NEVER AS GODS:
ICONS AND THEIR VENERATION
by Professor Constantine Scouteris
In the tradition of the Eastern Church doctrine and worship are inseparable. Worship is, in a certain sense, doctrinal testimony, reference to the events of Revelation. Thus "dogmas are not abstract ideas in and for themselves but revealed and saving truths and realities intended to bring mankind into communion with God". One could say without hesitation that, according to Orthodox understanding, the fulness of theological thought is found in the worship of the Church. This is why the term Orthodoxy is understood by many not as right opinion, but as right doxology, right worship. Right worship involves right opinion as well. In this perspective of the close relationship between worship and doctrine I am of the opinion that the best way to present a brief theology of icons is to use liturgical data. That is, to toncider the doctrinal testimony of the worshipping community. Thus I will take as a basis for my paper three hymns of the Sunday of Orthodoxy. As is well known, the Sunday of Orthodoxy is the first Sunday in Lent, when the Orthodox Church commemorates her victory over the iconoclasts and the final restoration of icons to the churches by the empress Theodora, regent of her young son Michael III. This restoration took place at a synod held at Constantinople in 843, which decreed that in commemoration of this event a Feast of Orthodoxy should be celebrated annually.
The three hymns I am using as a frame for my paper are: the kontakion; the third sticheron; and the doxasticon of Vespers.
The uncircumscribed Word of the Father became circumscribed, taking flesh from thee, O Theotokos, and He has restored the sullied image to its ancient glory, filling it with the divine beauty. This our salvation we confess in deed and word, and we depict it in the holy icons.
Thou who art uncircumscribed, O Master, in Thy divine nature, wast pleased in the last times to take flesh and be circumscribed; and in assuming flesh, Thou hast also taken on Thyself all its distinctive properties. Therefore we depict the likeness of Thine outward form, venerating it with an honour that is relative. So we are exalted to the love of Thee, and following the holy traditions handed down by the apostles, from Thine icon we receive the grace of healing.
Advancing from ungodliness to the true faith, and illumined with the light of knowledge, let us clap our hands and sing aloud, offering praise and thanks- giving to God; and with due honour let us venerate the holy icons of Christ, of the all-pure Virgin and the saints, whether depicted on walls, on wooden panels or on holy vessels, rejecting the impious teaching of the heretics. For, as Basil says, the honour shown to the icon passes to the prototype it represents. At the prayers of Thine undefiled Mother and of all the saints, we beseech Thee, Christ our God, to bestow upon us Thy great mercy.
"The uncircumscribed Word of the Father, taking flesh, became circumscribed"
Studying the issue of icons we can easily realise that the whole matter has a christological dimension. The use of icons forms an integral part of the doctrine of the Incarnation. The main question could be formulated as follows: was Christ, the incarnate Logos of the Father, circumscribed or uncircumscribed? The iconoclasts declared that Christ was uncircumscribed, as God-Man, for the unity of divinity and humanity allowed no room for depicting him. According to the theology of iconoclasts, as it is presented at the Council of Hieria (754), the iconographer painting " an icon of Christ represents either his humanity, separating it from the divinity, or both the humanity and the divinity of the incarnate Logos. In the first instance he is a follower of Nestorius, while in the second he confuses divinity and humanity and follows the Monophysites; even worse, he assumes that the uncircumscribed divine nature can be circumscribed by humanity, which is of course blasphemous.
Although these arguments appear reasonable, it is evident that the iconoclasts had difficulties understanding that an icon does not represent either the one or the two natures of Christ. An icon is rather a representation of the invisible through the visible. St John of Damascus, answering the objections of iconoclasts, makes the following clear theological statement:
I do not venerate the creation over the Creator, but I venerate the Creator who became creation like me, and came down into creation without humiliation and without being debased, in order to glorify my nature and make me to be partaker of the divine nature [...]. For the nature of flesh has not become deity, but, as the Word became flesh without change, remaining as he was, likewise the flesh became Word, without losing what it is, identifying moreover with the Word hypostatically. Thus, taking courage, I represent God, the invisible, not as invisible, but insofar as he has become visible for us by participation in flesh and blood. I do not represent the invisible deity but I represent the flesh of God which-has been seen.
Besides the arguments brought against the use of icons one can see a deep theological difference between iconoclasts and defenders of the icons. Emphasis was given to the nature by the iconoclasts, while for the supporters of the icons the hypostasis, the person of the incarnated Word served as the foundation. St Theodore the Studite gives us the orthodox position briefly and clearly: "Every image is the image of an hypostasis, and never of a nature". Seen from this perspective, an icon is an historical picture. Thus the maker of an icon does not depict images of certain invisible, heavenly and transcendental realities, but concrete events and personalities connected with the historic fact of the Incarnation.
The icon is understood as a gift of the Incarnation, as a new possibility to theologise, based on the person of the Son incarnate. In Old Testament times there could not be any possibility of representing God. In the Mosaic law there is a strict prohibition concerning images: "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing" (Exod. 20:4). Images constituted at that time a danger to the worship of the one and true God. Again St John of Damascus declares:
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.
In Christ matter is assumed and sanctified. The mystery of the divine economy constitutes the definite abolition of any dualism between spirit and matter. In the person of Christ we find the affirmation of matter, which becomes the medium of divine energy and grace. Thus matter has a certain liturgical function in the history of salvation.
So it is from this perspective that we have to understand the accusation of idolatry put forward by the iconoclasts. In Greek pagan religion, idols were just pictures of things which did not exist. In this case matter becomes an object of worship (adoratio). In the New Testament Christ delivers men from idolatry not in a negative way, by abolishing any image, but positively, by revealing himself, who is the true image of-God the Father (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15; John 14:9). In his divinity the Word of God is the consubstantial image of the Father and in his humanity is the image of God. In his humanity he reveals the image of the authentic man. This is self-evident even though we can not separate the two natures in Christ. Such a division leads either to Nestorianism or to Monophysitism. The reality of the hypostasis, of the one Person of Christ, ensures the unity of the two natures "without confusion, without change, without division, without separation". And thus when speaking of Christ we presuppose the unity of the two natures.
In an analogous way, when speaking of the icon of Christ we take for granted this unity in the icon; in other words we do not have in the icon the image of the humanity of Christ, separated from his divinity, but rather we understand that this image is a representation of the one incarnated Logos, of the uncircumscribed Word of the Father, who, taking flesh, became circumscribed. As the hypostasis assures the unity as well as the distinction of the two natures, the icon of Christ likewise testifies to this unity of the natures and to the distinction between created and uncreated. In order to justify the possibility of painting an image of Christ, the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council clearly underlined this appearance of the icon of the very hypostasis of God the Logos in flesh:
The Catholic Church while depicting Christ in his human form, does not separate it from the divinity united unto it; rather she considers it as being deified and confesses it as wholly one with God [omotheon], as Gregory the Theologian also states [...). And just as when one paints the picture of a man he does not depict him without his soul, but rather he who is depicted remains with his soul [...] so, too, when making the icon of the Lord, we confess his flesh to be deified and we understand his icon as nothing else but an icon showing the imitation of the prototype.
"He has restored the sullied image to its ancient glory, filling it with the divine beauty"
Icons have their biblical justification in the creation of man according to the divine image. The creation of man "in the image of God", "after his likeness" (Gen. 1:26-7), clearly demonstrates that there is a certain analogy between the divine and the human. The Greek Fathers understood this analogy in terms of participation in the divine beauty. From this perspective, the fact that man was created in the image of God means that God made human nature a participant of every good. By virtue of his own nature God himself is the absolute beauty and good. And thus in creating man according to his image he has communicated to him his own goodness, which is described as freedom, wisdom, justice, love, immortality. In other words man was created to be a kind of mirror reflecting the divine beauty. It is self-evident that there is a basic difference between God the prototype and man the image: the latter is created, while the former is uncreated. It is remarkable also that the creation of man according to the divine image was a dynamic vocation. Man should extend himself from the image to the likeness of God. The gift of the image did not have a static character; it was rather the beginning of a personal history of sanctification. But the image of God as created reality was still characterised by changeability. Man could refuse to follow the way leading from image to likeness. In fact this is precisely what happened: by his free will he fell. Original sin is under- stood as being the darkening and obscuring of the divine image. St Gregory of Nyssa says that man has changed the image for a mask (prosopeion).
It was by the Incarnation of the Logos that man was restored to his ancient glory. In Christ is realised a second creation of man; the hidden and obscured image of God was repainted. The way from the image to the likeness is again open for man. The fact that the Son of God became man gives man the possibility of becoming himself god by grace. The Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, comparing the first creation to the second, point out that the second creation of man, realised by God the Logos, "is more in God"s likeness and thus the recreation becomes a better thing than the creation; and this gift is eternal".
This "inalienable gift" brings man once more into communion with the divine beauty. Again man is given the possibility to become, freely and consciously, a God-bearer (theophoros). Certainly the locus of this transfiguration of man is the Church. Through baptism in the Church man can find his real being. In other words the Church offers a cure and a healing, returning man to his natural state. And so man in the Church, participating in the life of the deity, himself becomes an icon. St Diadochus of Photice points out that man in the Church, through inner action and the grace of the Holy Spirit, is given the possibility "to repaint his own likeness on the image of God".
This iconic dimension of man is clearly indicated in many aspects of the life of the Orthodox Church. In every Liturgy and public act of worship the priest offers incense to every one of the faithful in the same way as he offers it to the icons. In the divine Liturgy, the believers who sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-giving Trinity are considered to be images of the cherubim. Surrounded by the icons they offer to Christ his own from his own, in all and for all. And so the Liturgy is a living icon of the heavenly mystery of the Kingdom of God. Even the Church building, says St Symeon of Thessalonica, is an image of the Church in her totality, representing what is on earth, what is in the heavens and what is beyond the heavens. The narthex of the Church corresponds to the earth, the nave to paradise or the heavens, the sanctuary to that which is higher than the heavens. Moreover, the Church itself is an icon of the Holy Trinity. The communion of persons in the body of the Church is in the image of the communion of the divine Persons.
In the light of what has been said it is easy to understand that the use of icons has a deep theological significance. We would do better to say that icons are in themselves theology, word about God, intended to bring man to the "face to face" vision of God, which transcends words, concepts and images. The painting of icons involves a visual representation of the entire drama of human history. The creation of man in the image of God, his recreation in Christ, his transfiguration and his final glory, are all, in a certain sense, present in "the holy icons of Christ, of the all-pure Virgin and the saints, whether depicted on the walls, on wooden panels or on holy vessels".
"We confess the salvation in deed and word, and we depict it in the holy icons"
St John Damascene in his De Imaginibus Oratio I reminds us of the distinction made by St Basil the Great between written and unwritten doctrine, and he under- lines his conclusion that "both have equal force for piety". He follows the same line himself when he speaks of the "unwritten customs" emphasising that "the ecclesiastical ordinance is transmitted to us not only through letters but also through un- written traditions".
We have to see the role of icons in the life of the Church within this context. We have already said that through the Incarnation of the Word of God man becomes a new creation, making himself an icon by the grace of the Holy Spirit and by inner action. We have also suggested that icons are another way of theologising. In the final analysis this means that in the Church man receives two possibilities: firstly to become the image of God, thereby restoring God's likeness in himself; and secondly to proclaim this gift to his fellow man, theologising to this end not only in verbal, but also in visual images.
Icons are words in painting; they refer to the history of salvation and to its manifestation in concrete persons. In the Orthodox Church icons have always been understood as a visible gospel, as a testimony to the great things given man by God the incarnate Logos. In the Council of 860 it was stated that "all that is uttered in words written in syllables is also proclaimed in the language of colours". From this perspective icons and Scripture are linked through an inner relationship; both coexist in the Church and proclaim the same truths. There is a mutual supplementation and agreement between words and visual images. Scripture, says St John of Damascus, is a kind of icon. And the icon, from another point of view, is Holy Scripture. I return-once more to his formulation:
Just as in the Bible we listen to the word of Christ and are sanctified [...] in the same way through the painted icons we behold the representation of his human form, of his miracles and passion: and are likewise sanctified, and fully reassured, and imbued with joy, and pronounced blessed; and we respect, honour and venerate his human form. And beholding his human form, we contemplate, as much as we can, the glory of his deity. Because we can only arrive at the spiritual through the material, for we are created twofold, possessing both soul and body; and because our soul is not naked but covered with a veil; thus we hear comprehensible words as with our corporeal ears and consequently contemplate the spiritual; and thus through bodily vision we come to the spiritual.
The iconic dimension of Scripture and the scriptural dimension of icons correspond absolutely to the theology of the Eastern Church, and especially to its teaching concerning revelation and the knowledge of God. It is well known that from an Orthodox viewpoint the words of the Bible are not revelation in themselves, but rather words concerning revelation. In the same way an icon is not itself an independent, but rather guides us to that which is. From this perspective both Scripture and icons have an introductory and a pedagogic function. Both mediate historical events or historical persons. In both is salvation confessed; in the first through words, in the second through depiction. Both indicate the revelation, although revelation itself transcends words and images alike. It is remarkable that Nicephorus, Patriarch of Constantinople (806-15), considered that icons, although a more "earthly scripture", have a powerful influence, especially on those who do not understand Scripture. Indeed, very often what escapes us when hearing words does not escape us when viewing icons. For their part the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council speak about the "scriptural vision" and the "pictorial formation" as the two symbolic ways through which we reach the supra-sensible realities.
Nevertheless, the introductory and instructive character of both Holy Scripture and icons needs further clarification. Speaking of Scripture and icons as symbolic ways (symbolic in the primitive meaning of this Greek word) we simply mean that both have a limited function, since the mystery of God itself and the experience, the glory of the transfigured Christ and the unspeakable words heard by St Paul are revealed realities, which cannot be expressed and transmitted in created words, concepts or images. St Symeon the New Theologian refers to 2 Corinthians 34 ("And I knew such a man, [whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth]; how that he was caught up into paradise, and heard un- speakable words, which it is not lawful for man to utter", and comments:
The "unspeakable words" are the mystical and truly inexpressible visions and supra-exalted unknown knowledge of the glory and deity of the Son and Word of God which is beyond light and which transcends knowledge. This revelation of the glory of God (called by Symeon the apprehension, in incomprehensibility, of things that cannot be grasped] is given to the saints by illumination of the Holy Spirit.
Thus the saints, through divine illumination, come to hear the unspeakable words, which are above any hearing; they have a vision of what is above every vision. According to St Symeon, the man who has achieved illumination and has come to the vision of God has a new sense which is the unification of all the five senses and at the same time is above every sense. With this in mind it is possible to understand that scriptural, as well as pictorial knowledge concerning God leads to a supra-intellectual and supra-sensible know- ledge of God. Such knowledge is contained in the Bible and expressed on the icons (since every icon manifests the hidden); and yet it is above any description of, or any expression concerning God, either in the Holy Scripture or the icons.
"We depict the likeness of thine outward form, venerating it with an honour that is relative" At this point we must touch on the very delicate question of the veneration of icons. This was one of the basic issues between those involved in the long icono- clastic controversy; it was also the cause of many misunderstandings in Western Christianity. A characteristic example of this is the twenty-second of the Anglican "Articles of Religion", where "the worship and adoration of images" is condemned. Since these misunderstandings are, to a large degree, the result of difficulties in translation, it may be worthwhile to make a brief clarification of the terms used. Basically, two words are used in Greek: aspasmos and proskynesis. We can translate the first as "greeting" and the second as "veneration". Both terms are included in the definition of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, and even veneration is defined as a veneration of honour (timetike proskynesis):
We decree with all precision and care that the venerable and holy icons are to be set up alongside the form of the venerable and life-giving cross; these consisting of colours and mosaics and other suitable material, are to be set up in the holy churches of God, on sacred vessels and vestments, on walls and panels, in houses and by the wayside: both the image of our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ, and of our spotless Lady the holy Mother of God, of the honourable angels and of all holy and pious men. For the more frequently they are seen by means of pictorial representation the more are those who behold them aroused to remember and desire their prototypes and to give them greeting and the veneration of honour: not indeed that true worship [latreia] which, according to our faith, is due to God alone.
Although the definition of the Council is very clear and excludes any kind of latreia, the actual worship of icons was often attributed to Eastern Christianity. Obviously this is due to the unfortunate translation of the Greek proskynesis (veneration) as adoratio in the Latin version of the Conciliar Acts. The famous Libri Carolini used this translation and rejected, for political reasons, both the Iconoclastic Council of 754 and Nicaea II of 787. Nicaea II was characterised in the Caroline Books as inep1issimae Synodi. It is remarkable that Thoma: Aquinas, who accepted Nicaea II, was to speak of a "relative adoration". Basing their arguments on this expression the Greeks took the opportunity to accuse the Latins of idolatry in a Council held at St Sophia in 1450.
At any rate, and in spite of misinterpretations, Orthodox theology has always clearly stated that the veneration of icons has a relative character. The Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council often repeat: "The Christians respect one God praised in Trinity, and him alone do they worship". And thus, in agroaching the icons, "they venerate them relatively [...] and indeed never as gods".
"The honour shown to the icon passes to the prototype it represents"
The Platonic conception of the "prototype" and the "image" was used a great deal in the iconoclastic controversy. To the iconoclastic identification of the image with the prototype the defenders of the icons proposed the real distinction of the icon from the divine model. Icons remind us of the prototypes and elevate us to them. They are not realities in themselves, but their value derives from the realities they represent. Icons are signs of the invisible presence of God in history. They guide us to a vision of a new history, the vision of the divine kingdom in which past, present and future are contained. They are entrances into another cosmos, which is to be revealed in its fullness at the end of time. The analogy "image-prototype" requires some further elaboration. We take as a basis the classical formulation derived from St Basil the Great: "The honour shown to the icon passes to the prototype it represents".
Speaking here of the icon and the prototype we do not mean a relationship analogous to that of the divine persons. Only the Son is "the natural and in no way differing image" of the Father, and only the Spirit "the natural and in no way differing image" of the Son. Other images of God are different from their model, and therefore not idols. Although an icon is distinct from its prototype, yet there is a close relationship between them. In other words, the icons of the saints are not just pictures of some models of the past, but witnesses in the here and now of the life of holiness. The deacon Stephanus of Constantinople in his Vita Sancti Stephani Junioris points out that "the icon is a door opening our mind, which is created after God to the inner likeness of the prototype". And St John Damascene, speaking of the icons, emphasises that during their lives "the saints were Qled with the Holy Spirit, and when they reposed the grace of the Holy Spirit remained in their souls and bodies, in their tombs, their engravings and their holy icons: indeed not by nature, but by grace and energy". Thus the icon of a saint signifies his holiness. Consequently when we honour it we do not honour a wooden panel or a wall or a vessel, but the sanctity of a concrete person. And yet honouring a saint we glorify and honour God from whom comes down every good and perfect gift. There is always a theological analogy, a christocentric relation. "We depict the icon of Christ as King and Lord, never separating him from his army. The saints are the army of Christ [...]. I venerate the icon of Christ as God incarnate; [the icon] of [...] the Theotokos, as Mother of the Son of God; [the icons] of the saints, as friends of God".
The honour shown to icons refers back to our prototype, to the incarnate Son of God and, through him and in him, to the consubstantial and undivided Trinity. The words of Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople, are significant in this connection: "When someone who is knowledgeable looks at the icon of a saint he says, [...) Glory be to God, and he adds the name of the saint [.. ) that the all-holy name of Christ may be glorified in both the visible and invisible".
"Following the holy traditions (...J, from thine icon we receive the grace of healing"
It is evident that when we speak of icons we touch on a very basic theme of Orthodox spirituality. St Germanus of Constantinople, speaking of the icons, takes up the words of John.Chrysostom again, when he insists that the whole question of icons is filled with devotion. In the Orthodox tradition it is commonly agreed that the icon is a living memorandum of the divine energy45 and even more a medium for receiving healing and grace. We have already pointed out that the sanctity of the saints is not simply a phenomenon of the past, but by grace is ever present in the icon "without a departure". Thus the icons are sanctifying channels, ways of spiritual and bodily therapy and preludes to the final transfiguration of the world.
In order to understand the healing and charismatic dimensions of icons we should keep in mind what has already been briefly pointed out concerning matter. Since man is created of soul and body, it is only through the material that he can reach the spiritual. Thus matter has a liturgical function; it is something sine qua non not only in the earthly presence of Christ, which involved a continuous sanctification of matter, but also in the entire life of the Church. "I do not cease to respect matter through which my salvation is accomplished", notes St John Damascene "because it is filled with divine energy and grace". In the divine theophany, matter was assumed and used; it was restored and honoured. The wooden cross, the mountain, the place of the skull, the life-giving stone, the new tomb (the source of our resurrection), the Bible, the Holy Table where we partake of the Bread of Life, even the Body and the Blood of Christ themselves, are all matter. Like these, and many other things, the icon is a material object through which grace is conveyed.
The granting of the grace of healing through material objects is a common tradition in the Church and has its biblical foundation in the various miraculous healings performed by Christ and the apostles. We can recall, for example, the case of the woman who had an issue of blood twelve years, and who, just by touching the garment of Christ, was healed (Mark 5:25-34). Patriarch Germanus also reminds us of several stories from the Acts of the Apostles: the shadow of Peter (Acts 5:15-16), the handkerchiefs and the aprons of Paul (Acts 19:11-12) were also media of heal- ing. Not every shadow or every handkerchief, but the shadow of Peter and the handkerchiefs of Paul. In an analogous way not every icon is miraculous, only some of them. For the grace of healing is not automatically provided; it is given to the faithful under certain conditions as a gift of divine grace.
Thus it is evident that the an icon is not an element of decoration but a liturgical object. This means that the icon is inseparable from the worshipping community, which elevates it to a means of receiving sanctifying and healing grace. For the basis of the grace of healing is the Church. Within the Church the icon becomes a way for spiritual and bodily therapy, just as the Bible in the Church becomes word of God "quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword". Outside the Church the icon is simply a religious picture, just as the Bible is a book "sealed with seven seals".
As the Gospel constitutes a surpassing of the standards of this world, so also the icon. The Gospel involves the abolition of human wisdom. The preaching of the cross is foolishness for the world (1 Cor. 1: 18). And yet this foolishness is the destruction of all wisdom "after the flesh" (1 Cor. 1:26):
I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the under- standing of the prudent. Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe (1 Cor. 1: 19-21).
Like the oral Gospel, the icon - this visual Gospel - is foolishness and scandal for the world. For the world is used to seeing things as they appear. Whereas the icon is a window which allows us to see things as they truly are, glorified and transfigured.