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One of the most common criticisms that Protestants express against Orthodox Christianity is the prominent place of iconography, a uniquely Orthodox Christian figurative art form, in the Church. That Orthodox Christians give a very special place to the Holy Icons is hard to miss. Our churches, homes, and even places of business are filled with them, often outside as well as in. Upon entering a church and before prayers at home, Orthodox Christians generally perform bows from the waist1 and kiss the icons in reverence. During the worship services in an Orthodox Church, the Priest frequently incenses the icons and the worshipers frequently bow and even prostrate toward them. On various feast days throughout the year,2 icons of Christ, of the Theotokos,3 and of various Saints and Angels are raised high and processed in and around churches and streets. And we do, after all, refer to them as the “Holy Icons.”
For Orthodox Christians, icons are an intrinsic aspect of our spirituality and of our everyday lives. We use them for prayer, as gifts, as decoration, as jewellery, and as ever-present reminders of our loved ones and the love and inspiration they offer. We even believe that God can and does work miracles through them. There are many icons referred to as “wonder-working” or “myrrh-streaming” which Orthodox believers bear a special reverence for, accepting that through these particular icons God has done a special act for man.4 Some of these icons are even on the calendar of feast days we celebrate.5
In short, for Orthodox Christians icons are central to the Christian Faith. As we will see later in this essay, there is a theology of images in Orthodox Christianity without which it could no longer call itself “orthodox.”6 Icons are not a peripheral part of Christianity, but one of its most essential features. A loss of the icons, for an Orthodox Christian, would entail the loss of a significant and irreplaceable piece of what it means to be a Christian.
In contrast to all of this, most Protestants reject the use of figurative religious art and even those who accept it generally do so in a very limited sense and inconsistently, largely only in principle and not necessarily in the fullness of practice.7
Though Martin Luther, the founding figure of the Protestant Reformation, was relatively accepting of figurative religious art,8 the tendency of most Protestants throughout their history has been toward absolute or near-absolute iconoclasm. This has been especially true amongst those Protestants who have followed in the Reformed tradition of John Calvin, probably the single individual most responsible for the negative attitude of Protestants toward iconography.
Calvin, like most iconoclasts both before and after him, based his absolute iconoclasm primarily on a strict and literal interpretation of the Second Commandment of the Decalogue,9 allowing no distinction between iconography and idolatry10 nor between worship and veneration.11 He also, though secondarily, supported his argument with his understanding, false but common even until fairly recent times, that the Christians of approximately the first 500 years of the Faith had not used images in their worship.12
Although Calvin's attacks on figurative art in religion were not waged directly upon iconography,13 but upon the statuary and paintings of medieval Roman Catholicism, his arguments have been assumed and utilized by his iconoclastic Protestant successors against Orthodox iconography as well. For this reason, it is primarily these arguments which will be examined and discussed in this short essay. Along the way, we will also look at several other relevant issues, including the Christological implications of iconography and iconoclasm, the historical development of iconography in the Orthodox Christian Church, and the reasons why the Holy Icons are so important to Orthodox Christian theology, practice, and life.
1 This bow from the waist, generally accompanied with a downward sweeping movement of the arm until the hand touches the floor is called a metanoia. The word, in Greek ìåôÜíïéá, refers to a changing of one's mind; where it appears in the New Testament, such as Matthew 3:8, Luke 24:47, 2 Peter 3:9, etc., it is translated in most English versions of the Bible as “repentance.” The veneration of an icon generally includes three of these bows, two before kissing the icon and one after.
2 Perhaps the most remarkable and obvious example of this is the procession before the Divine Liturgy on the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, observed on the first Sunday of Lent. In commemoration of the restoration of the Holy Icons to the churches after the end of Byzantine iconoclasm in 842, Orthodox Christians process, each holding an icon, through the streets, or at least around the outside of the church building, while singing a hymn about the veneration of icons written by one of iconography's most ardent defenders during the Byzantine controversy, St. Theodore of Studium. The procession stops only for the people to vehemently proclaim the anathemas against iconoclasts and other heretics.
3 The Greek term Theotokos (Èåïôüêïò) refers to the Virgin Mary and literally means “God-bearer,” though it is often translated as “Mother of God.” The title, in use in the ancient Church, was officially approved by the Church at the Third Ecumenical Council in Ephesus in AD 431, largely in order to counter the claims of Nestorius of Antioch and his followers, who claimed that the man Jesus and the divine Word were two different persons. The title Theotokos is the term most commonly used by Orthodox Christians to refer to the Virgin Mary. In using this term, Orthodox Christians do not mean to impart inherent divinity to the Virgin Mary, but to ensure the inherent divinity of Jesus Christ by pointing out that the man who was in her womb is indeed God Incarnate.
4 “Wonder-working” icons are those through which miracles, including the healing of sick people, victory in battle, and safety in the face of catastrophe, have been affected by God's power. Myrrh is a sweet-smelling resin collected from the dried sap of certain trees and often used in perfumes and incense. There are some Holy Icons which have begun to spontaneously and miraculously drip with this substance; it is these icons which are referred to with the title “myrrh-streaming.”
5 Some famous examples of icons celebrated on the Church's calendar include the Myrrh-streaming Icon of theTheotokos of Iveron, celebrated on February 12, with which a number of miracles are associated, including blood coming forth from the the Virgin Mary's face after it was speared by an iconoclast during the Byzantine iconoclast era; the Weeping Icon of the Theotokos of Tikhvin, celebrated February 17, located in Tikhvin Monastery on Mount Athos, from which tears began to flow in 1877; and the Wonder-working Icon of the Theotokos “Surety of Sinners” of Odrino, celebrated on March 7, which is associated with numerous healings of the sick, including the restoration of a crippled child in 1844.
6 That is, “right-believing,” from the Greek ὀñèüäïîïò, literally meaning “straight opinion.”
7 For example: “Protestantism does not give painting and sculpture the same place in its Cultus that was an is accorded to these arts in the Cultus of the Roman and Greek Churches, for it knows no picture and image worship. Zwingli and others for the sake of saving the Word rejected all plastic art; Luther, with an equal concern for the Word, but far more conservative, would have all the arts to be the servants of the Gospel. … The Lutheran Cultus has therefore never excluded painting and sculpture, but it assigns these arts the last place.” Ohl, Jeremiah F. "Art in Worship." Memoirs of the Lutheran Liturgical Association. Vol. II. Pittsburgh: Lutheran Liturgical Association, 1900. pp. 88-89.
8 "I have myself heard those who oppose pictures, read from my German Bible. . . . But this contains many pictures of God, of the angels, of men, and of animals, especially in the Revelation of St. John, in the books of Moses, and in the book of Joshua. We therefore kindly beg these fanaties to permit us also to paint these pictures on the wall that they may be remembered and better understood, inasmuch as they can harm as little on the walls as in books. Would to God that I could persuade those who can afford it to paint the whole Bible on their houses, inside and outside, so that all might see ; this would indeed be a Christian work. For I am convinced that it is God's will that we should hear and learn what He has done, especially what Christ suffered. But when I hear these things and meditate upon them, I find it impossible not to picture them in my heart. Whether I want to or not, when I hear of Christ, a human form hanging upon a cross rises up in my heart: just as I see my natural face reflected when I look into water. Now if it is not sinful for me to have Christ's picture in my heart, why should it be sinful to have it before my eyes?" Martin Luther, quoted in Ohl pp. 88-89.
9 According to Exodus 20:4-6 and Deuteronomy 5:8-10, “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.” This Commandment is traditionally number as the Second in the Decalogue (or Ten Commandments) by Orthodox Christians, Jews, and most Protestants, while Roman Catholics and Lutherans include it as part of the First Commandment.
10 In arguing that icons fall under the purview of the Second Commandment's ban on idolatry, Calvin, as well as all who follow in his footsteps, thereby equates icons with idols, which means, of course, equating Christian images of Christian figures, including the Lord Christ, the Blessed Theotokos, and the Holy Saints and Angels, with pagan images of demons, sinful human beings of ancient times, and imaginary deities; this is dangerous ground indeed.
11 See Calvin's criticism of the medieval Roman Catholic distinction between dulia (the reverence given to Saints, Angels, holy objects such as icons, etc., meaning “veneration;” in Greek äïõëåßá) and latria (the reverence reserved for the Trinity alone, meaning “adoration;” in Greek ëáôñåßá) in his Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.11.11 and 1.12.2 - 1.12.3, for instance. This distinction appeared relatively early in Latin Christianity, being cited by Blessed Augustine of Hippo in his City of God 10.1, but was made most explicit in and most firmly entered the medieval Roman Catholic consciousness through the 12th century Scholastic philosopher Thomas Aquinas, considered a saint in the Roman Catholic Church; see his Summa Theologiae II II 84, 1 and II II 103, 3. Interestingly, this distinction is not the one used by the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Second Council of Nicaea) when it issued the official Orthodox stance on iconography in 787. This Council then and the Orthodox Church today instead differentiate between ðñïóêýíçóéò(literally meaning “kissing towards,” describes the act of prostrating oneself before a superior, a common act in the ancient world) and ëáôñåύóåéò (which refers to the service to be rendered only to God), as well as other, more precise Greek Septuagint and New Testament terms. Calvin, then, never addressed the Orthodox understanding of icons and their veneration.
12 See Calvin, Institutes 1.11.13
13 “The way Calvin actually deals with the 8th-century Councils of the iconoclast controversy shows he did not really get to grips with the questions at issue in the Byzantine theology of that age. For that matter he probably never saw an icon in his life.” Kretschmar, Georg. "The Reformation and the Theology of Images." Icons: Windows On Eternity. Compiled by Gennadios Limouris. Geneva: WCC Publications, 1990. pg. 80.
Article posted in English on: 21-1-2015.
Last Update: 21-1-2015.