Religious Art: a Judeo-Christian Tradition

A lot of contemporary Christians tend to believe that Jews and Christians of late antiquity were strictly iconoclastic.  This is not at all true, though it would take Christianity until the ninth century to solidify the allowance of such art.  Prior to that, many Jews and Christians utilized art and others debated whether such was appropriate.  In the eighth and ninth centuries, the debates came to a head.  You may read more about that in the Church History Series 1 posts.  What I thought I’d share with readers today is a recent find in Israel relating to a synagogue from late antiquity, which included a mosaic of Sampson:


Upcoming Iconography Retreat

In February (afternoon of the 17th and all day on the 18th), we will be hosting Deb Korluka, an Orthodox iconographer.  Ss. Anne and Joachim Roman Catholic Church will be co-hosting the event with us by providing the classroom space.  Those interested in this should check out the brochure, provided here:

Icon wkshp flyer 2012

The registration date is given as February 1st, but late registrations will be allowed,  Please contact me with any questions or concerns.

Church History Series 1, Post 20: Some Specific Iconodule Arguments

I noticed that in that last post on the iconodules, I failed to provide much by way of any quotations that might prove helpful.  So, I offer a couple more citations in this post.

Here are the three anathemas attached to the horos (definition of faith) proclaimed by the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which I’ve translated from the Greek text found in Tanner’s first volume of Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils:

1) If anyone does not confess that Christ our God may be circumscribed according to his humanity, let him be anathema.

2) If anyone does not admit the Gospel narratives produced in art, let him be anathema.

3)  If anyone does not salute such representations as signifying the name of  [in the sense of standing in for] the Lord and his saints, let him be anathema.

Another argument worth noting is St. Theodore of Studios’ response to the dilemma proposed by Constantine V when he said: “According to the view of the Church we confess that the hypostasis of the Word became the common hypostasis of the two natures, lending the human nature subsistence in it . . . the same hypostasis of the Word is uncicumscribed according to the nature of the divinity, but circumscribed accoding to the being shared with us, having its existence not in a self-subsistent and self-circumscribed bypostasis alongside the Word, but in itFor there is no nature without concrete existence, and it is beheld and circumscribed in it as in an individual. [Antirrhetorici 3.1.22, emphasis mine, from Andrew Louth, Greek East and Latin West, though this is based on an earlier English translation].

To be sure, this does not say everything and there is much more that could be said, even beyond what was argued at the time, but I think these two citations at least lay out the beginnings of what Orthodox were arguing at the time.  Those interested in reading more ought to consult the writings of Ss. John of Damascus and Theodore of Studios that have been published in English translations through St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press as part of the seminary’s “Popular Patristic Series,” currently edited by Fr. John Behr.

Church History Series, Post 19: The Iconodule Arguments

I have recently outlined the iconoclastic controversies.  Obviously, there is more that can be said and perhaps I shall return to this topic.  Ok, I’ll almost certainly post on icons and iconography again later.

What I want to do here is explore the iconodule arguments.  Why do Orthodox have icons?  Why not accept the position of the iconodules, especially Constantine V’s position?  Pooping in the baptismal font cannot be reason enough to reject his argument, right?  Indeed!  As we shall see, there were various arguments made and ultimately, what matters, is the Christological argument.  For Orthodoxy, iconography is not just something optional.  It is necessary.  Orthodox Christology requires iconography.

The iconodules argued from tradition by saying that in light of the biblical witness, the iconoclasts failed to make a necessary distinction.  Rather than reading arguments against idolatry as opposing any and all images, the iconoclasts should have read those arguments simply for what they were—arguments against pagan idols, nothing more, nothing less.  In addition, the defenders of icons referenced arguments from the tradition that had said veneration given to the image of the emperor actually passed on to the prototype, the emperor himself.  The iconodules also argued on behalf of unwritten tradition.  Not everything was written down, as evidenced by St. Basil the Great’s treatise on the Holy Spirit, where he mentioned practices such as the signing of the cross, triple immersion at baptism and an eastern orientation during worship.

In response to Constantine’s supposed Christological dilemma, the defenders of icons responded with orthodox Christology.   Two prominent defenders of correct Christology were St. John of Damascus, who began writing around 730, and St. Theodore the Studite, who wrote about a century later.  Both men emphasized the importance of the incarnation.  An icon of Christ does not depict a “nature,” as though a nature can be abstractly circumscribed in an image, but depicts the hypostasis (the Greek word that meant something similar to “person”) of the Son Incarnate.  Accordingly, St. John of Damascus noted that prior to the incarnation, one could make iconoclastic arguments, but in light of the incarnation, anything iconoclastic is docetism.[1] Doceticism was a heresy that taught that Jesus’ humanity was not true and complete.  A docetist would claim Jesus “appeared” human, but did not possess a human body capable of the sort of suffering and death he experienced.  So, when St. John of Damascus made his claim, he was stating that if one refused to depict Christ in art, one was refusing to depict the reality of the incarnation of the Son of God himself.  The hypostasis of the Son is truly incarnate, which means, he must be depictable or his humanity is not actually humanity.  Furthermore, St. John of Damascus believed that that a nature had no independent existence, but was visible only in persons.[2] For this reason, St. Theodore the Studite observed that just as three hypostases do not divide the one divine ousia, so two natures do not divide the one hypostasis.[3]

What Constantine had done, was to treat the incarnation as an incarnation of natures, not an incarnation of a person (hypostasis), the Son of God.  The only way an iconoclast could avoid that problem would be to accept Nestorianism, as Constantine noted one could do with images.  Orthodox Christology, of course, taught that the hypostasis of the Logos/Son of God took on human nature, which found its personal expression in the person of the Son.  Yet, that very human nature is truly human nature.  Therefore, one cannot be an iconoclast without denying the reality of the incarnation.  If one believes in the full reality of the incarnation, one is, of necessity, a defender of icons.

[1] On the Orthodox Faith, PG 94.1304.

[2] On the Orthodox Faith, PG 94.1004A.

[3] Antirrheticus, PG 99.184.