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Is veneration worship? // The Theology of Icons and the Incarnation of God the Logos  // Are holy icons ‘idols’?

Iconoclasts: Orthodoxy's "conservatives"

by Christos Yannaras


Source: Magazine "SYNORO", Issue No.36, 1965.

Re-published by: http://giannaras.wordpress.com/2008/02/28/eikonoklastes



I will attempt to show that iconoclasts are always the "conservatives" of Orthodoxy.

Their stumbling block is the scandal of the person. An icon (image) is the verification of a person - the verification of freedom.  It is not a coincidence that the historical starting point of the Iconomachy is Monotheletism and its champion the emperor Philippikos-Vardanis (711-713). The Monotheletes denied the distinction between volition and person; in other words, they refused to separate the person from nature. Human nature is one and it is common to all, whereas human beings are "myriads" and dissimilar to each other. Volition is the work of nature, whereas freedom, as opposed to volition, is ascribed to the person; it is the verification of the person.  Volition pertains to the physical individual, whereas freedom is linked to the human person.

Distinguishing is of extreme importance to us.  Man realizes his personal hypostasis, when he denies his physical volition - that is, when he ceases to be an individual, a physical self-awareness which projects his individual nature as an "I" in others' natures.  Individualism is the confusing of nature and person; it is the fragmenting of nature, which is attributed entirely to corruption through sin.  We determine the human person by his individual, physical characteristics, while his person remains inaccessible to any natural determination whatsoever - unique, incomparable and dissimilar, containing the entirety of his nature and constituting a separate and unprecedented possibility of being a depiction of God.

The iconoclasts would ask the defenders of Icons which of the two natures of Christ were being portrayed - the divine or the human.  And Saint Theodore the Studite replied that "in everyone who is depicted, it is not the (Trns.note:physical) nature, but the hypostasis that is depicted."  This means that Orthodox hagiography does not aspire to portray individual natures; it only depicts the "event" of that person. It does not seek to symbolize the person of the Holy Mother by resorting to the features of a contemporary young woman; it strictly confirms the presence among us of a Virgin and a Mother of God.  The character of hagiography is therefore neither a symbolic nor a relative one; it is an admission and a certification of facts.

This distinguishing between the image of things and the shadow of things is found in the Epistle to Hebrews: "...for the Law is but the shadow of future things, and not the image itself of those things" (Hebr.10:1).  It is only within this ontological content that we can perceive Man as an "image of God" (Genesis 1:26). Man is a depiction of God, not per nature (ie proportionately and symbolically), but as a distinction between nature and person; that is, between "actually" and "ontologically".  The first meaning of "icon" (image) - the proportionate and symbolic one - is of Hellenic origin. The second meaning is the meaning per the Bible and Judean tradition.

The Septuagint fathers had rendered the Hebrew word "chelem" as meaning "image", which is interpreted (on the basis of paleo-Judean and Babylonian sources) as "appearance", "representation", "equivalence", "substitute".  At the same time, it also has the meaning of creative depiction - of a dimensional representative presence.  It is characteristic, that in passages of the Old Testament and the New Testament, the meaning of "icon" is linked to (or interpreted with) the meaning of "glory" - with the corresponding Hebrew word that implies something objectively supreme, which is offered to Man as an immediate sensation and empirical knowledge.  It is the appearance and the manifestation of the holiness of Jahwe, which is usually perceived as "light" and as "power".

It is in this sense that Christ is likewise the "image of God the invisible" (2 Cor.4:4 and Colos.1:14); in other words, the appearance of God, the manifestation of God.  And Christians are called upon to become "of similar form to the image of the Son of God" (Rom.8:29).  With our natural (physical) birth, we "donned the earthen image", which does not cease to be the image of our Creator God, despite all the confusion between individual nature and the person.  With our spiritual rebirth "we shall also don the image of the celestial" (1 Cor.15:49); in other words, we shall be rendered a form of "God's likeness" - the appearance and the manifestation of God.  In this verse, the future tense of the verb (shall) refers us to the eschatological end, - which should not be understood as referring only to Time, given that the "eschaton" (final) is in reference to the major accomplishment of the Church - but rather it refers us to the form of the "new man", the one who is "renewed with the conscience of being the image of the one who created him" (Colos. 3:10)

This renewal - with conscience - into the image of,  pertains to the Church's presence and comprises the "manifestation" of the children of God, the fullness of humanity's destination.  The consciousness of God leads to the revelation of the human person; Man fulfils his personal hypostasis within the event of being the "image of God".  "Never until now  has it been revealed what we shall be like.  We do know, that if it is revealed, we shall be alike to Him, for we shall be seeing Him the way He is" (Ούπω εφανερώθη τι εσόμεθα. Οίδαμεν δε ότι εάν φανερωθή όμοιοι αυτώ εσόμεθα, ότι οψόμεθα αυτόν καθώς εστιν) (1 John 3:2). Within the realm (the 'Kingdom'), the cognizance of God is not a relative and metaphysical one; it is not a knowledge "about God", but rather a direct view - a depiction of the personal God in the human person.  Man becomes "the place of God" - the appearance and the manifestation of God. "All of us, with our persons revealed and reflecting the glory of God, are transformed into that same image, from glory to glory, as by the spirit of the Lord." (Ημείς πάντες ανακεκαλυμμένω προσώπω την δόξαν Κυρίου κατοπτριζόμενοι την αυτήν εικόνα μεταμορφούμεθα από δόξης εις δόξαν, καθάπερ από Κυρίου πνεύματος. (2 Cor. 3:18).

And that is the scandal for the Iconoclasts. This ontology of the icon/image is unfathomable to them, and that is why they prefer the path of emulation: 'We need to resemble Christ'... These are the moralists. They appeared in History as revolutionaries and radicals, tearing down the "forms" and the "images" for the sake of promoting the pure truth of the word. Iconoclastically speaking, these are all pietistic movements within the bosom of the Church. Conscious or unconscious ones.  They usually appear for the purpose of restoring disturbed moral order, and they have an a priori disdain for the lay respect of forms and symbols.  They seek to replace formal religiosity with the "essence" of moral consequence.  They deny the image for the sake of the word.  To resemble Christ means to mimic Him in His specific moral virtues; it is something that can be controlled with one's logic. But to actually comprise the image of God - the revealing and manifestation of God - well, that is a leap that is impossible to perform with the crutches of iconoclast logic.  It presupposes a forsaking of the word and the acceptance of the whole man as an instrument for approaching the truth.

Then there is the scandal called 'freedom'.  Emulation requires subordination; depiction presupposes dialogue in the person. And dialogue means the undertaking of an extreme responsibility, which cannot be shared with any spiritual authority.  Iconoclasts deny the icon/image, because they find it impossible to grasp its ontological content, the certainty of the person's presence and the immediate potential for dialogue with the depicted person.  They are only familiar with individual natures, which, when depicted, cannot portray their morally perfected character, which is why their depiction is considered redundant.  If there is ever going to be a compromise with conjectural representation, it will lead to the acceptance, not of images, but of religious art, because of its ability to subject one sentimentally and facilitate the accomplishment of a moral obligation.

At best, religious art is a form of learning, a reference to the past life of the persons being portrayed. However, an Icon is always the Church's expression of certainty of the immediate presence of those who are "already perfected" - the testifying and the experiencing of a community of the living and the reposed.

"For where the imprint is, there he (the depicted one) also is" (Ένθα γαρ αν ή το σημείον, εκεί και αυτός έσται), says Saint John of Damascus. And elsewhere he supplements: "The Apostles had seen the Lord with their corporeal eyes, and the Apostles were seen by others, and the martyrs by others. It is my desire to also behold them, with my soul and with my eyes... because, being a human and having a body, it is my desire to likewise address and behold holy things corporeally. " (Είδον οι απόστολοι τον Κύριον σωματικοίς οφθαλμοίς, και τους αποστόλους έτεροι, και τους μάρτυρας έτεροι. Ποθώ καγώ τούτους οράν ψυχή τε και σώματι… επεί άνθρωπός ειμι, και σώμα περίκειμαι, ποθώ και σωματικώς ομιλείν, και οράν τα άγια.

And it is also a characteristic fact that while religious art is almost always naturalistic (ie, it depicts only individual natures), hagiography sees objects complete with soul and body and it portrays their form as already glorified bodies: that certainty about the person which relates overall to the entire body and has no need for natural beauty in order to be "actually" revealed.

In other words, iconography is the denial of moralistic models, the denial of relative teaching for the sake of the person alone.  The "fact" of the person is a moral risking, as it presupposes dialogue with God, ie, an awareness of God's absence (which we call repentance), with a previous awareness of sinfulness.  This is where the scandal called 'freedom' is located, which is why monasticism - that incessant grieving during one's repentance - is incomprehensible to iconoclasts, from the time of the Iconomachy through to this day.

Thirdly, it is the scandal of materialism, of matter.

Iconoclasts seek spiritual worship; they are forever wary of the danger of idols. This is yet another consequence of the denial of the person, because the human person is the hypostatic "blending" and "adjoining" of matter and spirit. Man comprises an image of God in precisely such an overall synthesis.

Says Saint Gregory Palamas: "Not the soul alone, nor the body alone is called Man, but both of them together, which, having also been made as an image of God, must be thus called" (Μη αν ψυχήν μόνην, μήτε σώμα μόνον λέγεσθαι άνθρωπον, αλλά το συναμφότερον, ον δη και κατ’ εικόνα πεποιηκέναι Θεός λέγεται). The discerning between matter and spirit in Man portrays the discerning between the Essence and the Energies in God - that ineffable reality of the world's animation by the Grace of God. That is why the defenders of holy Icons would use the teaching of Saint Maximus the Confessor and Dionysios the Areopagite in order to envisage the image of God within natural reality overall; that effusion of uncreated Grace, which is the fulfiller of the overall function of the Logos within the material and spiritual universe. The cosmos constitutes an image of God, precisely because it is the manifestation and appearance of His uncreated energies.

This potential of an "actual" depiction of Godhood in matter is restored, by the rescinding of the natural division between created nature and the uncreated God in the Person of Jesus Christ.  That is why Saint John of Damascus would proclaim: «In the past, God - the uncreated and unformed - was in no way depicted. Now, having seen God in the flesh and mingling with people, I depict the visible aspect of God. I do not worship through matter; I do worship the Creator of matter, Who became matter for my sake and Who condescended to reside within matter, and Who forged my salvation through matter, and I shall not cease to respect matter, through which my salvation was forged.» (Πάλαι μεν ο Θεός, ο ασώματός τε και ασχημάτιστος, ουδαμώς εικονίζετο. Νυν δε σαρκί οφθέντος Θεού, και τοις ανθρώποις συναναστραφέντος, εικονίζω Θεού το ορώμενον. Ου προσκυνώ τη ύλη, προσκυνώ δε τον της ύλης δημιουργόν τον ύλην δι’ εμέ γενόμενον, και εν ύλη κατοικήσαι καταδεξάμενον, και δι’ ύλης την σωτηρίαν μου εργασάμενον, και σέβων ου παύσομαι τη ύλη, δι’ ης η σωτηρία μου είργασται).

Being opposed to this overall perception of salvation, iconoclasts are forever dualists. They show disbelief in the body; they locate the origin of sin in material nature alone; they determine spirituality by means of rationalistic notions of a formal idealism, and they deprive it of all participation in the truth of personal beauty. They deny the body, and yet their fear of it follows them and infects their life with subconscious complexes.  They surrender to marriage as though to a loveless compromise with the flesh; human and divine love (Eros) are both entirely incomprehensible to them. There is no mystical life to iconoclasts; only mimicry and self-discipline. They exorcise moral corruption in society by creating followers, on which they militarily impose uniform ways of life, thought, and even external appearance.

It is not symptomatic that Orthodoxy recognizes a triumph of hers in the reinstatement of holy Icons. An Icon is the measure and the criterion of the Orthodox phronema-conscience and experience; it is the immediate and tangible testimony of the faith of the Orthodox regarding Man, Salvation and the world.



Source: Magazine "SYNORO", Issue No.36, 1965.


Translation by K.N.

File created: 28-5-2009.

Last update: 28-5-2009.