THE FACE OF GOD: THE ICONOCLAST CONTROVERSY


Anyone who enters an Eastern Orthodox church today will immediately be struck by the centrality and ubiquity of sacred icons: brilliantly coloured, highly stylized images of Christ, the saints and significant events from scripture and Christian history, rendered in gesso, tempera and gold leaf. The altar stands behind a great screen of icons called an 'iconostasis', the dome or ceilng is adorned by an image of Christ Pantokrator ('Christ the Universal Ruler'), and the faithful reverently kiss icons as they enter the church.


[After the iconoclast controversy of the eighth and ninth centuries, the veneration of icons in the Eastern Orthodox Church became firmly entrenched in its doctrine for hundreds of years to come. Example, frescoes painted in 1644 on the walls of the Church of Laying Our Lady's Holy Robe in Moscow illustrate the life history of the Virgin Mary]


Sacred iconography is so established and vital a part of Orthodox tradition that it is difficult to imagine Eastern Christian worship without it. And yet, in the eighth and ninth centuries, a great theological debate over the permissibility of such images in the life of the Church arose and quickly assumed the dimensions of a full-blown crisis: theological, ecclesiastical, social and political.


The First Era of Iconoclasm


The popularity of sacred images, and their use in churches and homes, had expanded considerably in the eastern empire by the beginning of the eighth century. The practice, as yet, had no explicit theological rationale; it simply flowed from the indigenous piety and aesthetic predilections of Byzantine society. But, with the accession to the throne of a Syrian emperor, Leo III 'the Isaurian' (c.675—741), in 717, the use of icons became a matter of (hostile) state attention. Whether Leo was an ardent enemy of icons when he first took power we cannot say; but by 726, when he issued his first public pronouncement against them, he clearly was. In 730, he officially proscribed their use. He even ordered the removal of a large icon of Christ from above the great entrance of the imperial palace, the Chalke Gate, and its replacement with a simple cross.


Precisely what prompted Leo to embrace 'iconoclasm' (literally, the 'shattering of images') is uncertain. It has been suggested that, as a Syrian, he may have been swayed by either Nestorian (East Syrian) or Monophysite (West Syrian) ideas, or by a general native Syrian distrust of sacred images. Others have suggested that he may have been influenced by certain iconoclast bishops of Asia Minor. Still others have suggested the influence of Islamic ideas. And, of course, Leo may simply have believed that icons violated the Mosaic prohibition of idolatry.


Even more passionate in his iconoclasm was Leo's son Constantine V (718—75), whose persecution of the 'iconodules' (that is,'venerators of images') was savage and relentless. He was especially merciless towards the monks, who tended to be the most zealous and uncompromising among the champions of icons, and towards clergy that supported them. He did not hesitate to confiscate monastic properties, mutilate and blind transgressors, force monks and nuns to marry one another, or even to have monks murdered.


The Theology of Icons


The chief theological arguments advanced by the iconoclasts are known to us principally from the accounts of their opponents, but sufficient evidence remains to confirm the general accuracy of those accounts. We know that, in the eyes of the iconoclasts, the veneration of sacred images was contrary to the spirit of the second commandment and to the practices and teachings of the ancient Church. Moreover, they argued, the adoration of material objects was a corruption of Christian piety; and the attempt to represent the living God by means so thoroughly unworthy of his divine dignity was blasphemous. Still more importantly, perhaps, they objected to icons on the grounds that images could not properly represent Christ as the incarnate God, since they could not depict his ineffable, invisible and infinite divinity. To believe otherwise, they argued, was either to confuse his divinity with his humanity (after the fashion of the Monophysites) or to abstract his humanity from his divinity (after the fashion of the Nestorians).


By far the most effective and brilliant defender of the iconodule position was John of Damascus (c 675—749), who, as he lived under Muslim rule, was beyond the reach of imperial persecution. He argued, in part, that icons were — contrary to the claims of their enemies — an established aspect of Christian tradition from the earliest years of the faith. They had always, if nothing else, he claimed, served as means of instruction for the faithful. He also sternly dismissed the iconoclasts' disdain of matter. Matter, he reminded them in sound Christian fashion, is the good creation of God, and through it one can worship and adore its creator. Moreover, matter itself becomes worthy of veneration when it is transformed into a vehicle of divine enlightenment, sanctification or salvation. Supremely adorable, of course, is the material body of the incarnate Logos; but also venerable are the wood of Christ's cross, the ink and paper used to write the Gospels, and the wood, paint and glue used in the making of icons.


However, for John it is not the matter from which the images are fashioned that principally merits our veneration, but their power to show us the persons they depict. The prohibition on images in the Mosaic code, he argued, was appropriate in the days of Moses because God had not yet been fully revealed, and so all images of gods were false and misleading portraits of beings who did not exist. Now, however, God has revealed himself, and has in fact provided us with the perfect icon of himself. In the incarnation, we have seen the very face of God, and so it is licit to imitate the divinely crafted icon in icons fashion by human hands, as an affirmation that in Christ God has truly become man.



Clearly John was unimpressed with the Christological justifications for iconoclasm. After all, it made no better sense to say that an icon was impotent to depict Christ's divinity than to say that his human body was impotent to reveal his divinity. Obviously, if one followed the logic of orthodox Christology, one had to believe that the human substance of Christ was also truly divine. Moreover, iconodule theology stressed that, in any icon, it is the 'hypostasis' — that is, the person - of the subject that is being revealed, and it is that person to whom the veneration is offered.


The Defeat of Iconoclasm


The first epoch of imperial iconoclasm came to an end as a result of the rise to power of the formidable Empress Irene (c. 752—803). It was far from usual for a woman to rule the empire, but a combination of unforeseen circumstances - to say nothing of her remarkable intellect and will - brought Irene to the throne (or into its vicinity) nonetheless. As wife of Emperor Leo IV, she was appointed guardian of and co-emperor with her son ConstantineVI on her husband's death in 780. At that point, the imperial prohibition of icons was half a century old, but she was of the iconodule party and took it upon herself to bring about the 'restoration of the sacred images'.


Her attempt to convoke a Church council in Constantinople in 786 was thwarted by soldiers of the city guard; but in 787 she succeeded in calling a council in Nicaea - the Seventh Ecumenical Council - at which the use of icons in prayer and worship was affirmed. The council clarified its position by drawing clear distinctions between douleia (that is, 'veneration'), which is perfectly appropriate in regard to sacred things such as icons, hyperdouleia ('superveneration'), which it is appropriate to offer to, say, the Mother of God, and latreia ('worship'), which can be offered to God alone.


The restoration of the icons was a triumphal affair, and Irene was canonized by the Church after her death; but iconoclasm was not yet entirely vanquished. In 813, Leo V 'the Armenian' (775—820) became emperor, and in 815 he reinstated the iconoclast laws of Constantine V and resumed the persecution of iconodules. The most important opponent of imperial policy and defender of the icons was Theodore the Studite (c.758—c. 826), abbot of the Stoudion Monastery of Constantinople, who argued vigorously for both the antiquity and the spiritual benefits of the veneration of icons. For his impudence, he was flogged and exiled. He was pardoned by Emperor Michael II 'the Armorian' (d.829) in 821, but - when the new emperor did not repudiate the iconoclast policies of his predecessor — he began again to agitate against the court and had to flee the city in 824.


The final restoration of the icons came about under the rule of yet another empress. When Emperor Theophikis died in 842, his son Michael III (838-67) became emperor at age four, with his mother Theodora as regent. She was a confirmed iconodule, and in 843, in her son's name, she revoked the iconoclast laws of the past three decades and reinstituted the use of icons in Church worship and private devotion once and for all.


THE SACRED ART


In the Eastern Orthodox Church and Catholic Churches of the Byzantine Rite, the art of the icon is a discipline not only of the eyes and hands, but of the soul.To be a true iconographer (literally, 'one who writes icons'), a person must have a special vocation or charism.


To create an icon is to pray, to contemplate the 'hypostasis' of the holy figure or figures one seeks to represent, and then - following certain established norms - to produce an image in which the living presence of

the subject is truly glimpsed.


The elements traditionally used in making an icon are quite simple, but ideal for producing images that are vividly colourful and that do not fade over time. The 'canvas' is a mere piece of wood treated with glue.The pigments are egg-based temperas, many of which have a natural translucency that allows for a complex layering of hues.


The background in most icons (though not in all) is golden, representing the light of eternity. In the oldest icons, a pale bright yellow tempera was painted upon a shimmering gesso ground, made with crushed alabaster or marble; more common today is the use of bright gold leaf. The former method is aesthetically superior, arguably, inasmuch as it produces a more ethereal effect. In Byzantine worship, the icons that surround the worshippers serve as windows upon eternity, as it were. In them, it is believed, one sees the communion of saints, the final Kingdom of God, the glory of creation redeemed. It is often said, moreover, that through the icon, not only does one see, but one is also seen. For the Kingdom really is present wherever and whenever the Eucharist is celebrated, eternity really invades time, and those whom the icons depict are indeed present. As with any window, an icon allows the gazes of those on the two sides to meet.

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TO  BE  CONTINUED


THERE  IS  NOTHING  IN  THE  NEW  TESTAMENT  TO  POINT  TO  THE  APOSTOLIC  CHURCH  EVER  INTRODUCING  "ICONS"  -  THERE  OBVIOUSLY  HAD  TO  BE  MANY  DISCIPLES  WHO  SAW  THE  LITERAL  FACE  OF  JESUS  CHRIST  WHEN  HE  WAS  "GOD  IN  THE  FLESH"  BUT  NOT  ONE  WORD  IS  RECORDED  BY  ANYONE [NOT  EVEN  IN  THE  FIRST  TWO  CENTURIES  A.D.]  THAT  HIS  FACE  WAS  DRAWN  OR  PAINTED  UPON  ANYTHING.  ONE  THING  WE  DO  KNOW  IS  THAT  JESUS  WAS  NOT  UNDER  A  NAZARITE  VOW  AS  WAS  JOHN  THE  BAPTIST.  HENCE  JESUS  DID  NOT  HAVE  LONG  HAIR  AS  MOST  PICTURES  AND  MOVIES  PRESENT  HIM  HAVING.


JESUS  SAID  GOD  SEEKS  FOR  THOSE  WHO  WILL  WORSHIP  HIM  IN  SPIRIT  AND  IN  TRUTH.  IMAGES  OF  "SAINTS"  OR  "APOSTLES"  OR  A  SO-CALLED  "CHRIST"  HAVE  NO  PART  IN  THE  RELIGION  OF  THE  SAINTS  UNDER  THE  NEW  COVENANT.


Keith Hunt