Panel Paintings and Early Christian Icons

Authored by: Katherine Marsengill

The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art

Print publication date:  May  2018
Online publication date:  May  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138857223
eBook ISBN: 9781315718835
Adobe ISBN:


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Though the advent of Christian painted panels as devotional images—icons—has previously been viewed as something that came about in the 6th century, increasingly studies have recognized an earlier and more fluid incorporation of antique traditions of panel painting, particularly conceptions regarding painted portraits, into early Christian art. Examples from this early period do not survive, but texts suggest that, like their pagan neighbors, early Christians were used to keeping portraits of family members and esteemed mentors for use in veneration and commemoration. They were also keenly interested in what they believed were authentic portraits of Christ and the saints. Although perhaps not a huge and widespread practice, such portraits may have been in circulation among Christians as well as among non-Christians, who added Christian holy persons to their array of venerated deities. This chapter reviews functional and conceptual aspects of antique portraiture as they were integrated into Christian practice and how these transformed centuries later into what were perceived as miraculous ‘relic-icons.’ It also suggests that during the earliest developments of Christian portraiture, the image of Christ may not have been the most common or sought-after portrait, but rather the localized saints were preferred, as their intimate and familiar portraits were more quickly codified when compared with that of Christ.

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