by John Evans
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The following work hardly comprises an exhaustive defense of the Catholic teaching on the use of Icons nor does it represent necessarily a novel breakthrough on the subject. Quite the contrary, the goal of this report is simply to represent the Apostolic teaching of the fathers on the matter as preserved through the Keys of Peter and the Holy Magisteriam. Among the many sources that were helpful in employing this rather abridged study was an article entitled, ” Is There Really a Patristic Critique of Icons?” by G V. Martini on his blog dedicated to defending Orthodoxy. As a Roman Catholic, I found Martini’s work profoundly compatible with the Catechism and in harmony with the Patristic sources I would have preferred had I the time to compose a more rigorous treatise. Many of the quotations in this report can be found in his more scholarly work and I would highly recommend it to anyone seeking clarification on this issue. I also must give credit to E.W.T.N and to my colleague Brandon Young for developing some of the larger brush-strokes to be found in my presentation of the relevant topic. Some early readers of this work initially critiqued it for its lack of clarity and garbled syntax as well as for its lack of proper in-text citations. On this count my critics are right, but miss entirely the casual genre of this piece. The following does not constitute a journal, but only a rough outline of some of the ideas I have collated over the past few months on contemporary attitudes to the Icon in light of their Patristic origins. Had I been composing a work of true scholarship I would then surely have been more attune to the niceties of composition. Therefore I beg lenience from you my reader and some modicum of indulgence as you join me on this expedition through the earliest centuries of The Church. I am no G.K Chesterton or C.S Lewis, and even if I were I would still point any inquisitive reader to the Baltimore Catechism or to E.W.T.N for a more definitive discussion on the Churches’ veneration of the Holy Icons. Nevertheless, as is so often the case, those outside the visible walls of the Church often find such rigorous theological discussions wearisome and the frank ramblings of an amateur such as myself, a source of consolation and greater understanding. Therefore, as the Lord calls me, so I have endeavored to write. I should also note that of all the Icons defenders, I am perhaps the most peculiar as I am, in the eyes of the world, blind according to the flesh. The icon described in the introductory passage of this report was in turn illustrated to me in words. Therefore, I make passing references to my lack of temporal vision throughout this report and want to insure you, the reader know what I am making reference to. Finally, I am aware I use the term icon quite broadly in this piece to refer to any Sacred Image associated with the liturgy or the pictorial representation of the scriptures. Early in this report I attempt to defend this broader definition, but I wish to make aware that I am not only conscious, but profoundly respectful of the more precise definition employed by our Byzantine Rite brethren and the Orthodox communions not yet in conformity with the Sea of Rome. My decision to employ this broader definition stems from what I find to be a much more symptomatic problem underlying Western Secularism as a whole and my own experience as a Latin Rite Catholic living in a regrettably Post Christian United States.
For the brightness is always thought of with the glory, the image with the archetype (2 Cor. 4:4), and the Son always and everywhere together with the Father; nor does even the close connection of the names, much less the nature of the things, admit of separation.
Saint Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, 7.16
I shall not name the museum, I will only confess to having gone there with a number of like-minded friends. We passed through the keenly lit corridors toward the place where the Late Medieval world was being held on display. One icon caught our attention. The statue of the Madonna stood behind a panel of polished glass, reverberating warmth and tranquility among the bustling halls of the Museum. My guest unfolded to me the contours of her gentle smile, her hands outstretched cradling what may have been the child-king wrapped in swaddling clothes , hovering between the century in which the figure had been carved and the eternity the icon represented . Her beauty radiated a love which pierced heart and mind, marrow and soul, and although her face was in fact unseen by these blind eyes, the mere description of her smile translated my spirit to the shores of an everlasting age, to the paradise- garden which stands at the threshold and consummation of history, to the familiar Tree of Life recorded in Genesis 3 and Revelation 22 . There was only one disconcerting feature about the Holy Icon, only one blemish in the Sacred Image’s Eternal face. To my consternation, I learned that at some point in the 16th century, a so-called reformer had chiseled away a part of the Madonna’s arm and had reduced the features of the infant Christ to a mere husk of their former glory . The vandal had tore some portion of the icon’s beauty from the eyes, tearing away some of the clarity which had resided there for the veneration of the soul. Such an atrocity was only remotely identified in the icon’s placard, the perpetrator of the crime no more than a nameless specter in the tens of thousands who had fought the fratricidal wars spawned by Luther’s tragic break from the magisterial authority of the Sea of Rome. Such acts of vandalism were, in the eyes of most, a thing of bygone days, a product of insensitivity bred by less ecumenical times. But such a sentiment, no matter how good-natured or well intended willingly ignores the chapels still burning in the South of France as of the year of our Lord 2019 or the consecrated Hosts still being stolen from the heart of the sanctuary. Sadly, the ghost of Iconoclasm continues to plague the Body of Christ . This report intends to defend the Catholic and Orthodox veneration of these hallowed Images.
However, before we can go further we must define our terms. What is an icon and what is its role in the life of the church? The term Icon is derived from the Greek Eikon which can be literally rendered as “image.” Reserved for a sacred context, the use of Holy Images is intended by the faithful to elevate the mind towards God in prayer and in the contemplation of the Sacred mysteries realities being presented in the respective work. The Catechism of the Holy See in its section on the liturgy defines Icons in the following paragraph. ” 1192 Sacred images in our churches and homes are intended to awaken and nourish Our Faith in the mystery of Christ. Through the icon of Christ and his works of salvation, it is he whom we adore. Through sacred images of the holy Mother of God, of the angels and of the saints, we venerate the persons represented.” This definition is intentionally broad. The Orthodox churches not in Communion with Rome would most likely identify Icons only with a specific form of Sacred imagery . Answering a question on E.W.T.N FR. Anthony Dragon defined the Orthodox understanding of Icons as follows. ” First, icons are written according to specific canons. Every color, shape, and object in an icon means something. They speak a theological language, and hence convey doctrine.
Second, icons are always “unrealistic,” and do not depict earthly realities. They try to depict heavenly realities, which we cannot fully comprehend.
Third, icons in and of themselves are not objects of devotion. Rather, we understand them to be windows into heaven.” To employ a rather practical example. I am good friends with a young Sister who was visiting many Orthodox churches in the East. The one thing she noted upon her many travels was how consistently Christ, the Holy Virgin, and all the saints were depicted. In all the Icons Christ wore the same vestments, bore consistent gestures and was positioned in the same place of honor to aid in the liturgy. This is of course in direct contrast with the statues to be found in Western Catholic Art which depict Christ in diverse positions , sometimes emphasizing his agony for the salvation of souls, sometimes presenting Him in His regal state, sometimes dressed in the dress of the culture in which He has been depicted. Perfect examples of this delightful anachronism can be found frequently throughout Renaissance Art. Nevertheless, despite the differences between Western and Eastern use of Sacred Images the same core principles are employed, in so much as the icon or image intentionally acts as a pectoral representation of the Gospel. The Holy Scriptures were not widely available before the advent of the Printing Press. This meant that most Christians received their Catechesis by looking upon the beautiful frescos , statues and paintings present in their churches. The Catholic Church draws a distinction between veneration and Adoration in regards to the Holy. Adoration or latria in the Latin is owed only to God, the Creator Almighty. However, a proper reverence or respect is due to those Holy men and women who have gone before us in their walk with Christ and this respect is characterized as veneration of the Communion of Saints. This veneration is extended to the Holy Images which depict these Sacred individuals and to the lives they represent. As the saints intercede on our behalf before the throne of God, the Icons which convey their intersession have been associated with remarkable phenomena. From the beginning miracles, healings, and inspirations were derived from the veneration of this visual Gospel. To this day, I visit an Eastern Rite Parish in New York which holds an Icon of the Madonna which weeps tears of miraculous oil known for healing the sick. It is said that Saint Luke, companion of the Apostle Paul, was an early Iconographer and painted the first Holy Image of the Blessed Virgin Mary. As a result, the Iconoclast is one who is utterly opposed to the use of these Sacred Images. Their rationale is usually predicate on Exodus 20 in which the Ten Commandments or Decalogue are granted to the children of Israel in which “graven images” are strictly forbidden and on the frequent calls to renounce the use of Pagan statuary and images throughout both Testaments. In Romans 1, Paul warns the believer not to serve the “creature instead of the Creator” and the Apostle John warns his reader in his Epistles to turn from “idols.” Nevertheless, in Exodus 25, God commands the creation of two golden angels on the lid of the Arc of the Covenant and Sacred Art seems to have played a significant role throughout the liturgical Rites of the Jewish Nation. This apparent contradiction leads understandably to great controversy and misunderstanding.
The question before us is whether these Iconoclastic interpretations can be found in their historical Hebraic context and whether this context sheds light on the role of the Icon in the early church. The implications of this question cannot be exaggerated. For as Augustine has reminded us, “The new is in the old concealed; the old is in the new revealed.” This requires an honest examination of the Biblical author’s worldview and their own particular milieu without appealing to polemics foreign to their given paradigm.
Often The Protestant will build his argument upon the Decalogue in Exodus 20 against graven images only to forget, often innocently, that God commanded the creation of golden Cherubim on the lid of the Arc of the Covenant. Contemporary Protestant too often forgets how the Tabernacle in the wilderness preserved in the Torah as well as the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem were decorated with hallowed images. The Jerusalem Talmud reports the use of paintings and mosaics depicting scenes from the Old Testament. In one passage we read, “In the days of Rabbi Johanna, men began to paint pictures on the walls, and he did not hinder them … In the days of Rabbi Abu, men began to make designs on mosaics, and he did not hinder them” (Abode Sarah, 48d). The synagogue of Dura Europol (Syria, dated roughly to the third century is overflowing with Holy paintings depicting Biblical scenes in places where the congregants would have heard the lives of the Patriarchs, sages and prophets recounted from the Law. Far from being Iconoclastic, the first century Israelite would have understood already the profound distinction between adoration and veneration. The paintings in the Synagogue served as visible representations of invisible realities. However, alone these paintings could only serve as commemorative signposts, signifying the prayers of the prophets and the Old Testament Saints. The act of prostrating before these paintings did not constitute an act of idolatry because the observant Jew was not worshiping the particular painting before their eyes, but rather the event being conveyed in that given image. Similarly, the observant first century Jew would have highly venerated the Torah and would have gone so far as to kiss the scrolls of the law, but the one venerating the text would never have confused the letter of the law for its primary author, no more than a historian could mistake the Declaration of Independence for its principle author Thomas Jefferson.
What then of the early church? The first and second century saw the painting of Old Testament figures in the Catacombs . In his lecture, “how do we know the early church?”, available through E.W.T.N’s program “deep in history”, Dr. William Marshner describes some of these early icons. Some of them depict Peter seated upon a stone receiving the “law” or keys of the kingdom from Christ. Among New Testament figures, Peter appears more frequently than the Apostle Paul. Such frequency suggests, in part, an Ecclesiastical emphases on the role allotted to the Bishop of Rome. But it also heavily implies the Roman Churches’ tacit approval of the use of Icons as early as the second century and perhaps much earlier, spanning back into Apostolic times. Jerome and Augustine embraced the use of icons and the Christian Hymn throughout the 4th century, making reference to both in their respective letters and treatises. Devotions such as the sign of the cross, the use of the Ichthys and other outward gestures of pious custom are present in Patristic sources claiming apostolic authority. Such a tradition, due to its venerable character, cannot be easily gainsaid without assuming a lack in continuity between the earliest evangelists and apostles with their successors. Men such as Polycarp and Ignatius of Antioch had been decoupled of Peter and Paul and had known the Apostle John personally. They were martyrs of the first century and eyewitnesses of the Apostolic missions which overtook the Roman World. Both died as martyrs for the faith. It seems somewhat farfetched to believe they would have deliberately strayed from the teachings which had been passed on to them in the face of such persecution. Had the use of the Icons been artificially introduced from the Pagan Roman World, then its introduction would have been violently opposed and the record of that opposition would have been remarkably difficult to suppress. Ironically, G.V Martini heavily implies in his article, ” Is There Really a Patristic Critique of Icons? “, that Iconoclasm originated with a Pagan influence. He cites the writing of Ouspensky who in turn makes use of Florovsky. We read “In the eighth-ninth century conflict”, the iconoclasts represented an unreformed and uncompromising position, of an Origenist and Platonic trend … the symbolic-allegorical method of its reasoning could not have been more favorable to the argumentation of iconoclastic theology … it marked a return to the ancient dichotomy between matter and spirit. In such a system, an image can only be an obstacle to spirituality: not only is it made of matter, but it also represents the body, which is matter.
Theology of the Icon, Vol. 1, pp. 148-149
This leads us to the reason why the error of Iconoclasm took root in the first place. When dealing with comparative religion, the only two faiths in the history of man which profess the immortality of both the body and the soul are Judaism and Christianity. This is because both Judaism and Christianity stress the fact that God is Author of both, the material and spiritual realities comprising His creation. The human person is not comprised of a soul that happens to have a body nor is man a body that happens to have a soul. Rather, both soul and body are, from the Christian’s perspective, intrinsically good and form a complete person. However, according to scripture and tradition, both matter and spirit were subjected to the degradations of decay and death through the Fall in Genesis 3, requiring the atonement of Christ upon the cross . Before this atonement could occur however, the Creator God would have to become man. This is because only God Himself could atone for the sins of the world, as God is by nature infinite whereas man is by his very nature finite. Therefore, in Christ’s incarnation the second person of the trinity took on a human nature, being True God and True Man, thus making visible the invisible, Hebrew “panim” or face of God. In Colossians Paul explains, “15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Therefore, if the invisible has now become visible, if the Creator has entered into His creation, then why shouldn’t we depict our King who has revealed Himself for the salvation of the world? Those who tended to deny Icons tended to over emphasize Christ’s divinity and minimize His humanity. One of these heretics was Eusebius of Caesarea. Although Eusebius had been one of the signatories at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D which had condemned Arius, he was in practice at least partial to the Arian heresy and was a thorn in the side of Orthodoxy long after the death of Constantine the Great. Writing to Constantia, the arch-heretic wrote, “since the body of the Lord was transformed, at present, into an unutterable glory … only in spirit could one contemplate the glory in which Christ finds Himself after His Ascension” (ibid., p. 149).
Martini cites Ouspensky’s position that Patristic documents such as these reaffirm the Early Churches’ difficulty in “accepting and assimilate the Christian revelation in its fullness.” However, what Martini does not mention is that the specter of iconoclasm would rear its ugly head in the heart of the so- called reformation precisely because of the Reformers’ break from apostolic tradition. The Reformers, such as Luther and Calvin, claimed they were attempting to recover a more Apostolic Christianity. But in reality, Calvin only selectively quoted from the Patristic sources and Luther was even more inconsistent in his understanding of the first centuries of the Ecclesia. By breaking from the Rock of Peter and clinging to the doctrine of “scripture alone,” the so called Reformers opened the door for old heresies to creep back in new and alarming ways. Among the thousands of Denominations that purport to be Christian, there are many which fail to grasp the fullness of Christ’s incarnation and in doing so fail to embrace the Apostolic use of the Icon as a living witness to the Body of Christ . The Orthodox Catholic faith maintains her tabernackle and her icons in continuity with the frescos and paintings which lined the way to the Holy of Holies that were seen in the Temple of Solomon.
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