Iconography and the Art of Rewriting History

Iconoclasm and the Art of Rewriting History

Iconoclasm has aways been an integral part of revolution.

When revolution occurs, the previous paradigm is eliminated, making way for the new. Statues are torn down, buildings and works of art are destroyed, people are slaughtered through riots and resulting famine, and religious revival (or dissolution) is often inevitable. History books are made to reflect the triumph of the new victors, while the oppressors of the previous regime are verbally laid to waste. The most pointed and disastrous form of iconoclasm is, of course, the killing of people – who are all created in the express image (icon) of God — and this has accompanied practically every revolution in the history of mankind. Louis XVI and other such monarchs (Lord, have mercy) can certainly attest to this reality.

As Ouspensky notes, icons are witnesses to the Incarnation of Jesus Christ as both the Son of God and the second Person of the Trinity: “The Church declares that the icon is an outcome of the Incarnation; that it is based upon this Incarnation and therefore belongs to the very essence of Christianity, and cannot be separated from it” (Theology of the Icon, vol. 1,p. 36). Unfortunately, thanks in large part to 18th century English scholar Edward Gibbon and his work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, an idea crept into popular scholarship that “the first Christians had an insurmountable aversion to the use of images [...] this aversion was a consequence of their Jewish origin” (Ibid., p. 36). Gibbon goes on to make the assertion that the first icons didn’t appear until well into the fourth century (AD). These ideas have sadly been supported by many, many scholars ever since (until archeology and other scholarship was able to prove otherwise, in agreement, of course, with the claims of the Orthodox-Catholic Church).

The problem here is not merely that such a claim ignores the countless evidence to the contrary (e.g. icons have been uncovered in archaeological digs from the first century onward, not only in the catacombs, but also in rabbinical synagogues and early Christian “house churches”), but that this approach to history is based upon a dis-belief in the claims of the Church. In other words: “What the Church teaches probably isn’t true, and is based upon old superstitions, so let’s find out what is really true.” This skepticism, of course, is at odds with a declared faith in the “one holy, catholic and apostolic Church.”

Many Christians today might even lay claim to certain “early Church fathers” who purportedly wrote in opposition to icons, whether with regards to their use in worship, or just in the decoration of church buildings. However, among the early Christians (late 2nd century and onward) who spoke on such matters negatively, not a single one is considered to be either Orthodox or a true “father” of the Church. Most, such as Origen, Tertullian, and Eusebius of Cæsarea (assuming these claims are accurate), were either condemned by the Church in an ecumenical synod, or were themselves outside of it completely (such as with Tertullian who became a Montanist).

Another theory, following Gibbon’s work, is that it was the laity who imposed the “cult of images” on the clergy, doing so against their better judgment. This view, however, does not do justice to the way we both understand and live as the body of Christ. The Church is both the laity and the clergy together as one body. More than this, his theory again contradicts the physical evidence to the contrary:

The existence of frescoes in the catacombs from the first century on is well known, namely in places of assembly and worship, and where the clergy were buried (for example, in the catacomb of Callistus). Such images were therefore known not only to the faithful but also to the hierarchy. It is hard to imagine that the clergy did not seem them and that, if Christianity was incorruptible with art, it did not take any measures to put an end to this error.

Leonid Ouspensky, Theology of the Icon, Volume 1, p. 38

Ouspensky further notes: “What is decisive for the Church is not the antiquity of a given passage for or against the icon (the chronological factor), but the agreement or disagreement of this testimony with the Christian revelation” (p. 40).  Once again, this confirms that such an historical perspective on the Church is one founded on skepticism, rather than belief.

Further, Gibbon’s viewpoint (along with those opposed to the Orthodox-Catholic tradition) is one that denies the living-and-breathing tradition in the life of the Church, in favor of an “archeological” approach to both theology and history; one that seeks to continually “peel back” and reveal what is “oldest,” as if that is the ultimate trump card for truth. When Jesus said that he would never leave the Church, and that he was sending the Helper (the Holy Spirit) to guide us into all truth, we know that we can be assured that the Church is a Spirit-filled continuation of the ministry of Christ, and not one that is left with only a book and “the latest scholarship” to figure everything out. We are not so disconnected from the Christians of old that we must try and dig through enough layers of history in order to ascertain their intentions and beliefs; on the contrary, we are of the same body, and they are one with us today (and in every successive generation).

Going back to the point that icons are an expression of the incarnation, what more can be said of this point? Saint John of Damascus (writing during one of the worst iconoclastic periods in Church history), taught extensively on the connection between icons and the incarnation:

But when you see Him who has no body become man for you, then you will make representations of His human aspect. When the Invisible, having clothed Himself in the flesh, becomes visible, then represent the likeness of Him who has appeared [...] When He who, having been the consubstantial Image of the Father, emptied Himself by taking the form of a servant, thus becoming bound in quantity and quality, having taken on the carnal image, then paint and make visible to everyone Him who desired to become visible. Paint His birth from the Virgin, His baptism in the Jordan, His transfiguration on Mount Tabor [...] Paint everything with words and with colors, in books and on boards.

John of Damascus, Oratio I, Chapter 8

Along with this idea, he explains “The law was not an image, but it was like a wall which hid the image,” and the apostle Paul said “The law was but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities” (Heb. 10:1).

Since, therefore, icons are based upon their heavenly prototypes and the revelation given through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, they must by necessity be “inspired” images:

To build the tabernacle according to the model shown on the mountain, God chose special men. It was not simply a matter of natural gifts and of the ability to follow Moses’ instructions: ‘I have filled him [Bez'alel] with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship”; and further, speaking of all those who would work with Bez’alel: ‘I have given to all men ability, that they may make all that I have commanded you’ (Ex 31:3 and 6). It is clearly shown here that art which serves God is not like any other art. It is based not only on the talent and wisdom of men, but also on the wisdom of the Spirit of God, on an intelligence granted by God Himself. In other words, divine inspiration is the very principle of liturgical art.

Leonid Ouspensky, Theology of the Icon, Volume 1, p. 46

Because of the incarnation, liturgical “art” has taken on a fulfilled form, being given more breadth of expression. The principle for the creation of icons from the old testament was not abolished (such as with the tabernacle/temple), but was rather fulfilled in and through Christ. With the assistance of the emperors Saint Constantine I  and Theodosius, the “regulation” and spread of iconography was established in the church buildings that were built from the fourth century onward.

Contrary to the claims of Gibbon and others, iconography was not “invented” as a later “perversion” of these centuries, but was simply given the appropriate wings to fly and become more commonplace, with the fear of persecution (and their destruction) going by the wayside; that is, at least until the 8th century.

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