The veneration of holy icons is one of the most controversial issues in discussions about historic Christianity. Many believe that the early Church was iconoclastic or iconophobic, and only adopted iconodulia around the 8th century. However in this florilegium, I hope to challenge that view and demonstrate that the liceity of image veneration has always been affirmed by the Church. Long before the 7th Ecumenical Council, the defenders and critics of iconodulia bore witness to this teaching’s antiquity and universality:
- 2nd-3rd centuries: Apocryphal Acts of John, Inscription in a Church.
- 4th-5th centuries: St. Methodius of Olympus, St. Athanasius the Great, St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. John Chrysostom, Eusebius of Caesarea, St. Epiphanius of Salamis, Theodoret of Cyrus.
- 8th-9th centuries: Pope St. Gregory II, 7th Ecumenical Council, Photian (robber) Council +869.
The Apocryphal Acts of John (2nd century):
The painter, then, on the first day made an outline of him [John the Apostle] and went away. And on the next he painted him in with his colors, and so delivered the portrait to Lycomedes to his great joy. And lie took it and set it up in his own bedchamber and hung it with garlands: so that later John, when he perceived it, said to him: My beloved child, what is it that thou always doest when thou comest in from the bath into thy bedchamber alone? do not I pray with thee and the rest of the brethren? or is there something thou art hiding from us? And as he said this and talked jestingly with him, he went into the bedchamber, and saw the portrait of an old man crowned with garlands, and lamps and altars set before it. And he called him and said: Lycomedes, what meanest thou by this matter of the portrait? can it be one of thy gods that is painted here? for I see that thou art still living in heathen fashion. And Lycomedes answered him: My only God is he who raised me up from death with my wife: but if, next to that God, it be right that the men who have benefited us should be called gods -it is thou, father, whom I have had painted in that portrait, whom I crown and love and reverence as having become my good guide. 28 And John who had never at any time seen his own face said to him: Thou mockest me, child: am I like that in form, [excelling] thy Lord? how canst thou persuade me that the portrait is like me? And Lycomedes brought him a mirror. And when he had seen himself in the mirror and looked earnestly at the portrait, he said: As the Lord Jesus Christ liveth, the portrait is like me: yet not like me, child, but like my fleshly image… this that thou hast now done is childish and imperfect: thou hast drawn a dead likeness of the dead. (The Acts of John, 27-29)
Author’s commentary: Although this quote is clearly condemning the creation and veneration of holy images, the reason why is because it’s from a Gnostic forgery; and as Perry Robinson notes, “it would be odd if the Gnostic polemicist wrote something that was in no way a response to orthodox practice. More likely, this is a criticism of an existing orthodox practice: the veneration of icons of departed Saints.” This is strong evidence that, in the 2nd century, the creation and veneration of holy images was so widespread in the Church that the Gnostics felt it warranted a response.
Inscription in a Church (3rd century):
Under the holy place of M[ary]. I wrote there the [names]. The image I adored of her. (Early Christian Attitudes toward Images, pg. 100-102)
St. Methodius of Olympus (4th century):
For instance, then, the images of our kings here, even though they be not formed of the more precious materials — gold or silver — are honored by all. For men do not, while they treat with respect those of the far more precious material, slight those of a less valuable, but honor every image in the world, even though it be of chalk or bronze. And one who speaks against either of them, is not acquitted as if he had only spoken against clay, nor condemned for having despised gold, but for having been disrespectful towards the King and Lord Himself. The images of God’s angels, which are fashioned of gold, the principalities and powers, we make to His honor and glory. (Discourse on the Resurrection, 2)
Author’s commentary: Personally, I was surprised that this passage often isn’t used in discussions about image veneration in the early Church. St. Methodius is pretty explicit that images can be “honored,” and that images of holy beings like angels were being made for the “honor and glory” of God in the 4th century.
St. Athanasius the Great (4th century):
And we may perceive this at once from the illustration of the Emperor’s image. For in the image is the shape and form of the Emperor, and in the Emperor is that shape which is in the image. For the likeness of the Emperor in the image is exact ; so that a person who looks at the image, sees in it the Emperor; and he again who sees the Emperor, recognises that it is he who is in the image. And from the likeness not differing, to one who after the image wished to view the Emperor, the image might say, ‘I and the Emperor are one; for I am in him, and he in me; and what you see in me, that you behold in him, and what you have seen in him, that you hold in me.’ Accordingly he who worships the image, in it worships the Emperor also; for the image is his form and appearance. (Discourse Against the Arians, 3.5)
Author’s commentary: Although St. Athanasius doesn’t explicitly mention the veneration of holy images, what’s important here is his theology of images. Unlike ancient and modern iconoclasts, who emphatically deny that images truly represent their prototypes, and that it’s impossible to honor the latter by honoring the former, Athanasius affirms just this. And what’s interesting is that Athanasius simply assumes that his Arian opponents would understand this line of reasoning, which implies the universality of iconodulistic theology in the early Church.
St. Gregory Nazianzen (4th century):
Hadst thou no respect for the victims slain for Christ’s sake? Didst thou not fear those mighty champions, that John, that Peter, Paul, James, Stephen, Luke, Andrew, and Thecla? And those who after them, and before them, faced danger in the cause of Truth, and who confronted the fire, the sword, the wild beasts, the tyrants, with joy, and evils either present or threatening, as though they were in the bodies of others, or rather as if released from the body! And what for? That they might not betray the Truth, even as far as a word goes; those to whom belong the great honours and festivals; those by whom devils are cast out and diseases healed; to whom belong manifestations of future events, and to whom belong prophecies; whose very bodies possess equal power with their holy souls, whether touched or worshipped; of whom even the drops of the blood and little relics [symbols] of their passion, produce equal effect with their bodies! (Against Julian the Apostate, 69)
Author’s commentary: This is a very interesting quote from St. Gregory, because he not only affirms that the Saints are owed “great honors” and “festivals,” but also that their “bodies,” that is, their relics, are to be “touched” and “worshipped”; and when we do this, we’re granted a share in their “power.” He then adds that the “symbols of their passion” have an “equal effect” as their “bodies.” I could be wrong, but this seems like an explicit teaching that the icons of Saints are just as powerful and important as their relics, and since Gregory endorses the veneration of relics, it appears he’s also endorsing the veneration of their images.
St. Basil the Great (4th century):
When often both historians and painters express manly deeds of war, the one embellishing them with words, the other engraving them onto tablets, they both arouse many too to bravery. The facts which the historical account presents by being listened to, the painting silently portrays by imitation. In this very way let us too remind those present of [the Forty Martyrs’] virtue, and as it were by bringing their deeds to their gaze, let us motivate them to imitate those who are nobler and closer to them with respect to their course of life. (Homily on the Forty Martyrs, 2)
For the lawless mock the temple, mock the neighbor, mock the one created in the image of the Creator, and through the image “reproach” ascends to the Creator. For just as the one who desecrates the royal image is judged on an equal footing with the one who sinned against the king himself, so, obviously, the one who desecrates the one created in the image is guilty of sin. (Commentary on Isaiah, 13.3)
Because we speak of a king, and of the king’s image, and not of two kings. The majesty is not cloven in two, nor the glory divided. The sovereignty and authority over us is one, and so the doxology ascribed by us is not plural but one; because the honor paid to the image passes on to the prototype. Now what in the one case the image is by reason of imitation, that in the other case the Son is by nature; and as in works of art the likeness is dependent on the form, so in the case of the divine and uncompounded nature the union consists in the communion of the Godhead. (On the Holy Spirit, 18.45)
Author’s commentary: After noting how “paintings” are often used to depict virtuous and heroic men by “imitation,” St. Basil says that we should honor the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste “in this very way,” by bringing them to our “gaze.” This is all but an explicit call for his flock to make images of the Forty Martyrs. If we then tie this to Basil’s theology of images, wherein “the honor paid to the image passes on to the prototype,” and “works of art” truly refer back to their prototypes through “imitation,” it’s hard to doubt that Basil venerated holy images.
St. Gregory of Nyssa (4th century):
Most of the people abhor all other remains [corpses]; no one is happy to pass by the coffin, and when he accidentally sees an open coffin, then looking at the ugliness of what lies there, full of an unpleasant feeling and with a heavy sigh about the fate of mankind, he rather runs away. But whoever ascends to any place like this, where today we have gathered [the tomb of a martyr], where the memory of the righteous is (committed) and where his holy relics, he, firstly, will console his soul with the splendor of what is presented to his eyes, seeing this house as the temple of God, lightly decorated with the grandeur of construction, and the splendor of decorations, where the carver gave the tree the appearance of various animals, and the stonecutter brought the stone slabs to the smoothness of silver. And the painter decorated with artificial flowers, depicting on the icon the valiant deeds of the martyr, his firm standing at the court, torment, the bestial faces of the tormentors, their violent actions, the burning furnace with a flame, the most blessed death of the ascetic, the inscription of the human image of the ascetic [of] Christ; having skillfully outlined all this for us with paints, as if in some explanatory book, he clearly told the exploits of the martyr and lightly decorated the temple, as if a flowering meadow (for even painting can silently speak on the walls and deliver the greatest benefit)… Having consoled the eye with these sensual works of art, (the visitor to the temple) wants to finally approach the shrine, revering the very touch to it as sanctification and blessing. If someone is allowed to take the earth lying on the surface of the place of his repose, he accepts that dust as a gift and collects the earth as a treasure. If someone is lucky enough to be able to touch the very remains, then how desirable it is and what an exalted prayer; revered as a gift, know those who have experienced it and who were themselves animated by this desire. Those who look at them are kissed like the most living and blooming body of life, bringing them closer to the eyes, lips, ears, to all feelings; then, shedding tears of reverence and heartfelt tenderness, they offer a prayer for intercession, as if the martyr himself is seen intact, imploring him as an armor-bearer of God, appealing to him, as to one who receives gifts (prayers) whenever he pleases. (Eulogy to the Great Martyr Theodore)
Author’s commentary: Although icon veneration isn’t explicitly mentioned in this quote, a number of important things are. St. Gregory is describing what people typically see and do at the tombs of the Saints in the 4th century, and he clearly states that painting icons of the Saints was normative, and part of the process of honoring the Saint was to behold their image as a “consolation” to the soul and eye. He even says that these icons “told the exploits” of the Saints and were able to “deliver the greatest benefit” to those who beheld them, but Gregory doesn’t dwell on the icons for much longer because there’s something more significant there: the Saint’s relic. Clearly, Gregory believed that one could be “sanctified” and “blessed” by touching the relic of a Saint; and by bringing these relics close to the “eyes” and “lips” (implying kissing), one could almost “see” the martyr and properly offer him a prayer. Given all of this, the veneration of the Saint’s icon in this context would be very natural.
St. John Chrysostom (4th century):
The kings erect victorious statues in honor of the military leaders who have won the victory; also the chiefs put up victorious images and pillars in honor of the drivers and wrestlers, and force the substance with an inscription, as if by mouth, to announce victory. Others express praises to the victors in books and letters, wishing to show that in praises they themselves are stronger than those who are praised. Speakers and painters, carvers and sculptors, peoples and rulers, cities and villages, are surprised at the winners; but no one drew an image in honor of one who fled and did not fight. (Conversation on Psalm 3)
And it became so frequent that this name [of St. Meletios] echoed around from every direction everywhere both in side streets and in the marketplace and in fields and on highways. But you didn’t experience so much just at the name, but even at the depiction of his body. At least, what you did with names, this you practiced, too, in the case of that man’s image. For truly, many carved that holy image on finger rings and on seals and on cups and on bedroom walls and all over the place so that one didn’t just hear that holy name, but also saw the depiction of his body all over the place and had a double consolation for his loss. (Homily in Praise of Saint Meletios)
Author’s commentary: Far from condemning the creation of images in the first quote, St. John Chrysostom simply assumes his audience understands the principle of making images “in honor” of the ones being depicted. And then in the second quote, John makes this implicit endorsement of iconography explicit when he approvingly documents how people made “holy images” of St. Meletios after his death; and he uses this as evidence of Meletios’ sanctity.
Eusebius of Caesarea (4th century):
For there stands upon an elevated stone, by the gates of her house, a brazen image of a woman kneeling, with her hands stretched out, as if she were praying. Opposite this is another upright image of a man, made of the same material, clothed decently in a double cloak, and extending his hand toward the woman. At his feet, beside the statue itself, is a certain strange plant, which climbs up to the hem of the brazen cloak, and is a remedy for all kinds of diseases. They say that this statue is an image of Jesus. It has remained to our day, so that we ourselves also saw it when we were staying in the city. Nor is it strange that those of the Gentiles who, of old, were benefited by our Savior, should have done such things, since we have learned also that the likenesses of his apostles Paul and Peter, and of Christ himself, are preserved in paintings, the ancients being accustomed, as it is likely, according to a habit of the Gentiles, to pay this kind of honor indiscriminately to those regarded by them as deliverers. (Church History, 7.18)
Author’s commentary: Although Eusebius comes off as a tad hostile towards the veneration of images (though he never condemns it), he nonetheless affirms that the Church has an ancient practice of creating and honoring images of Jesus and the Saints. He also acknowledges the miraculous nature of some of these holy images.
St. Epiphanius of Salamis (4th century):
I have often advised those who are reputed to be wise — bishops, doctors, and concelebrants — to take down those things. Not everyone paid attention to me, actually only a few. Who has ever heard of this? Who among the ancient fathers has painted an image of Christ in a church or placed it in his own house? Who among the ancient bishops has painted Christ on door curtains, dishonoring him in this way? And who has ever painted on door curtains or on walls Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and the other prophets and patriarchs, or Peter, Andrew, James, John, Paul, or the other apostles… people should be happy with the mosaics that have already been put up, but not to make any more… But you will say to me, “The fathers detested the idols of the nations, but we make images of the saints in their memory, and we prostrate ourselves in front of them in their honor.” Precisely by this reasoning, some of you have had the audacity, after having plastered a wall inside the holy house, to represent the images of Peter, John, and Paul with various colors, as I can see by the inscriptions written on each of the images which falsely bare the name [image]. (Craig Truglia, Answering Aniconist Arguments)
Author’s commentary: The reason why I’ve quoted the iconoclasts’ favorite father is because, although St. Epiphanius does agree with the iconoclast position, this quote demonstrates that the catholic Church did not. By his own admission, “only a few” 4th century bishops actually took Epiphanius’ iconoclasm seriously, and we can see why. Epiphanius claims that making images of Jesus and the Saints is not an ancient practice, yet archeology (and Epiphanius himself) tells us that this just isn’t true. More than this, Epiphanius explicitly says that his detractors, which would be the majority of the Church, used the exact justification for image veneration that was given at II Nicaea. Far from being a nail in the coffin for iconodulia, the writings of St. Epiphanius serve as powerful evidence for the universality of image veneration in the early Church.
Blessed Theodoret of Cyrus (5th century):
It is said that the man [St. Symeon] became so celebrated in the great city of Rome that at the entrance of all the workshops men have set up small representations of him, to provide thereby some protection and safety for themselves. (Life of St. Symeon the Stylite, 11)
Author’s commentary: Blessed Theodoret affirms that, even while some Saints were still alive, people were creating images of them and using them for some kind of spiritual “protection”; and Theodoret doesn’t condemn this as superstitious or idolatrous, it’s simply noted in passing.
Pope St. Gregory II (8th century):
Now, since ye ran so well, who hath rung this in thine ears and turned aside thine heart like a broken bow, that thou hast looked on things that were behind? For ten years, by the Grace of God, thou didst walk well and madest no mention of holy images; but now thou sayst they occupy the place of idols; that they who venerate them are idolators; and thou has determined on their utter destruction. And thou hast not feared the judgments of God in thus causing scandals to arise, not only in the heart of the faithful, but of the unfaithful also… All the West offer the first-fruits of their Faith to Peter, head and chief of the Apostles, should you send any here for the destruction of St. Peter’s image–see–we warn you beforehand; we are free from the blood which may be shed on the occasion. On thine own head and on thine own neck be all these things. (Letter to Emperor Leo)
Author’s commentary: Pope St. Gregory II was one of the chief defenders of Orthodoxy in the West during the iconoclast controversy. Importantly, Gregory explicitly says that “all the West” was in agreement with him on this issue, and he affirms that his predecessor and namesake, Gregory the Great, believed in iconodulia as well.
7th Ecumenical Council (8th century):
So we all believe, we all are so minded, we all give our consent and have signed. This is the faith of the Apostles, this is the faith of the orthodox, this is the faith which has made firm the whole world. Believing in one God, to be celebrated in Trinity, we salute the honorable images! Those who do not so hold, let them be anathema. Those who do not thus think, let them be driven far away from the Church. For we follow the most ancient legislation of the Catholic Church. We keep the laws of the Fathers. We anathematize those who add anything to or take anything away from the Catholic Church. We anathematize the introduced novelty of the revilers of Christians. We salute the venerable images. We place under anathema those who do not do this. Anathema to them who presume to apply to the venerable images the things said in Holy Scripture about idols. Anathema to those who do not salute the holy and venerable images. Anathema to those who call the sacred images idols. Anathema to those who say that Christians resort to the sacred images as to gods. Anathema to those who say that any other delivered us from idols except Christ our God. Anathema to those who dare to say that at any time the Catholic Church received idols. (Second Council of Nicaea, the Decree)
Author’s commentary: I decided to include the decree of II Nicaea just to once again emphasize the universality of iconodulia. The Patriarchates of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Antioch all agreed that the veneration of holy icons is the true Orthodox faith.
Photian (robber) Council +869:
We decree that the sacred image of our lord Jesus Christ, the redeemer and savior of all people, should be venerated with honor equal to that given to the book of the holy gospels. For, just as through the written words which are contained in the book, we all shall obtain salvation, so through the influence that colors in painting exercise on the imagination, all, both wise and simple, obtain benefit from what is before them; for as speech teaches and portrays through syllables, so too does painting by means of colors. It is only right then, in accordance with true reason and very ancient tradition, that icons should be honored and venerated in a derivative way because of the honor which is given to their archetypes, and it should be equal to that given to the sacred book of the holy gospels and the representation of the precious cross. (Fourth Council of Constantinople : 869-870)
Author’s commentary: Some, mostly Anglicans who want to cling to a belief in the Ecumenical Councils, try to argue that the Synod of Frankfurt +794 demonstrates the West’s rejection of II Nicaea. However, the Synod of Constantinople +869 demonstrates that the West in no way backed down from her commitment to the Seventh Council; rather she viewed it as binding on the western Church long before the 13th century. And although the Church does consider +869 a robber Council, the Council that overturned it and rehabilitated St. Photius, namely Constantinople +879, likewise affirmed II Nicaea with the approval of Pope John VIII.
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I think you mean “liceity”, not “licentiousness”, lol
Come on now, I would NEVER make a mistake like that!
Eusebius of Caesarea does not appear to be hostile towards the veneration of Christian images, he expresses a favorable attitude toward these Christian images: he comments as follows on this short chapter: “I do not believe that I should omit a history that deserves to be remembered by those who will follow us.” Furthermore, he says that the statues were “a wonderful memorial of the benefit which the Savior conferred upon her” and “It is not at all surprising that the Gentiles should have expressed their gratitude in this way”. Even if Protestants say that the bleeding woman in the Gospel history did not actually set up the statues, it does not seem inconceivable to Eusebius that she could have done such a thing. Does Eusebius seem scandalized by the very existence of the statues or by the fact that some claim that the bleeding woman set them up? No. Does he attack them as a violation of the second commandment? No. Rather, the tone of the entire chapter shows his admiration for the woman’s offer of thanks. As for the portraits, he shows no dislike for them.
And it’s also significant that Eusebius does not exclude the possibility of real portraits of Christ and the Apostles. Does not such a belief suppose, at least in Eusebius’ mind, a series of portraits that go far back in history, if not apostolic times? How could there be a realistic portrait of a person, some 250 years later, without a model having been made while that person was alive? Of course, Eusebius’ opinion alone proves nothing about the historicity of a chain of portraits depicting Christ and the apostles. Such an opinion, however, would show that Eusebius did not regard this possibility as absurd, impossible, or impious.
In his Apology against those who condemn Holy images, St. John Damascene quotes John of Antioch or Malala (491-578), who states that this woman (called Berenice) made this bronze statue:
“And soon Berenice the sick woman of old, created in the midst of her own city of Paneada a monument in bronze, adorned with gold and silver. It still stands in the city of Paneada. Not long ago it was removed from its place to the middle of the city, and placed in a house of prayer. One of them, Batho, a converted Jew, found it mentioned in a book that contained a history of all those who reigned in Judea.”
– “Chronicle about the “woman with the flow of blood, who did a monument to Christ,” quoted in “Apology Against Those Who Condemn Holy Images,” page 67.
John Damascene himself refers to this Eusebian text as a declaration in favor of Christian images. He certainly would not have quoted such a text if he had detected in it the slightest antagonism toward images. The eighth-century iconoclasts themselves did not understand the story of the statues as an expression hostile to Christian images. If they had detected the slightest antagonism, they would certainly have cited it as a confirmation of the supposed iconophobia of Eusebius and the early Church. For St. John, Eusebius was an iconodule, or at least he was not opposed to Christian images, despite his reputation for other doctrinal deviations.
Some modern scholars believe they have detected a negative attitude on Eusebius’ part when he talks about the pagan custom of honoring benefactors by doing commemorative statues. They understand the description of the woman’s gesture, a “Gentile custom”, as a condemnation of her action. This pejorative interpretation is certainly in conflict with the beginning of the passage where Eusebius says that “history deserves to be remembered by those who will follow us”. If there is any ambiguity in the last sentence of the chapter, it should be interpreted in light of the opening sentence where the meaning is clear. What seems normal, that is, “nothing surprising”, to Eusebius is not the continuation of an abominable and idolatrous custom in the Church, but rather that the ancient pagans would have purified one of their idolatrous customs and used it to honor the Savior.
Based on this text alone, it is difficult to claim that Eusebius of Caesarea was aniconist, and since “The History of the Church” the first of his works, around 303, to speak of Christian images, is rather a testimony to his iconodulia rather than his aniconism.
And there is no doubt that St. Basil the Great was an iconodule, as he says in one of his works:
“According to the blameless faith of the Christians which we have obtained from God, I confess and agree that I believe in one God the Father Almighty; God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost; I adore and worship one God, the Three. I confess to the œconomy of the Son in the flesh, and that the holy Mary, who gave birth to Him according to the flesh, was Mother of God. I acknowledge also the holy apostles, prophets, and martyrs; and I invoke them to supplication to God, that through them, that is, through their mediation, the merciful God may be propitious to me, and that a ransom may be made and given me for my sins. Wherefore also I honour and kiss the features of their images, inasmuch as they have been handed down from the holy apostles, and are not forbidden, but are in all our churches.”
– Letter 360.
He clearly states that he “honour and kiss” the features of the images of the holy apostles, prophets, and martyrs, and that their images are not prohibited, but are in “all our churches”, thus he affirms the universality of iconodulia, or a favorable attitude towards these Christian images, in the early Church.
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Thanks for the information! I’ve read St. Basil’s Letter 360 is regarded as spurious by many (https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Nicene_and_Post-Nicene_Fathers:_Series_II/Volume_VIII/The_Letters/Letter_360), however the arguments are almost based entirely on “the vocabulary style being unlike St. Basil’s,” which is laughable. One of the arguments is that Basil uses the word “Theotokos,” so obviously it had to be post-Ephesus right! Despite the fact that we have 3rd century attestation to this title in the context of a Marian prayer.
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You’re welcome! Most of these arguments seem to boil down to: “I don’t like it, so it’s spurious”. Like, the use of the term “Theotokos” is made by St. Irenaeus of Lyon, St. Athanasius the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian, and many others, But when St. Basil the Great does it… It’s spurious! I cannot differentiate between those who think this way, and those who think that Flavius Josephus’ quote about Jesus Christ is a later interpolation entirely.
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