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The Spirit guiding the creation of icons

30 November, 2012

Mark Patrick Hederman OSB looks at how the tradition of creating icons emerged from a long history of Christians trying to work out the propriety of depicting the divine in images.

Icons are essentially a Christian art form. Those of us who are Christians, and who venerate the icons, believe that the Spirit guiding the creation of icons, is the same that guided the creation of the world, the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity. A beautiful Ode dating from about the year 10 of the Christian era and attributed to King Solomon tells us: ‘As the hand moves over the zither and the strings speak, so does the Spirit of the Lord speak in my limbs and I speak through his love.’

Prohibition of images
Not all Christians venerate the icons. Not all religions permit such use of art as a depiction of God. Judaism, from which Christianity was born, is vehemently opposed to any representation of the Godhead which would be a work of human hands. As dutiful heir to the Jewish tradition, the early Church inherited the belief in a God who is, and must always be, beyond our imagining and our powers of description. This remains a constant bedrock of all judeo-christian teaching and is a natural attitude of a religion which was characterised by a tradition, over a thousand years old before ever Jesus Christ appeared, forbidding any images of God, even images formed in the mind, even the use of the name of God. Such prohibitions are enshrined in the decalogue: ‘You shall not make yourself a graven image or any likeness whatever.. .’ (Exodus 20:4).

It is easy to understand, therefore, how the history of the icon which is the Greek word for ‘image’ – is intimately bound up with the history of Christianity in the first centuries after Christ’s death, as the community of Christians tried to work out the precise meaning of the tradition they had inherited: where it was the same as the Jewish tradition and where it differed.

One of the most important moments in this discovery of their authentic profile was called the iconoclastic crisis. This has been compared with the later crisis in Christendom occasioned by what has become known as ‘The Reformation’ in the 16th century.

Images for teaching purposes
Iconoclasm means in Greek ‘the smashing of images.’ This movement of reform and purification in the Christian Church began around 725. In this phase of the movement icons were destroyed as pagan images or idols, incompatible with Christian belief and a scandal to Jews and Moslems. In the second phase of the movement, almost a century later, icons were tolerated for pedagogical purposes, almost as a bible in pictures or comic strips, to teach the illiterate, but they were considered unsuitable for public worship and required to be removed from churches.

And, certainly, I find it very easy to understand the iconoclastic movement in the early church. When I see some of the hideous monstrosities that inhabit many Roman Catholic churches, when I hear of femurs of Oliver Plunkett, Mary Magdalen’s teeth, statues of the Child of Prague being buried in the garden to have a nice day for the wedding; pictures of Christ wearing a ‘sacred heart’ like a three dimensional Valentine card pinned to his shirt; or Stations of the Cross with a sickly effeminate Jesus dressed for tennis, wearing whiter than white, and refusing to swop his packet of ‘Daz’ for two packets of ordinary washing powder with the nasty dirty Roman soldiers who maliciously surround him like cartoons of sadistic evil rather than bored executioners doing their duty. Or the statues, pictures, plastic bottles with blue tops of the Mother of God, which fall off the tables of overnight vendors in every shrine of the Virgin the world over. Bleeding statues, moving statues and even statues that drink nine spoonfuls of milk a day, one in Cheshire in England and one in Kuala Lumpur. I have visited Knock, Medjugorje, Lourdes and more recently the shrine at Chestakova in Poland, where the portrait of Our Lady, known as the Black Madonna, was painted by St Luke on boards taken from the table on which they ate the last supper!

Back to Christian roots
So I sympathise with the Emperor Leo III, who undoubtedly initiated the iconoclastic movement in about 726. He may have had all kinds of political or economic reasons for doing so, but, to be fair to him, it seems to me that his basic reason was to institute a religious reform which would bring Christianity back to its roots, where worship in spirit and in truth would be the norm (1).  He looked around him and saw huge progress being made by the Moslem version of religion, which was emphatically and violently faithful to the principle of imagelessness. Not even animals could be depicted in their places of worship, not to speak of divine persons. Had there not been an earthquake in 726 which could only be an expression of divine displeasure at the state of Christendom as he presided over it? Just as the earth had swallowed up Dathan for idolatrous practices, so the earth was swallowing up Christians who had strayed from the path of monotheistic purity.

Leo saw himself as prefigured in the Old Testament by Hezekiah, who destroyed the bronze serpent over the temple in Jerusalem 800 years after it had been put there as an object of worship. It was supposed to be the one Moses had used to stem the plague of serpents in the desert.  He, Leo, 800 years after Christianity was born, would perform a similar symbolic act by destroying the bronze image of Christ which was above the entrance to his palace.  Thus he would begin the work of saving Christianity from idolatry which had crept in to despoil the original years of puritan simplicity.

Getting rid of clutter
It has been happening ever since. Most reform movements have a similar intent. Even in my own order, the Benedictines, founded around the year 480, there has been a series of reforms which were designed to rid us of the clutter of images and statues and the encrustations of wealth which accumulate over the centuries of massive unpaid labour and occasional plunder. The most striking of these reforms produced the Cistercian order which would claim to be a more iconoclastic version of our way of life, a return to the simplicity and purity of the founder. During the attempt to destroy these images which had crept into Christianity by the eighth century, Leo III had a number of remarkable military successes over the, up to then, irresistible advance of Islam, which he took as confirmation from the Almighty of the direction he had initiated. So, Leo’s son, in turn, the Emperor Constantine V, something of an amateur theologian in his spare time, decided to copperfasten his father’s endeavours by calling a Church Council which would endorse the principles of iconoclasm. There were 338 bishops at this council which met in Constantinople from 2 February to 8 August 754. Afterwards, people say that the naughty emperor put undue pressure on these poor little bishops, but who has ever been able to put pressure on a bishop? Whether he did or didn’t, the Council ratified the iconoclastic charter which included a lengthy definition which was then promulgated by the Emperor.

Defeat of iconoclasm
Now, many later historians and believers hold that this was a high moment for Christianity and that if the results of this Council had been upheld we wouldn’t have had to go through the later ‘reformations’ which proved so devastating to the unity of Christianity. However, history is written by the winners and the fact is that Iconoclasm was defeated, the above Council declared heretical, and icons, images, statues, holy pictures, and representations of Christ, the Holy Family, the extended family of saints and angels, etc., were not just allowed back into our churches and dwelling-places but were declared to be an essential part of our Christian heritage.

This war was not won without a great deal of struggle, time, argument and even bloodshed. It took centre stage as the most important battle in Byzantium for nearly a century. Two Councils of the Church were devoted to it entirely until eventually in 787 the movement of iconoclasm was definitively defeated and icons were restored to their rightful place in the Christian scheme of things. So great a victory was hailed by the Church as a new feastday: the feast of Orthodoxy which to this day is celebrated in the Orthodox Church on the first Sunday of every season of Lent.

Nicean Council
And most denominations of Christianity are involved in this declaration, including Roman Catholicism, because it was pronounced by the Seventh Ecumenical Council, held in Nicea from 24 September to 23 October and gained eventual recognition by the five great patriarchates of the time: Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Jerusalem and Rome. It states: ‘We retain, without introducing anything new… the representation of painted images… because of the belief in the true and non-illusory Incarnation of God the Word, for our benefit. For things which presuppose each other are mutually revelatory.

‘Since this is the case, following the royal path and teaching divinely inspired by our Holy Fathers and the Tradition of the Catholic Church – for we know that it is inspired by the Holy Spirit who lives in it – we decide in all correctness and after a thorough examination, that, just as the holy and vivifying cross, similarly the holy and precious icons painted with colours …should be placed in the holy churches…on walls, on boards, in houses and on roads, whether these are icons of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, or our Spotless and Sovereign Lady, the holy Mother of God, or the holy angels and holy and venerable saints. . .’

This Council had many repercussions, among which was a new understanding of ecumenicity.  By declaring heretical the previous council summoned by the Emperor Leo III it showed that validation of a council was not dependent upon either the authority of the emperor, or the presence of representatives of any or all of the major patriarchates of the Christian world, even if these signed the results unanimously. It was further necessary that the decrees promulgated should be accepted by the churches. In other words ‘the effective ecumenicity of a council came to be mainly a process of assimilation by each church of the defined dogmatic orientations and of the canonical dispositions promulgated by the Council Fathers. Only when it becomes part of the liturgical life and ordinary catechetic teachings of each church does a Council acquire substantial ecumenicity.’ (2)

Image of the invisible
Such was the context of this milestone in the evolution of Christianity, which had political as well as ecclesiastical repercussions still being felt today. More important for us is the content of the promulgation. It links the icons to the Incarnation. If Jesus Christ actually became man and lived an historical life on earth then it must be possible to depict that life and represent his features in pictorial form. Just as the evangelists were able to write down an account of his life and his person in books which have become the definitive scriptures of Christianity, so, too, it must be possible for visual artists to describe him in paint. (cf Colossians 1:15: ‘He is the image of the invisible God’ – where the Greek word used is ‘icon’ – and Hebrews 1:3: ‘He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature’). The VIIIth Ecumenical Council (869-870) goes so far as to say, ‘The icon of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ should be venerated with esteem equal to that afforded to the book of the holy gospels’ (Denzinger 653).

It was Constantine V, son of the Emperor Leo III who best expressed the difficulty of icon painting: ‘We ask you how is it possible to depict our Lord Jesus Christ who is only one person of two natures, immaterial and material, through their union without confusion?’  In other words, he was posing the dilemma for the defenders of icons that if they said the icon was depicting Christ as man only, they were guilty of Nestorianism, the great heresy which separated the human element from the divine; if they said the icon represented Christ as both God and man, they were guilty of the monophysite heresy which refused to separate the incomprehensible divinity from the humanity.

The art of the icon was the creative response to this dilemma. It is possible to depict this mystery, but since no method of artistic representation which existed to date could do so, it was necessary to invent one appropriate to the challenge, which is what happened in Byzantium. Byzantium devised an art form in the icon, but also in its architecture, which stands even today as what Goethe called ‘frozen music’ of eternity, capable of incarnating two completely different natures in one hybrid form. It is almost as if the art form devised was a visible defeat of two of the three laws of logical thought: the principle of identity and the principle of non-contradiction. Everything is what it is and cannot, at the time it is what it is, be something else. And a thing ‘X cannot be both ‘X and not ‘X at the same time. This seems logical. However, icons are both what they are and what they are not at the same time. This is not just a magical trick or an ancient form of trompe l’oeil art, it is a unique and sui generis art form which incorporates the paradox upon which Christianity is founded, namely the mystery of the Incarnation, whereby a fragment of the created world becomes the embodiment of a world beyond.

Note 1. I am supported in these views of iconoclasm by Christopher Schoenborn in L’Icone du Christ: Fondemonts Theologiques, Paris 1986,  from whom I borrow some of these thoughts.

Note 2. Vittorio Peri, ‘The Church of Rome and the Ecclesiastical Problems Raised by Iconoclasm’ Icons, Windows and eternity, theology and spirituality in colour, compiled by Gennadios Limouris, WCC Publications, Geneva 1990,  p.28-29.


This article first appeared in Spirituality (November-December 2000), a publication of the Irish Dominicans.