with Two Circles, 1665-69. Kenwood House, London.
Source: Wikipedia

However, the prototype represented on the Byzantine icon was established by a canon, but the painter never actually saw it. Thus, the icon refers to a prototype based on a hypothetical similarity, and the existence of the prototype itself is determined only from the theological perspective.

Semiotic Space of An Icon

“The higher knowledge” in the Byzantine culture is the emotional-aesthetic information, as explained by V. V. Bychkov. He points out that gnoseological function originated in aesthetics, but it was differed from the gnoseology of realism in art because the ultimate goal of Byzantine art was not to uncover the reality. The entire Byzantine artistic system was built with the goal of understanding the world beyond senses, and fine arts had to express the stability of this concept with their visual means. That is why the canonicity was one of the basic features not only of Byzantine painting but of culture in general.

Fry’s “Essay on Aesthetics” deals with the ability of an individual to live real and imaginary life, and the emotional reactions they provoke. Fry states that the emotions triggered by our imaginary life are without a doubt weaker than those of real life; the imagery of a martyr’s killing may cause an uncomfortable sensation but it cannot be compared with the feeling of attending any similar event: this type of event would provoke strong reaction that would probably prevent us from understanding the emotions we are experiencing. Therefore, art through imagination enables us to observe and experience emotions at the same time; “When we are really moved at the theatre we are always both on the stage and in the auditorium.”14An Essay in Aesthetics Roger Fry, http://rci.rutgers.edu/~tripmcc/phil/poa/fry-essay_in_aesthetics.pdf, 3. Religion, as part of imaginative life, through fine arts enables the believer to replace the physical world with spiritual, to observe and feel at the same time.

If we analyze the construction of the space in the Byzantine icon, we come to an interesting parallel with the construction of the image space in modernism. The space of the icon is unreal, the golden background denies the laws of physics, the figures don’t have weight and volume, they are completely transcendental.

In “Modernistic Painting” Greenberg observes that the “old masters” felt it necessary to preserve what is called the flat surface of the image, to indicate the permanent presence of a flat surface under the extremely vivid illusion of a three-dimensional space. Modernist painting, says Greenberg, not only leaves the representation of recognizable objects, but rather abandons the presentation of space in which three-dimensional objects can be inhabited. Similarly, the space of the icon gives an illusion of space, timeless and intangible, an area that turns into an observer’s consciousness into an earthly world. Grinberg concludes that “old masters” created an illusion of space, an area in which we can easily imagine how we walk, while the illusion created by modernistic painting is one that can only be viewed, through which one can travel only with an eye. At this point, it is possible to draw parallels between the art of “old masters”, the tradition of the Western world and the Byzantine icon. The icon has features of a modernist image; we can travel through the space of the icon in the same way as through a modernist image, with our sight and our spirit.

The Position of the Observer

The icon differs from the Renaissance art because it is the subject of a cult, presupposes an “ontological connection between the archetype and the sign” and does not reflect a subjective experience, but rather attempts to give an objective image of reality. The icon is the window, “not only the window through which we can see the pained figures, but the door through which these figures enter the physical world.”15P. Florenski, Ikonostas, Jasen, Niksic, 1990, 41 The position of the painter becomes the center of the visual world, as if the artist could display the world from the divine side.

The observation of an icon provokes an “aesthetic situation” where the aesthetic pleasure in observation does not cause an external object, but it is created based on the current psychological state of the viewer itself, what Bychkov refers to as “aesthetica interior”.16V. V. Bychkov., ibid, 14 Therefore, the Renaissance painting is a sort of “window into the world”, a representation of the world outside the observer’s space, while the icon is directed towards the inner point of view of the viewer.


Perugino, Perugino: Christ Giving the Keys to Peter, c. 1481, 335 × 550 cm, Sistine Chapel, Rome


The Renaissance image in a way wants to satisfy the desire of a man for a comprehensive view of the world, creating, as Sretenovic defines “anthropocentric panopticon”, while the byzantine icon creates “theocentric panopticon in which the image,  and not the viewer, has the power to observe”. He concludes that the Renaissance painting exists only while it is observed, only then a visual field is established, while on the contrary, “the icon doesn’t have to be found by the observer to become an image, because it can search its object, its image, and that’s the observer.”17D. Sretenovic, ibid, 20

We can make an interesting comparison of the position of the viewer and the television screen because both the screen and the icon are media of communication that connect two distant worlds and require activation and physical and spiritual vision. However, just like television as a medium cannot be reduced to the screen alone, the icon is not only the surface on which the saint is represented.

Painting a Christian saint on the icon means establishing his virtual presence, and proving his existence; for the most contemporary observers, an event exists only if it’s recorded on camera and shown on television. To establish the presence of the saint suggests a parallel with the screen function in the context of new technologies. During its evolution the screen changed and moved closer to the observer, from the cinema screen, through a television screen, the computer screen and it the end of virtual mediators (virtual glasses and helmets); “the screen here is no longer understood as a surface but is becoming a factor of illusion: a factor of penetration or entry into the virtual space of three dimensions.”18M. Gržinić, U redu za virtuelni kruh, Meandar, Zagreb, 1998, 78

Furthermore, the analysis of the origin of light on an icon is relevant for this topic. Unlike Renaissance and Baroque paintings, light on the Byzantine icon is not coming from an external source but from the image itself, as a display effect, and originates from a metaphysical interpretation of light, the difference between the divine light (lux) and visible light (lumen). The divine light has materialized on the icon in the form of a golden background, symbolizing the timeless and outspoken dimension of the divine world.

Original – Copy

The problem of similarity that is the key point for understanding the relationship between the original and the copy, the archetype, and the icon. G Deleuze, the French post-structuralist philosopher, points out the difference between the simulacrum and the copy, starting from the Platonic motive of distinguishing the essence and the appearance, intelligent and sensual, ideas and images, the original and copies, models and simulacrums. A copy is a secondary agent who relies on similarity, while the simulacrum is a false pretender based on unlikeliness. Deleuze further states Plato’s division into two within the domain of images-idols, “on the one hand, copies-icons, and on the other, simulacrum-phantasms.”19Translate Ж. Делез, Платон и симулакрум, Реч, јун 2000, бр.58.4, 194 59/5000 Ž. Delez, Platon i simulakrum, Reč, jun 2000, br.58.4, 194

The quality of an icon can be measured through the degree of similarity, concludes Deleuze. This similarity has enabled unlimited reproduction of icons because it does not refer to a physical similarity but to the essence, or Idea. Each copy of the icon carries the same Idea, the fundamental similarity to the archetype.

The position of J. Baudrillard, French post-structuralist, can be very insightful for this analysis. While dealing with the problem of simulation, he touches upon the religions and simulacrum of deity, wondering, “what becomes the divinity when it is propagated through icons, when it is multiplied in statues-idols? Does the supreme instance then remain, simply embedded in images in some visible theology? Or is it excluded in statues that, by themselves, spread their splendor and the power of fascination – whereby the visible machinery of the icon replaces the pure and understandable idea of ​​the god?”20Ž. Bodrijar, Simulacija i simulakrum, Svetovi, Novi Sad, 1991, 8

Baudrillard believes that the iconoclasts were those who recognized the true value of the icons, because they perceived the power of idols that might reveal the truth that God never existed, but only his simulacrum; “iconolaters possessed modern and adventurous mind, since, underneath the idea of the apparition of God in the mirror of images, they already enacted his death and his disappearance in the epiphany of his representations”. His conclusion is that the simulation is opposed to representation, because the representation starts from the principle of equivalence of the sign and the reality; “simulation starts from the Utopia of this principle of equivalence, from the radical negation of the sign as value, from the sign as reversion and death sentence of every reference. Whereas representation tries to absorb simulation by interpreting it as false representation, simulation envelops the whole edifice of representation as itself a simulacrum.”21Baudrillard_Simulacra and Simulations, http://mysite.du.edu/~tweaver2/artd2355/schedule/baud_sim.pdf, 4

Thus, the power of icons was crucial in spreading the idea of ​​Eastern Christianity because each painted icon had a similarity with the archetype in itself. Copies did not exist – each icon was an original.


Representation systems such as language and visual media enable us to describe, define and understand the world around us. History has often raised the question of whether these systems reflect the world by mimesis, or we create the world through the representational systems we use.

The reflection process takes place through various social, historical, psychological and cultural layers, which means that the meanings of the material world are created through specific contexts. The image, as a visual media, has always been used to convey the different experiences of the world, dominant or subjective, the concepts of nature, society and culture, as well as abstract systems such as mythology or religion. Art often serves the ideology, that is, in the service of socially accepted assumptions about the world around us, but also about what the world should be. The way of viewing the picture is also related to ideology, because it depends on the dominant cultural values. As an intermediary between the man and the world, the image becomes the carrier of information with almost inexhaustible connotative layers.

A good example of this intermediary role of the image with extremely powerful connotative layers is found in the Byzantine icon, and as such can be positioned in many cultural phenomena, from Middle Ages to the modern era. The immense character of the Byzantine icon was best defined by Bychkov, referring to the Byzantine theology,

if the philosophy contains the logical truth then the symbolic image contains a comprehensible truth.

The truth of one culture, of one epoch, of one world, an icon conceals and reveals, like a materialized mediator between the man and the supernatural world. Understanding and interpreting the language of the icon gives us a new reading and interpretation of numerous contemporary phenomena.


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