An introduction to the empirical Theology of the Icon
Hello, dear listeners!
In today's broadcast we will continue on the subject that we
began during the previous broadcast, and specifically, we
will examine the matter of holy Icons.
As already mentioned in the previous broadcast, we said that
the guiding text that we shall be using and studying for
this topic will be the Three Essays by Saint John of
Damascus, addressed to "Those who vilify holy icons".
Today, we will continue by commenting (by way of an
introduction) on these texts, but in parallel also examining
the climate and the presuppositions that had existed on this
So, as we noted during the previous broadcast, Orthodox
Theology as a charismatic function of the Church is
initially an empirical and realistic one. And, to use
the term used by Gregory Palamas (that major Father and
Theologian of our Church): "The function of the Church is
evidentiary". In other words, in Orthodoxy the term
"theology" does not imply "philosophical pondering". It does
not imply any ideological forms, it is not about personal,
subjective interpretations or perceptions that are derived
from purely human thoughts. Orthodox Theology has the
element of experience incorporated in it. It contains the
element of "living" something; it contains the element of
"revelation" (ie, knowledge imparted by the Creator Himself
- by God Himself).
includes the element of evidence, because it is founded on
the "knowledge of God" (Theognosy) which is none other than
the "seeing" of events; it is the experiencing of
situations, and it is the "sighting of God" (Theopty). These
are not viewpoints and perceptions; they are the experience
of the Church Herself, which is made evident from as early as the
first writings of the Ecclesiastic authors - the Apostles
included, of course - but also in later times, in the texts
of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and the others who had directly
interpreted God's revelation as a revealing of the Divine Glory
in dramatic events, through instances of Theophany (the "appearances"
of God). These Theophanies are a common experience, of all
the Saints of the Church, whether we refer to the Old
Testament eras, or the New Testament eras.
Thus, two basic consequences arise, from the relationship
between the uncreated Divine energies and all creatures (all
is that Theognosy (the knowledge of God") - the "experience"
- is manifested through the prophets and the saints, either
by a straightforward and direct Sight of Divine Energies -
either with events, with forms, with symbols, with the
mysteries and with images within natural and historical
The second is that this Theognosy, which leads to
salvation and the perfecting of Creation in its entirety,
both that which we can perceive with our sensory eyes, as
well as that which we cannot perceive with our senses - that
is, both the tangible and the intelligible - well, this kind
of Theognosy is nothing static, nothing fossilized. It
is not merely an element of the Past; it actually becomes
manifest through a dynamic and creative course.
Theophanies constitute the centermost nucleus of all of
History - of the entire historical course of Israel. The
interpretation of Orthodox Theology hinged itself precisely
on these Theophanies, which took place within Creation and
Thus, the incarnation of the Logos - very easily and
naturally - was regarded as the organic continuation of the
history of the Theophanies of the Old Testament.
Consequently, the partaking of the Divine Glory as that
Glory revealed itself, is not achieved only through direct
sighting, but also with the particular imprint of the
Energies - in natural and historical reality and in the
activities of worship and the Mysteries of the Church.
Because worship, together with the mysteries, are
Theophanies within tangible and specific events.
Besides, even those who can "see" the Divine Glory in some
direct manner (that is, the Prophets and the Saints) also
see images. And this is very clearly and characteristically
mentioned by Saint John of Damascus in his homilies, as well
as by the 7th Ecumenical Synod (as we shall see in our
forthcoming broadcasts), when saying that "the prophets saw
God, in a visible apparition".
Thus, centuries before the appearance of the Iconomachy and
its assertion that visual portrayals are "idols", John the
Evangelist had already written that "Isaiah saw the
Glory of God", and Orthodox Theology in its fight against
Judaic and Idolatrous perceptions had also interpreted God's
revealing of Himself in the events of the Old Testament as "theophanies"
and "photophanies" (the viewings of light); as "theopty" and
the experiencing of specific events - in symbols, shapes and
forms. Furthermore, the fleshless presence of the Logos (the
"endemia" -residing- of the Logos, as it was called by saint
Maximus the Confessor) is a historical event and is rendered
in forms and in visual portrayals, within a luminance.
Therefore, Orthodox Theology - as a life and an experience,
but also as a scientific description of the products of that
experience - relates to the sighting and the view of a
reality. And it is within that precise framework that
iconography among other things is placed.
Distinguishing between "created" and "Uncreated" in Orthodox
Let us now clarify some of the points that we mentioned
previously, and firstly, the association between the
Uncreated Creator and Creation.
This association - that is, between the Uncreated Creator
God and all the creations - from the tiniest stone (we could
say) through to the spiritual angel and always through God's
Uncreated Energies - is that which imposes the ineffable
union of the natural and the supernatural, within Creation
Absolute truth and benevolence is God alone. All of
Creation, all of created reality participates in this truth
and this benevolence, progressively. Along this
progressive course, the truth is impressed. That is why
there is an organic ink between "form" and "truth".
The "form" - according to Orthodox Theology - is not a
vacant thing. It is not without content. In any phase of the
History of Divine Providence. Nor is it a simple depiction,
but a sequentially previous phase within the dynamic
realization of the truth, always in relation to whatever
takes place in the future. All of History is constant,
uniform and organic. Thus, the history of the Old Testament
is a "form" of the events of the New Testament, while the
cosmos of the New Testament is a "form" of the future.
From the aforementioned, one can easily perceive that in all
the creations, the state of createdness and the relativity
of things play a dominant role. Things are graded between
them when correlated. When, for example, we compare the soul
to the body, the soul is incorporeal and immaterial.
Compared to God, however, it is corporeal and material. The
same is valid for an angel, as clearly stated by Saint John
of Damascus in his positions. Only God is truly immaterial,
as the "Uncreated" One.
Subsequently, the basic distinction according to Orthodox
Theology is NOT between the tangible and the perceptible,
the material and the spiritual, the visible and the
invisible, the body and the soul; it is between the created
and the Uncreated. Only God is truly immaterial
and perceptible. All of Creation has the same created
essence, which is differentiated according to degree and
receptiveness. Thus, when a Divine Energy prevails - for
example as something final and deifying - then all beings
relate to it, according to their material, schematic,
virtual and noetic dependencies. For example, the
stone is only given essence, up to the degree of "being".
However the creation that is "in the image and in the
likeness of God" is not only given essence, but can also be
perfected by deification, because it has the necessary
receptiveness for this.
This relationship between energies and creations - when
judged and regarded from a philosophical and scientific
viewpoint - introduces a truly revolutionary world view and
a radical anthropology: no more idols, "essences and
archetypes" that determine things and relations; only
"active events". Man is not only unable (because of
his limited status - his restriction) to know the essence of
God, but also the essence of the creations. And thus,
his every relationship is based on active events and
occurrences. Besides, these distinctions between
"createdness" (creation) and the Uncreated Creator, as well
as Man's limitations and every other creation's, were
examined analytically in previous broadcasts, when we
studied the words of Basil the Great, against the heretic
Thus, all of Creation is not to be confused with the Divine
Essence, nor can any part of it be deified as an idol. It
simply partakes of the Divine Energies, according to its
"being" and its "well-being". Something is constantly taking
place, and it can fall away. Nothing absolute exists. Only
God is absolute and indescribable. An image however can
describe the limits and the progress of every created
reality; the description and the depiction of the fleshless
and the corporeal presence of the Logos concerns the created
beings, not the Divine Nature. It is through forms and
images that the partaking of the uncreated Divine Energies
and the sighting of those very Energies is achieved.
Subsequently, the meanings, the forms and the various kinds
of depictions all relate to what Theology has named "the
prototype". This is exactly how every notion of
"idolatry" is debunked, since Creation (as we mentioned
earlier) has nothing absolute, but is only characterized by
the aforementioned relativity of things.
Images (icons) therefore cannot constitute "idols" for
Orthodox Theology in any way, because they themselves
constitute a part of Creation and everything created is a
far cry from the Uncreated Creator.
Each kind of depiction of persons and events within the
history of Divine Providence preserves the memory of the
Ecclesiastic community. Thus, the community actually
lives history - the truth itself. And it constantly refers
to that truth and to the partaking of the Divine Energies.
The depictions do not pertain to any idol, but to life
itself, to the truth and to accomplishments. That is why the
image is linked to a continuing triumph within the bosom of
natural and historical reality - as this has been
excellently described by John of Damascus, in the words that
we shall examine further along.
The incompatibility between Neo-Platonism and Orthodoxy
Let us notice at this point that, Orthodox Theology on
the icon is strenuously anti-Manichaean.
And this is obvious in the polemics of John of Damasacus but
also of Theodore the Studite, just as it is obvious in the
decisions of the 7th Ecumenical Council. It is easy for one
to understand that the arguments of the supporters of holy
icons have no essential dependence on Neo-Platonic models.
But paradoxically -alas- there are quite a few researchers
who have acknowledged that very dependence. These
researchers appear to have misinterpreted the extensively
discussed Orthodox position on the association between "the
image and the prototype". This association however - with
regard to content - is in no way regarded as Neo-Platonic.
Prototype and "conjecture" according to Neo-Platonic
philosophy is one thing, and the Orthodox icon is another -
with regard to the Uncreated Divine Energies - such that we
have a union of the natural and the supernatural, in a
reality that is continuously transformed.
The "conjectures" (απεικάσματα - pron. apikásmata) according to Neo-Platonic
philosophy are simplistic forms of unintelligent matter;
mere stamps and imprints on shapeless and disposable
matter. But in Biblical and Orthodox Theology the
cosmos of the created exists in all its gradations:
material, corporeal, intelligible, incorporeal... which,
within the "energy grid" of the Uncreated Triadic God become
perfected and move along this route of perfection.
The transition of an image (icon) towards the prototype on
the one hand signifies a perfecting and excellence, and on
the other hand an "expression" and a presentation of that
course of metamorphosis. As such, it is impossible for one
to ascribe any Manichean and Neo-Platonic models therein.
The bonding of the created and the Uncreated "in the light"
In accordance with Orthodox Theology, God is Light and
everything lives, moves, develops and becomes perfected
according to its receptiveness, through illumination.
This is precisely the Theology that Orthodox iconography so
convincingly and overwhelmingly expresses. Thus, Orthodox
Theology studies are also related to the study of
The original style of Byzantine drawing with its
illumination of faces and events highlights the unity and
the fullness of every reality. Everything exists and is
awarded, because it partakes directly of the light and is
rendered a "light form". Matter and light seem like
things that are functionally bonded.
In a Byzantine icon, one does not see any shadows,
perspectives, or half-things. No intensity between light and
dark either. The light calmly illuminates that which exists
and it is awarded, in its fullness. In this area, Orthodox
hagiographers (who live the dogma in the life of the Church)
are triumphant when it comes to portraying that which is the
bonding between natural and supernatural. The veneration of
icons - as a form of honoring the persons and the events
depicted on them - presupposes participation in the corpus
of Ecclesiastic living.
An icon portrays the illumination and the illuminating, thus
prompting towards the aforementioned participation. An icon
is not only a book for the illiterate, but also a grand
reminder of a Theological truth. That is precisely why the
depiction of persons, things and events cannot be
Naturalistic in appearance, nor outside an illuminated and
In this way, the Theology of the Byzantine icon is
simultaneously a theology of light. Signs of this
transformed reality are impressed in the icon, on the
perceptible forms, given that no part of Creation remains
outside the salvific and Divine Energies.
This is the truth that is expressed by the Orthodox icon and
by extension all of Byzantine art. All of Creation finally -
according to its degree of receptiveness - is saved and
transformed within this relationship between the Creator and
Theological extensions of the Orthodox Theology on
created-Uncreated and the icon
It is a known fact (but will become more evident in future
broadcasts, where we shall be examining the matter of icons
analytically, from within the words of saint John of
Damascus) that Orthodox iconography is dependent on the
But, as repeatedly stressed by John of Damascus and the
others, it is because the Logos was incarnated that the
depiction of Christ and the Holy Trinity is entirely
permissible and possible - given that the Logos is the One
Who reveals the Trinity. Nevertheless, the supporters
of icons did not rely solely on the Incarnation and
naturally on the dogmatic clause of the Chalcedon Council.
Orthodox Theology developed Christology, with the
Theophanies of the Old Testament as its starting point. The
Logos is endemic, albeit fleshless, in the Patriarchs, in
Moses and the Prophets. Hence depiction is permissible and
possible, because this revealing in shapes, forms and
pictorial representations pertains to historical events.
The pre-Incarnation and the Incarnate presence of the Logos
is within the same and uniform temporal dimension.
The heretic Docetes
of the 1st century had denied from the very beginning the
Christology of the Church; they were first confronted by
Gnostics had not accepted any possibility whatsoever
of a relationship between God and matter, and hence accepted
the Incarnation as "seeming" - as "imagined". A Docete
("imaginer") such as this could never accept a depiction
that pertains to a relationship between Creation and the
uncreated Divine Energies, and in fact one that signified
the progressive metamorphosis of created beings.
The heretics of the 5th century - on whose account the
dogmatic clause of Chalcedon was drafted - appear to have
overcome the difficulties of the Docetes; they do not regard
the Incarnation as a seeming one. But, while they have
ushered Docetism out of the door, they have ushered it in
through the window (or have been unable to expel it). They
are now discussing "how" the Incarnation took place, or
"how" humanity and divinity merged together, into the one
hypostasis of the Logos. And they have ended up in a
camouflaged Docetism, in which case any depiction of persons
and salvific events has become problematic.
Monophysites have removed nature, history and flesh,
from History and the transformative grace of God. The former
(Nestorians) with their theory regarding hypostases, or,
better still, regarding the "two sons" (the man Jesus and
the Son Logos) who are joined by a mutual volition and not
by the substantial joining of the two natures, have thus
dangerously led the interpretation of salvation towards a
The latter (the Monophysites), with their elimination of
human nature, have even been able to effortlessly reject the
Incarnation itself. This all signifies that Theology
is no longer Theopty, a sighting of light in the specific
relations between created and the Uncreated. But
Orthodox Theology is clear: Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles,
Saints, the friends of God - all without exception - have a
view of God within the charismatic corpus, and that is the
only way that they theologize and moralize. This is what
implies a bond between physical and metaphysical; Historical
reality. It is in this historical reality that Theopty,
savoring, experiencing, meanings, symbols, forms icons and
events are realized. And this is the precise dimension where
Orthodox iconography sprouts from.
Everything that we spoke of previously one can locate in the
Three Essays on icons by saint John of Damascus - the essays
that we intend to study more analytically in future
broadcasts. We shall study them, from within the
publication of the Philosophical and Theological Library,
which is also where we drew the comments (the introductory
comments) for the present broadcast.