The question is as simple as the title. I am simply wondering, ‘When is the earliest recorded date of this tradition?’

  • I do have to say that the first mention of an icon in the New Testament is in Galatians 3:1 - "O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?" However, it is not known how this icon was used. Jun 25, 2012 at 3:03
  • Related question: christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/5412/…
    – user1054
    Jun 25, 2012 at 12:58
  • 2
    @LoveTheFaith What does that verse have to do with the veneration of icons? Paul is rhetorically asking who, given that they have been taught the Gospel, has deceived them into going back into the legalism that Christ rebuked in the Pharisees.
    – Andrew
    Jun 6, 2016 at 4:15
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    @Mike - a related question that you may be interested in would be "what is the earliest recorded instance of the veneration of saints' relics?" First evidence of this comes to us from the Martyrdom of Polycarp (ccel.org/ccel/richardson/fathers.vii.i.iii.html), see part 18. This is perhaps earlier evidence of veneration of icon-like things than the references I have given below that specifically pertain to painted icons.
    – Ian
    Jun 6, 2016 at 15:43
  • They were inherited from Judaism (Exodus 25:18-22, 26:1, etc.); Christianity did not invent them.
    – user46876
    Nov 17, 2021 at 6:05

3 Answers 3


According to Gibbons:

the public religion of the Catholics was uniformly simple and spiritual; and the first notice of the use of pictures is in the censure of the council of Illiberis, three hundred years after the Christian aera. Under the successors of Constantine, in the peace and luxury of the triumphant church, the more prudent bishops condescended to indulge a visible superstition, for the benefit of the multitude; and, after the ruin of Paganism, they were no longer restrained by the apprehension of an odious parallel.

It appears that the creeping in of images was long before the schism that brought about the RC and EO traditions -- so though your question apparently concerns post-schism timeline, I hope this answer is relevant.

See also the Catholic Encyclopedia on the Council of Elvira/Elliberis/Illiberis for arguments on dates.

  • thanks for the references they are very informative and sort of confirm each other from different camps.
    – Mike
    Jun 24, 2012 at 15:04

The oldest icon I can imagine would be the one written by St Luke of Our Lady holding the infant Jesus.

Regardless of whether you give any merit to the tradition that it was indeed done by him who was undoubtably the most well aquatinted man in the early Church with the Blessed Virgin Mary, excepting maybe St John the Evangelist, it is certainly an old picture and has been in the keeping of the St Mary Major for a very long time (~1700 years).

  • Quite interesting. Jun 26, 2012 at 1:02
  • 5
    While this post gives an example of an icon along with the claim that it is the oldest this poster can imagine, it does very little to establish a chronology of the use of icons in worship. A link to an article about this image would make a beneficial comment, but this is not an answer to the question.
    – Andrew
    Jun 4, 2016 at 20:02
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    @Andrew, um... St. Luke is pretty old.
    – Peter Turner
    Jun 6, 2016 at 3:20
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    He certainly is. But, (1) you're going to need to appeal to historical analysis, and not just tradition, to establish the date and painter which, you'll have to forgive me, I doubt is Luke. (2) Even if the work is genuine, it was not venerated as an icon for some 400 years after it was painted when it was taken from Jerusalem, according to tradition. (3) The question asks not for the oldest icon according to tradition, but the earliest record of the practice of the veneration of icons, and so lacking such your post does not answer the question.
    – Andrew
    Jun 7, 2016 at 1:56
  • Luke made quite a collection of these paintings: 4 Icons attributed to St. Luke. He was obviously a very avant garde artist, given Britannica's Halo article: "Because of its pagan origin, the form was avoided in Early Christian art, but a simple circular nimbus was adopted by Christian emperors … . In the 5th century it was sometimes given to angels, but it was not until the 6th century that the halo became customary for the Virgin Mary and other saints.". Apr 30, 2023 at 2:08

As long as we're talking about using icons in worship and not worshiping icons: The very earliest written account of icons in general that I'm aware of comes in Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History written in the early 4th century before and during the reign of Constantine (it is regarded as the very first history of the Christian church ever written):

I do not think it right to pass by a narrative that also deserves to be recorded for posterity. They say that the woman who had an issue of blood, mentioned by the evangelists, and who obtained deliverance from her affliction by our Savior, was a native of this place and that her house is shown in the city and the wonderful monuments of our Savior's benefit to her are still remaining. At the gates of her house on an elevated stone, stands a brazen image of a woman on her bended knee with her hands stretched out before her like one entreating. Opposite to this there is another image of a man, erect, of the same materials, decently clad in a mantle ... and stretching out his hand to the woman. Before her feet and on the same pedestal, there is a certain strange plant growing, which rising as high as the hem of the brazen garment, is a kind of antidote to all kinds of diseases. This statue, they say, is a statue of Jesus Christ, and it has remained even until our times so that we ourselves saw it while tarrying in that city. It is not to be wondered at that those of the Gentiles who were anciently benefited by our Savior should have done these things. Since we have also seen representations of the apostles Peter and Paul and of Christ himself still preserved in paintings, it is probable that, according to a practice among the Gentiles, the ancients were accustomed to pay this kind of honor indiscriminately to those who were as savior or deliverers to them.

Note that Eusebius seems to dislike icons although records that God works miracles through the statue mentioned here.

The oldest archaeological evidence is in the Dura-Europas I believe. That Wiki article states that this is the earliest preserved Christian church known (at least until ISIS destroyed it) and that it did contain icons.

So, as far as we can tell, icons were present in at least some localities from the very beginning of the church's recorded history. As mentioned in another answer, St. Luke is regarded as the first iconographer in Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic tradition, but this Wikipedia page states that the first known reference to Luke writing the icon is found in the 5th century. Although I wouldn't endorse believing everything found in the church's tradition (especially stuff from the dark ages): I would also suggest 400 years is not too long to be fairly certain of where a painting comes from.

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