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Bishop Kallistos Ware
Orthodox Church

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  • Part I: History.
    • Byzantium: The Church of the Seven Councils
      • The holy icons
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The holy icons

  Disputes concerning the Person of Christ did not cease with the Council of 681, but were

extended in a different form into the  eighth and ninth centuries. The struggle centered on the

Holy Icons, the pictures of Christ, the Mother of God, and the Saints, which were kept and ven-

erated both in churches  and in private homes. The  Iconoclasts or icon-smashers, suspicious of

any religious art which represented human beings or God, demanded the destruction of icons; the

opposite party, the Iconodules or venerators of icons, vigorously defended the place of icons in

the life of the Church. The struggle was not merely a conflict between two conceptions of Chris-

tian art. Deeper issues were involved: the character of Christ.s human nature, the Christian atti-

tude towards matter, the true meaning of Christian redemption.

  The Iconoclasts may have been influenced from the outside by Jewish and Moslem ideas,

and it is significant that three years before the first outbreak of Iconoclasm in the Byzantine Em-

pire, the Mohammedan Caliph Yezid ordered the removal of all icons within his dominions. But

Iconoclasm  was not simply imported from outside; within Christianity itself there had  always

existed a .puritan. outlook, which condemned icons because it saw in all images a latent idola-

try. When the Isaurian Emperors attacked icons, they found plenty of support inside the Church.

Typical of this puritan outlook is the action of Saint Epiphanius of Salamis (315?-403), who, on

finding  in  a  Palestinian  village  church  a  curtain woven  with  the  figure  of  Christtore  it  down

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with indignation. This attitude was always strong in Asia Minor, and some hold that the Icono-

clast movement was an Asiatic protest against Greek tradition. But there are difficulties in such a

view; the controversy was really a split within the Greek tradition.

  The  Iconoclast controversy, which lasted some 120  years, falls into two phases. The first

period opened in 726 when Leo 3 began his attack on icons, and ended in 780 when the Empress

Irene suspended the persecution. The  Iconodule position was upheld by the seventh and last

Ecumenical Council (787), which met (as the first had done) at Nicaea. Icons, the Council pro-

claimed, are to be kept in churches and honored with the same relative veneration as is shown to

other material symbols, such as .the precious and life-giving Cross. and the Book of the Gos-

pels. A new attack on icons, started by Leo V the Armenian in 815, continued until 843 when the

icons were again reinstated, this time permanently, by another Empress, Theodora. The final vic-

tory of the Holy Images in 843 is known as .the Triumph of Orthodoxy,. and is commemorated

in a special service celebrated on .Orthodoxy Sunday,. the first Sunday in Lent. During this ser-

vice the true faith . Orthodoxy . is proclaimed, its defenders are honored, and anathemas pro-

nounced on all who attack the Holy Icons or the Seven General Councils:

 

To those who reject the Councils of the Holy Fathers, and their traditions which are agreeable to

divine revelation, and  which the Orthodox Catholic Church piously  maintainsANATHEMA!

ANATHEMA! ANATHEMA!

 

  The chief champion of the icons in the first period was Saint John of Damascus (675-749),

in the second Saint Theodore of Studium (759-826). John was able to work the more freely be-

cause he dwelt in Moslem territory, out of reach of the Byzantine government. It was not the last

time that Islam acted unintentionally as the protector of Orthodoxy.

  One of the distinctive features of Orthodoxy is the place which it assigns to icons. An Or-

thodox church today is filled with them: dividing the sanctuary from the body of the building

there is a solid screen, the iconostasis, entirely covered with icons, while other icons are placed

in special shrines around the church; and perhaps the walls are covered with icons in fresco or

mosaic. An Orthodox prostrates himself before these icons, he kisses them and burns candles in

front of them; they are censed by the priest and carried in procession. What do these gestures and

actions mean? What do icons signify, and why did John of Damascus and others regard them as

important?

  We  shall  consider  first  the  charge  of  idolatry, which  the  Iconoclasts  brought  against  the

Iconodules; then the positive value of icons as a means of instruction; and finally their doctrinal

importance.

  The question of idolatry. When an Orthodox kisses an icon or prostrates himself before it,

he is not guilty of idolatry. The icon is not an idol but a symbol; the veneration shown to images

is directed, not towards stone, wood, and paint, but towards the person depicted. This had been

pointed out some time before the  Iconoclast controversy by Leontius of  Neapolis (died about

650):

 

We do not make obeisance to the nature of wood, but we revere and do obeisance to

Him who was crucified on the Cross.. When the two beams of the Cross are joined

together I adore the figure because of Christ who on the Cross was crucified, but if the

beams are separated, I throw them away and burn them (Migne, Patrologia Graeca [P.G.],

xciv, 1384D).

 

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Because icons are only symbols, Orthodox do not worship them, but reverence or venerate them.

John of Damascus carefully distinguished between the relative honor or veneration shown to ma-

terial symbols, and the worship due to God alone.

  Icons as part of the Church.s teaching. Icons, said Leontius, are .opened books to remind

us of God. (P.G.  xciv, 1276A); they are one of the means which the Church employs in order to

teach the faith. He who lacks learning or leisure to study works of theology has only to enter a

church to see unfolded  before him on the walls all the mysteries of the  Christian religion.  If a

pagan asks you to show him your faith, said the Iconodules, take him into church and place him

before the icons (Ad Constantinum Cabalinum, P.G. xcv, 325c. Icons are a part of Holy Tradition [see p. 214]).

  The doctrinal significance of icons. Here we come to the real heart of the Iconoclast dispute.

Granted that icons are not idolatrous; granted that they are useful for instruction; but are they not

only permissible but necessary? Is it essential to have icons? The Iconodules held that it is, be-

cause icons safeguard a full and proper doctrine of the Incarnation. Iconoclasts and Iconodules

agreed that God cannot  be represented in His eternal nature: .No man hath seen God at any

time. (John 1:18). But,  the  Iconodules continued, the  Incarnation has made a representational

religious art possible: God can be depicted because He became man and took flesh. Material im-

ages, argued John of Damascus, can be made of Him who took a material body:

 

Of old God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was not depicted at all. But now that

God has appeared in the flesh and lived among men, I make an image of the God who

can be seen. I do not worship matter but I worship the Creator of matter, who for my

sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who through matter effected my

salvation. I will not cease from worshipping the matter through which my salvation has

been effected (On Icons, I, 16, P. G. xciv 1245A).

 

The Iconoclasts, by repudiating all representations of God, failed to take full account of the In-

carnation. They fell, as so many puritans have done, into a kind of dualism. Regarding matter as

a defilement, they wanted a religion freed from all contact with what is material; for they thought

that what is spiritual must be non-material. But this is to betray the Incarnation, by allowing no

place to Christ.s humanity, to His body; it is to forget that man.s body as well as his soul must be

saved and transfigured. The Iconoclast controversy is thus closely linked to the earlier disputes

about Christ.s person. It was not merely a controversy about religious art, but about the Incarna-

tion and the salvation of man.

  God took a material body, thereby proving that matter can be redeemed: .The Word made

flesh has deified the flesh,. said John of Damascus (On Icons, I, 21 [P.G. xciv, 1253B]). God has .dei-

fied. matter, making it .spirit-bearing.; and if flesh became  a vehicle of the Spirit, then so .

though in a different way . can wood and paint. The Orthodox doctrine of icons is bound up

with the Orthodox belief that the whole of God.s creation, material as well as spiritual, is to be

redeemed and glorified. In the words of Nicholas Zernov (1898-1980) . what he says of Rus-

sians is true of all Orthodox:

 

Icons were for the Russians not merely paintings. They were dynamic manifestations

of man.s spiritual power to redeem  creation through beauty and  art. The colors and

lines of the [icons] were not meant to imitate nature; the artists aimed at demonstrating

that men, animals, and plants, and the whole cosmos, could be rescued from their pre-

sent state of degradation and restored to their proper  .Image.. The [icons] were

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pledges of the coming victory of a redeemed creation over the fallen one.. The artis-

tic perfection of an icon was not only a reflection of the celestial glory . it was a con-

crete example of matter restored to its original harmony and beauty, and serving as a

vehicle of the Spirit. The icons were part of the  transfigured cosmos (The  Russians  and

Their Church, pp. 107-108).

 

As John of Damascus put it:

 

The icon is a song of triumph, and a revelation, and an enduring monument to the vic-

tory of the saints and the disgrace of the demons (On Icons, 2, 2 [P.G. xciv, 1296B]).

 

The conclusion of the  Iconoclast dispute, the meeting of the seventh Ecumenical Council, the

Triumph of Orthodoxy in 843 . these mark the end of the second period in Orthodox history,

the period of the Seven  Councils. These Seven  Councils are of immense importance to Ortho-

doxy. For members of the Orthodox Church, their interest is not merely historical but contempo-

rary; they are the concern not only of scholars and clergy, but of all the faithful. .Even illiterate

peasants,. said Dean Stanley, .to whom, in the corresponding class of life in Spain or Italy, the

names of Constance  and Trent would probably be quite unknown, are well aware that their

Church reposes on the basis of the Seven Councils, and retain a hope that they may yet live to

see an eighth General Council, in which the evils of the time will be set straight. (Lectures on the

History of the Eastern Church [Everyman Edition], p. 99). Orthodox often call themselves .the Church of

the Seven Councils.. By this they  do not mean that the Orthodox Church has ceased to think

creatively since 787. But they see in the period of the Councils the great age of theology; and,

next to the Bible, it is the Seven Councils which the Orthodox Church takes as its standard and

guide in seeking solutions to the new problems which arise in every generation.

 




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