Etymologically, icon, from the Greek eikon, begins its meaning as “image,” “likeness,” or “representation.” At present, its usage is still directly related to these translated terms, defined generally as an image which represents a larger referent through some physical likeness. More specifically, it is an image defined by the way in which it is used; any image deemed “icon” is understood as a medium for an outlying entity. This can be as simple as gesture to an objective “real world” referent, as in semiotics, or as grand as the religious icon, which, by virtue of its existence, invokes the presence of the divinity it represents and gives a viewer access to it.
Historically, the term’s ubiquity and polymorphous use in aesthetic, media, and political discourse begins in Ancient Greek usage as well. The term appears frequently in Platonic texts, almost exclusively as a contested phenomenon. Eikon is used by Plato in his discussion of images as they are lesser, common, worldly objects, flickering on the cave wall in his famous allegory, as well as in describing exactly what type of artistic images serve his Republic best (Republic, Book III, 401a, for example). The term is also used by Plato in moments of self-reflection regarding the style of his own argument, referring to his use of analogy as an implementation of eikon.
Notably, in these Platonic texts the term is placed against music, indicating from its root a favoring, if not a complete containment, of eikon as a reference to those representations that exist within the visual or imagined spheres. This visual-centered understanding of the term persists in most subsequent and contemporary use. It is also worth noting that in these original “media discourses” of Plato’s the types of visual images and representations subsumed by the term eikon include not only things as concrete as an artist’s “image of the bed,” but also concepts as broad and ephemeral as an “image of the good.”
Far more dominant in the multifarious usage of the term today, including the metaphorical residue of its invocation in things like computing and general, everyday theories of media and society (referring to Abraham Lincoln or Marilyn Monroe as “American icons,” say), is its historical usage in the Byzantine and Eastern Orthodox Christian Church. It is this very specific, historical definition of the term that dominates the Oxford English Dictionary and completely accounts for the Oxford Companion to Art’s entries for icon.
Within the context of these Eastern Christianities, an icon is an image of Christ, saints, or other holy personages that facilitate a connection between the Christian beholder of the image and the personage represented. As specified by Church doctrine, these images take a relatively specific form: portraits painted on wooden panels, ceramic, or linen, carved in wood, etched or cast in metal, or made in mosaic. Their depictions and placement is central to the construction of Orthodox churches, where they are found on the walls, ceiling, floor, behind the alter, and free standing in specified places within the church structure. There are also small, portable icons, carried by devotees for use in personal prayer. In the latter development of their use in Eastern Orthodoxy, the Church also delimited the definition of the icon to the manner in which it was produced; true icons could only be painted by specially ordained monks, able to channel the necessary mindset of image production through a special type of prayer (the most famous of these monks, and the subject of a biographical film by Tarkovsky which includes depictions of this process, is 15th Century Russian icon painter Andrei Rublov).
As evidenced by the definition of both the OED and the Oxford Companion to Art, the history of religious icons is integral to the meaning of the term, and accounts for the continued invocation of icon in media theory discussions regarding the “power of images” and their political usage. Outlined well in this site’s entry “iconoclasm, iconoclash,” the depiction of religious personages was a part of Christianity from its beginning, with evidence of the earliest Christian churches (5th Century AD) resembling the image covered Eastern Orthodox churches of 8th Century and today. However, there is no evidence that these early images were thought by the church to facilitate any relationship between the divine and the devotee. In the common history of iconoclasm, it is claimed that this function of the religious images, and so the birth of the religious icon as it is known today, came about as a result of Christianity’s contact with the Roman Empire in the 5th and 6th centuries. Here the popularity of neo-Platonic philosophy (such as that of Porphyry) that read the mimetic distance of representation as a possibility to access the divine forms, combined with the Roman Imperial effigies – statues and likenesses of the emperor that were stand-ins for his actual presence – to begin an understanding and utilization of religious images as possessing a divine presence in themselves. As this conception of the icon was accepted to greater or lesser degrees, religious images being used as objects of prayer and contemplation by educated Christians, and the use of small portable images as cult objects, spread throughout Europe throughout the 6th, 7th, and 8th centuries. By the end of the 8th century, however, these images, in all their forms, were the target of a religious and political backlash. Placing the images themselves at the center of their political and theological disputes, iconoclasts (translatable as “image-breakers”) with the political support of emperors, literally destroyed icons. Reasons for this backlash often get glossed under the Judeo-Christian commandment against idolatry, but historical analysis provides a much more complicated political and philosophical picture, one that shows the religious images at the center of the debate to be ever present in Roman and Christian worlds even as they were at the center of these heated debates. In 787 AD, a decree of the Second Council of Nicea endorsed the religious use of the icon, debates died down, and the images proliferated, both in the church and in less explicitly religious realms of the arts. With the acceptance of the icon as a religious tool well established, the icons’ religious use was further dictated and refined by Church doctrine. The form of the religious icon as it is recognized today, both by art history and the Church, is still easily traceable to these doctrines, the most famous of them being the Byzantine aesthetic rules of “clarity and recognizability,” which limited both the scope of the images which were reproducible and the form these reproductions could take. Functionally, this increased the images’ ability to be recognized as of the church and increased their circulation. First adopted from the Byzantines by the Greek Orthodox church, the images soon after became a central part of Russian Orthodox religious practice, where they gained the distinguishing feature of being extremely ornate, covered in silver and gold in all but the represented personage’s face.
Another prominent use of the term icon that appears in media studies, the field of semiotics seems to eschew the history of the religious icon and return, more or less, to the broader Greek eikon; the image as likeness or representation. Generally, in semiotics an icon is a symbol that represents its referent through perceivable physical likeness. This type of sign escapes the Saussaurean, purely arbitrary association with the signified. For example, in Saussure’s famous tree diagram, the small image of the tree itself would be an example of the iconic mode of signification, as contrasted to the text “tree,” below the line of signification. A map is also a commonly referenced iconic sign, its motivation necessarily being a physical resemblance to its signified referent.
Icon’s originary use in the field of semiotics is famously that of Charles Peirce. For Perice the sign is a relational way of being, and an icon is the most primary of these modes of relation. The icon is a sign that denotes its object by a relation of resemblance or by sharing qualities or “ground,” the Peircian term for the abstraction of an object’s qualities. A functioning icon can be determined if its own qualities allow it to be interpreted as the object irrespective of the object’s presence. Interestingly, icon is sometimes used interchangeably with likeness or semblance in Peirce’s texts.
In what could be seen as a kind of semblance of the religious and semiotic use of icon, the common mode of art history that seeks to analyze the imagery of figurative art, symbolically and historically, is called “iconography.” While this practice subsumes the study of religious icons, the work of Aby Warburg and Erwin Panofsky expanded its usage to the study of secular images to great effect and influence. As outlined by Warburg and Panofsky, iconography is a study of images in art as they represent ideas, as well as the historical development of themes in both these ideas and their representations. The “transformation of planets in astrological manuscripts, the rise of genre panting, the origins of still life, and the use of political satire,” are exemplary phenomena that have been subjected to inconographic analysis.
The term icon appears in another sense in contemporary media dialogue. As previously mentioned, someone like Abraham Lincoln, or even something like the Model T Ford, can be said to be an “American icon.” For example, in 2002 Rolling Stone magazine published an issues filled with a collection portraits of figures as disparate as those of Martin Luther King and The Ramones under the title “American Icons.” Similarly, The History of an American Icon is the title of a documentary film about Coca-Cola. In many ways this usage seems to be an analogy to religious iconography, as it figures the general referent of a concept as large and complicated as a nation or national character into the concrete figure of a single person as they appear or are imagined by the popular conscious.
In its most contemporary usage, icon appears as a term of computing jargon in a manner which references both the term’s semiotic and religious definition as well. Coined by Macintosh programming, an icon in computing is a small image which represents and gives a user access to a computer program via the machine’s visible, screened interface. The use of the term here is a literalization of both the religious and semiotic definition, seeing a small symbolic pictograph represent and facilitate an access to a much larger, invisible computational entity.
As mentioned earlier, an icon is not merely an image, but an image used in a particular way. But beyond a general understanding of this use, the icon frequently sees itself as a contestable phenomenon because of the specific nature of that use, and its effects. The religious icon consumes most of the space of the definition of the term here and in other references perhaps because it is the most grandiose, literal example of this use — an image which both instantiates and mediates the presence of the divine — but perhaps also because the presence which it mediates is an extremely powerful one. The religious icon, situated at the historical center of the term’s history, is in many ways an icon of icon, representing not a only a particular type of image or sign, but a trope of looking at images that sees them as powerful — dangerous even — as they not only portray, but also bring a presence of their portrayal into the viewer’s world.
Plato. The Republic. trans. Alan Bloom. New York: Basic Books, 1991. Book VI, 488a
Oxford Companion to Art. ed Harold Osborne. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. p 553
Peirce, Charles. “Logic as Semiotic,” The Philosophical Writings of Charles Peirce. Ed Justus Buchler. New York: Dover Books, 1955, p. 102.
see Panofsky, Erwin. Meaning in the Visual Arts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.
Oxford Companion to Art, p555.