Perhaps the most obvious thing for a visitor to an Orthodox Church are the presence and place of icons. They are literally everywhere. Some Churches are covered completely with iconography and no Orthodox Church is ever without them. That Churches are so decorated might not strike someone as unusual. After all, many Catholic Churches, particularly in Europe are highly decorated (think of the Sistine Chapel). But the difference is that a visitor will quickly notice that the icons are more than decorations, for the faithful seem to have a relationship with them. Icons not only illustrate various things. They themselves are clearly participating in the service. And it is this, the veneration of icons, that tends to trouble the non-Orthodox. Being troubled about icons is nothing new. In the 8th and 9th centuries, a period of iconoclasm (“icon-smashing”) broke out under Imperial sponsorship in the Byzantine world. Understanding the Orthodox response to this controversy takes us to the heart of the ancient Christian faith.
Those who opposed the icons, during the period of the Iconoclast Controversy, did so in the name of the prohibition against images in the Ten Commandments. They also added the theological claim that the “Divine cannot be pictured.” However, they themselves continued to venerate the image of the Cross.
They did not oppose art in and of itself. They continued to decorate buildings with nature scenes and the like. Their enmity was directed against the cult of images (their making and veneration). It was argued then, and is to this day by most Protestant Christians, that the making and veneration of icons shares too much in common with the worship of idols in the pagan world.
The theological response of Orthodoxy to this attack eventually resulted in the 7th Ecumenical Council and to the return of icons to the Churches in the next century in an event that is named “the Triumph of Orthodoxy.” It is not an exaggeration to say that for the Orthodox, the making and veneration of icons represented, in liturgical form, the complete summary and affirmation of all the Church had taught over the centuries. Icons were not seen as a peripheral matter, but as something that expressed the very heart of the Christian faith. Their loss would be seen as a distortion of the Apostolic deposit.
I will not dwell on the simple mistakes of the iconoclasts. Their application of the prohibition against images would have argued with God Himself, who also clearly directed the making of certain images within the very Temple (particularly of angelic beings). Synagogues at the time of Christ have been documented to have been highly decorated with iconic images. Iconoclasm was merely an aping of the errors of Islam which was enjoying military victories against the Byzantine Empire at the time (and seems to have been the primary motive behind the Emperor’s new-found mandates against Christian images). I want to draw attention to what the making and veneration of icons say about the world itself and how we see it and understand it.
In our contemporary age, it has become a commonplace to think of our encounter with the world as a series of ideas and impressions in our minds. We have become utterly fascinated with this abstracted notion of reality, even going so far as to suggest that how someone perceives reality is, in fact, the version of reality that must be accepted. We have become alienated from the thing itself (re ispsum), locked in a reality that exists only in our own minds (as well as an ongoing battle to insist that what we think our minds perceive be accepted by other minds).
The Fathers of Orthodoxy teach a far more realistic view of the world. We are not separated from the world in which we live as some sort of abstracted observers. Rather, we know things through participation. The relationship between person and representation, for example, is not primarily mental, i.e. an abstracted impression of what a painter thinks. They taught that “the icon makes present that which it represents” (St. Basil). This fundamental realism was grounded in the Incarnation itself, God’s becoming flesh and dwelling among us. Matter, they taught, has an inherent worth and dignity and is itself the means by which God has worked our salvation. St. John of Damascus stated this in eloquent form:
Of old, God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was never depicted. Now, however, when God is seen clothed in flesh, and conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. 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. I will not cease from honoring that matter which works my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God….
I honor all matter, and venerate it. Through it, filled, as it were, with a divine power and grace, my salvation has come to me. Was the thrice-happy and blessed wood of the Cross not matter? Was the sacred and holy mountain of Calvary not matter? What of the life-giving rock, the Holy Tomb, the source of our resurrection — was it not matter? Is the holy book of the Gospels not matter? Is the blessed table which gives us the Bread of Life not matter? Are the gold and silver, out of which crosses and altar-plate and chalices are made not matter? And before all these things, is not the body and blood of our Lord matter? Either stop venerating all these things, or submit to the tradition of the Church in the venerating of images, honoring God and his friends, and following in this the grace of the Holy Spirit. Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable. Nothing that God has made is. Only that which does not come from God is despicable — our own invention, the spontaneous decision to disregard the law of human nature, i.e., sin.
This relationship between God and matter assumes a particular kind of relationship between human beings and matter as well. For in none of these examples cited by St. John are the thoughts about these various material objects the point. Jesus did not become a thought. The Word became flesh. We are not enjoined to think about His Body and Blood, but to eat it and to drink it.
In the same manner, we do not simply look at icons and think about them. Interestingly, the West, under Charlemagne, took this to be the right use of images. The Libri Carolini, written at the command of Charlemagne, offered refutations of the Seventh Council’s defense of images, in what has long been understood as a work occasioned by a complete misunderstanding. But the work offered its own defense of images. In doing so, it revealed the deep rifts that were already beginning to separate East and West. For the author of the Libri Carolini, the appearance of images are only the occasion for thought. It is the image “in the mind’s eye” that matters. Unwittingly, the writer was engaging in his own form of iconoclasm.
Of course, this subtle form of iconoclasm, so prevalent in our modern age, does not attack the making of images. It does not necessarily attack their veneration, “If you’re into that sort of thing.” Its attack is found in its denial that there is anything “there” more than the image and your thoughts.
And this is where the Orthodox understanding of icons is most essential, raising the veneration of icons to the level of primary dogma. The universe exists as an act of communion. Communion is the proper form of true existence. The veneration of icons, rightly understood, draws us back to the true understanding of our place within creation. Indeed, an icon can only be seen if it is venerated. Creation is not an abstraction. It is real and true and can be known in its very materiality. Modern man is often called a materialist. He is nothing of the sort. He is a hedonist. The material world is merely an occasion for seeking pleasure, but the pleasure is an abstraction, not an act of communion. The idea is the thing.
Orthodox Christians are the true materialists, for we proclaim and honor the glorious wonder of matter and the promise of the life of communion. Spirit is not the opposite of matter, and material is not the opposite of spiritual. Creation is not the mere arena of our salvation – it is an eager participant, groaning for its fulfillment (Romans 8:21-23). Icons are a means of communion with Christ and the saints who have gone before. But their veneration also teaches us the truth of our existence and how to rightly live in the world. For creation itself is icon and sacrament, God’s gift in a good world.