The Triumph of Orthodoxy is one of many icons painted during the post iconoclasm period of the Byzantine Empire, or the Eastern half of the Roman Empire. It is believed to be painted by the Evangelist St. Luke in AD 1400, and exhibits the Annual Festival of Orthodoxy, which is celebrated on every Sunday of lent. Christian worshipers would pray to the figures portrayed in the icons, which acted as mediators to God. The Icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy can be seen today at the British Museum in London, England.
Like many iconic paintings created in 14th century Byzantium, The Icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy was painted on a wooden panel with egg tempura and gold leaf. Gold was acquired from Armenia and the streams of Thrace, Greece. The Byzantium style of art in these areas exhibits the spread of iconography as well as gold through trade. Gold was considered a symbol of glory and was used on holy figures to represent a transcendent reality [“Icon", 3]. After the gold was inlaid, the painting was covered with gesso and linen.
Iconic paintings of this period were generally linear; however, objects were depicted in levels to create the perception of depth. In the Icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy Virgen Mary Hodegetriaappears at the top of the painting with eleven bishops and saints below. As Icons were created for ceremonial purposes, such as processions and prayer, the images were life-like and had emotional expressions [“Byzantine Art and Architecture”, 1].
In the 14th Century, the Byzantine Empire, centered around Constantinople, was slowly falling to the Ottoman Turks. Previously the prevalent Orthodox Church had experienced a movement, Iconoclasm (AD 730-843), where all relics and scripts containing religious figures were banned and destroyed [Elsner 1988, 9]. John of Damascus argued against the cross as the sole representation of God, preaching that Christ is the image of God through man. An emergent ladder of images from God to his people was depicted in paintings of feasts, where the most important figures appear above the lesser [Elsner 1988, 17]. The Icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy is perhaps the most important festival painting, as it marks the end of Iconoclasm. It was declared that followers were part of the orthodox church as long as they were faithful to the pope and ecumenical councils.
Member of the imperial family Empress Theodora restored the use of Icons in the Orthodox Church in 843, and attended the feast of the triumph of the church in 1370. She appears to the left of Virgin Mary Hodegetria in the painting next to her son Michael III (r. AD 842-67). To the right is the Patriarch Methodios (r. AD 843-7) accompanied by three monks.
Artists at the time were very prestigious, because monks often partook in the painting of religious icons. Although artists many times remained anonymous, it is thought that St. Luke painted the Icon of the Triumph of Christianity as well as other icons of the Virgin Mary.
Icons were often placed on walls and floors of churches and were worshiped by all Orthodox Christians. Members of the church practiced worship over these icons by burning incense and praying to the figures depicted.
When Iconoclasm began in 730 Christians in the Byzantine Empire were feeling threatened by the rise of Islam. By banning the physical representation of religious figures, the Orthodox Church became similar to Islamic faith, which emphasizes monotheism and refuses the depiction of God as a physical being [Elsner 1988, 19]. The icon marks the triumph of orthodoxy as a religion that worships God as a deity and as Jesus Christ as the church steered from Iconoclasm.
The Icons that became central to Orthodox Christianity once again resembled those of Greek Orthodox art. Both styles involved two dimensional stiff figures. The trend of painting icons during a feast represents the hierarchy of God, the saints, and his followers; depicting a movement of art that symbolizes the religion of Orthodox Christianity as a whole [Elsner 1988, 10]. Paintings also showed social hierarchies, as priests appeared above worshipers.
The Icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy is still significant today, as it marks the first celebration of lent-something followers celebrate yearly. BBC proclaims, “The Triumph of Orthodoxy icon is not a simple work of art. It is a symbolic proclamation of the power of images.”