The Icon: Sign of Unity or Division?

By Fr. Steven Bigham on June 8, 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)

When we think about ecumenism and the problems that keep Christian Churches from healing the schisms between them, we rarely think about Christian art: neither as a bone of contention nor as a point of unity. Historically, during the union councils between the East and the West, Christian images were never on the list of subjects to be discussed. Even though in the past polemical works between Catholics and Protestants made accusations of iconoclasm and idolatry, in our time— especially since Vatican II when the Catholic Church has often adopted for its churches a decorative style that is almost aniconic — this subject has nearly disappeared from intra-Christian discussions. And where it is spoken of, people talk about venerating images rather than about their very existence. So then, where does the motivation of an Orthodox Christian come from to bring up this question? Some would say that there are quite enough questions to be discussed, thank you; why run after another one? Other might say that, especially between Catholics and Orthodox, the icon certainly unites us. Nonetheless, since ecumenism and Christian images are both popular subjects in our time, it seems useful to reflect on the link between the two. What follows is the fruit of that reflection. Catholics and Protestants are naturally free to make their own.

An icon of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (17th century, Novodevichy Convent, Moscow)

The Iconoclastic Arguments against Christian Images and the Attitudes of Christians Today

What can all Christians today, or nearly all, affirm together about Christian images? The iconoclastic crisis in Byzantium (730-843) was the first great debate exactly on the place of images in the Church, and I have always wanted to study the relation between what the iconoclasts and iconodules said at the time, on the one hand, and what Christians today say, on the subject. Where are the points of agreement and disagreement? To reflect on the subject, I propose to examine the points of view expressed by the Byzantines iconoclasts, as well as the answers given by the iconodules, in relation to the attitudes of contemporary Christians toward Christian images.


“The Image of Christ is an Idol”

We often forget that the iconoclasts opposed not only the veneration of Christian images—“idolatry” as they said—but also the very existence of images of Christ and the saints. From their point of view, it is an idolatrous thought to want to paint an image of Christ; it is an idolatrous act to produce an image of Christ; and the image itself is an idol. They invoked the Second Commandment to justify their claims. The Scriptures say that it is forbidden to make an image of God—and of course they are right; now Christ is the divine Logos incarnate; therefore, an image of him is a forbidden image of God, and consequently an idol. The iconoclasts of the first iconoclastic period (730-780), very rigorous and ferocious, threw these accusations around without hesitation. Those of the second period (815-843) were more peaceful, less rigorous, more reflective, and abandoned the equation “an image of Christ is an idol.” Nonetheless, the iconoclasts of the most bloody and repressive period, the first, brandished this accusation as a war cry.

So then, which Christians today would agree with the first-period iconoclasts and affirm that the Second Commandment forbids the making of an image of Jesus? Who among them would say that the making of such an image and the image itself are idolatry and forbidden by the Second Commandment? I cannot think of anyone, any Church, or group; even the Jehovah’s Witnesses, often the most ferocious defenders of the Second Commandment, reject the interpretation of the first iconoclasts. Their magazine Watch Tower is full of images of Jesus. So then, it is not very bold to say that the whole Christian world rejects the accusation of the first iconoclasts who said that every image of Jesus is an idol and a transgression of the Second Commandment. This position implies that all Christians today, explicitly or implicitly, support the members of the council of Nicæa II (787), the 7th Ecumenical Council, when they countered this argument and affirmed that the Second Commandment does not apply to the making of an image of Jesus or to the image itself. I think I can extend this conclusion: if anyone today or in the past proclaimed, like the iconoclasts, that “an image of Jesus is an idol,” that person’s opinion would be universally rejected by Christians today. Therefore, the members of Nicæa II were right to reject the first iconoclastic accusation. To begin with, such unanimity is impressive.


“The Eucharist Bread is the Only True Image of Christ”

After having declared that images of Christ are idols, the iconoclasts affirmed that the Eucharistic bread was the only true image of Christ. This affirmation stands on a rather particular definition of the word image according to which the TYPE — the art object itself, the painting, a photo — must be of the same nature as the PROTOTYPE — the real person represented in the image. They said that for something to be a true image of something else the painted image of the person and the person represented had to be of the same nature, substance, homoousios[1]. Since it is obvious that the image of Christ — the TYPE, made of wood, colors, etc. — and Christ himself — the PROTOTYPE — are of two different substances or natures, painted imaged of him are, according to the iconoclasts, false images. But since the Eucharistic bread is the body of Christ, therefore of the same substance, homoousios, as Christ himself, it is the only true image of Christ. I know of no Church or group of Christians who would follow the iconoclasts on this point.

I think, however, that all contemporary Christians, moreover those of all ages, except some iconoclasts, would side with Nicæa II when it declared that the iconoclastic definition of the word image is to be rejected and that it leads those who accept it down the wrong path. The relation between the TYPE and the PROTOTYPE — between the image and the person represented  ─  is not one of identity of substance, homoousios, but of likeness[2] in two different substances. Who would say that an image of Jesus — a stained-glass window, a painting, a drawing, a mosaic, or any other material support—is exactly the same time as Jesus himself? No one.

So once again, all Christians today are “orthodox” in the sense that they reject, with Nicæa II, the iconoclastic definition of the word image: identity of substance between the TYPE and the PROTOTYPE, and they would accept, it seems so obvious, what the council decided: an image and the person represented are of two different substances, but they are linked by likeness.


“Vile, Dead, and Vulgar Matter”

The third iconoclastic argument affirms that it is an insult to the holiness of such highly venerable people as Christ himself, Mary, Peter, Paul, etc. to make images of them in vile, dead, and vulgar matter. Therefore, to maintain their honor, it was necessary to stop making their images, whatever their material support, and to eliminate those that existed at that time. Nicæa II rejected this dualistic and Manichean argument because it scorns the matter in which the Logos became man. It seems that the practice of Christians of our time, and of nearly all ages[3] shows the rejection of this argument. What Christian today would say that it is an insult to Jesus, Mary, or the apostles to represent them in an image? No one. Therefore, Nicæa II was quite correct, again, to reject this iconoclastic accusation.


Worship vs. Veneration

Here we have a delicate question that runs the risk of dissolving the wonderful unanimity we have seen up to now, but before jumping too quickly to any conclusions, let us examine the iconoclastic argument and Nicæa II’s answer.

The iconoclasts said that any bodily gesture directed to a material image, whoever was represented in it, was an idolatrous act: prostrate oneself in front of it, kiss it, touch it, place candles in front of it, burn incense in front of it, carry it in procession, etc. Such practices had to stop.

The iconodules answered by making the distinction between latreia, worship owed and given to God alone, and proskynesis, honor shown to a person or object worthy of respect. They also affirmed that the iconoclasts confused the physical gesture itself with the meaning that the gesture carried. The same gesture can convey two different meanings according to the intention of the person who makes it. It is not the bodily gesture itself that needs to be questioned but the intention of the person who is making it.

The distinction between latreia and proskynesis (worship and honor) seems quite reasonable and normal: we worship God through prayers, hymns, exclamations, etc., and we honor people and objects by various gestures. Americans stand up when the president enters the room; the British bow to the queen, a soldier salutes an officer; people stand up when the judge enters the courtroom; Anglicans bow their heads when the cross passes in procession; at a funeral, people sometimes put flowers and candles in front of the picture of the deceased; the flag is saluted; men take off their hats in church, etc. Who would dare to say that these bodily gestures turn into idolaters the people who make them? The same gesture, depending on the context, can signify respect or scorn: Judas’s and Romeo’s kiss. During the 17th century, certain English Quakers refused to take off their hats in the presence of judges and the king; they claimed that this gesture was almost idolatrous when it was made in the presence of a man. On the other hand, they took off their hats during prayer before God.

So, even if some Christians are very hesitant to honor an image of Christ or a saint by a bodily gesture, we all live and behave in line with the principle proclaimed by Nicæa II: we worship God, sometimes with physical gestures, and we honor certain objects and persons, sometimes with physical gestures. And in some cases, the gestures are the same, but their meanings, according to the circumstances, differ greatly. And again, I know of no group, Church, or individual who would reject the distinction between worship — latreia — owed to God and honor, respect — proskynesis — owed to certain people and objects.

(This is the first in a six-part series on the place of traditional icons in Christian worship, and the implications of their revival within Orthodoxy and growing popularity amongst Catholics and Protestants.)

Part 2


[1] From our “good treasure,” we can “bring forth good things.” (Mt 12: 35) In this case, we can dip into our common, theological tradition, and use a word that describes the relation between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit: they are homoousios, consubstantial, of the same substance. They possess the same divine nature. The First Ecumenical Council, Nicaea I (325) defined that the Logos of the Father, his Son, Jesus Christ, is not a creature like us and that he is of the same nature, substance, as the Father. Arius, a priest in Alexandria at the time, said that the Son of God was a creature, and had a nature, a substance, different from the Father’s. The council condemned his point of view.

[2] Again from our good treasure, we can pull out the words homoiôma and homoios meaning likeness and similar. During the Arian crisis of the 4th century, some people said that the Father and the Son are of a similar substance, homoiousios, but not of the same substance, homoousios. By using this already classic vocabulary, we can say that the relation between the image and the person represented is one of likeness, homoiôma, not one of identity of substance, homoousios. We can say further that from the point of view of the substances of the image and the person represented, they are not all alike, anomoios; they are in fact of different substances, hétéroousios.

[3] At least as early as 250, at Dura Europos on the Euphrates, in present-day Syria: French and American archaeologists at the beginning of the 20th century discovered a baptistery in a house church. On the walls of the baptistery were painted frescoes, one of which was of Christ and Peter: the scene where Peter sinks in the sea and Christ extends his hand to save him. The date of these frescoes is sure because the city was destroyed by the Persians in 256. It is noteworthy also that the Jews at Dura Europos did not feel they were insulting Biblical figures by representing them in frescoes because the synagogue, excavated at the same time as the house church, had its walls covered with Biblical scenes, including an image of Moses at the burning bush, his sandals in the shape of boots between him and the bush. God’s hand is shown above.


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  1. Nate on June 19, 2012 at 7:42 am

    Thanks for this great article and explanation. There are some Reformed confessionalists out there who still hold to Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 96-98 and Westminster Shorter Catechism Q&A 49-52, but they seem to be dwindling. I doubt they would be so crass as to use the “vulgar matter” argument, but they certainly say that to make an image of Christ is forbidden. They also say something similar to the Eucharistic bread argument, though they deny that the bread actually is the Body of Christ.

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