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Icons Images and Idols

Icon As Revelation

While the Greek word for image, eikōn, has entered the common vocabulary of the English speaking world as icon and is applied to everything from pictures identifying computer programs to symbols from archaic cultures, it is in the Orthodox Christian tradition that iconography has received its highest articulation and where it occupies a central place in the life of worship. Holy icons are central to Orthodox theology and worship and developed over the better part of a millennium into a distinct form of liturgical art. In devout Orthodox households, whether in New York City or Romanian villages, one finds the "beautiful corner" with its icon of Christ and the Theotokos ("Birth-giver of God," or Virgin Mary) and various other icons adorned with linen drapery. A vigil lamp or candle may burn in front of the icons. In Orthodox churches the whole space is often completely decorated with icons, painted in fresco or secco, arranged according to a canonical program. The iconostasis bridging the nave and the altar area of the church holds various key icons both on the screen itself and on its various doors. The axis of the iconographic program in the church is formed by the large painting or mosaic of Christ the "All Ruler" (Pantocrator) in the central dome and the Theotokos in the apse of the church. The porch is also painted, and in some Orthodox churches, particularly in Romania, the exterior of the church is covered with frescoes of saints, biblical and other sacred narratives, and occasionally images of pagan luminaries from Socrates to Petrarch.

An icon table close to the entrance or inside the church will hold the icon appropriate to the feast or saint's day according to the liturgical calendar. When the faithful enter the church they customarily venerate the image, making the sign of the cross and often lighting a candle as they pray for the living and the dead.

This highly articulated tradition of icon use is the result of generations of theological reflection in the Christian East. It was largely taken for granted until various Byzantine emperors initiated two iconoclastic periods, 730–787 and 813–843. During these periods an attempt, largely successful, led to the destruction of all images in churches in the empire.

The iconoclasts were not enemies of art but rather took exception to the presence of all images of Christ, the Theotokos, and saints in the church. The emperors at the forefront of this movement continued to promote imperial imagery on coins and banners throughout the empire. A striking parallel may be found in both the Soviet Union and the United States of America, where iconoclastic cultures have flourished along with the extravagant use of images of political figures in public places.

The controversy during this period was essentially dogmatic and centered on the heart of the Orthodox theological proclamation of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. It was rooted in the persistence of Hellenistic spiritualism represented by Origen (?185–?254) and Christian forms of Neoplatonic thought seeking a return to pre-Christian notions of the separation of the spirit and matter. The followers of the iconoclastic movement saw the image as an obstacle to prayer and the spiritual life because the image was made out of "crude matter" and because its emphasis on the human body failed to privilege and grant the elevated place rightfully belonging to the spirit. This movement denied the Gospel witness to the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ as a restoration of all human beings to the divine image proclaimed in the Genesis account of creation.

This state-sponsored iconoclasm (literally "image smashing") was countered by John of Damascus (c. 675–749), Germanus I, patriarch of Constantinople (c. 634–c. 732), and Theodore Studites (759–826), who marshaled scripture and theological thinking in favor of the use of icons in Christian worship. John of Damascus argued that God was the first and original image-maker of the universe and that the son of God was the living image of God in his very nature. Since Paul in the Epistle to the Colossians had written, "He is the image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15), the worship of the icon of Jesus Christ was not idolatrous, because, in the oft-quoted formula of Saint Basil of Caesarea (c. 329–379) in De Spiritu Sancto (On the Holy Spirit), "The honor paid to the image [the Son] passes over to the prototype [the Father]." The Orthodox doctrine of the veneration of icons calls the faithful, not to a veneration of art or images in general, but to the veneration of the image of a person whose life has been sanctified and who has come to union with God through divine grace. It is a realization of Christ's words in the Gospel, "The kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:21). The icon expresses the Gospel precisely because it is a manifestation of the human nature having recovered its fullness in the divine life. It represents the patristic formula "God became man so that man might become God."

Orthodox iconography centers on the human person and its canons require that all that is depicted be rooted in the human story shown from the perspective of the human being's recovery of holiness. Icons are not "art" in the usual sense but liturgical aids to prayer orienting the mind and heart of the faithful to the kingdom of God, fulfilling Christ's words, "The glory which thou has given me I have given to them" (John 17:22).

The Orthodox veneration of images was called for by the revelation of the enfleshment of God. While the early Christian thinkers agreed that the God of the Hebrew Bible could not be portrayed, they went on to argue that since Christ is the incarnation of God and had taken on the fullness of human nature, it would be a denial of the Incarnation to refuse to portray Christ in images. Sacred images are a conjoining of the human and divine spheres and serve as indicators and vehicles of the kingdom of God, of all creation transfigured in Christ. The apologists for the icon used the arguments of earlier church fathers who had written on the Scriptures and sacraments and deployed these in favor of images. The biblical texts have long been talked about as a network of types, pointers, and connections to the presence of the "Word made flesh" in Jesus Christ. These arguments received their official sanction by the Seventh Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 787 and the icons were restored to the church permanently in 843 following a second series of iconoclast emperors.

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