A term which – along with its cognates, iconography and iconology – is of very great importance in art criticism, and which may be defined as a named image. The first icons in art history were images of Christ or of a saint painted on a panel, and were objects of study and veneration, though not (according to the Second Nicene Council in 787) of idolatry: only the underlying reality represented by the icon could legitimately warrant veneration. As the centuries passed and the allegorical relationship (> Allegory) between icon and what it represented loosened, critical attention more and more focused on the icon itself as the primary bearer of meaning. In this encyclopedia we have tended to use the term Underlier to describe the relationship between an iconic figure like the Wandering Jew and figures who embody some of his characteristics (>>> Archetype).
A second use of the term "icon" is exemplified by Cultural Icons (1991) ed James Park, a dictionary of real people whose lives are a kind of map of the Carnival of 20th-century life. They are iconic because their lives have been mythologized. A few examples of real people who have become cultural icons, and thus legitimate for use by fantasy writers, are James Dean (1931-1955), John F Kennedy (1917-1963), Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962), Jim Morrison (1943-1971) and Elvis Presley (1937-1977); similar figures from an earlier age include Mary Shelley, Lord Byron and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Fictional characters who have become cultural icons are likewise too many to list, though Mickey Mouse can be noted alongside Doyle's own Sherlock Holmes. [JC/JG]