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“Images of God and friends of God”: The holy icon as document



Information studies, from origins in the field of documentation, has long been concerned with the question, What is a document? The purpose of this study is to examine Christian icons—typically tempera paintings on wooden panels—as information objects, as documents: documents that obtain meaning through tradition and standardization, documents around which a sophisticated scaffolding of classification and categorization has developed, documents that highlight their own materiality. Theological arguments that associate the icon with the Incarnation are juxtaposed with theories on the materiality of the document and “information as thing.” Icons are examined as visual and multimedia documents: all icons are graphic; many also incorporate textual information. Icons emerge as a complex information resource: a resource—with origins in the earliest years of Christianity—that developed over centuries with accompanying systems of standardization and classification, a resource at the center of theological and political differences that shook empires, a primarily visual resource within a theological framework that affords the visual equal status with the textual, a resource with enduring relevance to hundreds of millions of Christians, a resource that continues to evolve as ancient and modern icons take on new material forms made possible through digital technologies.

And crist was all, by reason as I preve,

Firste a prophete by holy informacion,

And by his doctryne, most worthy of byleve.

—John Lydgate. Life of Our Lady. IV. II. 309–311

We confess and proclaim our salvation in word and images.

—Kontakion of the Sunday of Orthodoxy

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