The History of Icons (Notes)


Sayings from the Fathers

A certain priest, an unfortunate man who had no knowledge of divine experience like that of St. Silouan, said to another person, “I wonder why they go to him, he does not read anything.” The other replied, “He does not read anything, but he practices everything, unlike those who read a lot but do not do a thing.”
from An Athonite Gerontikon

“If a man only theorises about God, then he is helpless, utterly helpless, when confronted by an evil spirit. An evil spirit laughs at feeble worldly theorising. But as soon as a man begins to fast and to pray to God, the evil spirit becomes filled with inexpressible fear.”
Blessed Bishop Nikolai Velimirovic

When someone is beginning the spiritual life, he should not study a lot, but instead watch himself and guard his thoughts. A strong person is the one who chews well, not the one who eats a lot.
Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain

Icons and the Early Church

Given the Jewish origins of Christianity, it may seem strange that icons developed at all, but the prohibition on images in Judaism did not become systematic until the time of the Maccabees. However, in Dura Europos, a ruined Syrian town abandoned in the 200’s AD, there are both a synagogue and a Christian house church — both filled with representational art and images. (The images in the synagogue are actually much better executed, and discernably in the same artistic tradition as Byzantine icons.)

Did Icons come from pagan sources? There are two views of the origin of icons; the non Orthodox view sees them as the Hellenising and paganising of Christianity, which is dated from about the 4th century. This view tends to see art as external to the church, even as a corruption of Christianity. Orthodox writers on the other hand see icons as an inevitable and necessary consequence of the incarnation and they believe that icons date from the earliest traditions of the Church.

Icons are not seen as a Hellenising and paganising of Christianity, rather a Christianising of paganism. In ancient Rome the picture of the emperor was believed to carry his presence and it could be used as a legal substitute to witness the signing of documents. “If you speak of pagan abuses, these abuses do not make our veneration of images loathsome.

Blame the pagans, who made images into gods! Just because the pagans used them in a foul way, that is no reason to object to our pious practice. Sorcerers and magicians use incantations and the Church prays over catechumens; the former conjure up demons while the Church calls upon God to exorcise the demons. Pagans make images of demons which they address as gods, but we make images of God incarnate, and of His servants and friends, and with them we drive away the demonic hosts….If the Scripture says, The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands (Ps. 135:15), it is not forbidden to bow before inanimate things, or the handiwork of men, but only before those images which are the devil’s work.” St. John of Damascus: On the Holy Images

Early iconoclastic patristics: In the 3rd century, St. Epiphanius in a letter to John, bishop of Jerusalem, tells how in a church at Anablatha near Bethel he had found a curtain painted with the image of Christ or of some other saint, which he had torn down and ordered to be used for the burial of a pauper. The passage, however, reveals not only what Epiphanius thought on the subject, but also that such pictures must have been becoming frequent. Non Orthodox writers point to church fathers who condemned images; such as Origen (186-255), Tertullian (160-240), Eusebius (265-399) and Clement of Alexandria (150-216).

Ouspensky defends the early origin of icons by claiming that these people did not remain Orthodox and therefore do not represent the teachings of the Church. Those writers who are sceptical about the early origins of the icon also point to the Council of Elvira, in Spain 300-303. This Council published the following Canon: “It seemed pleasing to us to decree that there should not be paintings in the churches so as not to depict on the walls, that which is honoured in worship.”

Ouspensky claims that the Council of Elvira was simply trying to protect images from being profaned during the Diocletian persecutions he notes that the ruling only refers to wall paintings.

The Art of the Catacombs
The main purpose of the art of the catacombs was to teach There are few direct images of Christ in the catacombs, but there are a number of symbolic representations. Christ is a lamb, a fish, a vine, the good shepherd or Orpheus calling the wild beasts. A vine is a symbol of the sacraments, especially if it depicts birds eating the grapes. The fish is a symbol of the Kingdom of God, as well as being a shorthand for “Jesus Christ God Son Saviour.” The Virgin is always painted as herself. There are scenes of the Nativity, and the Annunciation. Mary is shown as orans; that is, with her arms raised in prayer. She is also shown holding Christ in her lap as the Magi bow down in adoration. This must have been a powerful picture for Gentiles entering the Church. To make it clear who this is, she is usually depicted with a prophet holding a scroll containing a messianic prophecy. Sometimes she is shown with a star above her head, which is a reference to Num. 24:17 “A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.”

Ouspensky finds the following similarities between the art of the catacombs and the art of the icon:

Neither the art of the catacombs, nor the art of the icon is incidental or insignificant, both are used to express the teaching of the Church.
Many of the figures in both forms of art are depicted in the orans position, that is with arms raised in prayer.

The details in both forms of art are reduced to a minimum and the artist does not attempt to impress the viewer with aesthetics.
In both the catacombs and in the icon the act of martyrdom is not illustrated, the martyr is seen as glorified for Christ and is always facing the viewer.

Both the art of the catacombs and the art of the icon is anonymous.

The Constantinian Period
The conversion of the upper-classes marks the beginning of “official” Christian art. By the 4th century icons were used to aid the teaching of theology and to combat heresy. Alpha and Omega appeared on icons of Christ about this time in order to combat Arianism. Arianism had taught that Christ was created before the creation of anything else. The symbols are derived from The Book of Revelation 22:13 “I am the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” The title Mother of God, appeared on icons in order to combat the heresy of Nestorianism. Nestorius had separated the two natures of Christ, so that Mary could only be the mother of Christ and not the Mother of God. Nestorius was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Saint Basil compares the function of communication of the icon with that of the word: what the word is for hearing, the same function has the icon for vision. Saint John Chrysostom said that the icon is a guarantee of the real visible incarnation of God.

Important evidence comes from The Phials of Monza, these are oil bottles that pilgrims bought back from Palestine, they are dated about 600, and are decorated with pictures of Christian festivals in a style exactly like that used on icons today.

From Egeria’s Dairy (a Spanish Nun) of her pilgrimage to Jerusalem, written in the 300’s: “Then a chair is placed for the bishop in Golgotha behind the Cross, which is now standing; the bishop duly takes his seat in the chair, and a table covered with a linen cloth is placed before him; the deacons stand round the table, and a silver-gilt casket is brought in which is the holy wood of the Cross. The casket is opened and (the wood) is taken out, and both the wood of the Cross and the title are placed upon the table. Now, when it has been put upon the table, the bishop, as he sits, holds the extremities of the sacred wood firmly in his hands, while the deacons who stand around guard it. It is guarded thus because the custom is that the people, both faithful and catechumens, come one by one and, bowing down at the table, kiss the sacred wood and pass through. And because, I know not when, some one is said to have bitten off and stolen a portion of the sacred wood, it is thus guarded by the deacons who stand around, lest any one approaching should venture to do so again. And as all the people pass by one by one , all bowing themselves, they touch the Cross and the title, first with their foreheads and then with their eyes; then they kiss the Cross and pass through, but none lays his hand upon it to touch it. When they have kissed the Cross and have passed through, a deacon stands holding the ring of Solomon and the horn from which the kings were anointed; they kiss the horn also and gaze at the ring . . . all the people are passing through up to the sixth hour, entering by one door and going out by another; for this is done in the same place there, on the preceding day, that is, on the fifth weekday, the oblation was offered.” ).

Eusebius Ecclesiastical History: Even though Eusebius generally disparaged icons, he reports the occurrence of a “wonder-working” image that attracted many pilgrims. The image was a statue of Christ healing the woman with the flow of blood, allegedly at the site of her home. Eusebius wrote: “Since I have mentioned this city I do not think it proper to omit an account which is worthy of record for posterity. …For there stands upon an elevated stone, by the gates of her house, a brazen image of a woman kneeling, with her hands stretched out, as if she were praying. Opposite this is another upright image of a man, made of the same material, clothed decently in a double cloak, and extending His hand toward the woman. At his feet, beside the statue itself, is a certain strange plant, which climbs up to the hem of the brazen cloak, and is a remedy for all kinds of diseases. They say that this statue is an image of Jesus. It has remained to our day, so that we ourselves also saw it when we were staying in the city. Nor is it strange that those of the Gentiles who, of old, were benefited by our Savior, should have done some things, since we have learned also that the likenesses of His Apostles Paul and Peter, and of Christ Himself, are preserved in paintings, the ancients being accustomed, as it is likely, according to a habit of the Gentiles, pay this kind of honor indiscriminately to those regarded by them as deliverers.” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book 7, Chapter 18, NPNF II 1:304) Eusebius also gives testimony that Constantine sponsored the erection of various images of the Apostles, Prophets and of Christ Himself in public places. See (Eusebius, Life of Constantine, Book 3, Chapter 49, NPNF II 1:532).
Sozomen, Basil the Great, Paulinus of Nola, Gregory of Nyssa, Nilus of Sinai, Egeria, John Chrysostom, Pseudo-Dionysius, and Augustine of Hippo give testimony that images did in fact adorn Churches and public places–and that this was a good thing.

The Iconoclast Controversy 730-843
A little bloody history. By the 700s, icons were a regular feature of Orthodox spiritual life all over the Byzantine Empire. Iconoclasm (the movement to “smash icons”) started from within the church. A few iconoclastic bishops in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) believed the Bible, particularly Exodus 20:4, forbade the making of images. Byzantine Emperor Leo III (reigned 717-741), convinced by such reasoning, tried at first to persuade his subjects to abandon icons. In 726 (or 731; the date is uncertain), Leo stepped up the campaign. He ordered his soldiers to go to the palace gate called Chalke and destroy the icon of Christ painted over the entrance archway. When the soldiers began smashing the image, a group of elderly women kicked the ladder out from underneath the soldiers’ feet. The incident triggered riots, and several women became the first martyrs to iconoclasm. The most vigorous opponent of icons in the eighth and ninth centuries was Emperor Leo’s son and successor, Constantine V. Constantine was the person most responsible for developing the arguments used against icons. In 754 he called the Council of Hieria, and the 338 bishops assembled from throughout the empire, condemned the making and venerating of icons. The deck, however, had been stacked: Constantine had guided into the assembly only those bishops who supported his views. Nonetheless, the bishops declared their assembly the “Seventh Ecumenical Council.” After the council, a large-scale war broke out against the supporters of icons. Monks, icons’ staunchest defenders, felt the heat of persecution the most. Thousands were exiled, tortured, or martyred. In 766 Constantine paraded a group of monks holding hands with their sister nuns (a scandalous display) through the Hippodrome. Between 762 and 775, countless Christians suffered greatly, and the period became known as the “decade of blood.” Eventually the tide turned. In 787 Empress Irene (reigned 780-802), a staunch supporter of icon veneration, convened what would later be recognized as the rightful Seventh Ecumenical Council. The council affirmed that icons, though they may not be worshiped, may be honored. A new attack on icons was made under Leo V the Armenian in 815 and continued until 843, when icons were again reinstated once and for all by Empress Theodora on the First Sunday of Lent, a day still celebrated annually as the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. (Edited from a paper by Bradley Nassif, Director of academic programs at Fuller Theological Seminary, Southern California Extension and editor of New Perspectives on Historical Theology (Eerdmans, 1996). He is an editorial adviser for Christian History.

The Christological Heresies: The prejudice we are considering is closely connected with the Manichaean view of matter, which in strict consistency rejected the belief that God was really made flesh, or really died on the cross. The Manichaeans were therefore, by reason of their dualism, arch-enemies of Christian art and relics. The Monophysites were iconoclastic because of their belief that the divine nature in Christ entirely absorbed the human. All these similar schools of Christian thought could make a very effective appeal to the Bible and to Christian antiquity because the seeds of these heresies were found in the early Church.

The Protestant Iconoclastic Movement
Calvin first expressed the Protestant view this way: “Whatever men learn of God in images is futile, indeed false, the prophets totally condemn the notion that images stand in the place of books” (Inst. I, xi, 5). By contrast God has bidden that “in the preaching of his Word and sacred mysteries…a common doctrine be there set forth for all. But those whose eyes rove about in contemplating idols betray that their minds are not diligently intent upon this doctrine” (I, xi, 7). The suggestion that preaching is a better antidote than images to our human tendency to let our mind wander in worship, I will leave to one side, for the point Calvin wants to make is primarily theological rather than pastoral. As he goes on to say, the pure preaching of the word provides a way in which God can be grasped by a faculty that is “far above the perception of our eyes” (xi, 12), which is the faculty of faith. Interestingly he argues that in preaching “Christ is depicted before our eyes as crucified” in a way far superior to a “thousand crosses of wood and stone”(xi, 7 emphasis added), though this depiction is inward–before what we have come to call “our mind’s eye.”
John McIntyre dubs Protestantism’s attitude as “iconophobia”, (John McIntyre, Faith, Theology and Imagination (Edinburgh, Handsel Press, 1987), 7

Bonaventura (1217-74) identifies three vital functions of the religious image: to educate the illiterate masses concerning core doctrinal and narrative tenets of the faith (he refers to images as “more open Scriptures”), to arouse due devotion and assist in a worshipful disposition since “our emotion is aroused more by what is seen than by what is heard”, and to imprint certain vital truths on our memory. In each of these regards visible images were observed to be more efficient than the written or spoken word. This practical exaltation of image over word in medieval piety reminds us, though, that iconoclasm can never escape the image per se, since the word functions by its capacity to evoke or generate mental images of one sort or another, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the Christian Scriptures. To speak and think of God as Lord, or father, or shepherd, or rock is just as surely to trade in images as to paint or sculpt him as such.
Economics of religious art during the Reformation: the Roman Church spawned an entire economy of sacred art – rood screens, wall-paintings, stained-glass windows, crucifixes, statuaries, reliquaries and monstrances. Spiritual, economic and wider political concerns became mixed up in this development, and thus iconoclasm, when it arrived, was laying an axe to the root of an entire socio-economic system.
Karlstadt 1522 treatise “On the Removal of Images” deprecating the role of scholarly learning in interpreting Scripture (and, indeed, the value of the arts and humanities for Christians), urged all Christians to follow the immediate dictates of the Holy Spirit. In response to such urgings by Karlstadt and others, many clearly judged themselves led by the Spirit to immediately, regardless of official ecclesiastical or civil jurisdiction, ransacked churches, destroying all images. Civic authorities were forced to authorize these acts to keep civil order.

Zwingli what Bonaventure had celebrated as the image’s positive gain (its capacity to arouse and direct the emotions in worship) Zwingli eschewed as its chief weakness since, he held, fallen human beings are naturally prone to idolatry. Images are unable to communicate the true Christ to us – a clear echo of the ancient iconoclasts insistence that images could not show forth the deity but only the flesh of Christ.
Luther the Reformation was always first and foremost about another theological issue altogether; namely, the doctrine of justification by grace through faith rather than works. Compared to this, he considered the matter of paintings and sculpture a matter of relative unimportance. Indeed, he insisted, no amount of smashing and burning could get rid of superstitious idolatry, since this was lodged deep in the sinful human heart and was likely to be established even more firmly there by any external attempt to dislodge it; whereas, once the heart was liberated by faith from snares of works-righteousness, the ritual abuse of wood and stone in an attempt to court favour with God would be bound to cease. He also objected strongly to the huge amounts of money consequently invested in producing and venerating such images, money which could and should have been spent in alleviating poverty and human distress. He considered the more violent manifestations of iconoclasm to be a triumph for the devil rather than Christ. Luther’s thought on the matter evolved, though, from critical and cautious tolerance to recognition of the value of the image as a device for shaping religious identity in positive, rather than negative ways. Human beings, he insisted, cannot help forming images of the objects of their attention and reflection. The religious image is merely an extension of the mental image. “If, therefore, it is not a sin but good to have the image of Christ in my heart, why, should it be a sin to have it in my eyes?”

Calvin’s rejection of such art is his insistence that God so transcends the creaturely order that any attempt at visual depiction amounts to a denigration of his glory and majesty. “Unseemly representations” contradict God’s very being and profane his name. A hearkening to the monophysite and Nestorian heresies. Calvin also banishes all images of other sorts from the sanctuary on the grounds that the human soul inclines naturally to idolatry wherever the opportunity for it arises. However, he identifies artistic vision and skill in the secular realm as among those things which the Holy Spirit distributes to whomever he wills.
Tillich says the eleva
tion of the “ear” to the “eyes” during the Reformation and ensuing centuries is theologically unfortunate since the very nature of the Spirit stands against the exclusion of the eye from the experience of its presence.

The Backlash: The secular/spiritual elevation of creation/art as a “worship experience in itself”. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, though, we find ourselves still dealing with the heresies of the early centuries of the Church, attempting to define the proper place of creation and how it can properly manifest God. The recent “new age spirituality’s” rejection of utilitarianism, pragmatism and non-aesthetics born from western rationalism and the Enlightenment and its influence on the Western churches, has led people to look elsewhere for a “spirituality of beauty” and an experience of God through the arts and nature. In this sense the western protestant church needs to come to a theology of beauty and creation defined by a proper Christology. We submit that this has been done and preserved, taught and practiced in the Christian East from apostolic times and was ultimately confirmed in the 8th Century.

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