“I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter.” St. John of Damascus
By Molly Farinholt
Is beautiful art an expression of the divine and an instrument of worship? It has not always been seen as such — even within the Church.
In the Byzantine Empire, during the eighth and ninth centuries, magnificent icons were torn down and destroyed while bitter debate raged between those in favor of such destruction—known as iconoclasts—and those who sought to halt the burning—known as iconodules or iconophiles.
Among the latter group was the great defender of icons, Saint John of Damascus. His writings helped to defeat iconoclasm and prove the validity and necessity of images in Christian worship.
Though no singular cause has been identified as the spark for iconoclasm, a desire to stifle the increasing power of icon-producing monasteries, an (ill-founded) attempt to purify the Church of the sin of idolatry, and the rise of image-forbidding Islam are all hypothesized impelling forces.
The controversy was set off definitively when, in 726, Emperor Leo III ordered that the Chalke Gate of the Imperial Palace in Constantinople be rid of its icon. He followed this with an edict that banned all figural imagery from religious art.
Leo III and his band of iconoclasts argued that artistic representations of Christ contravened the Second Commandment’s prohibition of images. They believed that to venerate matter was to venerate unworthy, lifeless material. The Eucharistic was viewed as the only true icon, as Christ was fully present in the form of bread and wine.
They asserted that, furthermore, Christ’s hypostasis could not be separated from his two divine natures, and icons were a wrongful attempt to do so. Saint John, the chief councilor of Damascus, refuted these arguments with great zeal and authority in fiery defenses entitled The Orthodox Faith and Apologia of Those Who Decry Holy Images.
One facet of his argument in defense of the legitimacy of using icons for worship was a theory that he developed regarding human cognition. The Nicene Creed states that God created everything— “the visible and the invisible.” All in creation falls into one of these two categories, save for human beings which straddle both and are, in fact, a union of the two—body and soul. The Nicene Creed also states that human beings were formed in God the Father’s image and likeness. Together, these teachings produced an image of the human being as uniquely created.
This led to an ideology known as “Christian materialism,” which recognized the value of the material realm, largely due to mankind’s partaking in this realm. John of Damascus drew upon this idea in his support for icons. He argued that human beings, as composites of soul and body, think in both the spiritual and material realms. Because of this, human beings cannot reach full mental perception without dwelling on the physical. This ability to dwell on the physical is obtained through the senses—chief of which, according to John of Damascus, is sight. He asserted that, because of this, God made himself known to human beings through the material—namely nature, Scripture, and the Incarnation. God, he said, gave form to the formless.
John of Damascus also drew a parallel to this revelation via the material and physical to the use of icons. Just as human beings came to understand God through the form of Jesus Christ, so too they come to understand God through icons. The physicality of an icon allows the human mind to comprehend the spirituality of the Lord.
The saint also tackled the argument that icons were akin to false gods, writing that the veneration of images was not equivalent to the worship of idols. Golden calves, praised above God, were far different from mosaics of the Virgin and Christ Child. Veneration is done for the sake of God, not for the sake of the images or even the saints and angels depicted in the images. St. John wrote, “I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter.”
Despite backlash, John’s arguments increased in boldness and fervor. He declared that dishonoring an image was equivalent to honoring the devil. One who cast aside or burned an icon was desecrating a monument to the great acts of Jesus Christ and his faithful followers.
Turning to the Old Testament, John went on to assert that God not only permitted the use of images, but rather commanded it. The Lord ordered the creation of materials to be used in worship, beginning with the tabernacle (see Exodus 25). Matter should not be viewed as sinful and contemptible, for not only did the Lord create it but also prescribed its use in honoring him.
St. John affirmed that holy images seek to make known that which is hidden to man who, by nature, is circumscribed by both time and place. While the Apostles had the greatest image—the Son, sent by the Father—post-Ascension Christians thirsted (and still thirst) for a material representation of the Savior. Icons were just that—a beautiful representation of the One who created and redeemed all.
The Second General Council (Nicaea II) in 787 lasted approximately one month and produced a document proclaiming the end of the destruction of images. The seventh session of the council denounced Iconoclast leaders and praised John and his fellow defenders of icons. Saint John of Damascus’ fearless expositions on images helped preserve the beautiful, and an important pathway to the Truth.