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Wednesday, November 21, 2012


            Generally speaking, an icon is a picture, image or some other form of representation.  The word itself first appears in the English language in 1565, from the late Latin īcōn, from the Greek eikon, translating to mean "likeness or image."

    An icon is a religious work of art in Eastern Orthodox Churches, commonly a painting of some sacred personage such as an angel, saint or Christ. The cult of icons is strongly influenced by the idea that a visible image can demonstrate an invisible religious truth, which is a neoplatonic belief.  Neoplatonism is a school of Greek philosophy developed the third century A.D. that was based on an attempt to reconcile the division between Plato's eternal World of Ideas and the changing physical world.  The idea of the form is represented through vision and appearance. Appearances change, so people began to wonder what the thing changing really is, and  they arrived at substance, or the existing thing being seen. The status of appearances then came into question. In Plato's dialogues there is a form for every object or quality in reality: forms of animals, mountains, colors, emotions etc.  These forms, or icons, are the essences of various objects or ideas: they are what make a thing the kind of thing it is. For example, there are many different cups in the world, but central to call cups, is the form of “cupness” (it holds liquids, it fits in one’s hand etc.).  Socrates explains that the world of forms transcends into the world of substance and reality. Icons are images of the most perfect, unchanging forms and are therefore the most pure of all things.  During the Renaissance, neoplatonism experienced a strong revival, and this happens to coincide with the word icon entering the English language.

   Throughout history, various cultures have been inspired to create concrete images to represent important ideas or values. Every culture lays out specific rules that govern the function of icons, such as whether they are for instruction, communication, inspiration, veneration or simply ornamentation.  This meaning has been transferred to people or things that are regarded as worthy of admiration, or particularly representative of a given place, mood, or period. In this sense Marilyn Monroe became an icon of the feminine ideal and sexuality, and James Dean became an icon of teenage rebellion.  Continuing on with this broad interpretation, an icon is a sign that commands a factual relationship between the signified and signifier.  A picture of a dog on a leash is an icon because it bears a factual resemblance between it and the real animal and the desired action of putting a dog on leash while in a public park.  By extension, icons can represent any number of things, either concretely or by analogy, as in semiotics, or the study of how meaning is created within signs, symbols and signification.  Another common use of the word icon is to represent a specific file, directory, window, program or command, via a symbol or picture, on computer monitors.


Dictionary.com, s.v. “Icon, n.,” accessed November 14, 2012,

Online Etymology Dictionary, s.v. “Icon, n.,” accessed November 14, 2012,

OED, s.v. “Icon, n.,” accessed on November 14, 2012,

The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory, s.v. “Icon.”

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