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by David Withun
I - Introduction
One of the most common criticisms that Protestants express against Orthodox Christianity is the
prominent place of iconography, a uniquely Orthodox Christian figurative art form, in the Church.
That Orthodox Christians give a very special place to the Holy Icons is hard to miss. Our churches,
homes, and even places of business are filled with them, often outside as well as in. Upon entering a
church and before prayers at home, Orthodox Christians generally perform bows from the waist
and kiss the icons in reverence. During the worship services in an Orthodox Church, the Priest
frequently incenses the icons and the worshipers frequently bow and even prostrate toward them.
On various feast days throughout the year,
icons of Christ, of the Theotokos,
and of various Saints
and Angels are raised high and processed in and around churches and streets. And we do, after all,
refer to them as the Holy Icons.
For Orthodox Christians, icons are an intrinsic aspect of our spirituality and of our everyday lives.
We use them for prayer, as gifts, as decoration, as jewelry, and as ever-present reminders of our
loved ones and the love and inspiration they offer. We even believe that God can and does work
miracles through them. There are many icons referred to as wonder-working or
myrrh-streaming which Orthodox believers bear a special reverence for, accepting that through
these particular icons God has done a special act for man.
Some of these icons are even on the
calendar of feast days we celebrate.
In short, for Orthodox Christians icons are central to the Christian Faith. As we will see later in this
essay, there is a theology of images in Orthodox Christianity without which it could no longer call
itself orthodox
Icons are not a peripheral aspect of Christianity, but one of its most essential
features. A loss of the icons, for an Orthodox Christian, would entail the loss of a significant and
irreplaceable piece of what it means to be a Christian.
In contrast to all of this, most Protestants reject the use of figurative religious art and even those
who accept it generally do so in a very limited sense and inconsistently, largely only in principle
and not necessarily in the fullness of practice.
Though Martin Luther, the founding figure of the Protestant Reformation, was relatively accepting
of figurative religious art,
the tendency of most Protestants throughout their history has been
toward absolute or near-absolute iconoclasm, a hatred of the Holy Icons. This has been especially
true amongst those Protestants who have followed in the Reformed tradition of John Calvin,
probably the single individual most responsible for the negative attitude of Protestants toward
Calvin, like most iconoclasts both before and after him, based his absolute iconoclasm primarily on
a strict and literal interpretation of the Second Commandment of the Decalogue,
allowing no
distinction between iconography and idolatry
nor between worship and veneration.
He also,
though secondarily, supported his argument with his understanding, false but common even until
fairly recent times, that the Christians of approximately the first 500 years of the Faith had not used
images in their worship.
Although Calvin's attacks on figurative art in religion were not waged directly upon iconography,
but upon the statuary and paintings of medieval Roman Catholicism, his arguments have been
assumed and utilized by his iconoclastic Protestant successors against Orthodox iconography as
well. For this reason, it is primarily these arguments which will be examined and discussed in this
short essay. Along the way, we will also look at several other relevant issues, including the
Christological implications of iconography and iconoclasm, the historical development of
iconography in the Orthodox Christian Church, and the reasons why the Holy Icons are so
important to Orthodox Christian theology, practice, and life.
II Presence of Icons in Early Christianity
An obvious and important question to ask when examining the validity of the presence and
veneration of the Holy Icons in the churches today is whether or not the earliest Christians, roughly
those of the first five hundred years of the Church, used iconography and, if so, how they used it.
The faith and practice of these earliest Christians is supremely important in deciding correct faith
and practice of Christians today as these early Christians lived the closest in time, place, and culture
to the Apostles and other first century followers of Christ. Many of the Christians who lived during
this period were members of churches which had been directly founded by Apostles and lived in
cities mentioned in the Bible. In addition, very importantly, most of the Christians of this period
spoke the ancient Greek of the New Testament as their own native language. Recognizing the
importance and authority of the early Church, John Calvin wrote:
If the authority of the ancient church moves us in any way, we will recall that for about five hundred
years, during which religion was still flourishing, and a pure doctrine thriving, Christian Churches
were commonly empty of images. Thus, it was when the purity of the ministry had somewhat
degenerated that they were first introduced for the adornment of churches.
Until fairly recently, Calvin's words here were the common assumption of both Protestants and
historians of early Christianity. It was widely believed and taught that the churches of the first
several hundred years were largely imageless and that Christians themselves were generally hostile
to figurative art, rejecting it as an idolatrous pagan practice. This assumption was largely based on a
dearth of archaeological evidence and on a false assumption of Jewish iconophobia coupled with
erroneous prooftexting of various early Christian writers' criticisms of the idols of the pagans.
All three bases of the theory of early Christian hostility toward images have been dismantled by the
introduction of new evidence throughout the 20
century, and more evidence continues to be
uncovered today through archaeological exploration.
The hole that once existed in physical
evidence of the worship of ancient Christians and Jews has now been filled with numerous
discoveries throughout the Middle East, Southern and Eastern Europe, and North Africa.
Perhaps the most famous of these discoveries is the ancient city of Dura Europos.
Dura Europos
was a diverse city, home to Christians, pagans, and Jews alike, located near the western border of
what is now the nation of Syria. While under Roman rule, the city was left abandoned by its
inhabitants due to a Sassanian siege in AD 256-257,
preserving for modern archaeologists, who
would begin excavating the city shortly after its rediscovery in 1920, a particularly interesting look
into the lives of Romans in Syria in the third century.
And of particular interest to us for the purposes of this essay is the church of the city, the oldest
Christian church yet discovered, dating to about AD 233.
Though they are in some rough
condition, several examples of early Christian iconography are preserved within the church.
the wall near the baptismal font, there is an icon of Christ as the Good Shepherd,
with Adam and
Eve below the figure. On the south wall of the baptistery are icons of St. Photini, better known as
the woman at the well
and, to the left of that, an image of the Prophet-King David's fight with
On the north wall of the baptistery are an illustration of the healing of the paralytic
a depiction of Christ and St. Peter walking on water.
Alarge icon below these depicts three women,
probably the Virgin Mary, St. Mary Magdalene, and St. Salome, walking towards what appears to
be a tomb, probably a depiction of the cave in which Christ's body was placed after the
And the Christians of the city weren't the only ones whose house of worship had lots of images. The
Jewish synagogue discovered at Dura Europos, the construction of which was probably finished in
about AD 245,
is filled nearly top to bottom with ornate iconographic depictions of Old Testament
events and figures.
Throughout the dozens of icons present in the synagogue are images of
Prophets, such as Moses, David, Ezekiel, and Abraham, symbols such as the Menorah and the Torah
Scroll, and depictions of events such as the near-sacrifice of Isaac
and Moses' reception of the Ten
The synagogue at Dura Europos, though a very striking example because of its
excellent preservation, is by no means unique in the ancient world; there are many more synagogues
with much more iconographic art which archaeologists have discovered and are still in the process
of discovering.
The abundance of images in these synagogues is especially important to our current purposes as it
significantly undermines one of the key pillars of the theory that early Christians were hostile to
images, namely, the assumption, which passed unquestioned for quite some length of time, that the
early Judaism from which Christianity emerged was aniconic and even iconophobic. Clearly, the
opposite was true; Christianity emerged from and grew up alongside a Judaism with a vibrant
iconographic tradition.
The statements of early Christians writing against idolatry have been interpreted in the context of
this false assumption by many for some time. But, with this new archaeological evidence, including
both the synagogues and the church at Dura Europos, new interpretations are necessary. The textual
evidence can not continue to be interpreted in a vacuum, but must now be interpreted alongside and
within the context of the archaeological evidence.
Why would the early Christians expend so much time and effort arguing so vehemently against the
idolatry of the pagans while remaining silent about the idolatry, assuming they considered it to be so,
rising up in their midst? Early Christian apologists simultaneously railed against the images of the
pagans while attending worship services in churches with images; the only plausible explanation for
how to reconcile these two facts is that they must not have considered their own images to be
Additionally, early Christian apologists were never shy about criticizing the Jews for any of even
the slightest perceived transgressions;
if the widespread use of images in the synagogues was
viewed by them as idolatrous, why did they never take the opportunity to attack the Jews for this?
Why, instead, does it seem that early Christians in fact picked up their art forms and styles from the
Contrary to the former allegations of Calvin and his faithful disciples, the introduction of
icons into the churches was not the result of later pagan influence upon a weaker Church, but was
part of the early Jewish inheritance assumed by the new Christian Faith in its first centuries.
These are questions and conundrums that, because the evidence was unavailable until fairly recently,
never occurred to earlier Protestant proponents of iconoclasm like John Calvin and which
iconoclasm's modern proponents have yet to sufficiently answer or explain. But these are questions
which demand an answer if their views are going to continue to be taken seriously in the light of
modern archaeological evidence.
III Veneration of Icons in Early Christianity
Now that we've established that icons were present in the early Church, the next question that must
be answered in our examination of the historical validity of iconography is how these ancient icons
were viewed and used by Christians during that time. Were they merely decorative? Were they an
active part of the worship service or merely a background setting for it? Most importantly, were
they venerated?
The only honest and straightforward answer that can be given to these questions is the admission
that we don't know anything for sure. There are some things that archaeologists just don't have
access to and the minds and hearts of early third century Christians and Jews are amongst those
things. Of course, we can't travel back in time to witness their worship services and pious practices
or to interview them on these things for ourselves. But we do have a few clues within the
archaeological evidence if we pay close attention.
Returning to the synagogue at Dura Europos as our outstanding example, we find, as in nearly every
synagogue, a niche in which the Torah scroll was placed located on the wall towards the direction of
Jerusalem, in this case the western wall. This is the holiest place in a Jewish temple, the location of
the scroll containing the Torah, the Law of Moses, the direction, again, towards Jerusalem, which
Jews face for prayer, the center of the community's liturgical life.
And on this same wall,
surrounding the Torah niche, are dozens of icons. This means that the Jewish congregants at this
synagogue would have been facing toward these images throughout their worship, chanting, singing,
praying, and bowing.
Also of note is the orientation of the figures depicted in the iconography at the synagogue; they are
facing outward, toward the viewer, looking at the individual looking at them. This is true not only of
those icons intentionally painted in portrait style, but even of those which illustrate a biblical story
or otherwise show a scene or movement; the individual depicted is almost always facing toward the
Visualize yourself, for a moment, in this synagogue in the third century in the midst of a worship
service. You are facing toward a wall filled with images. You pray and raise your eyes, looking at
the Saints of God, and they are looking back at you. The effect that these icons must have been
intended to have and surely did have is obvious.
Similarly, the surviving icons in the church at Dura Europos are not located in a backroom or even
in the back of the room; they are in the baptistery, the place within the church building where
baptism, one of the most sacred rites of Christianity, takes place. The icon of Christ as the Good
Shepherd is located in an apse above the baptismal font at about eye level with a standing man. Is it
really a stretch of the imagination to wonder if the priest or bishop presiding at the baptism, given
that he would have been standing eye to eye with this image of Christ, might have been looking
with love upon this image of his Savior as he recited the prayers which would bring another sheep
into the Good Shepherd's pasture? Is it really such a stretch of the imagination to think that this
newly-illuminated Christian, arising from the baptismal waters cleansed of his sins and a new
creation in Christ, might have looked to this icon of his Master and uttered even the briefest prayer,
exclamation, or thought of thanks? I don't think that either is a very far stretch, but instead the
greatest likelihood.
In trying to determine whether early Christians, or Jews for that matter, venerated icons, the
question of what exactly constitutes veneration must first be answered. Webster's Dictionary defines
the word venerate as to regard with reverence.
Veneration is not merely the outward act we
currently see in Orthodox churches; veneration is much, much more. One need not touch or even
come especially close to an icon to venerate it. The very presence of these icons at all in fact attests
to their veneration. Why else did the early Christians and ancient Jews decorate their temples so
lavishly with icons? In the ancient world, art was not only intended for beauty but almost always for
utility as well.
These icons, then, were created as and for more than mere decoration.
The artists who made these images and/or the individuals who originally commissioned their
production were moved by their piety and reverence to create these depictions of holy men and
women in the service of God. It is hard to imagine that these same individuals who were so moved
to create them, as well as the many others who would view them in the temple, would not also be
moved by their piety and devotion to God with feelings of reverence and awe as they gazed upon
the beauty of the finished product. What truly reverent Jew could look into the eyes of the image of
the Prophet Moses in the synagogue during Sabbath worship and not feel moved with awe at this
great holy man of God? What truly religious Christian could look upon the image of Christ healing
the paralytic in the church and not feel moved with love and gratefulness to his Lord and Savior for
healing his own spiritual sickness and paralysis?
So, did early Christians perform the standardized ritual of bowing twice, kissing the icon, and
bowing once more as Orthodox Christians commonly do today? Perhaps, but probably not. Did they
bow while standing in front of these icons? Unless the Christians and Jews of Dura Europos were
the only Christians and Jews who didn't bow during worship, the answer is a clear affirmative. Did
they pray in front of these icons? Clearly they did; as we have seen, the icons are located on walls
which would have been faced during prayer. Did they kiss these icons? There's no way to tell; as
these ancient cultures were certainly kissing cultures I don't think it's a great leap of logic to think
they might have, but, as far as I know, archaeologists haven't looked for lipstick smudges yet! But
did they venerate these icons? Did they regard [them] with reverence? Absolutely, without a
IV Necessity of Iconography
The Holy Icons were displayed and venerated in Christian churches throughout the world for almost
700 years before anybody raised a voice of opposition against them, a significant point of fact in
Some time between the years 726 and 730, however, the Roman (Byzantine) Emperor Leo
III the Isaurian ordered the removal of an Icon of Christ which had hung prominently over one of
the main gates to the city of Constantinople, the imperial capitol. In a subsequent decree issued
shortly after, he forbade the veneration of the Holy Icons altogether, although still allowing for the
veneration of symbols such as the Cross.
Christians throughout the Roman Empire and well beyond its borders reacted with shock and
outrage at the Emperor's unprecedented move. St. Germanos I resigned his position as Patriarch of
Constantinople. St. Gregory III, Pope of Rome at the time, held two synods in Rome condemning
Leo and his actions. In some parts of the Empire, there were riots and even popular uprisings, often
led by the monks, which group unanimously opposed Leo's attempted reforms of the Christian
Faith. The ensuing chaos and Christian infighting continued for over a hundred years. However, as
interesting as the history of the Byzantine iconoclast controversy is, it is not within our purview
here to examine the events in detail; that topic has been excellently treated in very many other
What matters to us are the arguments that each side used to support their position; many of
these arguments are the same that today's iconoclasts continue to use.
It is not precisely known what motivated Emperor Leo to begin issuing his edicts against the Holy
Icons. Some historians have posited that the Emperor may have been influenced by Islam, a strictly
iconoclastic religion which was quickly rising in power and which the Emperor had encountered
firsthand during his battles with the Islamic Ummayad Caliphate.
Another likely motivating factor
was the Emperor's apparent search for reasons why God's wrath had fallen upon the Empire in the
form of Muslim victories and recent natural disasters; images seemed to him an obvious answer.
The most obvious reason and the most widely cited by the iconoclasts themselves, though, was a
strict and literal interpretation of the Second Commandment,
which states (see Exodus 20:4-6 and
Deuteronomy 5:8-10):
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or
that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them
or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of
parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to
the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
The strict and literal interpretation of these verses of Scripture lays at the heart of and has been the
key point in all movements of Christian iconoclasm, including the the original iconoclasm of the
Byzantines, that of the Protestant Reformers, and that of modern iconoclasts.
The immediate problem with such a strict and literal interpretation, however, is that Scripture itself
does not interpret this as a prohibition of images in a strict and literal sense. Where the Second
Commandment occurs in the book of Exodus, for instance, God says only a few chapters later
(Exodus 26:1):
Moreover you shall make the tabernacle with ten curtains woven of fine linen thread, and blue and
purple and scarlet yarn; with artistic designs of cherubim you shall weave them.
And in another verse previous to that, God even associates his own presence with images (Exodus
And there I will meet with you, and I will speak with you from above the mercy seat, from between
the two cherubim which are on the ark of the Testimony, of all things which I will give you in
commandment to the children of Israel.
Clearly, Scripture can and does distinguish between an idol and an icon, just as the early Christians
and Jews we encountered earlier did. Few, if any, Christians interpret the Sixth Commandment,
which forbids murder, so strictly.
Nearly all Christians accept that Scripture distinguishes here
between murder and killing, forbidding the former while allowing for the latter in some limited
circumstances; this is especially true in the light of later verses in which God directly orders the
killing of certain groups and individuals.
Why, then, if Protestants can allow for a distinction here
between murder and killing in the light of later verses, do they refuse to allow for a distinction
between idols and icons in the Second Commandment in the light of later verses allowing for and
even ordering the production of religious images? This inconsistency smacks of hypocrisy and is
indicative of certain readers interpreting their own presuppositions into the text rather than allowing
the text to speak for itself.
And the text of Scripture certainly does interpret itself on this matter. Speaking to the people and
repeating much of the Second Commandment to them, the Prophet Moses explains why it is that
they are forbidden to make an image of God (Deuteronomy 4:11, 15-18):
And the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of the words, but saw
no form; you only heard a voice. ... Take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form when the
Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, lest you act corruptly and make for
yourselves a carved image in the form of any figure: the likeness of male or female, the likeness of
any animal that is on the earth or the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, the likeness of
anything that creeps on the ground or the likeness of any fish that is in the water beneath the earth.
According to the Prophet Moses, then, the reason that the Hebrews were ordered not to make an
image is because they saw no image. They were unable to make an image of God because God was
as yet unseen and even unseeable, and therefore undepicted and undepictable. However,
approximately 2000 years ago, a remarkable event occurred which changed all of this: the
Incarnation; in the words of the Holy Apostle John (Gospel of John 1:14):
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only
begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.
God became man in the Person of Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary. And, in becoming man, he
took on all the properties of mankind, becoming like us in all things.
Amongst the properties
common to humankind is to have form and to be depictable; Christ, therefore, took upon himself the
ability to be depicted in an image. We are no longer in the situation of the Hebrews in the Book of
Deuteronomy who had only heard the sound of the words, but saw no form; we have now beheld
His glory.
The truth of the Incarnation is fatal to any attempt at Christian iconoclasm and, necessarily,
iconoclasts have traditionally, and dangerously, downplayed or altogether ignored it and its
implications. The father of Protestant iconoclasm, John Calvin, for instance, wrote against images
as if he were totally unfamiliar with the Incarnation of the Lord:
Therefore it remains that only those things are to be sculptured or painted which the eyes are
capable of seeing: let not God's majesty, which is far above the perception of the eyes, be debased
through unseemly representations.
St. John of Damascus (ca. 646-749), one of the most important defenders of the Holy Icons during
the Byzantine controversy, noted this betrayal of the prime truth of Christianity amongst the
iconoclasts of his day and rightly declared:
In times past, God, without body and form, could in no way be represented. But now, since God has
appeared in flesh and lived among men, I can depict that which is visible of God. I do not venerate
the matter, but I venerate the Creator of matter, who became matter for me, who condescended to
live in matter, and who, through matter accomplished my salvation; and I do not cease to respect the
matter through which my salvation is accomplished.
One of the truly remarkable features of all iconoclastic movements, no matter which location or
century, is their inevitable lack of emphasis on the Incarnation and resulting pseudo-Eutychian
Christology, often approaching very close to outright docetism.
A suitable example of this can be
read in a short treatise forged by the eighth century Byzantine iconoclasts in the name of the fourth
century Bishop and Church Father St. Epiphanius of Salamis:
I have heard it said that some people have ordered that the incomprehensible Son of God be
represented: to hear and believe such a blasphemy makes one shiver.
How can anyone say that God, incomprehensible, inexpressible, ungraspable by the mind, and
uncircumscribable, can be represented, him whom Moses could not look at? Some people say that
since the Word of God became perfect man born from the ever-virgin Mary, we can represent him
as man.
Did the Word become flesh so that you could represent by your hand the Incomprehensible One by
whom all things were made?
The author here is apparently even aware of the Orthodox counter-argument formulated by St. John
of Damascus and yet, rather than attempt to provide a decent answer to it, he simply ignores it and
repeats the same thing he had said previously but with different phrasing, completely sidestepping
the logical flaw in his own argument. If the Word of God became perfect man born from the
ever-virgin Mary he took on all of the aspects of what it means to be a man, as we discussed above.
Men are comprehensible, expressible, graspable by the mind, and circumscribable, therefore the
Word of God, in order to be perfect man, had taken on comprehensibility, expressibility, graspability,
and circumscribability. If he did not, then he did not become perfect man, which conclusion places
us firmly in the camp of the docetists.
An argument to the same end which the Orthodox theologians and Church Fathers who fought
against the Byzantine iconoclasts did not have at hand is the question of whether a photograph of
Christ would have been permissible had the technology existed during his earthly sojourn. If not,
the iconoclast must answer the question of why? Would it have been physically possible? If not,
then Christ must not have been fully human, therefore not perfect man. Would it have been
permissible by the laws of God? If not, then different rules must apply to Christ's humanity than
apply to ours, making his humanity unlike our own instead of like [us] in every way,
and so not
real humanity at all.
Each time without exception that iconoclasm has cropped up within Christendom, its followers have
found themselves dangerously close to denying or at least minimizing the most central truth claim
of Christianity, the Incarnation, and, as a result, placing themselves within or startlingly close to the
realm of docetism. The Holy Icons are a necessary safeguard of the most central doctrines of
Christianity and to deny them causes a subtle but monumental alteration in Christology and
theology as a natural implication. In the words of one historian, Richard Chenevix Trench, himself
in fact a Protestant clergyman (Anglican, to be specific), commenting on the end of the Byzantine
iconoclast controversy:
Had the Iconoclasts triumphed, when their work showed itself at last in its true colours, it would
have proved to be the triumph, not of faith in an invisible God, but of frivolous unbelief in an
incarnate Saviour.
The Kontakion
for the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy (celebrated on the first Sunday of Great
Lent), the commemoration of the restoration of the Holy Icons to the churches following the
conclusion of the Byzantine iconoclast controversy, succinctly summarizes the Orthodox argument
against the docetism of the iconoclasts:
No one could describe the Word of the Father;
but when He took flesh from you, O Theotokos, He accepted to be described,
and restored the fallen image to its former beauty.
We confess and proclaim our salvation in word and images.
V Necessity of Veneration
Thus far we have established that the the presence and veneration of the Holy Icons in the Christian
churches are early Christian traditions inherited from ancient Judaism and also that to attempt to do
away with the Christian iconographic tradition poses significant issues with radical implications in
Christology. We will now build on the base we have already set in place with these points and move
onto the necessity of the veneration of the Holy Icons.
There are some Protestant pseudo-iconoclasts who, backing off from full-blown iconoclasm
because its erroneous implications, concede to the production and presence of iconography but not
to its veneration. Such a semi-iconoclasm, though, is also filled with pitfalls. As we noted above
(section III) veneration is not only the standardized ritual common in the Orthodox Church today,
but any feeling of awe or reverence, a feeling which the Holy Icons must naturally bring about in
any pious Christian with a love for Christ, His Holy Mother, and the Saints and Angels.
This is not very difficult to illustrate. Imagine that you are away from your wife or husband, your
mother or father, or your son or daughter for a long period of time. Naturally, you hang up a picture
on your wall or carry a photo of this loved one in your pocket. Each time that you look at this
picture, you experience love and joy. You contemplate this picture and think about the times you've
had with this person, how much they mean to you, how anxious you are to return to their embrace.
You might even pick that picture up and kiss it! Now, one might naturally wonder why it would be
acceptable, natural, and normal for you to do all of this for a spouse, parent, or child, but not to do
the same for our Lord and Savior who said, Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me
is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
To continue with the illustration, if one were to look upon a photograph of his wife whom he has
been away from for some time and not feel any love or desire for her, it would be safe to wonder if
he really loves his wife and wants to be with her. Similarly, if a Christian looks upon an Icon of his
Savior Crucified for his salvation or of his Master depicted as the Good Shepherd and feels no awe,
no reverence, even no desire to prostrate himself in worship of his Lord, would it not be safe to
wonder if he really loves God and wants to be united to Him, even if he is a Christian at all?
In short, if the icons are present, and, as we have seen, they must be present if we are to have a
correct Christology, it is the natural response of honest love for God that the icons must be
venerated. To allow for the presence of iconography but disallow its veneration is to separate not
only art from utility, a strange enough concept in the context of ancient thought whether
Greco-Roman or Judeo-Christian, but, more importantly and more spiritually dangerously, to
divorce mind from heart, theology from practice, and piety from devotion.
St. Theodore of Studium (759-826), a monk and one of the primary Orthodox opponents of the
Byzantine iconoclasts, offered a concise summary of this point: If merely mental contemplation
had been sufficient, it would have been enough for him to come to us in a merely mental way.
VI Dangers of Idolatry
Before we close this essay, it seems worthwhile to take note of the dangers of excess which can lead
us to idolatry, as icons can certainly be made into idols. In part, it may have been some of the
abuses and perversions related to iconography in the Middle Ages that inspired Emperor Leo III the
Isaurian to launch the Byzantine iconoclast controversy in the first place. For example, there are
accounts which indicate that icons may have served as godparents at baptisms on multiple
Such abuses and perversions are, as stated, idolatrous; their possibility does not, however, preclude
the display and veneration of the Holy Icons altogether, as some iconoclasts would aver. On the
contrary, iconoclasts are just as capable of falling into idolatry as are iconodules (that is, those who
venerate the Holy Icons). In fact, it may be somewhat easier for an iconoclast to fall into idolatry as
he is much more susceptible to the danger of making a false image of God, most likely created in
his own image, whereas for the iconodule an image is already present. All the iconodule must do is
make certain that he doesn't turn this image into an idol.
Of all the senses, sight is perhaps the most used by and most important to human beings. Images are
natural to us. Martin Luther, the founder of the Protestant Reformation, wrote:
I am convinced that it is God's will that we should hear and learn what He has done, especially what
Christ suffered. But when I hear these things and meditate upon them, I find it impossible not to
picture them in my heart. Whether I want to or not, when I hear of Christ, a human form hanging
upon a cross rises up in my heart: just as I see my natural face reflected when I look into water.
This not only makes the iconoclast's position an inconsistent one, as he places a ban on external
images but knows himself incapable of stopping the natural rising up of images in his mind, but
also makes it more difficult for him to avoid idolatry. In the Orthodox Christian iconographic
tradition, creativity and imagination are strongly discouraged; an iconographer's goal is essentially
to copy previous images and, in the few cases in which news ones are needed, to stick as closely to
traditional guidelines of color, symbolism, style, etc. as possible. Insofar as he departs from these
standards, his quality as an iconographer decreases. In short, iconography is the art of imitation, not
Iconoclasts, on the other hand, having no traditional image to which to look, are
forced to create their own image fresh each time, allowing for the creation of a great variety of false
images and the danger of worshiping a false god; this is idolatry.
The Seventh Ecumenical Council, held in the city of Nicaea in 787, in finally giving the Church's
official endorsement to iconography in opposition to the Byzantine iconoclasts, was careful with its
language and its stipulations on two particularly important points. Here is the relevant portion of the
Decree of the Holy Seventh Ecumenical Council:
We, therefore, following the royal pathway and the divinely inspired authority of our Holy Fathers
and the traditions of the Catholic Church (for, as we all know, the Holy Spirit indwells her), define
with all certitude and accuracy that just as the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross, so also
the venerable and holy images, as well in painting and mosaic as of other fit materials, should be set
forth in the holy churches of God, and on the sacred vessels and on the vestments and on hangings
and in pictures both in houses and by the wayside, to wit, the figure of our Lord God and Saviour
Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady, the Mother of God, of the honourable Angels, of all Saints
and of all pious people. For by so much more frequently as they are seen in artistic representation,
by so much more readily are men lifted up to the memory of their prototypes, and to a longing after
them; and to these should be given due salutation and honourable reverence, not indeed that
true worship of faith which pertains alone to the divine nature; but to these, as to the figure of
the precious and life-giving Cross and to the Book of the Gospels and to the other holy objects,
incense and lights may be offered according to ancient pious custom. For the honour which is
paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image
reveres in it the subject represented. For thus the teaching of our holy Fathers, that is the tradition of
the Catholic Church, which from one end of the earth to the other hath received the Gospel, is
strengthened. Thus we follow Paul, who spake in Christ, and the whole divine Apostolic company
and the holy Fathers, holding fast the traditions which we have received.
Note the two portions I have placed in boldface.
First, notice the list of figures which the Council gives permission to depict, namely, Christ, the
Theotokos, Angels, Saints, and pious people. The Council does not give permission to attempt to
depict the divine essence of God (that is, the inner workings of the Trinity) nor the Father and the
Holy Spirit. The only Person of the Trinity who can be depicted directly is the Son, the Word of
God who became flesh, because He is the only one who has revealed an Image of Himself.
The second portion I have bolded is unequivocal; it is even more unequivocal in the original Greek.
The veneration shown to the Holy Icons is not the same as the worship given to the divine nature.
You may recall St. John of Damascus' words cited earlier in this essay (section IV):
I do not venerate the matter, but I venerate the Creator of matter, who became matter for me, who
condescended to live in matter, and who, through matter accomplished my salvation; and I do not
cease to respect the matter through which my salvation is accomplished.
The Icon itself is not to be confused with the person or Person who is depicted on the Icon. To
return to our earlier illustration (section V), this would be the equivalent of preferring a photograph
of your wife to actually being with your wife! Or, worse, confusing a photograph of your wife for
actually being your wife!
VII - Conclusion
In the course of this essay, we have examined the presence and veneration of the Holy Icons in the
light of history, Scripture, and the content of the Christian Faith. It has been shown that,
to the contrary of what has often been previously supposed, rather than being a later addition
to a weaker, less devout Christianity, the iconographic tradition is instead an inheritance
assumed by the very earliest Christians from their ancient Jewish forebears.
in spite of how such passages are often treated, the writings of the early Christians against
the idols of the pagans must be interpreted not in a vacuum but in the light of the presence of
Christian iconography within the temples within which these individuals worshiped.
any attempt to eliminate the Holy Icons has necessarily resulted in a de-emphasis of the
Incarnation and a resulting step into docetic or semi-docetic Christology.
veneration of the Holy Icons is not only the historical practice of the Christian Church but,
in addition, the only natural response to the presence of the icons.
although the danger of idolatry exists in an iconographic tradition, iconoclasts are equally if
not more capable of falling into idolatry, and the Church in its regulations of the Holy Icons has
been careful to avoid the errors which could lead to idolatry.
Early Christians probably began painting Images of Christ, of His Mother, and of holy people in
their homes and churches largely as a spontaneous expression of their piety and love for their Lord.
Honoring God and commemorating the Saints and events of Christ's life through artistic depictions
probably seemed quite natural to them; it was common practice, as we have seen, in the Judaism
from which Christianity emerged and to which it still held very close ties. These early Christians
probably put little if any thought into the deeper implications and meanings of Christian
iconography. And not much changed in these respects until over 700 years into the Christian era
with the outbreak of the first-ever movement of iconoclasm within Christianity.
As a result of this movement to destroy and ban the Holy Icons, Christians were forced to take a
deeper look at what they had been doing all along and to explore its implications and logical
conclusions. What they found is that this practice of iconography which had been natural but largely
lacking in deeper meaning thus far was in fact an essential aspect of the Christian Faith without
which the primary truths of Christianity would be turned on their head. In short, what had been
simply traditional, something that had always been done, had become a Holy Tradition, itself a
central principle of Orthodox Christianity.
This bow from the waist, generally accompanied with a downward sweeping movement of the arm
until the hand touches the floor is called a metanoia. The word, in Greek , refers to a
changing of one's mind; where it appears in the New Testament, such as Matthew 3:8, Luke 24:47,
2 Peter 3:9, etc., it is translated in most English versions of the Bible as repentance. The
veneration of an icon generally includes three of these bows, two before kissing the icon and one
Perhaps the most remarkable and obvious example of this is the procession before the Divine
Liturgy on the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, observed on the first Sunday of Lent. In
commemoration of the restoration of the Holy Icons to the churches after the end of Byzantine
iconoclasm in 842, Orthodox Christians process, each holding an icon, through the streets, or at
least around the outside of the church building, while singing a hymn about the veneration of icons
written by one of iconography's most ardent defenders during the Byzantine controversy, St.
Theodore of Studium. The procession stops only for the people to vehemently proclaim the
anathemas against iconoclasts and other heretics.
The Greek term Theotokos () refers to the Virgin Mary and literally means God-bearer,
though it is often translated as Mother of God. The title, in use in the ancient Church, was
officially endorsed by the Church at the Third Ecumenical Council in Ephesus in AD 431, largely in
order to counter the claims of Nestorius of Antioch and his followers, who claimed that the man
Jesus and the divine Word were two different persons. The title Theotokos is the term most
commonly used by Orthodox Christians to refer to the Virgin Mary. In using this term, Orthodox
Christians do not mean to impart inherent divinity to the Virgin Mary, but to ensure the inherent
divinity of Jesus Christ by pointing out that the man who was in her womb is indeed God Incarnate.
Wonder-working icons are those through which miracles, including the healing of sick people,
victory in battle, and safety in the face of catastrophe, have been affected by God's power. Myrrh is
a sweet-smelling resin collected from the dried sap of certain trees and often used in perfumes and
incense. There are some Holy Icons which have begun to spontaneously and miraculously drip with
this substance; it is these icons which are referred to with the title myrrh-streaming.
Some famous examples of icons celebrated on the Church's calendar include the Myrrh-streaming
Icon of the Theotokos of Iveron, celebrated on February 12, with which a number of miracles are
associated, including blood coming forth from the the Virgin Mary's face after it was speared by an
iconoclast during the Byzantine iconoclast era; the Weeping Icon of the Theotokos of Tikhvin,
celebrated February 17, located in Tikhvin Monastery on Mount Athos, from which tears began to
flow in 1877; and the Wonder-working Icon of the Theotokos Surety of Sinners of Odrino,
celebrated on March 7, which is associated with numerous healings of the sick, including the
restoration of a crippled child in 1844.
That is, right-believing, from the Greek , literally meaning straight opinion.
For example: Protestantism does not give painting and sculpture the same place in its Cultus that
was an is accorded to these arts in the Cultus of the Roman and Greek Churches, for it knows no
picture and image worship. Zwingli and others for the sake of saving the Word rejected all plastic
art; Luther, with an equal concern for the Word, but far more conservative, would have all the arts to
be the servants of the Gospel. The Lutheran Cultus has therefore never excluded painting and
sculpture, but it assigns these arts the last place. Jeremiah F. Ohl, "Art in Worship," Memoirs of the
Lutheran Liturgical Association, Vol. II (Pittsburgh: Lutheran Liturgical Association, 1900), 88-89.
"I have myself heard those who oppose pictures, read from my German Bible. . . . But this
contains many pictures of God, of the angels, of men, and of animals, especially in the Revelation
of St. John, in the books of Moses, and in the book of Joshua. We therefore kindly beg these
fanatics to permit us also to paint these pictures on the wall that they may be remembered and better
understood, inasmuch as they can harm as little on the walls as in books. Would to God that I could
persuade those who can afford it to paint the whole Bible on their houses, inside and outside, so that
all might see ; this would indeed be a Christian work. For I am convinced that it is God's will that
we should hear and learn what He has done, especially what Christ suffered. But when I hear these
things and meditate upon them, I find it impossible not to picture them in my heart. Whether I want
to or not, when I hear of Christ, a human form hanging upon a cross rises up in my heart: just as I
see my natural face reflected when I look into water. Now if it is not sinful for me to have Christ's
picture in my heart, why should it be sinful to have it before my eyes?" Martin Luther, quoted in
Ohl, 88-89.
According to Exodus 20:4-6 and Deuteronomy 5:8-10, You shall not make for yourself an idol,
whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in
the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your
God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth
generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those
who love me and keep my commandments. This Commandment is traditionally number as the
Second in the Decalogue (or Ten Commandments) by Orthodox Christians, Jews, and most
Protestants, while Roman Catholics and Lutherans include it as part of the First Commandment.
In arguing that icons fall under the purview of the Second Commandment's ban on idolatry,
Calvin, as well as all who follow in his footsteps, thereby equates icons with idols, which means, of
course, equating Christian images of Christian figures, including the Lord Christ, the Blessed
Theotokos, and the Holy Saints and Angels, with pagan images of demons, sinful human beings of
ancient times, and imaginary deities; this is dangerous ground indeed.
See Calvin's criticism of the medieval Roman Catholic distinction between dulia (the reverence
given to Saints, Angels, holy objects such as icons, etc., meaning veneration; in Greek )
and latria (the reverence reserved for the Trinity alone, meaning adoration; in Greek ) in
his Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.11.11 and 1.12.2 - 1.12.3, for instance. This distinction
appeared relatively early in Latin Christianity, being cited by Blessed Augustine of Hippo in his
City of God 10.1, but was made most explicit in and most firmly entered the medieval Roman
Catholic consciousness through the twelfth century Scholastic philosopher Thomas Aquinas,
considered a saint in the Roman Catholic Church; see his Summa Theologiae II II 84, 1 and II II 103,
3. Interestingly, this distinction is not the one used by the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Second
Council of Nicaea) when it issued the official Orthodox stance on iconography in 787. This Council
then and the Orthodox Church today instead differentiate between (literally meaning
kissing towards, describes the act of prostrating oneself before a superior, a common act in the
ancient world) and (which refers to the service to be rendered only to God), as well as
other, more precise Greek Septuagint and New Testament terms. Calvin, then, never addressed the
Orthodox understanding of icons and their veneration.
See Calvin, Institutes 1.11.13
The way Calvin actually deals with the 8th-century Councils of the iconoclast controversy
shows he did not really get to grips with the questions at issue in the Byzantine theology of that age.
For that matter he probably never saw an icon in his life. George Kretschmar, "The Reformation
and the Theology of Images." Icons: Windows On Eternity: Theology and Spirituality in Colour,
com. Gennadios Limouris, (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1990), 80.
Steven Bigham, Early Christian Attitudes toward Images, (Rollingsford, NH: Orthodox Research
Institute, 2004).
For more information on Dura Europos, see Clark Hopkins, The Discovery of Dura Europos,
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979). and Michael Ivanovitch Rostovtzeff, Dura-Europos and
Its Art, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1938).
Simon Anglim, Phyllis G. Jestice, Rob S. Rice, Scott M. Rusch, and John Serrati. Fighting
Techniques of the Ancient World: 3000 BC-500 AD : Equipment, Combat Skills, and Tactics, (New
York: St. Martin's, 2002), 218.
Justo L. Gonzlez, The Story of Christianity, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984), 95.
Ann Louise Perkins, The Art of Dura-Europos, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1973) and Graydon F. Snyder,
Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life Before Constantine, (Macon, Ga.: Mercer UP,
2003), 128-134.
John 10:11. Depictions of Christ as the Good Shepherd in poetry, prayer, literature, and art were
very popular amongst early Christians.
John 4:4-26
1 Samuel 17
Mark 2:1-12
Matthew 14:22-33
Mark 16:1
Jonathan Goldstein, The Judaism of the Synagogues (Focusing on the Synagogue of
Dura-Europos in Jacob Neusner, Alan J. Avery-Peck, and Bruce Chilton, Judaism in Late Antiquity,
(Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995), 110.
Steven Fine, Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World: Toward a New Jewish Archaeology,
(Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005), ch. 11.
Genesis 22:1-24
Exodus 31:18
Dan Urman, and Paul Virgil McCracken Flesher. Ancient Synagogues Historical Analysis and
Archaeological Discovery, (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1998).
See, for instance, St. Justin the Philosopher's (also known as Justin Martyr) lengthy diatribe
against the Jews for what he alleges are their alterations, most of them nearly insignificantly minor,
of the Scriptural texts, in his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew (written ca. AD 165).
For a very interesting and enlightening examination specifically of the Dura Europos synagogue
on this point, see Kurt Weitzmann and Herbert L. Kessler, The Frescoes of the Dura Synagogue and
Christian Art, (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1990).
R. Morrison, "Missionary Intelligence." The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Miscellany 4 (1817),
403. For example, see Daniel 6:10.
Specifically: Albert H. Morehead, Loy Morehead, Philip D. Morehead, and Andrew T. Morehead,
The New American Webster Handy College Dictionary, (New York, N.Y.: New American Library,
1981). See the entry for venerate.
Richard Cary, Critical Art Pedagogy: Foundations for Postmodern Art Education, (New York:
Garland Pub., 1998), 71.
Until fairly recently, it has been a common supposition that St. Epiphanius of Salamis (ca. AD
310-403) and Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. AD 263-339) were, in some sense, proto-iconoclasts.
This thesis, though, has been sufficiently addressed and dismissed by Steven Bigham, Epiphanius of
Salamis, Doctor of Iconoclasm?: Deconstruction of a Myth, (Rollinsford, N.H.: Orthodox Research
Institute, 2008). However, even if we permit two dissenting voices, which we nonetheless do not,
the honest response is that it doesn't matter. In the famous words of Aristotle (Nicomacaean Ethics,
Book 1, Chapter 7), one swallow does not make a summer. The point is that even if there were
several dissenting voices in the early Church, which we have yet to discover, their trickle of
difference is drowned out by the roaring river of the rest of Christendom. They are also unimportant
in having had no large or lasting effect; either they were ignored entirely or, more likely, they didn't
Warren T. Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford
Univ., 2000).
For a concise but informative history, see chapter 9, Iconoclasm, in John Julius Norwich, A
Short History of Byzantium, (New York: Knopf, 1997).
G.E. Von Grunebaum "Byzantine Iconoclasm and the Influence of the Islamic Environment."
History of Religions 2.1 (1962), 1-10.
See the Chronicle of St. Theophanes the Confessor, in English translation: Harry Turtledove (tr.),
The Chronicle of Theophanes: An English Translation of Anni Mundi 6095-6305 (A.D. 602-813),
(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1982).
All quotations of Scripture contained in this essay are taken from the New King James Version
According to Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17, You shall not murder. This Commandment
is traditionally numbered as the Sixth in the Decalogue (or Ten Commandments) by Orthodox
Christians, Jews, and most Protestants, while Roman Catholics and Lutherans number it as the Fifth
See, for instance, 1 Samuel 15:2-3
Hebrews 2:17
Institutes 1.11.12
St. John of Damascus, Apology Against Those Who Decry the Holy Images, Part I.
Eutyches (ca. AD 380-456), the founder of the heresy known as Monophysitism (mono [one] +
physis [nature] = one nature [of Christ]). He posited that Christ's human nature had been
swallowed up like a drop of honey in the sea of his divine nature, thereby denying the full
humanity of Christ. Eutyches' flawed Christology was condemned by the Fourth Ecumenical
Council at Chalcedon in AD 451. Docetism is a very early Christian heresy (late first/early second
century) which posited that Christ only appeared to be human but was not so in reality, being
instead totally divine. Docetism was condemned by the early Christians even in the New Testament
(see, for instance, 2 John 1:7).
For the full text of the iconoclastic treatise falsely attributed to St. Epiphanius as well as a cogent
argument as to why this attribution can safely be ruled as false, see Steven Bigham, Epiphanius of
Salamis, Doctor of Iconoclasm?: Deconstruction of a Myth, (Rollinsford, N.H.: Orthodox Research
Institute, 2008).
(Trench, Mediaeval History, Chap. vii.) The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided
Church, trans H. R. Percival, in NPNF2, eds. P. Schaff and H. Wace, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B.
Eerdmans, 1955), XIV, 575, cf. 547f.
Aspecific type of hymn used in the Orthodox Church to commemorate a Saint or feast.
"OCA - Troparion and Kontakion," The Orthodox Church in America, accessed 27 June 2010,
Matthew 10:37
St. Theodore of Studium, On the Holy Icons
Alexander Avenarius, The Byzantine Struggle over the Icon: on the Problem of Eastern European
Symbolism, (Bratislava: Academic Electronic, 2005), 32.
"'Imitate; Don't Innovate': Safeguarding the Integrity of the Orthodox Faith," Orthodox Christian
Information Center Home Page, Accessed 30 June 2010,
"The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church," trans H. R. Percival, in NPNF2, ed.
P. Schaff and H. Wace, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1955), XIV, 549.