13 Comments

  1. Baker Galloway

    In other words… if a bear takes an icon out into the woods where no human eyes will ever see it again, is it still an icon? 😉 But seriously.

    Does the icon first touch upon our senses, thus prompting the idea/remembrance of the depicted, and is it through the idea of the depicted that we make contact with the depicted? Or rather, does the icon immediately connect us to the depicted via several/all faculties of being? If the icon immediately connects us to the depicted, this is where our use of it is similar to the pagans’ use of idols (I am not opposed). The only substantive difference being that pagan idols are used to connect to suspect spiritual forces, right?

    But if the icon connects us to the remembrance (the idea), and this remembrance is what connects us to the depicted… then even though the bear took the icon out into the woods, I can still venerate it mentally from here. ;P

    Thoughts?

    1. You pose an interesting question, Baker. I would say that within their appointed setting, that is within the environment of worship – corporate prayer or solitary – the icons serve as an invitation to the beholder to enter into a relationship with the depicted. There is, of course, no guarantee of the beholder actualizing a relationship through prayer and worship of the depicted. The bear that took the icon into the forest may be likened to the museum-goer viewing an icon exhibit and vacillating between finding the object beautifully decorative and strange. The piece of painted piece of wood is itself inert; it cannot automatically elicit a response of worshiping the depicted that is not already latent in the heart. The difference between a response to an icon of Christ and a carving of Dagon is what the image points toward. In the latter example, demonic forces. Only those who love the Very Christ depicted in the icon will give respect to the object bearing His image. And that respect, reverence, is directed towards God.

  2. Ryan

    Florovsky notes that, far more than any Islamic influence, the iconoclastic movement was informed by certain tendencies in Origenism and Neo-Platonism (and of course the iconodules drew on different tendencies within the same tradition).

  3. Albertus

    Simply put, an idol is the representation of a false god, whereas a christian sacred image (crucifix, icon, mosaic, painting, statue) is a representation of the true God Jesus Christ, of His Holy Mother, of His Angels and Saints. To make and venerate images of those we love and venerate is natural to all of mankind: christians too are men, who can come to the knowledge of the invisible, the spiritual only through the bodily senses. The difference lies in the Object of our love and worship, not in the means. ”Homo naturaliter christianus” (”Man is naturally christian”). All of man’s activities can be christianised and sanctified. Saint Augustine wrote, that christians must reclaim from paganism and dedicate to Christ all that is useful, good and just, even the whole world. Especially the art of imagemaking, for God the Son Himself is the Image par excellence, and man is made in the image of God: what then can be more christian than Images?

  4. Sean

    I have a slightly different reading of the brass serpent than you do. Jesus does not identify himself with the fiery serpent of Moses’ staff; what he says is that as that serpent was lifted in the wilderness, so he too must be lifted up.

    It would be strange for the Lord to adopt the serpent as a symbol of himself. Rather I think what is going on in the Moses story is this: Israel is tormented by demons (serpents); by the power of the Cross Moses shows Israel that the chief of the demons (the fiery brass serpent) is overcome; through that display those who are tormented and being slain by the demons are healed. This makes more sense, as it is on the Cross that Satan is overcome.

    If the serpent was an image of Christ it would also be strange for a righteous King like Hezekiah to destroy it. Rather I think the brass serpent was kept as a memento of Moses’ display of the Cross’ victory over the demons; in worshipping it Judah fell into idolatry (straight idolatry: devil-worship); but Hezekiah knew that the Devil had no real power and so destroyed it as a mere piece of brass.

    1. Sean

      All that being said I really enjoyed the article! Thanks for publishing it!

    2. Thank you, Sean, for these comments. There is a lot here to discuss. The action of King Hezekiah and the words of our Lord are, of course, not a one-to-one correlation of identity. They are not even identity by typology. They are identity by analogy, even a shadowy and disturbing one of snakes in the desert.

      I like your phrase, “a memento of Moses’ display of the Cross’ victory over the demons.”

      But I think this still leads us back to the central point I tried to make; images in icons point to the actual: Very God of Very God, not demons counterfeiting as gods. To worship the image is to embrace many levels of delusion, including a lack of common sense.

      Hezekiah destroyed what had become a tool of this temptation, obviously one of precious provenance to descendants of the Exodus experience. By extension he also ruled against pagan accretions from surrounding mythologies such as the staff of Asclepius that blended comfortably with Israel’s misdirected offerings to Nehushtan.

      What Christ’s declaration did was to reveal his salvific mission in the most dramatic terms of Israel’s group memory. We can go on for days exploring metaphors of snakes, poles, and brass. In its apotheosis, the foundation of the analogy is just as you said, Sean. It is in what Moses did, not the instrument: “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up.”

      The ivory carving used as an illustration in the article compresses Christ’s decent to hell and his resurrection, even his ascension symbolized by snakes and dragons beneath his feet. It is he who is held up and the demons crushed.

      1. If we see serpents as an image of death rather than only an image of demons or Satan, then it is not so odd to think that Christ compared himself to a serpent in the sense that he became “sin”, in the sense that he united himself to death in order to save us from death.

        If we look at the symbols of serpents in the story of Moses, the serpent changing into a staff, then a staff to a serpent, then a hand becoming sick and then well again, then a serpent on a staff (Nehushtan) which heals from the poisonous serpents, the pattern is pretty clear and we cannot only think that serpents are only an image of demons. For more on the relationship between Christ and the bronze serpent, or Christ and serpents in general, one can read my article on the subject.
        The Serpents of Orthodoxy

  5. Albertus

    Jesus Christ did approve of holy images, for He Himself, being God, commanded the hebrews to make images of the Cherubim for the Temple in Jerusalem. It is also a known fact that jewish synagogues which have been excavated were decorated with all kinds of images. What was forbidden to the hebrews was to make and ADORE images of false Gods, and to make an image of the true God, as He had not yet become incarnate. Our Lord’s assumed Sacred Humanity is an Image of the invisible Godhead, a subject which Saint Paul several times expounded in his epistles. Our Lord accepted worship whilst alive and – if we are to believe the Apocalypse, He – the Lamb upon the Throne – accepts worship in Heaven. Radical iconoclasm is islamic in origin, and this was much later taken up again by Calvinists and Zwinglians during the Reformation: Luther, nota bene, was not an iconoclast. Finally, Our Lord Jesus Christ approves of icons because His Church – the undivided orthodox catholic Church – has always approved and blest their usage. And Christ cannot be divided from His Body, the Church.

    1. Yes, Albertus, the part that illustrative painting played in the adornment of Jewish synagogues is evidenced by a huge store of examples going back to the Talmudic period that have recently been excavated in Northern Israel. Similarly, excavations of a synagogue (erected circa 245 AD) in the city of Dura-Europos in Syria reveal a worship space filled with depictions of major figures from sacred history such as Moses, Elias (Elijah) and David, as well as lessons from Ezekiel and Daniel. These panels, stylistically influenced by Hellenic and Roman models of mythical heroes, celebrate the encounter of real persons with the presence of God. Clearly, the Christian Church inherited this tradition of artistically populating Her places of worship with images that describe past events as eternally present. In fact, the oldest known Christian paintings are probably those of a house church also found in Dura-Europos.
      The objective of both Jewish and Christian art was instructive but also experiential. The Jewish Dura-Europos murals of the infant Moses rescued from the river, his encounter with the burning bush and the Exodus more than reminded the community of its origins; they built faith and reliance on God for its survival. Beyond this, the text of these images proclaimed the promised appearance of another “Deliverer”, an archetype of Moses who would usher in an everlasting and imperishable kingdom. The same subjects in Christian iconography identify this Deliverer as Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah of Israel.
      The painting of Samuel anointing David as King of Judea also had a messianic dimension for Jews of the Diaspora. Prophesy concerning the youngest son of Jesse, the shepherd poet, encouraged hope for restoration and salvation.
      The mural of Ezekiel’s vision of the tombs opened and the dry bones in-fleshed with life again depicts the general resurrection at the last judgment. The text of the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37) is read annually in Orthodox Christian churches everywhere during the early hours after midnight on Pascha (Easter) morning. The reading is treated as a prophesy of Christ’s decent to Hades to free Adam (mankind) from the prison of death.
      Orthodox Christians churches have more in common with the interiors of third century Jewish synagogues than with most Christian denominational places of worship today, which are mostly devoid of images. Jewish retreat from depicting the human form seems quite rapid, however, after the first few centuries of Christianity. While depictions of animals, cherubim and scenes of nature continued minimally, Jewish iconoclasm for representing persons may have been related to the enthusiasm of the Early Church for artistically proclaiming the revelation of the Word become Flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. Whether reactionary to Christian iconography or a development within Judaism toward pure symbolism and decorative script along the lines of Islam, there was a span of several centuries when the imagery of salvation was common to both Jewish and Christian places of worship.

      1. Albertus

        Thank you for this! Very beautifully and clearly set out.

  6. The discussion at hand is not whether we can quote directives from the “red letter” version of the gospels. It is about how Christ made use of existing images and symbols to reveal Himself, which thus set a precedent His Church emulated. An interesting way to explain the efficacy of iconography in Christian worship has to do with the use of symbols. Symbols are very powerful tools in every culture used to compress and communicate information in order to expand it. The nimbus, for example, symbolizes the theosis of persons represented in the icons. The special characters Ο ωΝ (omicron, omega, Nu) within the nimbus of Christ symbolically identify Him with the name of God spoken to Moses from the burning bush at the foot of Mount Horeb. When spelled out the O wN, as found in the Septuagint (Exodus 3:14), translates variously “I AM”; “The Existing One”; or “He Who Is.”

    Symbols can move from coded form to the precise, as in the case when Christ reveals Himself as the deliverer symbolized by the bronze serpent. Iconography is sometimes called upon to assist this revelatory process of reforming provisional symbols by graphically transforming them into a vivid and direct statement of the symbol’s intent. Canon 82 of the Council of Trullo, the Quinisext Council (AD 692) so directed:

    “In order therefore that ‘that which is perfect’ may be delineated
    to the eyes of all, at least in colored expression, we decree that the
    figure in human form of the Lamb who taketh away the sin of the
    world, Christ our God, be henceforth exhibited in images, instead
    of the ancient lamb, so that all may understand by means of it the
    depths of the humiliation of the Word of God, and that we may
    recall to our memory his conversation in the flesh, his passion
    and salutary death, and his redemption which was wrought for
    the whole world.”

  7. Sean

    Since the icons reveal to us our living Lord Jesus Christ and those who dwell with him and in him, they are not graven images or likenesses, and there is no idolatry involved in venerating Him through them. We already dwell in the Kingdom of Heaven and the icons remind us whose company we keep and help draw us into that Kingdom where we already dwell, and where we will come to dwell at the Resurrection. God is the Lord and has revealed Himself to us, first of all in the flesh and blood of his son, our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, the first icon of the Father and the original of all icons.

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