The Icon: Sign of Unity or Division? (pt. 2)

By Fr. Steven Bigham on June 15, 2012
  1. The Icon: Sign of Unity or Division?
  2. The Icon: Sign of Unity or Division? (pt. 2)
  3. The Icon: Sign of Unity or Division?(Pt. 3)
  4. The Icon: Sign of Unity or Division? (Pt.4)
  5. The Icon: Sign of Unity or Division? (Pt. 5)

(Continued from here)

“The honor [or insult] given to an image rebounds onto the person represented.”

This well-known sentence comes from a work of St. Basil the Great On the Holy Spirit 18, 45 where he talks about the relation between the Father and the Son and uses the image of the emperor to show that having an image of the emperor does not divide the imperial power in two, creating two emperors. Since St. Basil’s time, all iconodules quote this sentence to justify their veneration of images of Christ and the saints. Like the previous question, we run the risk of sewing controversy because venerating images with bodily gestures is a very sensitive one.

Vladimir Putin venerating an icon of St. Sava in Belgrade, Serbia

Nonetheless, let us dive in. The council of Nicæa II affirmed that it is legitimate for Christians to venerate images with bodily gestures precisely because what one does to the image of a person is done to the person represented. This affirmation stands on a principle which is universally recognized, in all societies and at all times. What would be people’s reaction if someone drew horns, a beard, big donkey ears, hair standing on end, big teeth, and scars on the photo of Putin, Queen Elizabeth, Benedict XVI, Napoleon, the Ayatollah Khomeini, or the Emperor of Japan? Let the readers imagine their reaction if someone took a picture of “my beloved Grandma” and drew such characteristics all over it? We put flowers and candles, maybe other decorations, around the photos of the deceased in a church.

Think of Princess Diana’s funeral. Everyone understands that by these gestures the deceased person is being honored. Even among certain Muslims, the faithful carry around in procession a picture of the deceased spiritual leader. In Antiquity, if anyone profaned the emperor’s or a god’s image, everyone understood that the insult was intended for the emperor or the god. Such a person deserved the death penalty. What Christian, of whatever confession, even of those which are the most allergic to any kind of image veneration, would not feel profoundly insulted if a known atheist publically profane a picture of Jesus? It seems then that St. Basil’s principle is indeed recognized and proved. We see everyday that it is understood by everyone and is applied in daily life.

Where then is the problem? It is not found in the theory: everyone accepts St. Basil’s principle. It is not found in the negative application of the principle, the profaning of an image, even a religious image. No, the problem is found among certain Christians, in the positive application of the principle, in honoring an image, and then only in honoring a religious image. What is not regarded as an idolatrous gesture in reference to a picture of Princess Diana, is seen as such by some when related to an image of Christ or a holy person of the Bible or Christian history. It is a mystery. 

What Does an Image of Christ Represent?

Mosaic of Christ Pantokrator from Hagia Sophia

At first glance, this question may seem a bit too simple. Is it not obvious what such an image represents? Let us beware of what seems to be too simple. The iconoclasts attacked the making of Christian images because, according to them, such an activity made the painters into heretics. According to the first iconoclastic accusation, iconodules are idolaters; should not that be enough of an accusation? Not so, this accusation condemns Christian painters as heretics. Let us look at the argument.

Both iconoclasts and iconodules were Chalcedonians, that is, they accepted the Christological dogma defined by the Council of Chalcedon in 451. That decision said that Christ is to be described as existing in two natures, divine and human, united in one hypostasis, in one person. The divine Logos, the Son and the Word of God, assumed the human nature of the Virgin Mary, and the union of the two natures took place without confusion, change, division, or separation, to quote the four famous Greek adverbs. Here is how the iconoclasts used this dogma to accuse the iconodules of heresy:

  1.  By painting an image of Christ, it goes without saying that the painter does not try to represent the divine nature of Christ, an impossibility that everyone accepted. He only represents Christ’s human nature, but in so doing, he separates the two natures which, according to Chalcedon, are united without separation. Those who proclaim a Christology without a real union of the natures are called Nestorians who, following Nestorius, spoke of the Logos of God who indwelled the man Jesus: the Logos lived in him, dwelt in him, made his abode in him. Thus, painters are Nestorian heretics because they separate the natures of Christ.
  2.  If Christian painters attempt to paint the two natures together, thus melting them one in the other, they are Eutychian Monophysites, those who followed Eutyches in saying that the divine nature absorbed the human nature. Thus the union of the two natures produced a tertium quid, a third thing.

In both cases, the iconodules showed themselves to be heretics, either Nestorians or Eutychian Monophysites.

This is where the members of the Council of Nicæa II, the iconodules very astutely turned aside the iconoclastic argument. Basing themselves on the Chalcedonian dogma – Christ being one person in two natures — they answered that an image of Christ represents neither the divine nature separated from the human nature nor the two natures mixed together. Christ’s image in fact does not represent a nature at all but rather a person, the Person of the Logos and Son of God, in the visible aspects of his human nature. Thus the doctrine of Nicæa II gets around the iconoclastic accusation of heresy. So even if the iconoclastic argumentation is rather complex but ingenious, the council’s answer can be accepted by all Christians as being quite obvious: any portrait, including one of Christ, does not represent a nature of whatever kind, but first and foremost a person in the visible aspects of his humanity.

The result is that all Christians can accept the decision of Nicæa II on this point.

(Continue reading here)

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