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Byzantine Iconography


Icons became the focus of the Seventh Council, convened in Nicea in 787.  For a number of years, the Iconoclast heresy had determined official policy of the Byzantine Emperor and Empire. “Iconoclast” translates “icon smasher,” and that is exactly what occurred in and around the imperial capital of Constantinople and other major cities. Many precious items of faith and worship were destroyed in this period. Thankfully, many were preserved, especially in remote monasteries and other places beyond the immediate reach of the Emperor.  


Although he had fallen asleep in the Lord before the Council convened, the writings of St. John of Damascus (St. John Damascene) were central to the deliberations of the Council. Three excellent examples of his thought:


"I do not worship matter, but the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who through matter affected my salvation.


"Concerning the charge of idolatry:  Icons are not idols but symbols, therefore when (a Christian) venerates an icon, he is not guilty of idolatry.  He is not worshipping the symbol, but merely venerating it.  Such veneration is not directed toward word, or paint, or stone, but towards the person depicted.  Therefore, relative honor is shown to material objects, but worship is due to God alone.


"We do not make obeisance to the nature of wood, but we revere and do obeisance to Him who was crucified on the Cross."


Put succinctly, St. John realized that the Iconoclast position that icons blasphemously depicted God was one more heresy against the full humanity of Our Lord, God, and Savior – the same essential issue that had driven the struggle for the orthodoxy of faith and the condemnation of the Arian position at the first Council of Nicea in 325. After some 450 years, there were those who still could not accept the full humanity of our Lord in true union with his full divinity – the Incarnation that reveals the Trinity and expresses God’s deep and abiding love. In St. John’s argument, we can always depict humans graphically, i.e. in art. If Jesus Christ is indeed fully human, then we can – should, even − depict him graphically without any affront to the Divinity.  In other words, icons can bring us closer to Our Lord, God, and Savior in our prayer and worship through a proper understanding of His image in the icons of our Churches and in our private devotions. If icons can depict our Lord and proclaim the full truth of His Incarnation, then icons are part of our access to and proclamation of the truths of our faith.


Thus, “Christians of the true faith” are those who embrace fully the understanding of Incarnation coming from those first seven inspired Councils, including veneration and prayer before icons of Our Lord, the Most Holy Theotokos, and all the saints.  (It is well to note here that the teachings of the Seventh Council were accepted and ratified by the Pope in Rome. Thus, “Christians of the true faith” is a term applicable to the universal and Catholic Church, not just to those worshipping through the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostum.)


But, it was not St. John of Damascus alone whose teaching applied to the deliberations of the Council.  Two further examples amongst the Church Fathers that clarify veneration or honor versus worship:


“The honour given to the images is transferred to its prototype.” St. Basil the Great

“The person who bows to an icon bows to the king in it.” St. Athanasius of Alexandria


Consider these two thoughts as you experience the priest or deacon bowing in the course of the Divine Liturgy before the icons of Our Lord and of the Theotokos. The honor/veneration of the image “transfers to its prototype,” i.e. to Jesus and to Mary, not to the wood and paint.  Thus, the Seventh Council proclaims that  “Icons are to be kept in churches and honored with the same relative veneration as is shown to other material symbols, such as the ‘precious and life-giving Cross’ and the Book of the Gospels.”   (Note: by extension this includes holy relics.)


In the prayer after communion, when we proclaim that “we have found the true faith,” we are further connecting our principal act of worship, the consecration and reception of the most precious and Holy Eucharist, to our faith in the truth and reality of the Trinity and Incarnation and of our salvation through the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, i.e. through “material and matter.” We celebrate our faith that “the Trinity has saved us” in and through the demonstration of God’s love and action by the Incarnation – an action of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. That wonderful presence of Our Lord in time and history continues by the action of the Holy Spirit in the transubstantiation of our gifts of bread and wine upon the sacred altar into the living presence of Our Lord still amongst us. Once again, Heaven and earth are one in the loving action of the Most Holy Trinity.  Indeed, the Trinity has saved us!


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