Christ the Icon

Sometimes this seventh and last of the Councils to be received by the Churches of both East and West is parodied as an unnecessary fuss about pictures of Jesus. In fact, it is of major importance for our understanding of Christ in our midst, and also of our own personal calling to grow up into ‘mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’ (Ephesians 4.13). Both the Greek and the Latin churches had become accustomed, since the demise of pagan worship, to decorating church buildings with images of Christ, the Mother of God, saints and angels – ‘icons’ as we would call them. These might take the form of painted panels, murals or mosaics, on walls or screens, on gospel books and vestments; and depending on local customs, these might be honoured with lights and incense, bows and kissing, such as would be offered to the cross and even to the Christian emperor himself.

There is little contemporary evidence of any objection to this custom. It was not seen as breaking the Mosaic commandment which forbade the making of images of the transcendent and invisible Divinity. Rather it was a witness to the incarnation of the Son of God who had taken the full reality of human nature upon himself in becoming Man. The painted icon of Christ was an image of the particular divine-human Person who was himself the perfect image of God the Father. The full christological consequences of this universal custom of the churches did not emerge until two iconoclastic emperors set about the destruction of these images and the persecution of those who continued to support the veneration of the icons.

The Iconoclasts

They were Leo III the Isaurian (717–741), and his son Constantine V, Copronynos (741–775). The full extent of their motives is not clear, but since they were constantly at war with iconoclastic Islam, they had become sensitive to Muslim reproaches of idolatry against Christians and to their claim of a ‘purer religion’. Moreover both of these emperors wanted stricter control over the Church as a means of uniting the energies of the people against militant Islam. Perhaps the presence everywhere of the icons of Christ, the King of all, and also of his saints, as officers of a heavenly army, were seen by these earthly emperors as a distraction to the people, or even as competitors to their own claims to power!

St John of Damascus

At the time of the first round of the iconoclastic conflict initiated by Leo III, St John of Damascus was setting out his defence of the icons from his monastery of St Sabas in Palestine where he enjoyed the relative safety of being under the rule of a Muslim caliph. He began with a careful review of the severe condemnation of idolatry in the Old Testament and of the second commandment forbidding the making of graven images. He analyzed the different uses of the word ‘image’ in Scripture and in nature, as in a son being the image of his father; and also the various forms of reverence due to holy places, objects, and people, including also those in secular authority, as distinct from that worship which is due to the transcendent God alone.

The crucial argument in his treatises is that by the incarnation a radical and irreversible change has taken place in the relationship between God and mankind and with creation as a whole. He says in his first Apology Against Those Who Attack the Divine Images: ‘In former times, God, being without form or body, could in no way be represented. But today, since God has appeared in the flesh and lived among men, I can represent what is visible in God. I do not worship matter, but I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake … and who through matter accomplished my salvation. Never will I cease to honour the matter which brought about my salvation!’

St John

It is from Scripture that St John derives the all-important distinction, later defined at Nicaea II, between l a t r e i a , the worship due to God alone, and relative worship, or veneration (p r o s k u n h s i z , literally, bowing down before), which might be offered in varying degrees to other persons or objects, including the icons.

St John affirms the real difference between the painted image and the prototype, Christ, which the image presents, though the two are clearly related. ‘The religious action (of venerating the icon) is directed towards the prototype and then becomes adoration. Thus the same action is veneration insofar as it concerns the image or the saints and adoration insofar as it is addressed to God.’

St Theodore the Studite

St Theodore the Studite, after the iconoclasts had defined their position at a Council called by Constantine V clarified this question of the relation between the icon and the prototype further in 754. This marked the second round in the iconoclastic conflict, and was accompanied by a violent persecution of monastics who defended the veneration of the icons. Constantine V seems to have been even more vehement in his destructive hatred of monasteries and monastics than was Henry VIII in England eight centuries later. There was something curiously parallel between Constantine’s rejection of the icons and his rejection of monasticism, since the aim of the latter was to restore the image of God in man which had been obscured by sin. The proper use of icons was intended to promote this aim for all the faithful of the Church.

Despite the careful clarification of St John concerning the various existing types of images, the iconoclasts of the Council of 754 maintained that any true image must be of the same essence as its prototype, as Christ the Son of God is the same essence as the Father. On this narrow understanding of an image the iconoclasts found fresh grounds for resorting to the slanging match, typical of that age, of branding their opponents as either Monophysites or Nestorians. It would take us too far from our main theme to present their arguments in full. We should note however that St Theodore the Studite, in between being roughly pushed around, used counter-arguments not only to justify the use of the icons, but also to strengthen the orthodox understanding of the union between the two natures, human and divine, in the one divine Person of the Son of God. For if there had remained a certain weakness in christology after the acceptance of the Cyrilline interpretation of the Chalcedonian formulae at the Fifth Ecumenical Council, the Second of Constantinople in 553, it was the tendency to lose sight of the Christ-Man in emphasizing his final glorified and deified state. The anti-iconoclastic polemic gave an opportunity to free christology from this danger.

For Christ, though certainly wholly glorified by his ascension to the Father, did not undergo thereby any reduction of his full humanity. His human nature was indeed deified by union with his divine nature, but this ‘interpenetration’ of the two natures did not result in there being confused one with the other. The human nature which he had assumed was essentially the same as ours, originally created in the image of God, and predestined to be perfected in each one of us by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Christ himself was the first-fruits of this perfected humanity.

Restoring the true emphasis

St Theodore, then, having detected in the iconoclasts this tendency to diminish the reality of Christ’s humanity, was concerned both to restore this true emphasis, and also to show how this was consistent with the making and veneration of the icons. It had been the contribution of Antiochian christology to underline the importance of perceiving how Christ’s human nature was that of a particular human individual; and Theodore emphasized that he was no less a complete human individual through his being also the divine Person who was ever, and remained, the eternal Son of God. It was this affirmation by Theodore of the individual character of Christ’s humanity which exposed the underlying error of the iconoclasts. He perceived that their rejection of the icons was due to their failure to recognize in Christ the continuing existence of a human individual with unique characteristics who, as with any other human individual, could be depicted in a painted image. The iconoclasts saw Christ’s humanity after his resurrection as having its human individuality dissolved in his divine Person so that it became merely ‘human nature in general’. In their view of Christ they had veered off in a Monophysite direction.

St Theodore affirms then against the iconoclasts that the incarnate Christ both can and, in his view, must be depicted in an image so as to affirm clearly that he is and remains for our salvation a particular Man, even as he is glorified with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit. The nature of the icon itself is not however to be confused with either the nature of his crucified and glorified humanity (which it can depict) or of his divinity (which it cannot depict). Nevertheless in depicting this Man on an icon, and inscribing upon it his name, it can be said to represent his divine personhood (‘hypostasis’ in Greek). And in addressing him through his icon we, who would approach him for the increase of repentance and faith, can do so in the hope of realizing our own union with God in Christ and our communion in his eucharistic Body with all who truly confess him.

A Byzantine icon has the letters o W n – ‘he who is’, the translation in Greek of the tetragrammaton YHWH – inscribed in the halo around the face of Jesus, as well as the more familiar name, Jesus Christ, at the sides. This reminds us of the close connection between the visible icon and the naming of Jesus in prayer. In Scripture, the use of one of the divine names, visible or audible, represents the presence and spiritual power of the One so named. We remind ourselves here that the painted icon is not a fetish, containing some supernatural power, any more than the naming of Jesus Christ is a magic formula for twisting God’s arm. In both cases here we are dealing with aspects of the mystery of faith, of which the Eucharist is the prime expression. The icon, along with the naming of Jesus, is a sacramental, validated as a true expression of the Church’s faith by the Second Council of Nicaea in 787, which decreed that:

… the figure of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, of our pure Lady, the Mother of God, of the honourable Angels, of all Saints and of all pious people … the more frequently as they are seen in artistic representation, by so much more ready 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.

This right use of the icons is intended to lift us up into the divine light in which dwell the holy persons whom we would encounter in the Holy Spirit. As Christ our light himself says, ‘Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears for they hear. Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it’ (Matthew 13.16–17).

Fr Gregory is Father Superior of the Community of the Servants of the Will of God.