I am looking at a naked woman. Her head is half-turned as if she has been surprised after bathing. One hand holds a jug, the other is hiding her modesty from view. “It is like the viewer has chanced upon a bashful girlfriend,” art critic Alastair Sooke observed, describing the moment of coming upon this statue – known in the ancient world as the Aphrodite of Knidos.
The figure was originally set in a circular temple so that the goddess could be admired from all angles. One story has it that a lustful young man once entered the temple and spent an amorous night with the statue, who some had said turned from marble into flesh. The hyper-real sculpture – the first life-size representation of the nude female form – reflects the mindset of the Greeks. For them, the gods were part of the world. They lived in rocks, groves, snakes, statues. Each river would have one, each hot spring. The Romans went further still, with gods for hinges, thresholds, doorknobs and doors.
Christianity changed all of that. God was not to be found on Earth, He was in His Heaven. The adoption of Christianity literally raised a barrier between humans and the divine – giant rood screens that separated believers from a God who no longer lived among us.
The separation of God and man gave rise to a curious industry in the medieval world. People wanted to channel their devotion, to focus their prayers on something tangible so that the Almighty might hear them and answer. They needed a means to connect with the now-absent divine.
In the West, this led to a variety of ways of crossing the great divide. The construction of churches was, of course, an act of spiritual devotion, but many ecclesiastical sites were established to hold relics. These included splinters from the True Cross, bones, teeth, pieces of cloth, books. Sometimes macabre and sometimes mundane, such items were thought to possess the essence of the divine. In the Eastern Church, where literacy and Greek learning held greater sway, such remains were revered less, and instead religious imagery was raised to an art form. Here, the portraits crafted had an otherworldly feel. They seemed to embody the divine, and the Greeks called them eikõn
, which means simply “an image”, and from which we derive the modern word “icon”.
Today the word is commonplace as a describer of famous actors, sporting personalities and pop stars. A true icon, though, is characterised by longevity and an intensity of meaning beyond the realm of mere ephemeral fame.
Perhaps the most renowned icon was the Theotokos, which means “the one who gives birth to God” – a depiction of the Madonna and child, a robed mother and wise babe looking out onto the world from a panel of gold leaf.
The story of the Theotokos dates back to the year 626, when a horde of Avars, Slavs and Persians assailed the walls of Constantinople. As the attack reached its zenith, a lone woman was seen driving off the pagans, and as the chaos subsided, the people of the city became convinced that this was none other than the Virgin Mary herself, come to save them in their hour of direst need. For the 900 years that followed, whenever the city came under threat, black-robed and bearded priests would parade portraits of the Virgin Mary along the city walls in its defence.
Such icons meant much more than simple images of saints and holy persons. They were imbued with symbolic power. Their gold leaf radiated not just wealth but divine power – they were windows into Heaven itself.
Few modern icons are religious in nature. Wikipedia, that most contemporary source of reference, describes an icon as “an artefact that is recognised by members of a culture or sub-culture as representing some aspect of cultural identity”. So the question is, what qualifies as iconic in the modern age?
Our world is filled with individuals, objects and images that by some are considered iconic. Scores of websites are dedicated to them: actors, rock bands, footballers, foods, hairstyles, models, hotels, video-game characters, movie quotes, YouTube videos, Oscar dresses, reality TV stars.
Four Liverpudlians on a pedestrian crossing in Abbey Road. US troops raising the flag at Iwo Jima. A man falling head-first from the World Trade Center. An Afghan girl in ripped red headscarf with astonishing green eyes. Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston, shouting with rage. Lord Kitchener Wants YOU. Marilyn Monroe’s white dress blowing up about her. Eleven workers perched on a girder above the Rockefeller Center, enjoying their lunch. Most would consider these images iconic. But it’s a little harder to figure out why.
Take Audrey Hepburn. Just what is it that we see in her face? Her beauty? Her talent? The naive charm of her acting? Or is it the era she represents? And Che Guevara. Why does the face of a failed Marxist revolutionary who was executed in a hut in Bolivia adorn the T-shirts of hipsters across the world? Not for his failure, his violence or his Marxist beliefs but for the spirit of his age. It is not so much a case of youth remaking the world that previous generations handed down as it is their wresting the past from them and repurposing it for the present.
That icons continue to exist at all says something profound about us. Just as with our ancestors, the values we imbue these images and objects with have more to do with our own needs and desires than with any powers they might possess. In a sense, we have come full circle with our modern “gods”. In the Roman world, each individual would select his or her own deity from the pantheon. That devotion was a matter of personal choice, a reflection of the worshipper that perhaps gave a glimpse of an aspiration to something higher, finer, grander.
I believe this is why icons have become so important in our modern age. They fulfil that need for the sublime. We aspire to be associated with what they represent. Each iconic image speaks to us and echoes back our inner yearnings to be more glamorous, kinder, funnier, faster. We elevate this actor or that actress for being the way we want to be. We honour a flag or a logo for what it stands for. We are devoted to Apple or Android. Icons allow us to brand ourselves.
It was once said that the shopping mall was the modern temple. I think that has changed now. The shopping mall has been replaced by the World Wide Web and icons have flourished there, like weeds in an empty field. They dominate social media, where their words are daubed over images and circulated through Facebook and Twitter. They have become the modern divine, the deities that lift us from the mundane.
Words by Justin Hill
Illustration by Matt Wisniewski