Holy icons act as signs that point to the immediacy of the depicted. The icons present to the beholder a way of being in relation with the signified. It is precisely this intimacy which many find troubling. The on-off Iconoclastic Controversy in New Rome on the Bosporus that spanned nearly a century (AD 726–87 and 815–43) centered on the suspicion that the beholder merges the reality of the represented with its representation to the extent of worshiping its material substance. The charge was (and is) that sign and signified become so intellectually and emotionally fused for the beholder that he regards the image as the embodiment of what it depicts. That is, the depicted inheres, rather than just appears in the image.
Much has been made of the influence of Koranic dogma on the iconoclasts. By 651 Islamic invasions had subjugated the Christian territories of Syria, Mesopotamia and Egypt. Damascus as a major center of Orthodox theology fell to the Muslims nearly a full century before Emperor Leo III issued a series of decrees from 726-729 forbidding the display of icons in churches and public places throughout the weakened empire.
Protestant reformers of 16th-century northern Europe however, who had little direct experience with Islam, were seized by the same suspicion and determination to remove figurative sacred art. Many Protestants further claimed that pictorially representing Jesus’ mother, his disciples, martyrs, saints and angels fostered worship of their images as cultic mediators between God and man. Thus any veneration of saints was opposed, making their representations a double taboo. This left only the image of a naked cross as a badge of reductive purity. Washed of representations of the “express image of His person” as St. Paul calls God the Son, the familial gave way to the mechanical, the disengaged and disinterested deity of the Enlightenment.
The dangerous power of images
The accusation of idolatry weighs heavily upon the province of sacred art, not because of Islamic and Protestant doctrine but because it presumes to make images of the divine. And there is so much of it to be reckoned with. Practically the whole of late antique and medieval art, east and west, sought to pictorially respond to the question Christ posed to his disciples: “Who do you say I am?”
The iconoclasts’ anxiety that the image is worshiped as an embodiment has a logic that is not easily overcome, hence the perennial appeal to obliterate. The common dread is that the beholder cannot be trusted with the power of images.
To illustrate how entangled this issue is, we recall the deeds of righteous King Hezekiah (715 BC):
He removed the high places, and broke the pillars, and cut down the Asherah; and he broke in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made; for unto those days the children of Israel did offer to it; and it was called Nehushtan. (2 Kings 18: 4)
A millennium before Hezekiah destroyed what he contemptuously called Nehushtan, a mere piece of brass, the “brazen serpent” was an image carried across the Jordan into the Promised Land along with the Ark of the Covenant. Its origin was the event in Edom when the Israelites complained against Moses, “and God sent serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died.” (Numbers 21: 6)
And the Lord said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.” (Numbers 21: 8, 9)
Though the bronze figure was given as a provisional sign of God’s deliverance, a place-keeper as it were, it was destroyed because the “children of Israel did offer to it” as an idol.
The context of Hezekiah’s action was resistance to what the Hebrews had experienced during their 400-year exile in Egypt bombarded with of images of Anubus, Horus, Isis and at least 80 other deities. Returning to the Trans-Jordan plateau and highlands of the Promised Land, they were re-immersed in the ubiquitous Canaanite, Phoenician and Philistine images of Dagon, Ba-al, and Moloch. Added to that swarm, though centuries later, was the pantheon of Mesopotamian idols that the Israelites encountered during their three Babylonian deportations: 605, 597 and 586 BC.
Jesus Christ, however, interpreted the image as a symbol of Himself:
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3: 12-15)
The image of the bronze serpent did not depict the human physicality of Jesus of Nazareth; it pointed to his office as the Savior of the world. Speaking of his crucifixion, Christ completed the meaning-making: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” (John 12: 32).
Preaching the Gospel in the Midst of Idolatry
The Greco-Roman culture into which St. Paul and the Apostles carried the message of God Incarnate was similar to that into which Joshua bore the Ark of the Covenant across the Jordan. The scale and profusion of temple ruins devoted to Artemis in the cities of Anatolia where Paul, Barnabas, Timothy and John Mark made missionary journeys – Ephesus, Pergamum, Pamphylia, Iconium, Philadelphia – indicates their erection and upkeep would have cost billions in modern terms of revenue.
All municipal and rural life orbited around the worship of graven images, not only those of the imagination that were laterally equivalent to pagan deities in surrounding layers of civilizations – Greek, Hittite, Scythian, Babylonian and Egyptian – but also images of emperors. Before official and typically posthumous deification of emperors, statuary portrayed the Caesars as triumphant generals in military uniform or heads of state in ceremonial purple and laurel crowns. But deified Caesars were rendered naked and athletic in likeness to Apollo, Hermes and Zeus in order to designate honorific rituals required before their images.
It was in this setting that the apostles strove mightily to overcome the misdirected worship of idols residual in converts from paganism to Christianity.
As concerning therefore the eating of those things that are offered in sacrifice unto idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one … Howbeit there is not in every man that knowledge: for some with conscience of the idol unto this hour eat it as a thing offered unto an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled. (I Corinthians 8: 4-7)
Though St. Paul declares, “we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one,” he reminds us “there is not in every man that knowledge.” In saying that “idols are nothing in this world,” St Paul does not say that the honor given to idols is nothing. He warns that the deference, if not reverence, given to idols is assigned to demons and has the peril of defiling the conscience:
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. (Ephesians 6: 12)
In the debate of the Council in Jerusalem (AD 50) over what was necessary to require of Gentile converts, we see how the Apostle Peter responded when “there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, that it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.” (Acts 15: 5) Peter admonished the believing Pharisees saying, “Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” (Acts 15: 10)
But when St. James, the first bishop of Jerusalem, ruled on the matter his cautionary focused on the jeopardy of idolatry. “Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God, but that we write unto them that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.” (Acts 15: 19-20)
“Unto this hour,” the power of images is perilous. The place of images in civilizations is never neutral.
The Triumph of Orthodoxy
If iconoclasm is resilient, the more so is iconodulism. The inspiration to represent heavenly things is not to fabricate images that serve as gods or as mediators between God and men. It is to glorify Him in whom God made Himself tangible as “the brightness of his glory.”
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life … declare we unto you. (1 John 1:3)
Even so it took a century of blood for the Seventh Ecumenical Council (the Second Council of Nicaea), presided by Patriarch Tarasios in 787, to formalize a statement on the efficacy of icons. The Council drew upon the wisdom of St. Basil the Great (330-379) who succinctly made clear that it is the persons represented in icons and not the icons as objects that are revered: “The honor given to the image is transferred to its prototype.” (Letters on the Holy Spirit, 18)
St. John of Damascus (c. 675 or 676 – 749), who was still living when Emperor Leo III ruled against the display of icons, wrote the definitive “Three Apologetic Treatises against those Decrying the Holy Image.” This passage from “On the Divine Images” (1:16-17) is one of St. John’s most famous statements on why the use of icons is not idolatry.
But now when God is seen in the flesh conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take His abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter. Never will I cease honoring the matter which wrought my salvation! I venerate it, though not as God.
Portions of the Proceedings of the Seventh Council are read on the First Sunday of Great Lent, called “Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy.”
We define the rule with all accuracy and diligence, in a manner not unlike that befitting the shape of the precious and vivifying Cross, that the venerable and holy icons, painted or mosaic, or made of any other suitable material, be placed in the holy churches of God upon sacred vessels and vestments, walls and panels, houses and streets, both of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, and of our intemerate Lady the holy Theotoke, and also of the precious Angels, and of all Saints. For the more frequently and oftener they are continually seen in pictorial representation, the more those beholding are reminded and led to visualize anew the memory the originals which they represent and for whom moreover they also beget a yearning in the soul of the persons beholding the icons. (Proceedings vol. 11, pg. 719)
Imagery and substance
On the one hand there is an authentic activity of the beholder that St. Basil described, and the 7th Council augmented, which is not idolatry. On the other, the chore of defending the reverence of icons against the charge of idolatry is not simple. Both the holy icons and pagan idols are man-made objects that depict the revered. If the “rulers of the darkness of this world” are real powers to be wrestled with, what is it that separates the veneration of holy icons from the worship of idols?
It is the certainty that the depicted is the “one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him.” The holy icons are so called because of who they proclaim God is.
This is true of all the Holy Icons, whether the subject is saints, angels or events. Every icon testifies to the reality of our Incarnate Deliverer. Every icon repeats Simon Peter’s answer to Jesus’ question, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
The Orthodox worshiper’s experience before the holy icons is not idolatry, either in the sense of worshiping “nothing in the world” or worshiping the material substance of their composition. It is rather the rightful response to the persons the icons direct prayerful attention. In honoring the images of holy persons there is no distance of time and place between persons beholding and beheld, only the assurance of the lively presence and encouragement of those who “have fought the good fight and received their crowns.” The icons “beget a yearning in the soul of the persons beholding the icons” to emulate the example of those who by their holy lives tangibly published the presence of Him who draws all men unto Himself.
St. Basil makes a touching analogy about the role that images serve as an instrument for turning the heart toward following the examples of righteousness portrayed in the sacred art of the icons.
Both painters of words and painters of pictures illustrate valor in battle; the former by the art of rhetoric; the latter by clever use of the brush, and both encourage everyone to be brave. A spoken account edifies the ear, while a silent picture induces imitation.
(Quoted by John of Damascus in “Against those who attack divine images”)