Was St Luke the First-Ever Iconographer?

Saint Luke as an icon painter

October 15, 2021

Saint Luke

The Apostle Luke is mostly known as one of the four Evangelists. In fact, he told us more than the other three about our Lord’s childhood, as well as about His mother Mary.

It is a known fact that Saint Luke was also an artist. It is said, that he was the only person who painted a few images of the Theotokos while she was alive. This makes St Luke the first iconographer. However, some people believe that there is no proof that the icons in question have actually been painted by the Apostle.

The Bible doesn’t mention St Luke’s paintings. The only piece of information about Luke’s profession that the New Testament gives us is that the evangelist was a doctor. This is due to the fact that the Bible contains the information needed for our salvation and spiritual guidance. St Luke’s talent for icon painting doesn’t really fall under that category, though it would be great to know for sure whether he painted some of the famous icons of the Virgin Mary.

The Tradition of the Orthodox Church says that he did. First of all, multiple historical documents prove this fact. Historian Theodorus Lector mentions St Luke drawing the Virgin; Saint Andrew of Crete wrote about St Luke depicting both Mary and Christ; Saint Simeon the Metaphrast, historian and the author of many biographies of saints, mentioned one icon of the Virgin Mary holding Christ. He said that it was painted by St Luke and is “honored even to this day.”

Saint Demetrius of Rostov wrote the Life of the Apostle Luke and this brilliant gem of Russian hagiographic literature is the source that gives some more information about Saint Luke as the first iconographer.

St Demetrius used various ancient texts about Saint Luke and compiled them together into a comprehensive biography of the Apostle. He wrote, that everything started with St Luke painting Mary. The icon showed the Virgin holding baby Jesus in her arms. He got inspired and later painted three more similar images of the Theotokos. Those are the four icons of Mary, the Mother of God, that are attributed to Saint Luke.

Mother of God Orthodox icons painted by Saint Luke

1. Our Lady of Perpetual Help (Hodeguitria of St. Luke)

This icon is probably one of the most famous depictions of the Theotokos (it is venerated by both Orthodox and Catholic Christians) and the most well-known Apostle Luke painting. All other icons of the Theotokos holding Jesus Christ are in a way copies of the original Hodeguitria (this word literally means "One Who Shows the Way").

Our Lady of Perpetual Help

The icon depicts the Virgin together with her Son. Christ is looking at one of the two angels, who hold the instruments of the Passion. Mary is holding Christ’s hands in her own, directing her eyes towards the person looking at the icon.

2. Our Lady of Czestochowa

The Tradition says that Saint Helena once discovered this image of the Theotokos painted by St Luke. She found it laying on a tabletop made by Christ Himself when He worked as a carpenter. In the 14th century, the icon was transferred from Constantinople to Poland, which is where it can be found today.

Our Lady of Czestochowa

The icon shows Mary gesturing toward Christ with her right hand, directing attention away from herself. This way she recognizes Him as the source of salvation for mankind. Jesus Christ is blessing the viewer with his right hand and holding the Gospel in the other hand.

3. Salus Populi Romani

The name of this icon translates from Latin as “the Protectress of the Roman People”. It is believed that this icon was also found by Saint Helena and brought to Constantinople back in the 6th century. Right now the icon can be found in Rome, inside the church of Saint Mary Major.

Salus Populi Romani

Salus Populi Romani is one of the largest known icons of the Mother of God. It depicts Christ holding the Gospel and raising His hand in blessing, looking at His Mother. The Theotokos looks directly at the viewer with a calm expression.

4. Our Lady of Vladimir

The Vladimir Mother of God is one of the most significant pieces of Rusian iconography. It is also undoubtedly one of the most venerated Russian icons of the Mother of God.

Some believe, that this might be the original Hodeguitria icon, the first one painted by St Luke. They say it might have been transferred from Constantinople to Vladimir in 1115. The Moscow annals of the late 15th century name St Luke as the artist behind the icon. Nowadays it remains in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

The Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God.jpg

This icon is very different from the other three. It shows Christ and the Virgin Mary embracing cheek to cheek. Baby Jesus looks lovingly at the Theotokos and the Virgin is once again looking directly into the viewer’s eyes.

Saint Luke as an icon painter himself inspired many icons and paintings. They depict the Evangelist with paint and brushes in his hands in the process of creating an icon of the Hodeguitria.

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