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No. 58: The Second Word V: On Images and Art, Part 2

Rite Reasons, Studies in Worship, No. 58
Copyright (c) 1998 Biblical Horizons
July, 1998

The Iconoclastic Controversy
Continuing Pagan Influence

How did images creep in? To begin with, there was in the post-Constantinian Church a concerted effort on the part of the semi-pagans to interpret Christianity in essentially pantheistic terms. The heretics put God and man on a continuum of "being," so that God was conceived as a "thing," a "substance," and the saint was someone who merged with God-stuff better than others did. The emperor, being God’s select man, the new David, had more of this God-stuff than other people by virtue of his calling and office. This mystical and pantheistic philosophical notion was at the root of most if not all the heresies that cropped up in the Church.4 The emperors tended to favor the heretics, because they celebrated him as semi-divine.5

4For a full and illuminating discussion, see Rousas John Rushdoony, The Foundations of Social Order: Studies in the Creeds and Councils of the Early Church (Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed Pub. Co., 1968). 5Ibid., passim. See also, on the liturgies surrounding the emperor, Sabine G. MacCormack, Art and Ceremony in Late Antiquity (Berkeley: University of California, 1981).

At the same time, as we have noted, the post-Constantinian Roman Empire was officially tolerant of Christianity, and then officially Christian. It is not the case that the majority of people became Christians rapidly, and we find complaints against pagan religions for centuries after Constantine, along with occasional persecutions of non-Christians. Over time, however, the pagans became officially Christians. They brought with them, however, numerous pagan ideas and practices, which the Church’s leaders simultaneously tolerated and worked against.6

6For a history that may need some revision, see nevertheless Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries (New Haven: Yale, 1997).

Primary among these practices was the cult of the saints, of the dead. The Bible knows of no such cultus, but Christianity developed celebrations of martyrs, and those celebrations did not at all have the same character as the official liturgies of Lord’s Day worship. Rather, these celebrations drew heavily upon similar pagan celebrations of the dead. It was through this "back door" that all kinds of pagan conceptions became woven into the semi-Christianity of the masses.7

7See Ibid., passim. Also, on some of the subtle differences between Christian and pagan celebrations of the dead, see Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (University of Chicago, 1981).

At this point I wish to summarize at length an essay by Peter Brown dealing with the background of the Iconoclastic Controversy.8 As I have pointed out already, the Bible absolutely forbids any veneration of man-made objects, consecrated or otherwise. The New Testament writings reveal no change in this absolute "No!" The early Church did not venerate the sacraments or church buildings or the cross (which evidently they did not use as a symbol at all).

8"A Dark Age Crisis: Aspects of the Iconoclastic Controversy," English Historical Review 88 (1973):1-34; reprinted in Brown, Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity (Berkeley: University of California, 1982), pp. 251-301.

Pagan Holiness

By the time of the Iconoclastic Controversy of the mid-700s, however, the Church had fallen into a serious violation of God’s law. They had redefined the notion of "holy." In the Bible, holy things and holy people are holy because they are separated to and linked with (married to) God, who is holy. A saint, or "holy one," is someone given access to God’s particular presence in His sanctuary. The holy things of the Old Creation all symbolized God’s people in various capacities gathered around Him, and in the New Creation that symbolism fell away as the reality came fully into being. Now it was the people themselves who, as Bride, had access to the Most Holy (as the letter to the Hebrews insists), so that the pots and pans and altars and veils that represented their presence were no longer needed.

By the 700s, however, the Church had lost this conception of holiness. They had substituted the notion that some kind of force or "blessing" from God made things and persons holy. Some kind of God-stuff, or something like God-stuff, was infused into objects, thereby rendering them "holy." This went beyond the Bible, for in the Bible the waters of baptism make people officially holy, and gives them access to the Lord’s presence at His Table. But Holy Baptism is not an infusion of anything, but rather is a marriage ceremony that confirms a personal relationship between God and the believer, a relationship based in conversation (Word, prayer, psalter), not based in some kind of non-verbal mysticism.

Now, the Iconoclasts (anti-icon party) and the Iconodules (pro-icon party) disagreed over what items had this "holiness" imparted to or infused in them. Brown writes, "On the issue of what was holy and what was not the Iconoclasts were firm and unambiguous. Certain material objects were holy because they had been solemnly blessed by ordained priests.  . . . For the Iconoclasts, there were only three such objects: the Eucharist, which was both given by Christ and consecrated by the clergy; the church building, which was consecrated by the bishop; [and] the sign of the cross . . . . [which] was a sign given directly by God to men, whien it first appeared in the sky to the Emperor Constantine" (Society and the Holy, p. 258). Thus, "icons could not be holy because they had received no consecration from above" (p. 259).

Now, "the Iconodules could not claim that an icon produced by an artisan was holy because it had been blessed in the same solemn manner as had the Eucharistic bread or the basilica" (p. 261). "The consecration of icons is a later development" (p. 261, n. 42). Thus, the Iconodules had to formulate other theories to justify the icons. Some icons, they insisted, were given immediately by God, dropped from heaven as it were. "Other icons that did not enjoy the privileges of a direct other-worldly origin nevertheless enjoyed a consecration from the past" (p. 262). Iconodules dreamed up the idea that St. Luke had not only written a gospel, but had painted the Virgin from life, and had painted various illustrations of scenes from the life of Christ just as they had occurred.

Brown summarizes this contrast by noting that "Iconoclasm, therefore, is a centripetal reaction: It asserts the unique value of a few central symbols of the Christianity community that enjoyed consecration from above against the centrifugal tendencies of the piety that had spread the charge of the holy on to a multiplicity of unconsecrated objects" (p. 263). In other words, the semi-Christian masses wanted all kinds of charmed "holy" objects near at hand, which they could "use" apart from the liturgy, while the educated clergy were still trying to draw these semi-Christian masses toward a more Biblical, though still flawed, conception of reality.

While icons were used all over the Mediterranean by this time, they had not found their way into the church and the liturgy. "Some of the greatest shrines of the Byzantine period, most notably the Hagia Sophia itself [the great church in Constantinople], would have struck any eighth-century worshipper as almost entirely an-iconic" (p. 265).

Imperial Icons

Now Brown discusses the development of the veneration of icons as it moved toward inclusion in the Church, building on an essay by E. Kitzinger, "The Cult of Images in the Age Before Iconoclasm," Dumbarton Oaks Papers 8(1954):83-149. Brown writes: "A tendency to worship the individual icon had always existed among Mediterranean people. Up to the sixth century, however, the elite of the Christian Church had offered a constant resistance to `the naive, animistic ideas of the masses’ (Kitzinger, p. 146). In the late sixth century, `the resistance to such pressure on the part of the authorities decreased . . . and this relaxation of counter pressure from above was at least a major factor in the development’ (Kitzinger, p. 119). It was the imperial court rather than the bishops who were responsible for this change. For Kitzinger emphasizes that one privileged oasis of religious feeling for an image had survived intact since pagan times — the veneration of imperial images. Religious images began to receive marks of veneration analogous to the imperial images in the sixth century or even earlier; but, at the end of the sixth century, the emperors, in Kitzinger’s opinion, took the final conscious step in fostering these practices. They allowed icons of Christ and of the Virgin to stand in the place of the imperial images, and so to receive the same frankly pagan worship as their own images had always received. By the seventh century, such icons were firmly established as part of the public cultus of the Byzantine Empire" (pp. 265f.)

Thus, one part of the situation that led to the worship of icons was the introduction of Christian pictures into the pagan ceremonies of the semi-Christian Emperors. Icons received a protected and official veneration at imperial shrines, though they were still disapproved for use in the Church.

The Holy Man

There was another factor, however, and here we return to the cult of the dead. Brown tells us that we need to understand how the "holy man" was viewed in popular semi-Christian piety, and with the unfortunate blessing of the Church. "From the fourth century onwards, the holy man was a living icon. To the theologian he was man at its height, man as first made `in the image of God.’ One of the three hermits who used to visit St. Anthony came every year and sat there while the others talked, without saying a word: `It is sufficient for me, Father,’ he explained, `just to look at you.’ Merely to see a holy man could be enough for a visitor. At his death, he instantly became an icon: `for by the archbishop’s orders the plank stood upright — the body [of Daniel the Stylite, died 493] had been fixed to it so that it could not fall — and thus, like an icon, the holy man was displayed to all from every side; and for many hours the people all looked at him and also with cries and tears besought him to be an advocate with God on behalf of them all.’ The holy man was a clearly-defined locus of the holy on earth" (p. 268).

Now comes the punch-line: "The icon merely filled a gap left by the physical absence of the holy man, whether this was due to distance or to death" (p. 269). The holy man had God-stuff infused into him. This "holiness" or charm spread to his clothing and other articles around him. After death, this charm was lodged in his body, the parts of which became relics along with his clothing and other objects associated with him. This charm was also lodged in pictures of him. As we have seen, this notion is predicated on a raw pagan, pantheistic, and mystical conception of "holiness."

Brown continues by stating that "[a]ltogether, the role of the holy man in Late Antiquity society — whether speaking, blessing, or just being seen standing in prayer — had been to translate the awesomely distant loving-kindness of God into the reassuring precision of a human face. The momentum of the search for a face made itself felt throughout the sixth century in changes in the traditional types of relics. Icons came to join the relics" (p. 272).

Now, from a Biblical viewpoint, every baptized believer is a holy person, and every living believer’s face is part of the image of God revealed through the human constitution. With the pagan view of "holiness," however, only certain persons were "holy men," for only they had the charm of holiness. Thus, instead of working for righteous living in the whole community of believers, with every believer a saint, the Iconodules separated some people as charmed and "holy," and since there were only a few of them, their relics and icons became important as substitutes for their living presence.

The holy man was a pretty much wholly pagan institution. The Bible teaches that it is desirable to be married and necessary to live in community with other believers. That is what the Church is all about. The holy man, however, separated from the "world" and lived by himself in the desert, or high atop a pillar, like some kind of Buddhist monk. The holy man was, thus, a pagan and anti-ecclesiastical figure, no matter that the Church officials tried to adopt him. Holiness was otherworldliness, not obedience to God in this world (which has become Christ’s world). The semi-Christianized masses looked to the holy man rather than to the Churchman for guidance. "It was to the holy man, and not to the bishop, that the early Byzantine layman instinctively turned to find out how he should behave" (p. 280). Brown writes further: "Holy men and icons were implicated on an even deeper level. For both were, technically, unconsecrated objects. Not only was the holy man not ordained as a priest or a bishop: his appeal was precisely that he stood outside the vested hierarchy of the Byzantine Church. He was holy because he was held to be holy by his clientele, not because any bishop had conferred holy orders on him. By the end of the sixth century, the exceptional position of the holy man was made explicit in formal gesture: a mystique of its own surrounded the monastic dress, the schema. It was the schema, and not consecration by the bishop, that conferred spiritual powers on the holy man" (pp. 280f.).

(to be continued)