Information studies, from the discipline’s origins in the field of documentation, has long been concerned with the question, What Is a Document? (See, for instance, the work of Paul Otlet, Suzanne Briet,Michael K. Buckland, Ronald E. Day, and Bernd Frohmann). The purpose of this paper is to examine Christian icons—typically paintings, usually in tempera, on wooden panels—as information objects, as documents: documents that obtain meaning through a formula of 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 Incarnation are compared and contrasted with theories on the materiality of the document and “information as thing.” Icons are also examined as exemplars of visual and multimedia information objects—all icons are graphic and pictorial, many also incorporate textual information. Through this examination emerges an understanding of the icon as a complex information resource, a resource with origins in the earliest years of Christianity and evolved 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 system that places the visual on an equal footing with the textual, a resource with continuing 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.
Keywords: Information, documentation, religion, icons, images.