Divine images

Byzantine icon painting

4th--15th centuries

Byzantine icon painting: When the religious disagree

Byzantine icon painting can be divided into two periods in terms of painting techniques. While the early icons from the 8th century are mainly created using the encaustic technique, later paintings are created using the tempera technique, which is much easier to handle. The distinctive feature of encaustic painting is the beeswax mixed with pigments, which is heated and applied to a wooden surface. This process guarantees the long-lasting colors, which are still vibrant today. And yet only few encaustic icons have survived. The icon painters’ works were strongly condemned at the iconoclastic council of Hieria in 754. Although it cannot be proven, it is quite possible that the council’s decisions had devastating consequences for icon production in Byzantium and possibly even sealed the decline of the encaustic technique. The fact remains, however, that icons, which were produced in increasing numbers after the end of the iconoclastic crisis, were all painted in tempera thereafter.

From idea to painting

"Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus …" (Acts 17:34, New International Version). This biblical passage marks the beginning of a long hagiographic tradition. The Dionysios mentioned here is afforded many more biographical details over time through countless vitae written by various authors. This Dionysios becomes the first Bishop of Athens, in other versions a martyr in Gaul and also the author of manuscripts that were in reality not written until the end of the 6th century by a writer of unknown name from the Syrian region. In the Byzantine Iconoclasm – the Byzantine “image struggle” – both the image worshippers and their opponents will try to claim the writings of Dionysios – and thus the high authority of an author from the apostolic age – as proof confirming the validity of their respective views.

In the project “KAIROS. The Right Moment” an icon is being created that, while tying in with the perspective of the image worshippers, also expresses the complexity of the game played with tradition and previous authorities that the two parties had practiced during the iconoclasm. In keeping with Byzantine pictorial tradition, it shows the frontal image of Saint Dionysius Areopagites. He carries an open book in one hand, and the stylus in his other hand makes reference to his authorship of the book’s contents and to the passage his book about “Heavenly Hierarchy” is opened to. In this manuscript, the interest of the unknown author, who pretended to be the disciple of Paul the Apostle, is the representability of higher beings, such as angels, by means of language that appeals to the sensual perceptions of humans. The passage depicted in the artwork says that a higher being, which might mean God, has taken on the form of a worm. The unknown author uses what at first seems to be a rather odd process of thought to formulate the question of whether a worm is similar to God or not. Behind this lies the core thesis of the pseudo-Dionysios: images are similar and dissimilar at the same time to tthat which is illustrated in them. This paradoxical perspective makes it clear why his writings were attractive to both iconoclasts and iconophiles. The iconoclasts repeatedly emphasized that images contained only a partial view of the truth, or rather concealed the truth rather than revealing it. The iconophiles, on the other hand, were of the opinion that the truth can also be sought with the senses.

A characteristic feature of Dionysius is his lean face. A preliminary study also defines the facial features of the saint.

Dionysius Areopagites is holding out a book with an excerpt of old Byzantine writings. In cooperation with Sergei Mariev, Byzantinist at the LMU Munich, the typography was precisely developed in advance.

In order to uniquely identify the saint portrayed, it was customary in the Byzantine Empire to integrate the name of the saint into the picture, in this case the name Dionysius in Greek script.

Icon painting

The word “icon” is derived from the ancient Greek word eikón meaning “picture”. Interestingly, the Greek language used the same word for painting and writing (graphein). The writing of texts and the production of icons were thus already represented in the language as one and the same activity. The “pictorial writing” was not regarded as creative art, but rather as a religious craft and therefore traditionally had no signature.

1. A good background

The tradition of icon painting is not limited to the medium of the wooden panel. Particularly in churches, we can still admire magnificent frescoes and mosaics, wonderful representatives of the pictorial tradition of icon painting.

2. Better be hot

In contrast to the tempera technique, which is much easier to handle, the use of the encaustic technique requires a high degree of craftsmanship. Color pigments are added to wax mixed with oil, and either fired onto the surface using hot tools or the hot liquid is painted onto the surface with brushes and shaped during the cooling process. Brushes, spatulas and pointed objects leave their traces when modelling the faces and make their production traceable to this day.

3. According to all the rules of art

The icons were not “invented” or “created” by the painters, but were produced according to the strict canon that each painter had to adhere to. For example, an icon of Christ was either marked with a ringed cross or the unique hand gesture. The touching fingers symbolize the two natures that Jesus unites in his person or hypostasis, the divine and the human. Three outstretched fingers stand for the Trinity.

4. Significant perspective

To our modern eyes, the Byzantine illustrations appear “shifted”. In contrast to a central perspective, the perspective of the individual elements is set to follow a narrative or meaning – the aerial and frontal perspectives, for example, are united in one picture. Because the focus is on clearly defining aspects that are particularly important for conveying the intended messages – without regard to an illusory depth effect.

5. Divine light

Icon painting spread beyond Byzantium, in terms of both region and time. The golden backgrounds of many icons are particularly striking. All other colors require light to glow and therefore cannot represent light. Gold, however, stands for light itself. Light is interpreted here as the divine principle that permeates the whole of creation and brings it to life. The figures on the golden background thus emerge from an ocean of divine light that surrounds them.

Eras of art in the KAIROS project

 Roman art

Byzantine icon painting

    Medieval art

    Early Netherlandish painting

    Italian Renaissance

German Renaissance


    Early Baroque

Little Ice Age

Dutch Golden Age


German Romanticism 

English Romanticism




Art Nouveau




New Objectivity


Diversity of styles