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Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky
Orthodox dogmatic theology

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The veneration of icons.

One of the outward forms of the worship of God and the veneration of the saints is the use

of sacred images and the respect shown to them.

Among the various gifts of man which distinguish him from other creatures is the gift of art

or of depictions in line and color. This is a noble and high gift, and it is worthy to be used to glorify

God. With all the pure and high means available to us we must glorify God according to the

call of the Psalmist: Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless His holy name

(Ps. 102:1). “All that is within me” refers to all the capabilities of the soul. And truly, the capability

of art is a gift from God. Of old under Moses “The Lord hath called by name Bezaleel, the

son of Uri; the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; and He hath filled him with the spirit of God, in

wisdom, in understanding and an knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship; and to devise

skilled works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, and in the cutting of stones, to set

them, and in carving of wood, to make any manner of cunning work. And He hath put in his heart

that he may teach (others) . . . Them hath He filled with wisdom of heart, to work all manner of

work, of the engraver, and of the cunning workman, and of the embroiderer (Ex. 35:30-35).

The material objects made by the skilled work of artists for the tabernacle of Moses, as also

subsequently for the Temple of Solomon, were all sacred. However, while some of them served

more as sacred adornments, others were especially revered and became exceptional places of

God’s glory. For example, there was the “Ark of the Covenant,” the very touching of which

without special reverence could cause death (2 Kings [2 Sam.] 6:7 — the incident with Uzzah at

the time of the transferral of the Ark under David, when Uzzah was struck dead because he

touched the Ark with his hand). There were also the “Cherubim of glory” over the Ark, in the

midst of which God deigned to reveal Himself and to give His commands to Moses. “There I

will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat, from between the

two Cherubim which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give thee in

commandment unto the children of Israel(Ex. 25:18-22). These were “the visible image of the

Invisible God” (in the expression of Metropolitan Macarius in his Orthodox Dogmatic Theology).

Among the numerous depictions on the walls and curtains of the Old Testament Temple,

there were no depictions of the departed righteous ones, such as exist in the Christian Church.

They were not there because the righteous ones themselves were awaiting their deliverance, waiting

to be brought up out of hell; this was accomplished by the descent into hell and the Resurrection

of Christ. According to the Apostle, “They without us should not be made perfect(Heb.

11:40); they were glorified as saints only in the New Testament.

If in the Sacred Scripture there are strict prohibitions against the erection of idols and the

worship of them, one cannot at all transfer these prohibitions to Christian icons. Idols are the images

of false gods, and the worship of them was a worship of demons, or else of imaginary beings

that have no existence; and thus, in essence, it is a worship of the lifeless objects themselves

wood, gold, or stone. But the Sacred Scripture strictly instructs us to put a difference between

holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean (Lev. 10:10). He who is unable to see the difference

between sacred images and idols blasphemes and defiles the icons; he commits sacrilegeand is subject to the condemnation of Sacred Scripture, which warns: “Thou that abhorrest idols,

dost thou commit sacrilege?” (Rom. 2:22).

The discoveries of ecclesiastical archeology show that in the ancient Christian Church there

existed sacred images in the catacombs and in other places of assembly for prayer, and subsequently

in Christian churches. If in certain cases Christian writers have expressed themselves

against the existence of statues and similar images, they have in mind the pagan worship (the

Council of Elvira in Spain, 305). Sometimes, however, such expressions and prohibitions were

evoked by the special conditions of the time — for example, the necessity to hide one’s holy

things from the pagan persecutors and from the non-Christian masses who had a hostile attitude

toward Christianity.

It is natural to suppose that in the earliest period in the history of Christianity the first need

was that people be drawn away from pagan idol worship, and only later could there be brought

into being the idea of the fulness of the forms for glorifying God and His saints; and among these

forms there is a place for a glorification in colors, in sacred images.

The Seventh Ecumenical Council in the following words expressed the dogma of the veneration

of sacred icons: “We therefore . . . 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 . . . should be

set forth in the holy churches of God (for veneration) . . . For by so much more frequently as they

are seen in artistic representation (that is, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Theotokos, the angels and

saints who are depicted in the icons), 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

honorable reverence (Greek: timitiki proskynisis), not indeed that true worship of faith (Greek:

latreia) which pertains alone to the Divine nature; but to these . . . incense and lights may be offered

. . . For the honor which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents

(Eerdmans Seven Ecumenical Councils, p. 550). (This distinction between the “worship” of God and the

reverence” or “venerationshown for icons was set forth first by St. John Damascene in his treatises on the icons.

See his On the Divine Images, tr. by David Anderson, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, N.Y., 1980, pp.

82-88, and the Introduction, pp. 10-11.

Nothing is said in the Orthodox canons regarding the veneration of statues, such as came to be used in the religious

art of the West in the middle ages and later centuries. However, the virtually universal tradition of the Orthodox

Church of both East and West in the early centuries, and of the Eastern Church in later centuries, has been to

allow as religious art two dimensional depictions and bas-reliefs, but not statues in the round. The reason for this

seems to lie in the realism that is inevitable in three-dimensional depictions, making them suitable for representing

the things of this world of earth (for example, the statues of emperors), but not those of the heavenly world into

which our earthly thinking and realism cannot penetrate. Two dimensional icons, on the other hand, are like “windows

to heaven” which are much more capable of raising the mind and heart to heavenly realities.)

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