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An icon is a religious work of art, most commonly a painting, from the Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodoxy, and certain Eastern Catholic churches. The most common subjects include Christ, Mary, saints and/or angels. Though especially associated with "portrait" style images concentrating on one or two main figures, the term also covers most religious images in a variety of artistic media produced by Eastern Christianity, including narrative scenes.
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Icons may also be cast in metal, carved in stone, embroidered on cloth, painted on wood, done in mosaic or fresco work, printed on paper or metal, etc. Comparable images from Western Christianity are generally not described as "icons", although "iconic" may be used to describe a static style of devotional image.
Eastern Orthodox tradition holds that the creation of Christian images dates back to the very early days of Christianity, and there it has been a continuous tradition since then. Modern academic art history considers that, while images may have existed earlier, the tradition can only be traced back to the 3rd century, and the images that survive from Early Christian art were often very different from later ones. The icons of later centuries can be linked, often closely, to images from the 5th century onwards, though very few of these survive. There was enormous destruction of images during the Byzantine Iconoclasm of 726-842, although this did settle for good the question of the appropriateness of images. Since then icons have had a great continuity of style and subject; far greater than in the images of the Western church. At the same time there has been change and development.
Aside from the legend that Pilate had made an image of Christ, the 4th-century Eusebius of Caesarea, in his Church History, provides a more substantial reference to a "first" icon of Jesus. He relates that King Abgar of Edessa (died ca 50 CE) sent a letter to Jesus at Jerusalem, asking Jesus to come and heal him of an illness. In this version there is no image. A later account found in the Syriac Doctrine of Addai (ca. 400 ?) mentions a painted image of Jesus in the story; and even later, in the 6th-century account given by Evagrius Scholasticus, the painted image transforms into an image that miraculously appeared on a towel when Christ pressed the cloth to his wet face. Further legends relate that the cloth remained in Edessa until the 10th century, when it was taken to Constantinople. It went missing in 1204 when Crusaders sacked Constantinople, but by then numerous copies had firmly established its iconic type.
The 4th-century Christian Aelius Lampridius produced the earliest known written records of Christian images treated like icons (in a pagan or Gnostic context) in his Life of Alexander Severus (xxix) that formed part of the Augustan History. According to Lampridius, the emperor Alexander Severus (reigned 222–235), himself not a Christian, had kept a domestic chapel for the veneration of images of deified emperors, of portraits of his ancestors, and of Christ, Apollonius, Orpheus and Abraham. Saint Irenaeus, (c. 130–202) in his Against Heresies (1:25;6) says scornfully of the Gnostic Carpocratians: