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Is veneration worship? // Iconography in a Synagogue and the most ancient Christian Temple, in Dura - Europos // Are holy icons ‘idols’?
The Theology of Icons and
the Incarnation of God the Logos
«The indescribable Logos of the Father was described, incarnate, through You, Theotokos,
and in re-forming the marred image back to its original state, has added to it a divine beauty.
Thus, when confessing salvation, in works and in words do we depict it».
Within the few lines of this hymn one finds both the entire theology behind the mystery of the divine Incarnation through the Theotokos, as well as the theology of icons.
The Church, as the source and the provider of everything precious, invites the faithful to become sanctified and also to come to the confession of faith - a confession of one’s faith through works, words and symbols; with soul and body, with spiritual and material means; a confession of one’s faith through sacred imagery (icons).
Throughout the entire history of the Church, there have been scores of confrontations, with all kinds of heresies and fallacies.
This was the case again, during the 8th century: heretics – mainly Manichaeans and Paulians – had exerted their influence on emperors Leo III Isaurus and Constantine V, upon which, in 726 AD the first imperial decree was issued, ordering the destruction of all icons as well as the prohibition of veneration of and supplications towards the saints. The huge turmoil, which lasted about 116 years with a few interspersed interruptions, had profoundly shaken the body of the Church. It was during this period that certain major spiritual personalities of the time such as Saint John of Damascus, Patriarch Tarasius of Constantinople, Theodore the Studite, Hadrian of Rome and many others had raised their voices in disagreement. It was through their theology that the fallacy of the Iconomachy supporters was elucidated, and furthermore, the convening of the 7th Ecumenical Council (797 AD) was facilitated, in which – per the validation of the decisions by the Resident Synod of 14th March 843 AD - the Iconomachy supporters were declared heretics.
With their insistence that it was impossible to depict God, the Iconomachy supporters had in fact demoted and doubted the actual, historical Incarnation of the Son and Logos of God. Based on this fallacy, the Church began to preach the following, in the words of Makarios Chrysokefalos * : «What we have seen, we bear witness to, for we have seen it with our own eyes and our own hands have touched it, and so, in images do we venerate and depict the human aspect that was seen». In other words, what was preached was the feasibility of depicting Christ the Logos, precisely because He had become incarnate and had assumed human nature in reality, and not fictitiously. «I am not depicting His unseen divinity, but the flesh of God that was seen», proclaims Saint John of Damascus. And he exhorts us: « Engrave Christ’s ineffable condescension: His Birth by a Virgin. Inscribe everything, both in word and in colors». An icon theologizes and it preaches. That very same truth, which was formulated dogmatically by sacred Synods and Fathers, is also recorded pictorially by sacred hagiographers.
Thus, when Arius declared his doubt regarding the divinity of the Logos, the letters Alpha (A) and Omega (Ù) – symbols of God’s eternal status – were placed to the left and the right of Christ’s image on His icons. The dogma regarding the “homoousion” (=of the same essence) as formulated during the 1st Ecumenical Council was denoted by inserting the words “O ÙÍ” (=the One Who Is) on His icons. When Nestorius had later denied the title of “Theotokos” (=Mother of God), the Holy Mother was thereafter depicted as the “Platytera” (=broader than the heavens), and when Her ever-virginal status was placed in doubt, three stars were thereafter depicted on Her icon (= on the head and both shoulders), thus denoting that She was a Virgin before, during and after the Divine Birth.
The same applies in the case of icons depicting saints. Saints are “Christs through Grace”. This is verified in an irrefutable way by Saint Gregory Palamas: «Having become God-like, the saints partake of God; they not only partake of Him, but they also transmit Him». This is why an icon is not a simple picture or a mere portrayal of events. If icons had indeed remained at that status – of a religious painting or picture – they would have kept us in the “prison” of the created world, which we are so familiar with after the Fall. Orthodox iconography however is a testimony of victory over death by the leader of Life. An icon is not a mere work of art; it is a sacred liturgical vessel that sanctifies Man and brings him into direct contact with Grace and the hypostasis of the depicted saint. «The icon directs us to the original (person being depicted) and is both looked upon and venerated», stresses Saint Theodore the Studite.
An icon might be a material item, but it is not of this world; it is an offering by God Himself, as David had exclaimed, atop the materials that had been accumulated for the building of the Temple: «…for everything is Thine, and of Thine own have we given unto Thee».
An icon is not a portrayal of the flesh. It portrays the body, the new Creation as transformed by Christ. So, does this mean we are worshipping the body, Creation and matter? «Far be it!» exclaims Saint John of Damascus; «I do not worship matter, but I do worship the Creator of matter – the One Who assumed matter for my sake and Who condescended to inhabit matter and Who forged my salvation through matter and I shall not cease to respect matter, through which my salvation was forged».
The Orthodox Church does not accept separation between sacred and secular things. She reassures and preaches that God is the Creator of everything visible and She utilizes everything visible for the glorification of God. She utilizes matter when projecting the Presence of God’s Kingdom. With the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, that very matter is sanctified inside the Church: «….the heavens have been cleansed, and the earth has been cleansed; with Christ’s Coming, and upon His suffering outside the city, the entire earth became holy», says Saint John the Chrysostom.
Nor is the body a mere “garment of the soul” as the Platonic schools taught, whose teachings were continued by Barlaam, hundreds of years later. In the case of Barlaam, as in the Iconomachy case, there was an acceptance of dualism – that of Grace and of nature - the result of which were the 14th century Synods with Palamas, where the teachings of Barlaam were condemned as heretic. Also finalized therein was the Synodical of Orthodoxy, with the hesychast teaching (1352 AD) during the time of Saint Gregory Palamas, who had proclaimed that the body also partakes of the experience of deification (theosis) and is in fact sanctified, given that it is the temple of the Holy Spirit that dwells inside us.
The Lord says: “I am the Light of the world”. And as Saint Simeon the New Theologian teaches, “the Light sheds light on darkness as well as in our hearts and our minds. It Speaks, Acts, Lives, Vivifies and transforms into Light all those who are illuminated by It. The Church is the Body of Christ; inside the Church, everything is transformed, and the pre-Fall harmony between Man and the World is attained once again. For centuries now, the Church has been struggling to deliver the full Truth to us, unadulterated and intact. And She also constantly reminds us of the Apostle Paul’s exhortation: «stand fast and uphold the traditions».
This is the way that the faithful live within the Church, inside Grace. Everyone is thus blessed and they all proclaim in unison: «Christ, our true God and His Saints do we honor, in writings, in meanings, in sacrifices, in temples, in depictions» and all pray that the memory of all the friends of Christ be eternal.
* Makarios Chrysokefalos – Metropolitan of Philadelphia from 1336 to 1382, of noble descent and a well-known orator and author.
Translation by A. N.
Article published in English on: 13-8-2008.
Last update: 18-1-2020.