The theology of the holy icons [2]

8 March 2023
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The icon in Orthodoxy teaches the mystery of the incarnation of the Son and Word of God. Refusal to venerate and honor an icon of him is tantamount to denying his incarnation. Moreover, the saints are depicted and venerated because they’re members of the body of Christ and have the grace of God within them. The icons function as bearers of divine grace, in the same manner as human nature put into practice the divine characteristics of the Word. This is how icons work wonders [13].

In the 8th century, a theological and political conflict arose in Byzantium regarding the veneration of Christian icons. This conflict divided the inhabitants of the empire into iconoclasts and iconodules [opponents, and supporters, of icons].

Iconoclasm was a heresy against the dogma of the incarnation of the Word and therefore against the mystery of the divine dispensation. This had an immediate impact on the life and theology of the Church.

The iconoclasts claimed that God is ‘undepictable’, thereby undermining and casting doubt on the historical incarnation of the Son and Word of God. But Saint John the Damascan declared: ‘I do not depict the invisible Godhead, but God’s flesh as it was seen’ [14]. The same truth, which was formulated dogmatically by the holy Synods and by the Fathers, is depicted in images by the iconographers. For the iconoclasts, icons were, in fact, idols, because these people saw only the wood and paint and were unable to rise to the task of gazing spiritually upon the living beings portrayed in the icons.

Saint John tells us: ‘Therefore an icon is a likeness of someone and a sample and impression which shows the person portrayed, but in no way resembles the original in his or her entirety…’ [15]. Explaining the reason for the existence of icons, he has this to say: ‘they are to bring people to knowledge and to manifest and announce to them what is hidden…’ [16].

Saint John the Damascan was one of the most important supporters of icons and devoted three treatises to the issue [17], as well as a chapter of his work The Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith [18]. Another was Saint Theodore the Studite who, during the time when he was imprisoned, wrote a great many disquisitions in favor of icons, though the interest of scholars has largely centered on his three Polemical Discourses.

Against the iconoclasts, supporters of the images argued: a) that the icon itself and the material of which it is made isn’t honored, as would be the case with an idol, but rather that any honor paid goes to the prototype [i.e. the person depicted]; and b) the person depicted isn’t the fruit of human imagination, as are idols, but was a real person and, as such, can be portrayed.

In 746, Emperor Leo III published the first decree envisaging the destruction of all icons and also forbidding veneration of and prayers to the saints. Until 741when Leo died, his policy was relatively moderate, and it seems that the prohibition and removal of the icons weren’t strictly enforced. His son and successor, Constantine V, was much harsher. He unleashed a persecution against the icons and their monastic supporters, convoking the Synod of Hieria, by which religious depictions were banned. Monks and nuns were forced into marriage and many monasteries were taken over by the state.

This great turbulence which afflicted the body of the Church lasted some 116 years, though not continuously. During that period, the great spiritual personalities of the age, such as Saint John the Damascan, Patriarch Tarasios of Constantinople, Theodore the Studite and Pope Hadrian of Rome, all raised their voices and stood their ground without hesitation, fear or any thought as to what other people might say. Through their theology the error of the iconoclasts was exposed and it was possible to convene the 7th Ecumenical Synod in 787, in Constantinople, with Patriarch Tarasios presiding. This Synod revoked the Synod of 754, under Constantine V, anathematized the heretic iconoclasts and enshrined Orthodox teaching regarding the holy icons. On 23 October, 787, at a triumphant session in the Great Hall near the palace, the resolutions of the synod were ratified  and signed by Empress Irene and her son, Constantine VI. ‘And peace came to the Church of God, even though the enemy never ceases to sow his tares through his laborers. But though the Church is always under attack, it triumphs’ [19].

After the death of Emperor Theofilos of Byzantium, the end of the iconoclast controversy came in 842, through the actions of his consort, Theodora, who exercised power in the name of her son, Michael, who was still a minor. The status of the 7th Ecumenical Synod was recognized, the icons were restored, the dissolved monasteries were reconstituted and Church and monastery lands were handed back. The whole of the theology concerning icons is summarized in the ‘term’ (concluding statement) of the 7th Ecumenical Synod.

According to Saint John the Damascan, Christological dogma is the basis for our veneration of the icons. Salvation is linked to the incarnation of the divine Word, and consequently to matter, since salvation is effected through the union, in Christ, of the divine nature and human flesh: ‘Of old, God was bodiless and formless and was never depicted; now that God has been seen and has lived among us, I depict God as he was seen. I do not venerate the matter, but him who created the matter, who became matter for me, consented to dwell in matter and to achieve my salvation through matter. I do not cease to respect matter, through which my salvation is achieved’ [20]. And thus Saint John the Damascan also proclaims: ‘we are able to make images of all the shapes that we have seen’ [21].

In closing, I would like to quote the kontakio for the Sunday of Orthodoxy, in which we find the theology of the mystery of the incarnation, through the Mother of God, and also the theology of the icons: ‘The uncircumscribed Word of the Father became circumscribed, taking flesh from you, Mother of God. He has restored the tarnished image to its ancient form, filling it with divine beauty. Confessing our salvation in word and deed, we depict it’.

[13] Metropolitan Ierotheos of Nafpaktos and Ayios Vlasios.
[14] On those who attack the holy icons, homily 1.
[15] ΕΠΕ vol. 3, p. 227.
[16] ibid.
[17] On the icons, PG 94, 1232-1420.
[18] PG 94, 1168-1176.
[19] Theofanis the Confessor, Chronicle, p. 717.
[20] PG 94, 1245.
[21] ΕΠΕ Αγίου Ιωάννου του Δαμασκηνού, Έργα, vol. 3, pp. 225-239.