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Alexander Schmemann the Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy Excerpts

Alexander Schmemann the Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy Excerpts

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By the seventh century many literary remains give evidence of the veneration of icons; it
is a well-established fact of Church life. Writes Leontius of Neapolis:

I sketch and paint Christ and the sufferings of Christ in churches, in homes, in public
squares, and on icons, on linen cloth, in closets, on clothes, and in every place I paint so
that men may see them plainly, may remember them and not forget them . . . And as thou,

19

V.V. Weidle, The Baptism of Art (Westminster, England, 1950).

20

Ibid.

103

when thou makest thy reverence to the Book of the Law, bowest down not to the sub-
stance of skins and ink, but to the sayings of God that are found therein, so I do reverence
to the image of Christ. Not to the substance of wood and paint — that shall never happen!
. . . But, by doing reverence to an inanimate image of Christ . . . I think to embrace Christ
Himself and to do Him reverence. . . . We Christians, by bodily kissing an icon of Christ,
or of an apostle or martyr, are in spirit kissing Christ Himself or His martyr.

In this perspective, every saint is a witness for Christ, showing forth all the power of union with
Him, being His living icon. And from this Chalcedonian interpretation of the icon came the
method of painting them prescribed by the eighty-second decree of the Trullan Synod (692):

In venerating the ancient icons and the saints who were devoted to the Church, as sym-
bols and prototypes of the Truth, we especially venerate grace and truth as the fulfillment
of the Law. Therefore, that what has been accomplished may be represented to all men’s
eyes through the art of painting, We decree that henceforth there are to be imprinted upon
the icons of Christ our God — Who took on the guise of humanity that in this semblance
men might discover the depth of God’s humility — His Words, to bring to mind His life
in the fresh, His Passion, His saving Death, and the redemption of the whole world which
has proceeded therefrom.

In this text the fundamental meaning of icons is given: they are testimonials to the Incarnation,
reminders of it, images whose subject has been filled with power.
As is almost always the case in the Church, acceptance and definition preceded the path
of understanding; experience came before revelation in thought. Moreover, because the line di-
viding the Chalcedonian essence of icons from real idol-worship is exceedingly fine, the venera-
tion of icons very soon became perverted in many places and took on improper forms. The sev-
enth century, as already indicated, was simultaneously the time of astonishing fruits of Orthodox
spirituality and of an indisputable coarsening of the mass of Christians. Among the latter the ven-
eration of icons was sometimes marked by crude and sensual superstition. “Many think,” wrote
St. Anastasius of Sinai, “that he sufficiently reveres his baptism who, entering the church, kisses
all the icons without paying any attention to the Liturgy and the divine service.”21
We hear of the custom of taking icons as godparents for one’s children, of adding paint
scraped from icons to the Eucharistic wine, of laying the Sacrament upon an icon so as to receive
it from a saint’s hand, and so on. Obviously, many practices involved a fundamental distortion;
the honor paid to icons was often close to idol- worship, and the honoring of their material sub-
stance was permitted. In other words, the same thing occurred with the veneration of icons that
had often happened earlier with the cult of the saints and the veneration of relics. Arising from
sound Christological foundations as a product and revelation of the Church’s faith in Christ, too
often they lost touch with this foundation and, changing into something self-contained, lapsed
back into paganism.

But these distortions alone were not sufficient to create the profound and long- lasting
iconoclastic movement. A subtle and theologically considered rejection of the whole concept of
the icon developed, which forced the Church to further creative effort and theological contempla-
tion.

21

Migne, Patrologia Graeca, LXXXIX, 829.

104

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