The Orthodox Pages
DISCOVERING THE ICON
IN DEFENCE OF THE ICON
OPPONENTS OF THE ICON
The Icon had many opponents in the early Church, they did not understand the true meaning of the Icon and by using various arguments, like the prohibition of images in the Old Testament law, they claimed that the Icon was an extension of, and linked to the pagan religions of ancient Greece. These opponents of the Icon came to be known as iconomache or iconoclasts [Icon smashers]. The greatest opposition began in 725 A.D. The iconoclastic movement, supported by the emperor Leo III and the iconoclast bishops, smashed and burnt Icons, tortures, killed or exiled anyone who opposed them. This continued until 780 A.D. when the Empress Irene came to the throne and suspended the persecution. In 787 A.D. she called together a general council at Nicaea, which was attended by 367 fathers, including representatives from the various patriarchates [self-governing churches headed by a bishop given the title Patriarch], and together they proved that the veneration of Icons was legitimate. Act 7 of this council stated:
“We define the rule with all accuracy and after thorough examination, that in a manner similar to the precious and vivifying cross, the venerable and Holy Icons, painted or mosaic, or made of any other suitable material, be placed in the Holy Churches of God, upon sacred vessels and vestments, on walls and panels, houses and streets, both of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, and of our undefiled Sovereign Lady, the Holy Mother of God; and also of the Holy Angels, and of all the saints. For the more often and frequent their representation in an image is seen, the more those beholding are led to remember the originals which they represent and for whom the person beholding begets a yearning in the soul and grows to love them more. Also such persons are prompted to kiss and pay them honorary adoration, not the true adoration which according to our faith, is proper only to the one divine nature, but in the same way veneration is given to the image of the precious and vivifying cross, the Holy Gospels and other sacred objects, which we honour with incense and candles according to the custom of our forefathers by way of manifesting piety. For the honour given to the Icon is passed on to the original, and whosoever bows down in adoration before the Icon, is at the same time bowing down in adoration to the person represented on it”.
In 815, there was another iconoclast period until the Empress Theodora came to the throne. In 843, she called together a council, as had Irene before her, and once again proved and proclaimed the legitimacy of venerating Icons. A great feast to celebrate this victory took place on the first Sunday of Lent, March 11, 843. This feast is still celebrated by the Orthodox Church on the first Sunday of Lent each year, which is called the Sunday of Orthodoxy or the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. The Church continues to celebrate this feast because it was not only the Icon that was being defended, but also the dogma of the Incarnation [the church’s beliefs concerning God becoming man]. If the Church was to oppose the Icon, as did the iconoclasts, then it would actually be denying that God became man and therefore the means to man’s salvation is lost, because it would break the union between God and man which Christ united in Himself. The iconoclasts also regarded all created matter as evil and despicable and therefore incapable of representing something that is spiritual. This school of thought was in reality saying that the incarnate body of Christ fell into the same category. It was to deny that His human body had been deified and at the same time, it betrayed the belief that man’s body, as well as his soul, can and must be saved. But if we accept that God became man and His flesh was deified, then in truth, God deified matter, making it spirit bearing, and as the flesh was sanctified, then so could other matter, though in a different way. God created nothing evil and despicable, for in all things that He created, He saw that it was good [Genesis 1].
IN FORMER TIMES, GOD, WHO WAS WITHOUT FORM OR BODY AND WAS UNCIRCUMSCRIBABLE, COULD NEVER BE DEPICTED. 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; I WORSHIP THE CREATOR OF MATTER, WHO BECAME MATTER FOR MY SAKE, WHO WILLED TO TAKE HIS ABODE IN MATTER, WHO WORKED OUT MY SALVATION THROUGH MATTER. [St. John of Damascus]
Between the iconoclast periods and the councils, it was established how and why we venerate an Icon. When we venerate an Icon, we do not venerate the paint or the wood, but the veneration is passed on through the Icon to the actual person. The Icon does not become that person because by nature the person and the Icon are made of different materials, The Icon relates to the person because; it depicts his recognizable image and must carry his name. In biblical understanding, the “Name” signifies the presence of the Holy One [we stand before this house and in thy presence for thy Name is in this house (2 Chron. 20:9)]. The name of a saint on his Icon does the same; it is a seal of sanctification and constitutes its blessing.
With the Icon of our Lord Jesus Christ, we do not say that the Icon becomes God; this is because it does not share in his divine nature. However, we can say that it is the image of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, because it shares with Him His hypostasis [person], by the fact that it bears His image and name. We as human beings all have one nature, that is, we are all made of flesh and blood, but we differ from each other because we have different characters and names. I am not like John or Anthony, and they are not like Andrew or Peter. What we all share we call the nature, what makes us different from each other we call the hypostasis or person.
In helping us to understand how the Icon participates in the hypostasis and not the nature, St.Theodore the Studite gave us an example by using the image of a seal on a ring and its imprint. He said that if we take a ring which has carved upon it the image of the Emperor and make an imprint with the ring in wax or clay, the imprint would be the same in both the wax and the clay, but the two would still be different from each other because they are made of different materials. The wax has the image of the Emperor but it is still wax, and the clay has the image of the Emperor but it is still clay. In this same way, they are also different from the ring, which is the original (prototype). Neither the wax nor the clay image can be the ring; the only thing that all three share together is the image of the Emperor. It is the same with Christ and His Icon: the Icon is the image, or as in the case with the ring, it is the imprint, but it cannot be more than this, that is, it cannot be His human body or His divine nature. Therefore, when we venerate the Icon of Christ, we worship the hypostasis (person) of Christ and the Icon acts like a transmitter, transmitting the worship to the very person of Christ, in whom is united his two natures.
Some people have the opinion that it is acceptable to kiss the Icon of Christ because He is God, but to show such reverence to the Icons of the Mother of God or of one of the saints is a form of idolatry. Let us therefore try to understand why this is a wrong belief arising from a lack of knowledge of the relationship between God and man.
In the Gospels, we find the event of the Transfiguration [See plate 1]. From St. Matthew we read that Christ took with Him Peter, James and John his brother and went up into a high mountain [Mount Tabor], “and was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun and his raiment was white as the light” [St. Matth. 17:2]. St. Mark says of the same event, “And his raiment became shining exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them” [St. Mark 9:3]. St. Mark tries to describe this light, but can only say that, “no fuller on earth can white them”.
As created beings, we can only explain what we see, hear or understand, by other things in our life. We cannot begin to describe this light of the Transfiguration because it is not created, as is the light of the sun: it is the uncreated divine light of God that proceeds from His inaccessible nature. Therefore, Christ appeared to His disciples as God in the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, for as has already been mentioned, when the Son of God became man, He did not lose His divine nature, but accepted another. Christ is both very God and very man. This event in the life of Christ not only tells us that He appeared to His disciples as God, but also that man’s nature appeared in the divine glory. God became man so that man may become God.
We find in the writings of the fathers and from the lives of some of the saints, that through inner peace, prayer and contemplation, they received while still in this life, this same uncreated light whereby man is transfigured and is united to God. Also in St Matthew 5:48, we read Christ’s commandment, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect”. Again from St. John 17:21-23, “That they all may be one; as thou Father art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them that they may be one even as we are one: I in them and thou in me that they may be made perfect in one”. We see therefore that Christ Himself desires that we be one with Him. In His desire, He gives us of His glory that we may be made perfect in one. It is for this reason that man was created, to reach perfection and oneness with God.
The Church recognizes that many of her members have obtained through righteous living or martyrdom this oneness with God. It is these that the Church has promoted to the ranks of saints. By nature, these saints are still men, but they have been deified through the grace of God. To be deified by the grace of God means to be exalted and made as a god. The Holy Trinity is God by nature; when a man is deified, he receives deification as a gift from God. It is not something that belongs to him by nature because by nature he is a human being. God bestows upon man the greatest gift of His love and raises him to Himself by making him a god by grace. It is the final end for which man was created: to be united in oneness with God. This does not mean that man becomes an additional hypostasis [person] to the Three Hypostasis of the Holy Trinity. The divine nature is always inaccessible to all creatures that have their nature in something else. Man partakes not in the nature of God, but in the divine energies that proceed from the divine nature.
When we honour a saint through his Icon, we do not worship him as if he was God, we give him honour and respect because of his oneness with God. When we pray to the saint, we do not ask him to save us directly as though he was God, but we beseech him as our fellow man to intercede to God on our behalf, for having already reached perfection [insofar as he can until the general resurrection of the dead], his prayer is of great strength before the face of God.
In 787 A.D., the Church made a clear distinction in the type of veneration offered to the Icons of Christ and the Icons of the saints. In Christ, it takes on the form of worship because He is God. In the saints the veneration is called ‘honorific’, this is to say, it is honour and respect but never worship which is reserved only for God.
THE ICON AS THE WORD OF GOD
Although the Icon does not share in the uncreated divine nature of God, it is nevertheless still holy, for what is meant by this term is that it does not become deified [a god]. This does not hinder it from being sanctified. The icon is sanctified through its communion with Christ and the saints, through the image and the inscription that it bears. It is holy in the same way that the Cross and the Bible are holy. St. Basil the Great says that iconographers are equal in honour to the Gospel writers. He says this because what the Gospels explain by means of words, the painter explains by means of his works. The Bible is holy not because of the paper and ink, but because the words it contains are the words of God, written by men inspired by the Holy Spirit. These words of God are holy because they proceeded from the mouth of God and sanctify us each time we hear them. In the same way we are sanctified through the Icon because it also is the word of God represented in images, and to put it another way, as the Icon is the image of Christ, so likewise the Bible is the verbal image of Christ, Both inspire and teach us how to live so that we may find the narrow road that leads to salvation.
Many people believe that if a holy man paints an Icon, then it is very likely that that Icon will be holier that others and therefore perform miracles. This may well be true, but to make such a statement can give rise to confusion as to who is being glorified. In all probability, God may well choose to glorify the iconographer by glorifying his work, and reveal to the world that he lives in the light of the Holy Trinity, but if an Icon of a certain saint is revealed as miracle-working, whom is God glorifying, the saint whose Icon it is, or the iconographer? If we give the glory to the iconographer, we take away the glory due to the saint, for it is to the saint, that prayer was offered and a miracle had taken place. All holiness proceeds from God and all Icons are holy because they are in communion with the saints who live in God’s holiness. If we have an Icon of the Mother of God, which has been revealed as miracle working, and another, which has not, the holiness of both Icons, is the same. If we say that one is holier than the other, we are in danger of saying that the Mother of God’s holiness is variable and fluctuates in degrees. The actual person of the Mother of God in heaven is All-Holy and all her Icons are in communion with her to the same degree. Where the one Icon is revealed as miracle working, it is not the holiness that varies but divine intervention due to the state of someone’s faith. Some icons in Orthodox Churches are given special honour because they have been manifested as miracle-working Icons. It is not wrong to give these Icons special place; on the contrary, it is right that special honour is given to such Icons that continually manifest the healing grace of the Holy Spirit. The Church often distinguishes in the glory and honour given to the saints. In the closing prayers of a service, the Church always mentions after Christ, the Mother of God who is ranked as first among the saints, then St. John the Baptist, the Apostles and other ranks of saints according to the type of service. We also see that certain saint’s days are kept with more grandeur than others. This can be either because they suffered greater than other saints in their lifetime or through martyrdom, or that God manifested how much He has glorified a saint through the many and glorious miracles performed through the saint. In the same way that we give special place to certain saints, so too it seems right with the Icon, but, keeping in mind, that all Icons can be miracle-working.
God performs miracles according to our faith; to help us grow stronger in faith and sometimes even because of lack of faith. In the Gospel story of the woman with the issue of blood we read, “And behold a woman which was diseased with an issue of blood twelve years, came behind him and touched the hem of his garment: for she said within herself, if I may but touch the hem of his garment, I shall be whole. But Jesus turned him about and when he saw her he said, daughter be of good comfort: thy faith hath made thee whole, and the woman was made whole from that hour” [St. Matthew 9:2O-22]. Also in the Acts of the Apostles 19:12, we read that handkerchiefs and aprons that Paul had touched were placed on the sick and possessed and they were cured. These two accounts tell. us that we need faith if we are seeking for a cure or miracle, and that God often makes use of created matter to perform his works. This is especially so with the Icon if we believe and have faith that He can do so. Miracles through Icons also confirm that God approves of our venerating them.