St. Luke the evangelist, also known as the apostle Luke, is a person who needs no introduction to Christians of any sect. He is known as one of four divinely inspired authors whose chief work, known as the gospels, are of immeasurable valuable to Christianity. However, in most churches, a second important element of Christianity, iconography, is attributed to St. Luke. In particular, it is said that St. Luke painted the very first icon, which was an image of the Theotokos holding the young child Christ. This account is so widely known and accepted among apostolic churches that even the most simplistic depiction of Luke will likely reference his icon of the Virgin Mary, alongside his Gospel. There is also a tradition in both the Catholic west and the Orthodox east of depicting this event.
At this time of the year, when the memory of our Lord’s advent is especially close to our minds, I have been thinking of St. Luke and his accomplishments a great deal. This tradition of St. Luke as the first Iconographer the significance of how it is depicted is of particular interest to me. However, I have become aware that there is a discussion regarding this tradition’s authenticity and its basis in historic facts.
On this point I will first assert that from what I can see, the claim that St. Luke was the first iconographer is not likely to cease, and the association of the icon and St. Luke will not disappear. However, a critical examination of the historical accuracy of this tradition has caused doubts to be raised and evidence suggesting that St. Luke did paint an image of Mary and her child, Jesus, has been found to be limited.
I have even heard voices from the churches which propagated the tradition take the skeptical view. I am not in any position to counter the evidence and arguments against this tradition being true as an actual historic event but it seems those who dismiss this tradition overlook the question that arises when one asserts that St. Luke being an iconographer is mere fable.
To explain what I mean I will paraphrase a quote from a murder mystery I once read. The general idea was this: “People always tell the truth, even when they lie.” Of course, I am not calling the tradition of St. Luke as an iconographer an outright lie, but what I do mean, is that even if the tradition is assumed a false tale that developed over time, there is a reason why it developed in such a way that St. Luke is the central figure. Or, even if we suppose a group of church authorities met in the eighth century and decided to invent the tale of St. Luke painting the first icon of the Virgin Mary, there is a reason why St. Luke was chosen, over more prominent first century Church figures.
To prove that St. Luke did paint the first icon is beyond my ability, but I will say that it seems the same reasons which could explain the apparent connection between St. Luke and icons also suggest or at least allow the possibility that St. Luke truly was an iconographer, but I will allow readers to come to their own conclusions on this matter.
To begin with I will establish for the sake of anyone unfamiliar with icons and Christian art. In both the Eastern and Western traditions there is one image which is most prevalent and one topic more associated with iconography than all others. This recurring image is none other than the Mother of God holding a young or infant Jesus Christ. It is this icon, which has become an archetypal motif in Christian art, which is associated with and attributed to St. Luke.
If it is assumed that St. Luke never did paint such an image, there is the question of why this icon came to be associated with him, and in attempting to find an answer to this question I find support for the view is that even if the most skeptical and cynical assumptions are made, there is still a case to be made that St. Luke made an invaluable contribution to Christian iconography, even if he never painted one in his entire life.
To support this claim, I fall back on the work of St. Luke which is much less disputed in its authenticity of origin, which is the Gospel according to Luke. While the purpose of each Gospel is to be a biography of Christ, the particular features of each one contribute to an understanding of the author. One particularity of St. Luke’s Gospel which is especially relevant to the subject of iconography is the extensive depiction of the Virgin Mary and the young child Jesus.
Now before giving all the credit for our knowledge of the Mother of God and the Holy Child to St. Luke, I will mention what the other Gospels have to say about these figures. St. John’s Gospel depicts the Blessed Virgin Mary somewhat less than Luke’s, yet those instances when she is mentioned are deeply moving and theologically significant. However, while St. John gives more to theology and Mariology in his Gospel, he only tells of Christ’s adult life and provides no particular knowledge of Christ’s birth and childhood.
St. Matthew also mentions Mary, and his Gospel does give an account of Christ’s nativity. However, St. Matthew tells the events from the perspective of other figures. When Mary is spoken of, it is from St. Joseph’s viewpoint, and Matthew does mention the Christ as a young child with His Mother, but as a part of the story of the wise men. The appearances of Mary and what we are told of the infancy and childhood of Christ are more of a detail or conclusion than a focus.
It is true that from these gospels alone, the traditional icon could have been developed but I would say there is a definite possibility that the existence and importance of icons of the Mother of God holding her child, is because of the unique contributions St. Luke makes in his Gospel.
The Gospel according to Luke contains the greatest amount of information about both of the figures in the icon. Not only does St. Luke tell us more of the Blessed Virgin Mary than the other Gospel writers, he writes so as to make her a central figure in the story. Consider how the telling of the Nativity of Christ, does not say Christ was born and laid in a manger, rather it says that Mary gave birth to her firstborn son, she wrapped him and laid him in a manger. As for Christ, the only information, in the entire Bible which concerns his childhood comes from the story of Joseph and Mary finding him in the temple, conversing with the temple scholars and teachers.
This scene is very important for conveying two ideas to the collective Christian imagination. First, there is the image of Christ as a child. Second, it affirms that even at the age of twelve, his Messianic role was to some degree, manifested. In fact, The Gospel of Luke does the most to affirm that Jesus was fully divine, from the moment He was conceived and through His entire life. So it is possible that without St. Luke’s Gospel, the time between Christ’s nativity and his adulthood, would be a total gap in the Christian mind or there might be doubt as to whether the God-man, truly did exist as a child.
To dwell on such hypotheticals for their own sake is never useful. The reason I mention these possibilities to demonstrate how St. Luke is connected to iconography in a very real way. So in conclusion I think it can still be said that Luke is indeed the origin for every icon and image of the Theotokos with the Holy Child, by one means or another.
I myself am partial to what might be called the “romanticized” tradition of St. Luke truly and literally painting the first Icon of this type. But, when forced to reckon with the historical evidence against such a claim I would still insist that by his Gospel, he made an essential contribution to iconography. Even if in fact another person, lost to history, is truly responsible, then it is at least possible that he was consciously or subconsciously influenced by St. Luke.
As a final point I would also emphasize that with or without this tradition St. Luke remains a great person in early Church history; a man of many abilities and much spiritual insight and devotion. He was a companion of St. Paul and his gospel is the first to speak in depth about the Mother of God. To speak of all his virtue and contributions to the Christian faith is beyond my ability and what is intended of this brief reflection on his accomplishments. So I will end with this thought,
“St. Luke, pray for us.”
The Word is just a Christian, trying to find his way through the world.