Orthodox icons at the British Museum

establishing an approach to their care and conservation

Project leader

Project team

  • Chris Entwistle
  • Janet Ambers
  • Rebecca Stacey
  • Caroline Cartwright
  • Duncan Hook
  • Helene Delaunay


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Icons are religious objects used as tools of worship in the Orthodox Church. The British Museum holds a collection of approximately 100 Greek and Russian Orthodox icons painted on wood, which range in date from the thirteenth to twentieth centuries. A survey of their condition was undertaken and found that a number of icons were damaged both structurally and visually.

Icons become damaged as a consequence of the ageing of the objects, together with their history of use in worship (in the church and in the home) and as collectors pieces. It is common to find icons structurally and visually altered, but it is often unclear as to when and why these alterations occurred.

A cross-disciplinary project involving conservators, scientists, curators and external art historians was undertaken to learn more about the Museum’s collection and its condition. Four icons representative of the collection were studied.

This project was completed in 2008.

Icon of St Nicholas, Greek 15th century

Icon of St Nicholas, Greek 15th century (detail after conservation treatment)

Project objectives

Courier holding one of the oldest known copies of the Qur'an

This project set out to achieve the following objectives.

  • To establish an approach to the care and conservation of the collection that would reflect both their cultural context as religious artefacts and their current role in the BM collection as documents of a living culture;
  • to increase knowledge of the materials and techniques of original production and historical approaches to the use and care of icons;
  • to highlight the existence of the collection to the wider public and acknowledge its contribution to the field of Orthodox icon collections.


Contemporary souvenirs from Hajj

The project objectives were achieved through key milestones:

  • identification of original materials, additions, conservation residues and other surface deposits;
  • identification of the cause of damage both structurally and visually;
  • established, where possible, chronology of events in history for each icon;
  • development of a conservation strategy;
  • completion of conservation of the four icons supported by findings of analysis.

Analytical techniques

The Ka'ba

A range of analytical techniques was used to study each icon.

These included: radiography; ultra violet and infrared examination; wood identification; paint cross-section analysis; pigment and medium analysis by optical microscopy, Raman spectroscopy, X-ray fluorescence, scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS).

Research into the history of manufacture and use of icons and previous conservation practices provided background information on context and possible caused of damage. Identification of original materials and conservation residues helped to explain the physical condition of the icons and inform the likely chronology of previous treatments.


L.Harrison, ‘The Noli me Tangere: study and conservation of a Cretan icon’, with J. Ambers, R. Stacey, C. Cartwright and A. Lymberopoulou. British Museum Technical Research Bulletin (forthcoming)

L. Harrison, ‘The Noli me Tangere icon at the British Museum: vision, message and reality’, with A. Lymberopoulou and J. Ambers, in Images of the Byzantine World: Visions, Messages and Meanings, ed. A. Lymberopoulou (Ashgate, Surrey, 2011), 185-214

L. Harrison, ‘An Icon of St. George: preparation for a portrait of a saint’, with R. Cormack, C. R. Cartwright and J. Ambers, in Preparation for Painting: The Artist's Choice and its Consequences, eds. J. H. Townsend, T. Doherty, G. Heydenreich and J. Ridge (Archetype Publications, London, 2008), 14-21

L. Harrison, ‘Orthodox icons at the British Museum: an approach to ethical conservation practice’, with J. Ambers, C. Cartwright, R. Stacey, in Icon: Approaches to research, conservation and ethical issues, [CD-ROM] (Athens, Benaki Museum, 2006)

L. Harrison, ‘Orthodox icons at the British Museum: an approach to ethical conservation practice,’ with J. Ambers, C. Cartwright, R. Stacey, in S. Stassinopoulos and A. Lambraki (eds.) Icon: Approaches to research, conservation and ethical issues, Archaeology and Arts Magazine, (Athens, 2006), pp. 131-33

L. Harrison, ‘Sacred to Secular: the care and conservation of Orthodox icons at the British Museum’, with J. Ambers, C. Cartwright, R. Stacey, D. Hook and C. Entwistle, in The Object in Context: Crossing Conservation Boundaries, ed .D. Saunders, J.H. Townsend, and S. Woodcock, (London, International Institute of Conservation, 2006), p 317

Images from left: detail of the icon of the Noli me Tangere, after conservation;  detail of the Icon of St. George and the youth from Mytilene (left ), IR reflectogram showing the underdrawing (right); paint cross section taken from the gilded sandal of Christ in the icon of the Noli me Tangere, in normal (left) and ultra-violet (right) light.