What does an icon show?
A long and complex controversy touching on the meaning of the Incarnation occurred in the 8th Century Byzantine Empire. The iconoclastic controversy erupted under Byzantine Emperor Leo III in 726 when he banned icons and images. In 730 a famous image of Christ was removed from the gate to the Imperial Palace and replaced by a simple cross, provoking great protests, including from Pope Gregory III, who excommunicated Leo. Leo’s iconoclastic son Constantine V intensified the conflict, and many images were destroyed. Upon the accession to the throne of the minor child Constantine VI under the regency of his iconophile mother Irene, the 2nd Council of Nicea in 787 was called with the help of the Pope and the Council restored the veneration of icons. Another period of iconoclasm occurred between 814-842. Scholars continue to debate the cause of this conflict. It appears that orthodox Christians were divided over the issue, but there were political complications also.
The iconoclasts argued that Scripture forbade graven images. It was impossible to depict the invisible and incomprehensible God, and any attempt must fail in some way. The most perfect representation of Christ was in the Eucharist, not images painted on wood. True images of virtuous persons or saints were to be found in stories of their lives, not in painted representations. This is to say that our knowledge of God through Christ is to be by hearing only, not by seeing images. Yet, the metaphor of seeing was favored by early Christian teachers, Origin, Irenaeus, and is often used in the New Testament (see the class on Introduction to the Early Christians).
A great defender of icons was the monk John of Damascus (676-749), who had worked in the Caliph’s service and was beyond the reach of the Byzantine emperors. To John, the Incarnation justifies the use of material objects to connect us to God. There is no man Jesus except the Word Incarnate. One sees the “Word made flesh”. The “Word,” Logos, cannot be seen with the eyes. The flesh can be seen with the eyes. When one sees the painted image of Christ, one “sees” the invisible Word, as if one “sees” through the image to the “Word” to which it points.
Jesus is no longer with us, but a material image of Christ depicts the divine Logos. John of Damascus writes, “I boldly draw an image of the invisible God not as invisible but as having become visible for our sakes by sharing in flesh and blood.” The image depicts neither the human Jesus nor the invisible God, but the image of God become flesh.
The material thing becomes other while remaining what it is. Material things have within them the potentiality of showing what is beyond them. The visible makes accessible the invisible, unveils it. The image directs attention not to itself, but to the prototype, the original, and is capable of presenting the person of Christ before the believer. An icon of Christ connects us with the future as well as the past, unites memory and hope, and situates us in God’s economy. We anticipate the coming of Christ, as well as looking back to what he has done, and the present is transformed.
Theodore of Studium (759-826AD) was another great defender of icons. In the case of an image, we are not talking about the incomprehensible essence of God. We are talking about God’s economy. The icon is the most visible presentation of God’s “saving plan.” Because Christ has lived among us, it is possible to draw an image of Christ who is God incarnate. Contrary to the iconoclast’s view that God is known by “mental contemplation,” Theodore said, “If merely mental contemplation had been sufficient, it would have been sufficient for him to come to us in a purely mental way.”
In his book, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, R. L. Wilken says (see the discussion of 1 John 1:3 in Class 1):
“Because of the Incarnation Christianity posits an intimate relation between material things and the living God. … Christianity’s unique claim is that spiritual knowledge begins with the things that can be seen with the eyes and touched with the hands.”
Also because of the Incarnation, Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple commented (in his book Readings in St. John’s Gospel) that “Christianity is the most materialistic of all the great religions.” This calls to mind a quote from C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity used in Part 1 of Anglican Essentials,
There is no good trying to be more spiritual than God. God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life in us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it.
The question was settled for Orthodox Christianity at the 7th Ecumenical Council, the Second Council of Nicea in 787AD. The Council affirmed that an icon of Christ was more than a picture of the historical Jesus. In looking at an icon of Christ, they said, one does not simply see the man Christ but “the Logos become flesh.” And when looking at an icon of the Nativity, the icon presents to us the “God become man for our salvation.” Hence, the icon invites the confession, “He who is without flesh, became flesh … The uncreated one was made. The impalpable one was touched.” It is an icon of the Incarnation, the mystery of God taking on human flesh. The Council affirmed that it is acceptable and right to use images as a part of Christian piety and worship.
Here is how John of Damascus said it himself (in his Apologia Against Those Who Decry Holy Images) using simple words of uncommon power:
Speaking theologically, it is given to us to avoid superstitious error, to be with God in the knowledge of the truth, to worship God alone, to enjoy the fullness of His knowledge. We have passed the stage of infancy and reached the perfection of manhood. We receive our habit of mind from God and know what may be imaged and what may not. The Scripture says, “You have not seen the likeness of Him.” (Ex. 33.20) What wisdom in the law-giver. How depict the invisible? How picture the inconceivable? How give expression to the limitless, the immeasurable, the invisible? How give a form to immensity? How paint immortality? How localize mystery? It is clear that when you contemplate God, who is a pure spirit, becoming man for your sake, you will be able to clothe Him with the human form. When the Invisible One becomes visible to flesh, you may then draw a likeness of His  form. When He who is a pure spirit, without form or limit, immeasurable in the boundlessness of His own nature, existing as God, takes upon Himself the form of a servant in substance and in stature, and a body of flesh, then you may draw His likeness, and show it to anyone willing to contemplate it. Depict His ineffable condescension, His virginal birth, His baptism in the Jordan, His transfiguration on Tabor, His all-powerful sufferings, His death and miracles, the proofs of His Godhead, the deeds which He worked in the flesh through divine power, His saving Cross, His Sepulcher, and resurrection, and ascent into heaven. Give to it all the endurance of engraving and color.
… I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honoring that matter which works my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God. … Through it, filled, as it were, with a divine power and grace, my salvation has come to me. Was not the thrice happy and thrice blessed wood of the Cross matter? Was not the sacred and holy mountain of Calvary matter? What of the life-giving rock, the Holy Sepulcher, the source of our resurrection: was it not matter? Is not the most holy book of the Gospels matter? Is not the blessed table matter which gives us the Bread of Life? Are not the gold and silver matter, out of which crosses and altar-plate and chalices are made? And before all these things, is not the body and blood of our Lord matter? Either do away with the veneration and worship due to all these things or submit to the tradition of the Church in the worship of images, honoring God and His friends, and following in this the grace of the Holy Spirit. Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable. Nothing is that which God has made. This is the Manichean heresy. That alone is despicable which does not come from God, but is our own invention, the spontaneous choice of will to disregard the natural law,–that is to say, sin.
[Use the page numbers at the bottom to navigate back and forth between pages for this class. Use this link to return to the Introduction page for all 4 classes.]