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About Holy Icons
(Part 2)
Introduction to the essays of Saint John of Damascus:
"To those who vilify holy icons, three essays"
The distinction between "created" and "Uncreated" and the Theology of Icons

by Michael Mavroforakis

Transcript of a Radio Program of the Church of Piraeus, from the series of programs titled "Orthodoxy and Heresy" by the Biblical II and its collaborators
Homily No. 157

(Transcript by:  N.M.)

( First broadcast on the radio on the 18-10-1996 ).


An introduction to the empirical Theology of the Icon

Hello, dear listeners!

In today's broadcast we will continue on the subject that we began during the previous broadcast, and specifically, we will examine the matter of holy Icons.

As already mentioned in the previous broadcast, we said that the guiding text that we shall be using and studying for this topic will be the Three Essays by Saint John of Damascus, addressed to "Those who vilify holy icons".

Today, we will continue by commenting (by way of an introduction) on these texts, but in parallel also examining the climate and the presuppositions that had existed on this issue.

So, as we noted during the previous broadcast, Orthodox Theology as a charismatic function of the Church is initially an empirical and realistic one.  And, to use the term used by Gregory Palamas (that major Father and Theologian of our Church): "The function of the Church is evidentiary".  In other words, in Orthodoxy the term "theology" does not imply "philosophical pondering". It does not imply any ideological forms, it is not about personal, subjective interpretations or perceptions that are derived from purely human thoughts.  Orthodox Theology has the element of experience incorporated in it. It contains the element of "living" something; it contains the element of "revelation" (ie, knowledge imparted by the Creator Himself - by God Himself).

So, Theology includes the element of evidence, because it is founded on the "knowledge of God" (Theognosy) which is none other than the "seeing" of events; it is the experiencing of situations, and it is the "sighting of God" (Theopty). These are not viewpoints and perceptions; they are the experience of the Church Herself, which is made evident from as early as the first writings of the Ecclesiastic authors - the Apostles included, of course - but also in later times, in the texts of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and the others who had directly interpreted God's revelation as a revealing of the Divine Glory in dramatic events, through instances of Theophany (the "appearances" of God). These Theophanies are a common experience, of all the Saints of the Church, whether we refer to the Old Testament eras, or the New Testament eras.

Thus, two basic consequences arise, from the relationship between the uncreated Divine energies and all creatures (all of Creation):

The first is that Theognosy (the knowledge of God") - the "experience" - is manifested through the prophets and the saints, either by a straightforward and direct Sight of Divine Energies - either with events, with forms, with symbols, with the mysteries and with images within natural and historical reality.

The second is that this Theognosy, which leads to salvation and the perfecting of Creation in its entirety, both that which we can perceive with our sensory eyes, as well as that which we cannot perceive with our senses - that is, both the tangible and the intelligible - well, this kind of Theognosy is nothing static, nothing fossilized.  It is not merely an element of the Past; it actually becomes manifest through a dynamic and creative course.

Theophanies constitute the centermost nucleus of all of History - of the entire historical course of Israel. The interpretation of Orthodox Theology hinged itself precisely on these Theophanies, which took place within Creation and Historical Time.

Thus, the incarnation of the Logos - very easily and naturally - was regarded as the organic continuation of the history of the Theophanies of the Old Testament.  Consequently, the partaking of the Divine Glory as that Glory revealed itself, is not achieved only through direct sighting, but also with the particular imprint of the Energies - in natural and historical reality and in the activities of worship and the Mysteries of the Church. Because worship, together with the mysteries, are Theophanies within tangible and specific events.

Besides, even those who can "see" the Divine Glory in some direct manner (that is, the Prophets and the Saints) also see images. And this is very clearly and characteristically mentioned by Saint John of Damascus in his homilies, as well as by the 7th Ecumenical Synod (as we shall see in our forthcoming broadcasts), when saying that "the prophets saw God, in a visible apparition".

Thus, centuries before the appearance of the Iconomachy and its assertion that visual portrayals are "idols", John the Evangelist had already written that "Isaiah saw the Glory of God", and Orthodox Theology in its fight against Judaic and Idolatrous perceptions had also interpreted God's revealing of Himself in the events of the Old Testament as "theophanies" and "photophanies" (the viewings of light); as "theopty" and the experiencing of specific events - in symbols, shapes and forms. Furthermore, the fleshless presence of the Logos (the "endemia" -residing- of the Logos, as it was called by saint Maximus the Confessor) is a historical event and is rendered in forms and in visual portrayals, within a luminance.  Therefore, Orthodox Theology - as a life and an experience, but also as a scientific description of the products of that experience - relates to the sighting and the view of a reality.  And it is within that precise framework that iconography among other things is placed. 


Distinguishing between "created" and "Uncreated" in Orthodox Theology

Let us now clarify some of the points that we mentioned previously, and firstly, the association between the Uncreated Creator and Creation.

This association - that is, between the Uncreated Creator God and all the creations - from the tiniest stone (we could say) through to the spiritual angel and always through God's Uncreated Energies - is that which imposes the ineffable union of the natural and the supernatural, within Creation and History.

Absolute truth and benevolence is God alone.  All of Creation, all of created reality participates in this truth and this benevolence, progressively.  Along this progressive course, the truth is impressed. That is why there is an organic ink between "form" and "truth".

The "form" - according to Orthodox Theology - is not a vacant thing. It is not without content. In any phase of the History of Divine Providence. Nor is it a simple depiction, but a sequentially previous phase within the dynamic realization of the truth, always in relation to whatever takes place in the future. All of History is constant, uniform and organic. Thus, the history of the Old Testament is a "form" of the events of the New Testament, while the cosmos of the New Testament is a "form" of the future.

From the aforementioned, one can easily perceive that in all the creations, the state of createdness and the relativity of things play a dominant role. Things are graded between them when correlated. When, for example, we compare the soul to the body, the soul is incorporeal and immaterial. Compared to God, however, it is corporeal and material. The same is valid for an angel, as clearly stated by Saint John of Damascus in his positions. Only God is truly immaterial, as the "Uncreated" One.

Subsequently, the basic distinction according to Orthodox Theology is NOT between the tangible and the perceptible, the material and the spiritual, the visible and the invisible, the body and the soul; it is between the created and the Uncreated. Only God is truly  immaterial and perceptible. All of Creation has the same created essence, which is differentiated according to degree and receptiveness. Thus, when a Divine Energy prevails - for example as something final and deifying - then all beings relate to it, according to their material, schematic, virtual and noetic dependencies.  For example, the stone is only given essence, up to the degree of "being". However the creation that is "in the image and in the likeness of God" is not only given essence, but can also be perfected by deification, because it has the necessary receptiveness for this.

This relationship between energies and creations - when judged and regarded from a philosophical and scientific viewpoint - introduces a truly revolutionary world view and a radical anthropology: no more idols, "essences and archetypes" that determine things and relations; only "active events".  Man is not only unable (because of his limited status - his restriction) to know the essence of God, but also the essence of the creations.  And thus, his every relationship is based on active events and occurrences. Besides, these distinctions between "createdness" (creation) and the Uncreated Creator, as well as Man's limitations and every other creation's, were examined analytically in previous broadcasts, when we studied the words of Basil the Great, against the heretic Eunomius.

Thus, all of Creation is not to be confused with the Divine Essence, nor can any part of it be deified as an idol. It simply partakes of the Divine Energies, according to its "being" and its "well-being". Something is constantly taking place, and it can fall away. Nothing absolute exists. Only God is absolute and indescribable. An image however can describe the limits and the progress of every created reality; the description and the depiction of the fleshless and the corporeal presence of the Logos concerns the created beings, not the Divine Nature. It is through forms and images that the partaking of the uncreated Divine Energies and the sighting of those very Energies is achieved.

Subsequently, the meanings, the forms and the various kinds of depictions all relate to what Theology has named "the prototype".  This is exactly how every notion of "idolatry" is debunked, since Creation (as we mentioned earlier) has nothing absolute, but is only characterized by the aforementioned relativity of things.

Images (icons) therefore cannot constitute "idols" for Orthodox Theology in any way, because they themselves constitute a part of Creation and everything created is a far cry from the Uncreated Creator.

Each kind of depiction of persons and events within the history of Divine Providence preserves the memory of the Ecclesiastic community.  Thus, the community actually lives history - the truth itself. And it constantly refers to that truth and to the partaking of the Divine Energies.  The depictions do not pertain to any idol, but to life itself, to the truth and to accomplishments. That is why the image is linked to a continuing triumph within the bosom of natural and historical reality - as this has been excellently described by John of Damascus, in the words that we shall examine further along.


The incompatibility between Neo-Platonism and Orthodoxy

Let us notice at this point that, Orthodox Theology on the icon is strenuously anti-Manichaean. And this is obvious in the polemics of John of Damasacus but also of Theodore the Studite, just as it is obvious in the decisions of the 7th Ecumenical Council. It is easy for one to understand that the arguments of the supporters of holy icons have no essential dependence on Neo-Platonic models. But paradoxically -alas- there are quite a few researchers who have acknowledged that very dependence. These researchers appear to have misinterpreted the extensively discussed Orthodox position on the association between "the image and the prototype". This association however - with regard to content - is in no way regarded as Neo-Platonic.

Prototype and "conjecture" according to Neo-Platonic philosophy is one thing, and the Orthodox icon is another - with regard to the Uncreated Divine Energies - such that we have a union of the natural and the supernatural, in a reality that is continuously transformed.

The "conjectures" (απεικάσματα - pron. apikásmata) according to Neo-Platonic philosophy are simplistic forms of unintelligent matter; mere stamps and imprints on shapeless and disposable matter.  But in Biblical and Orthodox Theology the cosmos of the created exists in all its gradations: material, corporeal, intelligible, incorporeal... which, within the "energy grid" of the Uncreated Triadic God become perfected and move along this route of perfection.

The transition of an image (icon) towards the prototype on the one hand signifies a perfecting and excellence, and on the other hand an "expression" and a presentation of that course of metamorphosis. As such, it is impossible for one to ascribe any Manichean and Neo-Platonic models therein.


The bonding of the created and the Uncreated "in the light"

In accordance with Orthodox Theology, God is Light and everything lives, moves, develops and becomes perfected according to its receptiveness, through illumination.  This is precisely the Theology that Orthodox iconography so convincingly and overwhelmingly expresses. Thus, Orthodox Theology studies are also related to the study of Iconography.

The original style of Byzantine drawing with its illumination of faces and events highlights the unity and the fullness of every reality. Everything exists and is awarded, because it partakes directly of the light and is rendered a "light form".  Matter and light seem like things that are functionally bonded.

In a Byzantine icon, one does not see any shadows, perspectives, or half-things. No intensity between light and dark either. The light calmly illuminates that which exists and it is awarded, in its fullness. In this area, Orthodox hagiographers (who live the dogma in the life of the Church) are triumphant when it comes to portraying that which is the bonding between natural and supernatural. The veneration of icons - as a form of honoring the persons and the events depicted on them - presupposes participation in the corpus of Ecclesiastic living.

An icon portrays the illumination and the illuminating, thus prompting towards the aforementioned participation. An icon is not only a book for the illiterate, but also a grand reminder of a Theological truth. That is precisely why the depiction of persons, things and events cannot be Naturalistic in appearance, nor outside an illuminated and metamorphosed reality.

In this way, the Theology of the Byzantine icon is simultaneously a theology of light. Signs of this transformed reality are impressed in the icon, on the perceptible forms, given that no part of Creation remains outside the salvific and Divine Energies.

This is the truth that is expressed by the Orthodox icon and by extension all of Byzantine art. All of Creation finally - according to its degree of receptiveness - is saved and transformed within this relationship between the Creator and the created.


Theological extensions of the Orthodox Theology on created-Uncreated and the icon

It is a known fact (but will become more evident in future broadcasts, where we shall be examining the matter of icons analytically, from within the words of saint John of Damascus) that Orthodox iconography is dependent on the Christological dogma.

But, as repeatedly stressed by John of Damascus and the others, it is because the Logos was incarnated that the depiction of Christ and the Holy Trinity is entirely permissible and possible - given that the Logos is the One Who reveals the Trinity.  Nevertheless, the supporters of icons did not rely solely on the Incarnation and naturally on the dogmatic clause of the Chalcedon Council. Orthodox Theology developed Christology, with the Theophanies of the Old Testament as its starting point. The Logos is endemic, albeit fleshless, in the Patriarchs, in Moses and the Prophets. Hence depiction is permissible and possible, because this revealing in shapes, forms and pictorial representations pertains to historical events.  The pre-Incarnation and the Incarnate presence of the Logos is within the same and uniform temporal dimension.

The heretic Docetes of the 1st century had denied from the very beginning the Christology of the Church; they were first confronted by John the Evangelist. These Gnostics had not accepted any possibility whatsoever of a relationship between God and matter, and hence accepted the Incarnation as "seeming" - as "imagined". A Docete ("imaginer") such as this could never accept a depiction that pertains to a relationship between Creation and the uncreated Divine Energies, and in fact one that signified the progressive metamorphosis of created beings.  

The heretics of the 5th century - on whose account the dogmatic clause of Chalcedon was drafted - appear to have overcome the difficulties of the Docetes; they do not regard the Incarnation as a seeming one. But, while they have ushered Docetism out of the door, they have ushered it in through the window (or have been unable to expel it). They are now discussing "how" the Incarnation took place, or "how" humanity and divinity merged together, into the one hypostasis of the Logos. And they have ended up in a camouflaged Docetism, in which case any depiction of persons and salvific events has become problematic.

Nestorians and Monophysites have removed nature, history and flesh, from History and the transformative grace of God. The former (Nestorians) with their theory regarding hypostases, or, better still, regarding the "two sons" (the man Jesus and the Son Logos) who are joined by a mutual volition and not by the substantial joining of the two natures, have thus dangerously led the interpretation of salvation towards a moralizing theory.

The latter (the Monophysites), with their elimination of human nature, have even been able to effortlessly reject the Incarnation itself.  This all signifies that Theology is no longer Theopty, a sighting of light in the specific relations between created and the Uncreated.  But Orthodox Theology is clear: Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, Saints, the friends of God - all without exception - have a view of God within the charismatic corpus, and that is the only way that they theologize and moralize. This is what implies a bond between physical and metaphysical; Historical reality. It is in this historical reality that Theopty, savoring, experiencing, meanings, symbols, forms icons and events are realized. And this is the precise dimension where Orthodox iconography sprouts from.

Everything that we spoke of previously one can locate in the Three Essays on icons by saint John of Damascus - the essays that we intend to study more analytically in future broadcasts.  We shall study them, from within the publication of the Philosophical and Theological Library, which is also where we drew the comments (the introductory comments) for the present broadcast.


Translation:  K.N.

Δημιουργία αρχείου: 18-11-2010.

Τελευταία ενημέρωση: 18-11-2010.