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7/13/2015 5:28 pm  #1


The Theology of the Icon

This thread could have been in the philosophy and the art and literature forums, because it equally could belong in either of these. It is a sadly neglected aspect of theology and Christian philosophy.

According to the theology of the icon, the image is a true symbol. That is, as St. Basil the Great put it, the likeness shows truth of the archetype shown the image. Those shown in the icon are truly held to be present there, the icon being a prolongation of them. The icon is not identical to its archetype, but it is related. In the same way that Christ, the Son of God, was present in matter, so might he be present in an icon. Indeed, as St. John of Damascus put its, to deny the theology of the icon is to deny that matter may sanctified, and thus to deny the entire doctrine of the incarnation and Christ's sacrifice. This is why the Orthodox Church celebrates the Feast of Orthodoxy on the day on which Iconoclasm was finally defeated, and holds such Iconoclasm as intimately connected to the great heresies the Church had battled before.

In the Orthodox theology of the icon, one venerates, though does not worship as one would God himself, the icon and this veneration is received by the archetype in the icon. The icon is an intrument of understanding alongside the Scripture and Church tradition itself.

The particular form and stylisation of the icon is not an accident, much less the result of childness or artistic inability:


Christianity is the revelation not only of the Word of God but also of the Image of God, in which His Likeness is revealed. This godlike image is the distinctive feature of the New Testament, being the visible witness of the deification of man. The ways of iconography, as means of expressing what regards the Deity are here the same as the ways of theology. The task of both alike is to express that which cannot be expressed by human means, since such expression will always be imperfect and insufficient. There are no words, nor colors nor lines, which could represent the kingdom of God as we represent and describe our world. Both theology and iconography are faced with a problem which is absolutely insoluble — to express by means belonging to the created world that which is infinitely above the creature. On this plane there are no successes, for the subject itself is beyond comprehension and no matter how lofty in content and beautiful an icon may be it cannot be perfect, just as no word or image can be perfect. In this case, both theology and iconography are always a failure; for this value results from the fact that both theology and iconography reach the limit of human possibilities and prove insufficient. Therefore the methods used by iconography for pointing to the Kingdom of God can only be figurative, symbolical, like the language of the parables in the Holy Scripture.” (L. Ouspensky and V. Lossky, The Meaning of icons, SVS Press, 1989, pp 48-49).

This is one reason for the stylisation used in the icons: it does not bog down the icon with excessive realism that would focus too much on the worldly and material. The icon is material but it transforms matter. Realistic art, even Christian art of the Renaissance and Baroque, is held to be defective because it doesn't seem to ascend from image to archetype, but, rather, its materialism seems to sever the link or bring down the archetype to the image, which is much the same thing. This, too, is why the icons are implaccable, silent, not expressive of emotion - because they represent spiritual realities. The passionate nature of Western Baroque Christian art is quite at odds with traditional Byzantine iconography.

It must be said, though, that overly abstract art is not in tune with the theology of the icon either, as this goes too far the other way, trying to avoid the material altogether.


I wonder, though, if the theology of the icons may not be extended further. In Orthodoxy the relationship of man as an image of God and the theology of the icon is often pointed out - man is made in God's likeness and, through Christ, by becoming more like God, and more like man in his true self, he comes closer to union with God, or theosis. But it seems to me that this iconographic relationship might be extended even further, to those aspects of human being and life that are most natural and holy, such as marriage and family or even craftsmanship. Perhaps nature too, in reflecting God and, as was traditionally held, being a reflection in the macrocosm of what man is in the microcosm, might also be an icon, and a myriad of icons. Of course, the icons of Christ and the Saints are particularly efficacious - given their particular use of symbolic form and their role in the Church - but I wonder if other things might not be iconographic, if approached and prepared in the correct way.

http://www.vhinkle.com/byz/peter03.jpg
    http://ep.yimg.com/ay/yhst-47912705652979/virgin-of-peschanskaya-orthodox-icon-sf-418-4.jpg

 

 

7/13/2015 9:03 pm  #2


Re: The Theology of the Icon

One of my most important friends is Orthodox, and what I wanted to understand was if and how the Western Catholic church settled this issue differently.


Fighting to the death "the noonday demon" of Acedia.
My Books
It is precisely “values” that are the powerless and threadbare mask of the objectification of beings, an objectification that has become flat and devoid of background. No one dies for mere values.
~Martin Heidegger
 

7/13/2015 9:16 pm  #3


Re: The Theology of the Icon

I am not quite sure how the Roman Chuch receives the Orthodox teaching on icons. Certainly, Western Christendom accepted the use of icons when Byzantium was riven by Iconoclasm. The Roman Church still does accept their usage, of course.

The fact that the theology of the icon has not be so explicitly taken up in the West may be one reason that post-medieval religious art - even some that is now traditional (so not just modernist deviations) that the Orthodox would disagree with is more popular in the West. Indeed, the Orthodox tend even to frown upon the use of three-dimensional statues of Christ or Mary or Saints in Churches, popular in the Catholic and Anglican West, as too close to an idol and also too concerned with realism (though it isn't necessarily the use of statuary as such that is necessarily troubling to the Orthodox - they use reliefs - but the manner of statues used).

Interestingly, there are striking parallels between the Orthodox theology of the icon and the Platonic understanding of symbolism in art, nature, and the world in general (what Coleridge called translucence).

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7/13/2015 10:03 pm  #4


Re: The Theology of the Icon

Beautiful introduction Jeremy Taylor!

One small quibble though; it is not quite accurate to say that one "venerates" the icon itself, one rather venerates the person whom it represents. This is important because only beings of a rational nature can be the proper objects of veneration; to venerate an image itself is idolatry.

Loosely speaking your language was fine, but I make this distinction because I wanted to make it clear that, in fact, if the respective icon is an icon of Christ, it in fact can be worshiped properly with latria (the same goes for the Cross, at least according to Aquinas in the Summa). So this at least prima facia contradicts what you seem to have stated in your OP, at least if Aquinas can be taken as an authority on this (I doubt he has much different to say than the Fathers on such basic a point as this).

It is sad how much iconography is ignored as an aspect of Christian theology; especially here in the west, where there are all these philosophers obsessed with signification who I'm sure have no idea that this Theology even exists...

 

7/13/2015 11:17 pm  #5


Re: The Theology of the Icon

None of you have any concerns about idolatry?

Why is this any different than the Hindu pantheon, in which the Brahman is reflected in the various images and animals they worship?

Last edited by Etzelnik (7/13/2015 11:22 pm)


Noli turbare circulos meos.
 

7/13/2015 11:49 pm  #6


Re: The Theology of the Icon

Timotheos,

I think you may be technically correct. It is true that one does not venerate an icon, except so far as the icon partakes of its archetype. It is the archetype who is venerated. However, informally it is not uncommon to say one venerates an icon. As long as it is generally understood what is meant, I see no harm in this.

Etzelnik,

From a Christian perspective, one might admit there is little difference, except that the Hindu objects do not represent the true revelation of God. But what is more important is that the theology of the icon, at least to the Orthodox, is bound up with the incarnation itself. Drawing on Platonic and Aristotelian insights, the Fathers (Basil the Great, John of Damascus, Theodore the Studite, amongst others) argue that the archetype is present in the image. The icon and archetype differ in substance but are related in form; they are related in homoios but not in ousia. In the same way that God took on material form in the incarnation, he does so in the icon. The icon, though, does not depict God the Father but Christ in his human nature. To deny this, in Orthodox theology, is to essentially deny the incarnation and the possibility of salvation and union of man and world with God.

Of old, God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was never depicted. Now, however, when God is seen clothed in flesh, and conversing with men, (Bar. 3.38) I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter, I [16] worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honouring that matter which works my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God. How could God be born out of lifeless things? And if God's body is God by union (kaq upostasin), it is immutable. The nature of God remains the same as before, the flesh created in time is quickened by a logical and reasoning soul. I honour all matter besides, and venerate it. Through it, filled, as it were, with a divine power and grace, my salvation has come to me. Was not the thrice happy and thrice blessed wood of the Cross matter? Was not the sacred and holy mountain of Calvary matter? What of the life-giving rock, the Holy Sepulchre, the source of our resurrection: was it not matter? Is not the most holy book of the Gospels matter? Is not the blessed table matter which gives us the Bread of Life? Are not the gold and silver matter, out of which crosses and altar-plate and chalices are made? And before all these things, is not the body and blood of our Lord matter? Either do away with the veneration [17] and worship due to all these things, or submit to the tradition of the Church in the worship of images, honouring God and His friends, and following in this the grace of the Holy Spirit. Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable. Nothing is that which God has made. This is the Manichean heresy. That alone is despicable which does not come from God, but is our own invention, the spontaneous choice of will to disregard the natural law,--that is to say, sin. - St. John of Damscus, Apologia Against Those Who Decry Holy Images, Part One.

This is why the victory of Iconoclasm was the occasion of the Feast of Orthodoxy, where the triumph of the whole Orthodox faith was celebrated. Iconoclasm was cast with other great heresies like Arianism. The theology of the icons is tightly bound up with the Orthodox perspective on the Christology.

It should be said that the Church certainly is concerned with idolatry. This is why it defines how one should view and behave with icons.

     Thread Starter
 

7/13/2015 11:58 pm  #7


Re: The Theology of the Icon

If you hold fast to the elevating power of the image and refuse to worship the image as such I don't fret about it- though idolotry for me is mostly limited to the confusion of beings with Being or the complex with the simple, since I have no opportunity to specifically worship saints or angels or their images by mistake.


Fighting to the death "the noonday demon" of Acedia.
My Books
It is precisely “values” that are the powerless and threadbare mask of the objectification of beings, an objectification that has become flat and devoid of background. No one dies for mere values.
~Martin Heidegger
 

7/14/2015 12:31 am  #8


Re: The Theology of the Icon

Jeremy Taylor wrote:

But what is more important is that the theology of the icon, at least to the Orthodox, is bound up with the incarnation itself.

Ehh. As we say in the Talmud: "Your guarantor requires a guarantee himself".

iwpoe wrote:

If you hold fast to the elevating power of the image and refuse to worship the image as such I don't fret about it- though idolotry for me is mostly limited to the confusion of beings with Being or the complex with the simple, since I have no opportunity to specifically worship saints or angels or their images by mistake.

Here's what Maimonides has to say about this 'confusion' (beginning of Laws of Idolatry):

During the times of Enoch, mankind made a great mistake, and the wise men of that generation gave thoughtless counsel. Enoch himself was one of those who erred.

Their mistake was as follows: They said God created stars and spheres with which to control the world. He placed them on high and treated them with honor, making them servants who minister before Him. Accordingly, it is fitting to praise and glorify them and to treat them with honor. [They perceived] this to be the will of God, blessed be He, that they magnify and honor those whom He magnified and honored, just as a king desires that the servants who stand before him be honored. Indeed, doing so is an expression of honor to the king.

After conceiving of this notion, they began to construct temples to the stars and offer sacrifices to them. They would praise and glorify them with words, and prostrate themselves before them, because by doing so, they would - according to their false conception - be fulfilling the will of God.

This was the essence of the worship of false gods, and this was the rationale of those who worshiped them. They would not say that there is no other god except for this star.

I know this is not precisely the same as Christianity, but it is identical in implication.

Last edited by Etzelnik (7/14/2015 12:33 am)


Noli turbare circulos meos.
 

7/14/2015 1:08 am  #9


Re: The Theology of the Icon

In traditional liturgical Christianity a distinction is made (of which Miamonades was surely aware) which in Latin is between Latria and Dulia. Some protestants, Jews, and Muslims deny the distinction, but I think it salient since what other than reverence is due to the spiritually highest creations?


Fighting to the death "the noonday demon" of Acedia.
My Books
It is precisely “values” that are the powerless and threadbare mask of the objectification of beings, an objectification that has become flat and devoid of background. No one dies for mere values.
~Martin Heidegger
 

7/14/2015 1:41 am  #10


Re: The Theology of the Icon

Thanks for starting this interesting topic. From the Sufi perspective in Islam the correct way to approach such "icons" or "symbols" (ayat) of God is to at once, see God in the symbol (tashbih) while at the same time recognize God is beyond all symbols (tanzih). According to Ibn Arabi, one of the greatest mystics of Islam, those who balance tashbih and tanzih achieve the deepest insight into the nature of things.

 

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