The Veneration of Icons

By Foster, Charles | Contemporary Review, May 2001 | Go to article overview
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The Veneration of Icons


Foster, Charles, Contemporary Review


IT is always disciples who ruin things. They generally ruin things by being insufficiently respectful of their masters' teachings. And they always do this by trying to be tremendously reverential - by trying to enshrine the master's name by exaggerating what he said. In practice they always end up by misrepresenting the master. People who are sufficiently bright to be proper revolutionaries are generally sufficiently bright to see where their teaching could end, and they therefore don't overstate the case. Disciples are not so bright. That is classically the case with the theology of icons. If the teaching of John of Damascus had been left alone, it could have been the foundation for a useful Christian philosophy of art and perception. The Christian world has had no coherent debate on these subjects since the Dark Ages, and it is the poorer for it. If such a philosophy had been built, it would now be less socially necessary for Christians to be philistines than it seems to be. Christians who denounced all for ms of artistic experience would be less likely to be applauded as holy livers, and more likely to be pitied and distrusted as life-denying.

John's teaching was not left alone for long enough. The later extrapolations of his disciples came so soon after the master's words had emerged from the fountain-head that the later words also seemed to come from the fountain-head, and so became, wrongly, canonical.

John sat in the Judean desert monastery of St. Saba, near Jerusalem, and thought about the relationship between the Creator and his creatures, and the creatures' representations of creatures and the Creator. The scriptural foundations of his thought were, by' the time he came to propound his ideas, fairly uncontentious. The ecumenical councils had repudiated Arianism. It was accepted that those who had met Jesus in the flesh had seen God. The perceptions of those observers were irrelevant. Jesus was no more or less divine depending on the extent to which observers recognised or acknowledged his divinity. God had chosen, for whatever reason, to manifest himself in flesh. The Incarnation was not the first time that he had chosen to do this (man, after all, was made in his image) but it was the apotheosis of this method of expression. Flesh therefore, and the material world more generally, might continue to be a vehicle for divine self-revelation.

Plato was beginning to be employed as the in-house-philosopher of the Church, and he was quick to help here. There was a continuity of a kind, he said, between the sacred and the secular. The shadows on the wall of the cave did correspond to the solid things in the sunlight outside which threw them. John's teaching on icons was really an exposition of Colossians 1 v 15 which states: '[Christ] is the image of the invisible God'. The reasoning went like this. Christ is God's image. God's image was, in the Incarnation, stamped in flesh. Flesh is a substance of which creatures are made. Therefore things made from created matter by creatures can be media of God. Similar arguments were later used to justify the adoration of Mary -- 'a vessel of grace then, therefore a vessel of grace now'. Surprisingly the most obvious corollary of the argument (that asceticism is a heresy) has never been seriously deployed by any mainstream branch of the Church.

The iconoclasts, often misunderstanding the arguments of the iconodules, led their reaction with heavy emphasis on the uniqueness of God's self-revelation in Christ -- a proposition which was ineffective as a piece of offensive dialectic because it was a premise from which the iconodules had begun. Similar arguments based on the second commandment, insisting that the Creator was not to be confused with his creation, tended to founder for the same reason. The better-read iconoclasts then majored on the very limited use of physical material which Christ himself had made. The eucharistic bread and wine, they said, were the only legitimate visual aids -- legitimate because they were themselves vehicles of grace: Jesus had mentioned no others, and therefore others were illegitimate.

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