I. THE ICON OF CHRIST
As we all know, the iconomachy period upset the entire Byzantium era - with only a few intervals - for more than a hundred years ( 726-843 A.D. ). Its aftermath was horrific. The price paid by the iconophiles (icon respecters) was a heavy one. Lives, relics, books, icons were lost. Most icons were destroyed, burnt or defaced. The reverberations of the iconomachy period did not disappear quickly.
And the question is raised: Why did this argument over the holy icons last for such a long period of time? The answer is partially found, in the preceding chapters. The holy icons are the fruits of the Church's faith. It is this very faith that the icons proclaim, express, nurture and preserve. Denial of reverence towards the holy icons signified a denial of the faith that they represented. The matter is not as simple as it may appear at first glance. It was a matter of faith, and indeed of the orthodox faith. This will become obvious, with all that we shall analyze further down.
Every argument - whether between persons or communities of people or nations - has its causes and its reasons. Quite often, these two conflict; indeed, so much so, that that they become indiscernible. Amongst the reasons given - for the uprising and the justification of the persecution against holy icons - we are told, were certain abuses and excesses. Apparently, a significant number of Christians actually worshipped icons, instead of paying them honorary tribute. A certain decadence was observed in monastic living, social injustice was rampant, social life had obviously collapsed, as had become obvious the unreliability of the people of the Church.
Despite the occasional belief that all the above were the cause that raised the iconomachy turmoil, they were actually the excuse, the pretext for all the fuss. " The true, original character of iconomachy is a religious and spiritual one " (Dionysos of Zakynthos ). As stated in a profound statement belonging to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople ( 14-9-1987 ) - on the occasion of the 1200 th anni- versary of the 7 th Ecumenical Council - iconomachy, infiltrated by heretical and imageless elements of Judaism and Islam ( religions that are opposed to images ), " made it the purpose and target of its teachings and its actions, to exterminate all evidence of divine incarnation, the divine-human nature of the Lord, the maternity of the Theotokos, and of all material matter; also, of the passage from the earthly to the more spiritual and more divine, through worship, through prayer, through theory and divine participation ". The chief point of contradiction was the divine-human nature of the Lord.
The iconomachy supporters maintained that we could not picture, or portray God. Their allegation was based on the Holy Scriptures. In the Old Testament, we read that when Moses asked to look upon God's countenance, he received the reply: " you cannot look upon my face; no man can look upon my face and live " ( Exodus, 33, 20 ). We have yet another commandment, from the Ten that were given, which forbids the representation of God. " Thou shall not create any images unto yourself... " ( Exodus, 20,4 ).
The verification by the Old Testament that godhood is invisible to mankind, is asserted by the words of the New Testament " God has never been looked upon, by anyone " ( John,, 1, 18, also John A/, 4, 12 ). The apostle Paul says the same thing: " ...Whom (God) no man has seen, nor is he able to see " ( Timothy A/, 6, 16 ). The divine-human portrayal of God is not possible, because " God is spiritual, and those who worship Him, must worship Him in spirit and in truth " ( John, 4, 24 ).
If Christians - despite this prohibition - painted the image of Christ, well, to the iconomachy supporters this was considered scandalous. As the late V. Laourdos so vividly described in one of his studies on iconomachy, the Christ of the icons of the orthodox was not the Son and Logos of God. This was an ordinary man, with a face, with clothes, with mortal sensory organs. And this was because icons - according to iconomachy allegations - did not include the inapprehensible and indescribable divine nature of Christ: it was merely a representation of his human flesh that was being portrayed in them.
On the other hand, the iconophiles were likewise loading their own quivers with arrows from the Holy Scriptures. It is true, they said, that " no man has ever seen God...", however, the very same scriptural verse continues, with the words: " the only-begotten Son, who is at the bosom of the Father, will illustrate Him " ( John, 1,18 ). It was the Son, who explained to us, who introduced us to, and spoke about, God the Father. He accomplished this, through His incarnation, His miracles, His teachings, His example. With these, He revealed to us the image of His Father, Himself being " the image of the invisible God " (Colossians, 1, 15).
The consubstantial of the Son and the Father appears, amongst other places, in the answer given by Christ to Philip, who asked Him to show God the Father to the disciples. " Jesus said to him: you have been with me for so long, and yet you do not recognize me, Philip ? Whomsoever looks at me, looks at the Father " ( John, 14, 9 ). And elsewhere, he reassures that " whomsoever looks upon me, is looking at the One who sent me " (John, 12, 45).
Given that the Son and Logos of God became a person, He naturally ceased to be indescribable, as His divine nature surely is. It was His incarnation that gave us the right to portray Him, to draw His Face, without this signifying that we are separating His flesh from His godhood. ( In all icons, Christ is represented as the Human-God ). As Saint John the Damascene said: " when observing Christ's bodily form, we reflect on the possibility that we are also observing the glory of His divinity " (On icons, 2,12). If we do not portray the Lord - responded the icono-philes to the iconomachy supporters - then we are denying His human nature, His life on this earth, and His crucifixion. We shall thus become Monophysites ("Single
-Nature"), who acknowledge Christ's divine nature only ( their belief was that Christ's human nature was ingested by His divine nature ), or Doketes ( "Imagi-ners" ), who believed that Christ "seemingly" (not actually) appeared on earth. The orthodox belief is contained in the following hymn, sung during the Sunday Feast of Orthodoxy ( 1 st Sunday of Lent ), in which " we stand in memoriam of the reinstatement of the holy and venerable icons "..." In reinstating the portrayals of your flesh, o Lord, we are also acknowledging, through our veneration of them, the supreme mystery of divine providence; You did not "seemingly" appear to us, o philanthropic One, as the childlike enemies of God - the supporters of Manes - assert; You came to us in reality, with a fleshy nature, and through these portrayals, we are led to our yearning and our love for You ". The "childlike" followers of Manes (these are the heretic Gnostics), admit that Christ seemingly became incarnate, and that He seemingly underwent a crucifixional death. For the Church, however, the incarnation of the Saviour Christ was real; it was "verily in the flesh", according to the hymn.
In order to comprehend how the iconomachy supporters viewed the portrayal of Christ and how the iconophiles regarded it, we shall refer to a passage by the memorable Leonid Ouspensky: " The iconomachy supporters see only two possibilities in an icon of the incarnate Logos of God; that we are either representing Christ, that is, His divine nature, or else, we are displaying the man Jesus, that is, His human side, separated from the Divine. For them, both possibilities are heretical, while a third possibility cannot exist. However, the orthodox, being deeply conscious of the difference between nature and the persona, proposed a third possibility that would automatically end the iconomachy dilemma: An icon represents not the nature , but the persona of the one portrayed; thus, the hypostasis of Christ can be describable, while His divinity remains indescribable, as Saint Theodore the Studite tells us ( PG 99, 405 B ). When portraying our Lord, we are not solely portraying His divine nature, or His human nature; we are portraying His Persona, which, according to the dogma of Chalcedon unites both His natures, without confusing or separating them ".
Saint John the Damascene, an apologist and a supporter of holy icons during the first phase of the iconomachy period ( 726 - 787 A.D. ), is very clear about the potential and the necessity of portraying Christ. " If we do create an image of the invisible God, we shall indeed be committing a sin; it is impossible to portray something that has no body or shape; something that is invisible and indescribable.... But, ever since God became incarnate and visible on earth in the flesh, associating Himself with mankind - out of His unutterable condescension - by taking on the nature, the thickness, the form and the colour of flesh, then we are not at fault, when portraying His image" (On icons, 2,5). Therefore, the portrayal of the invisible God would indeed be a sin. As precisely expressed in the 7 th Ecumenical Council: " .. why do we not describe or portray the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ ? because we do not know who He is, and it is impossible to describe or portray the nature of God (Minutes of the Council). "However is not impossible to describe or portray the nature of the incarnate God, that is, of our Lord Jesus Christ".
Elsewhere, the saint is even more emphatic: " Engrave His unutterable condescension, His birth by the Virgin Mother, His baptism in the river Jordan, His transfiguration on Mount Tabor, His passions that are the cause of apathy, His miracles, the symbols of His divine nature, those things that took place with the actions of His bodily presence through His divine powers, His salvatory Cross, His burial, His resurrection, His ascension into the heavens. Engrave all these things, in words and in colours " (prev., 1,8).
Another standard-bearer of Orthodoxy, Saint Theodore the Studite, ( who defen-ded the icons during the second phase of the iconomachy period ( 813 - 843 A.D. ), underlined that with Christ's incarnation " the formless took on a form ". And also " The same indescribable One is therefore now describable; indescribable in His divinity, and describable in His humanity "( PG 99, 413 C396 B).
Pursuant to all the above, every faithful person concludes - along with John the Damascene - that " for this reason, I dare to portray the invisible God, not as invisible, but as the God Who became visible for our sake, partaking of our flesh and blood.. I do not portray the invisible godhood, but instead, I portray God's manifested flesh " (prev. 1,4).
The Church's hymnology repeats the iconophiles' argument in favour of the icons, during the Sunday feast of Orthodoxy. (The turmoil of iconomachy ended for good, with the resident Synod of 843 A.D. in Constantinople , during the reign of the empress Theodora. The Synod decided to reinstate the holy icons and instituted the celebration of Orthodoxy Sunday. ) Two relative hymns follow; one from Matins and the other from Vespers of that feast day:
" Albeit of an indescribable divine nature, You finally condescended through Your incarnation to become describable, because, by partaking of the flesh, You embraced its every characteristic; therefore, by portraying Your semblance, we venerate it, and thus elevate ourselves up to Your love. And through this portrayal, we draw from the divine grace that heals, by pursuing the divine traditions of the Apostles ".
The second hymn is the one which, more than the first, summarizes the matter of the Orthodoxy Sunday feast, and the sanctioning of icons in the Church. Ouspensky and Losky, along with our own Th. Xydes, have stressed the significance of this hymn.
" The indescribable Logos of the Father, was brought forth incarnate by you, Holy Mother, Who, by restoring the sullied ( because of original sin ) image of man to its original state, enhanced it with a divine beauty. But, with our confession of salvation ( through the Lord's incarnation ), we proclaim it in form ( art ) and in word ( hymns )".
The first part of the hymn tells us what God did for mankind, and the second part, how man responded to God. The second persona of the Holy Trinity becomes incarnate, it vacates itself of its godhood and brings salvation to the world. In turn, man confesses the truth of the incarnation, and participates in God's plan for man's salvation.
This hymn also underlines something else: that the ability to portray Christ is owed to the Holy Mother. It was She who donated her flesh, so that the Lord could be born a man. As the Patriarch Germanos of Constantinople put it: "...in picturing His (Christ's) immaculate, carnal Mother - the Holy Theotokos - we portray her likeness, thus indicating (with her portrayal) that She bore in her womb and gave of her flesh to the invisible and all-providing God" (PG 98, 157 C). The icons of the Theotokos and Christ are integrally linked; the one presupposes the other. The Master's image is comparable to the maternal image.
In summarizing the dogmatic and iconographic significance of this hymn, Losky wrote the following remarks: " This hymn, sung during the Sunday of Orthodoxy ( the first Sunday of Lent ), when the Church celebrates the victory of the holy icons along with the final triumph of the incarnation dogma, infers the entire dogma of exactly what an 'icon' is". "...n image of the invisible God, the first-born of any creation" (Colossians, 1,15), the hypostasis of the Logos is a " brief and comprehensible evidence of the Father's nature " ( Saint Gregory the Theologian ). Since man was created in the image and the likeness of God, he must therefore have had the Divine Logos as an Archetype ( Saint Athanasios the Great ). This is why the Incarnation of the Son renovated the image, which had lost its likeness, through man's sin (Athanasios the Great). This is not only a perfect divine Epiphany; it is also an actualizing of the perfect Human, something that was not possible for Adam to attain. The image of Christ, the Divine Human, is a graphic expression of the dogma of Chalcedon , because it portrays the Divine Persona incarnated; the Son of God who became the Son of Man, "consubstantial to the Father" by His divinity, and "consubstantial to us" by His human nature" .
The image of Christ is an image of His Divine-Human Persona, which is reminiscent of His two births: the paternal one and the maternal one; in other words, the mystery of divine providence itself, in bas-relief. Man's benefit is also double, as we are reminded by Saint Ireneos; " In past years, it was said that man was created in the image of God, but this was not evident at the time, because the Logos - in whose image man was created - was still invisible; this is why man so easily lost his likeness to God. When the Logos of God became a man Himself, He validated both the image and the likeness of man, because He presented the image truthfully, by becoming Himself whatever His image was. And He also verified the likeness of man to God, by relating man to the invisible Father, through the now visible Logos" (Examination, 5, 16, 2).