By Matthew Saadalla
An article that defends the use and veneration of icons in the Church against the three main iconoclastic arguments. Written by Matthew Saadalla, and edited by Bishoy Kamal Rofail.
Iconography of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Theotokos Virgin Mary, and the saints who have died in the faith, stands as a great heritage in the Coptic Orthodox Church. Iconography has existed within Christianity perhaps since apostolic times. The earliest evidence of icons is found in the catacombs. Later, in the early house churches, there were icons that focused on Old Testament themes, which were in turn taken from elaborate Jewish synagogues in the Diaspora, such as the Dura-Europos synagogue.
As Orthodox Christians, we do not worship icons, but we praise what and whom the icons represent. This is due to the fact that icons are essentially representations of what they portray, and as such we venerate what the icon represents. Accordingly, St. Cyril of Alexandria, in his address to the emperor Theodosius, said, “Images are representations of their archetypes and therefore are similar to them.”
There has been various ways that the use of icons has been attacked, whether by Christians themselves (known as the Iconoclasts) or by people of other faiths, such as Islam. Three main arguments have been made by Iconoclasts against the use of icons: First, the second commandment clearly says that no one should make idols or images; others would think that Christians worship the icons in the same way that pagans worshipped images and statues of the gods; and yet others would hold that representations of Christ imply a Nestorian tendency of separating the human nature and the divine nature of the Incarnate Logos.
Let us begin with a response to the first iconoclastic argument. The second commandment does not merely state that images must not be made, but it continues by saying that images should not be worshipped: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them…” (Ex. 20:4, 5a). The commandment, then, was given to lead the people of Israel away from idolatry – they should not make the idols or images to worship them. As such, in the Orthodox Church, the second commandment is not broken, since the icons are not worshipped by Orthodox Christians. For instance, St. Leo of Cyprus wrote the following in a book entitled Against the Jews: “If you, O Jew, reproach me by saying that I worship the wood of the cross as I worship God, why do you not reproach Jacob for bowing down before the point of Joseph’s staff? It is obvious that he was not worshipping wood, but that he was bowing before Joseph by means of the wood. So with us, we glorify Christ through the cross, and not the wood itself.”
Also, during the days when the commandments were given to Moses, there were various nature religions, and all civilizations on earth, such as that of the Ancient Egyptians, worshipped idols by turning the created matter into a god, just as St. Paul the Apostle wrote: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!” (Rom 1:22-25). So, in answer to the second iconoclastic argument, we can say that the mistake of these ancient peoples is that they worshipped created matter, rather than use matter as an aid of worshipping the true Creator. In fact, God, who gave the second commandment, told Moses himself to build a tabernacle, where in the first tent there was the Holy of Holies, covered by two golden, forged Cherubim. The Cherubim were heavenly creatures, and were made as commanded by the Lord, but they were not worshipped – Moses used this altar to offer praise and sacrifice to the Lord. Another case with Moses was the wooden cross with the bronze snake on. The wood and the metal did not heal the people from their ailments, but God Himself worked through the material to heal the people, so when the people looked at the cross and the bronze snake, they were looking for hope through God, rather than the snake and the wood itself. St. Athanasius sums it up in his thirty-eighth chapter of the one hundred chapters written to Antiochus the Prefect with the following words: “We the faithful do not worship images as gods, as did the heathen Greeks – God forbid! – but our only purpose and desire is to see in the image a reflection of the facial form of the beloved. Therefore if the image should be obliterated, we would throw it into the fire as so much scrap lumber. Just as when Jacob was about to die, he bowed down before the point of Joseph’s staff, not honouring the staff but its owner, so also the faithful do not embrace images for their own sake, but kiss them as we often embrace our children or our parents, to show the affection in our hearts. So also the Jew, when he venerated the tablets of the law, or the two cherubim, hammered from gold, did not honor stone or gold for its own sake, but the Lord who had ordered them to be made.”
Hence, the material itself has no power, and for this reason we do not worship icons. But we believe that when we look at an icon of Christ, we are truly looking at whom it represents. Also, when we venerate the icons of the saints, we venerate the saints themselves, who are alive with Christ and pray for us, and by venerating them we venerate their virtues, and so we venerate the Author of all virtues, our Lord and God. Let us look at this from a contemporary view: if there is a picture of the present U.S. President, George Bush, is that picture the diplomat himself or does that picture represent that world leader? Obviously, it represents the world leader. Now, if for example you choose to show “admiration” to the picture, are you really showing this sentiment to the picture, or to whom the picture represents? The same thing applies to icons. We do not venerate the wood or the gold or anything on the icon, but whom or what the icon represents. St. Anastasius of Constantinople wrote in a letter to Simeon of Bostra: “Just as in the emperor’s absence we bow down to his image instead of himself, so also when he remains present it would be strange to ignore the prototype and bow before the image. This is not to say that the image we ignore because the prototype is present can be dishonoured. Just as someone who insults the emperor’s image is punished as if he has insulted the emperor himself, even though the image is composed merely of wood and paint joined together, so also one who insults someone’s image intends the insult for the original.”
The final iconoclastic argument was about depicting Christ in icons – can Christ be depicted in images, and would that be seen to have a Nestorian tendency of separating the divine and human natures in Christ? According to St. John of Damascus, we can depict God (specifically the Son and the Holy Spirit, but never the Father) because God took matter – that is, human nature – and united it to Himself. So now, the undepictable God became depictable, and we can depict the depictable. Furthermore, when the Lord is depicted in icons, he is worshipped as the one Incarnate Logos, and His depiction as a Man does not divide the union, as St. Basil the Great said in the eighteenth chapter of his Thirty Chapters to Amphilochius on the Holy Spirit: “The image of the emperor is also called the emperor, yet there are not two emperors. Power is not divided, nor is glory separated. Just as He who rules us is one power, so the homage He receives from us is united, not divided, for the honour given to the image is transferred to the prototype. Therefore, the One whom the image materially represents is He who is Son by nature. Just as the likeness of a corresponding form is made by the artists, so also in the divine and unconfused nature, union is accomplished by divine indwelling.”
In conclusion, the material used in making the icons can and never will heal us on its own accord. Rather, icons are representations of the real Lord and the real saints, and when we venerate the icons, we are truly venerating the Lord and the saints, and hence worship God who revealed Himself and showed marvellous wonders through His saints. St. Dionysius the Areopagite, in his Letter to Titus, said, “… Instead of attacking the common understanding of them (i.e. images), we ought to comprehend their sacred significance, and not despise their divine origin the sacred things which they portray, for they are visible manifestations of hidden and marvellous wonders,” and Stephen of Bostra, in chapter 4 of his book Against the Jews, said that “we make images of the saints to remember such people as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Elijah, and Zechariah, the rest of the prophets and holy martyrs, who gave their lives to God. Everyone who looks at these images remembers these saints, and they glorify the One who glorified them.”