Is There Really a Patristic Critique of Icons? (Part 4 of 5)

Editor’s Note: Following is the fourth part in a 5-part series addressing the claim by Presbyterian pastor Steven Wedgeworth that there is significant patristic testimony against iconography. Keep watching this space for all five parts. The response is necessarily more in-depth than the original post it responds to, because numerous quick claims are made there without much in the way of examination of their context or historic character.

St Gregory the Great

Pr Wedgeworth then quotes St Gregory I (of Rome) in his letter to Serenus, Bishop of Marseilles (AD 590-604):

Furthermore we notify to you that it has come to our ears that your Fraternity, seeing certain adorers of images, broke and threw down these same images in Churches. And we commend you indeed for your zeal against anything made with hands being an object of adoration; but we signify to you that you ought not to have broken these images. For pictorial representation is made use of in Churches for this reason; that such as are ignorant of letters may at least read by looking at the walls what they cannot read in books. Your Fraternity therefore should have both preserved the images and prohibited the people from adoration of them, to the end that both those who are ignorant of letters might have wherewith to gather a knowledge of the history, and that the people might by no means sin by adoration of a pictorial representation.

Register of the Epistles of St Gregory the Great, Book 9 (Originally quoted in translation in The Early Church Fathers and Other Works by Eerdmans)

In this letter, St Gregory is forbidding the destruction of sacred images, as well as their abuse. There is no blanket condemnation of images, as Pr Wedgeworth notes, and St Gregory encourages their presence in church buildings. His statements condemn both the actions of the iconoclasts in the 8th and 9th centuries, and the more extreme destruction of church buildings, relics, icons, frescoes, mosaics, and illuminated manuscripts by violent mobs during the Protestant Reformation (e.g., the Huguenots destroyed both the tomb and relics of St Irenaeus of Lyons in 1562).

Orthodox Christians do not approve of the adoration or “worship” of icons, which should only be given to the Holy Trinity. We do not “worship” icons as idols; rather, we pay them respect, as we would kiss the precious photograph of loved ones, or as an American citizen might salute the American flag. We are not worshiping the paper of the photograph or the fabric of a flag, but are rather paying proper respect and affection (“service” or δουλεία) to their prototype (or to what they re-present to us). In any case, we would affirm the words of St Gregory that any abuse or superstitions related to icons (or relics) should be condemned. In fact, the Church did this very thing during the deliberations of the 7th Ecumenical Council, while affirming an icon’s proper veneration. St Gregory’s letter is not an opposing, Patristic voice to the proper use of icons; rather, it stands firmly in the same Tradition as the consensus of the Church. Similarly, St Athanasius of Alexandria instructs:

We, who are of the faithful, do not worship images as gods, as the heathens did — God forbid — but we mark our loving desire alone to see the face of the person represented in image. Hence, when it is obliterated, we are wont to throw the image as so much wood into the fire. Jacob, when he was about to die, worshiped on the point of Joseph’s staff [Gen. 47:31 LXX], not honoring the staff but its owner. In the same way do we greet images, just as we would embrace our children and parents to signify our affection.

The Hundred Chapters
, 38

More significant than any speculations about St Gregory’s beliefs regarding icons (as intuited from a single letter), Ouspensky notes: “In 540, St Gregory I (590-604) carried the venerable icon of the Mother of God, ‘which is said to be the work of St Luke’ (quam dicunt a sancto Luca factam), to the basilica of St Peter in a solemn procession and with the singing of litanies” (Theology of the Icon, Vol. 1, p. 64). Further, Pope Hadrian I, at the 7th Ecumenical Council, “quoted a series of texts by Greek and Roman Fathers who, in his opinion, were in favor of icons, especially the one by Pope St Gregory I” (ibid., p. 132). The Greek bishops of the council, following on the citation of St Gregory, added: “through the intermediary of images, those who gaze upon them ascend to faith, and to the recollection of salvation through the Incarnation of our Lord, Jesus Christ” (Ibid., p. 133). It is a shame that modern art in the Western Church has not always followed upon the heritage and beliefs of one of their greatest Popes — a bishop with both feet firmly planted on the “royal pathway” of the Fathers.

St Gregory’s belief that the sight of icons could not only instruct the illiterate, but also lead men of all ages (and educations) to a contemplation and encounter of the Divine, was a belief shared among many eminent Fathers of the Church. For example, St John of Damascus once said that “we are led by perceptible icons to the contemplation of the divine and spiritual” (PG, 94:1261a), St Gregory of Nyssa remarked that he could not see an icon of Abraham attempting to sacrifice Isaac “without tears” (PG, 46:572), and of this, the 7th Ecumenical Council comments: “If to such a Doctor the picture was helpful and drew forth tears, how much more in the case of the ignorant and simple will it bring compunction and benefit?” (NPNF2, Vol. 14, p. 539)

St Epiphanius of Salamis

Next, Pr Wedgeworth offers forth a passage from Letter 51 of Epiphanius of Salamis, written to John of Jerusalem (as quoted in The Principle Works of St JeromeNPNF2):

Moreover, I have heard that certain persons have this grievance against me: When I accompanied you to the holy place called Bethel, there to join you in celebrating the Collect, after the use of the Church, I came to a villa called Anablatha and, as I was passing, saw a lamp burning there. Asking what place it was, and learning it to be a church, I went in to pray, and found there a curtain hanging on the doors of the said church, dyed and embroidered. It bore an image either of Christ or of one of the saints; I do not rightly remember whose the image was. Seeing this, and being loth that an image of a man should be hung up in Christ’s church contrary to the teaching of the Scriptures, I tore it asunder and advised the custodians of the place to use it as a winding sheet for some poor person. They, however, murmured, and said that if I made up my mind to tear it, it was only fair that I should give them another curtain in its place. As soon as I heard this, I promised that I would give one, and said that I would send it at once. Since then there has been some little delay, due to the fact that I have been seeking a curtain of the best quality to give to them instead of the former one, and thought it right to send to Cyprus for one. I have now sent the best that I could find, and I beg that you will order the presbyter of the place to take the curtain which I have sent from the hands of the Reader, and that you will afterwards give directions that curtains of the other sort—opposed as they are to our religion—shall not be hung up in any church of Christ. A man of your uprightness should be careful to remove an occasion of offence unworthy alike of the Church of Christ and of those Christians who are committed to your charge.

Epiphanius of Cyprus (310-403) is numbered among the saints in the Orthodox-Catholic Church, being commemorated on May 12. His greatest written work was the Panarion (“medicine chest”), written between 374 and 377 as an enumeration and “anti-dote” to every major heresy in the history of the Church. The postscript above was presumably part of a letter being written to John II, Bishop of Jerusalem from 387 to 417. However, according to a number of Church Fathers (as well as modern scholars), this postscript was a fabrication, being falsely ascribed to St Epiphanius in order to aid in the iconoclasts’ arguments of the 8th and 9th centuries.

The controversy over the authenticity of this letter is discussed in the writings of St John of Damascus, the 7th Ecumenical Council, St Theodore the Studite, and — most extensively — by St Nicephorus of Constantinople. All of these sources argue that the postscript was not by the hand of St Epiphanius. Assuming that it actually was, a single voice among millions is not sufficient cause to reject the long-standing Tradition of the Church.

For example, in On the Holy Icons by St Theodore the Studite, the following dialogue is found (under the heading, “Patristic Authority for Iconoclasm”):

Heretic: Epiphanius is one of them, the man who is prominent and renowned among the saints.

Orthodox: We know that Epiphanius is a saint and a great wonder-worker. Sabinus, his disciple and a member of his household, erected a church in his honor after his death, and had it decorated with pictures of all the Gospel stories. He would not have done this if he had not been following the doctrine of his own teacher. Leonitus also, the interpreter of the divine Epiphanius’ writings, who was himself bishop of the church in Neapolis in Cyprus, teaches very clearly in his discourse on Epiphanius how steadfast he was in regard to the holy icons, and reports nothing derogatory concerning him. So the composition against the icons is spurious and not at all the work of the divine Epiphanius.

St Theodore even entertains the (unlikely) possibility that Epiphanius (or any other beloved person) had done such a thing against an icon, first referencing the words of the apostle Paul in Gal. 1:8-9, and then concluding:

Raise your eyes, look around, and see everywhere under heaven, throughout the sacred edifices and the holy monuments in them, these images depicted and necessarily venerated in the places where they are depicted. Even if there were no dogmatic reason nor voices of inspired fathers to uphold both the erection and the veneration of icons, the prevailing ancient tradition would be sufficient for confirmation of the truth. Who can presume to oppose this tradition? By his opposition he falls away far from God and the sheepfold of Christ, because he thinks like the Manicheans and the Valentinians, who babbled heretically that God had dwelt among those on earth only in appearance and fantasy.

When Emperor Leo III enacted policies against icons in 730, Cypriot Christians defied his pronouncements. It is important to note that, at this point in history, Cyprus was under neither the Caliphate nor the Empire (despite paying taxes to both). They were “practically independent,” free of any external military or political influence. With regards to the iconoclast debates under Leo III (and after), Charles Anthony Stewart further notes:

A central dogma in the debate centered on the teachings of St. Epiphanius. Iconoclasts argued from a dubious text that the venerable saint stated his rejection of icons … In response, the iconodule John of Damascus (676-749) apparently visited the multiple-domed basilica of Salamis-Constantia in the eighth century, recording that “The proof that he [St. Epiphanius] did not object to images, is to be found in his own church, which is adorned with images to this day.”

Domes of Heaven: The Domed Basilicas of Cyprus, p. 87

When the iconoclastic synod of 754 was assembled at Hieria, the Cypriot bishops refused to participate. Their approval of icons came not from the force of an emperor (for they were free from both imperial influence and threat), but rather from their inheritance of the apostolic tradition; a tradition that was previously preserved by St Epiphanius on that same, isolated island. The robber’s synod of 754 condemned the Archbishop of Salamis-Constantia by name (George), along with St John of Damascus and St Germanos of Constantinople. “Nevertheless,” Stewart notes, “the Cypriot Church maintained their resolve against the Empire’s iconoclasm” (ibid.). During this time, men such as St Stephen the Younger advised iconodules to flee to the island of St Epiphanius for shelter from the iconoclasts. The Emperor even had rebellious, iconodule monastics and clergy exiled to Cyprus, which he now considered a sort of penal colony, due to their defiance on the icon issue.

In 780, a presbyter from Salamis-Constantia was appointed as Patriarch of Constantinople (Paul IV). He tried (unsuccessfully) to restore icons and their veneration to the empire. However, his successor (Tarasius) would do what he could not, and helped to assemble the 7th Ecumenical Council in 787. Five Cypriot bishops were in attendance, including Archbishop Constantine of Cyprus. The Cypriot delegation was given the highest of honors at this assembly, being seen as champions of the iconodule cause, even in the face of imperial persecution. At this council, the Empress Irene’s deacon noted: “If he [Epiphanius] had despised the sight of icons, why did his disciples even paint an icon of him?” Stewart continues, “To confirm this argument, Archbishop Constantine testified to the Council that indeed paintings were on display in Salamis-Constantia” (ibid., p. 88).

If one of the greatest saints in the history of the island was an iconoclast, how is it that his successors were so relentlessly in favor of the veneration of icons? Even to the point of being eminent among the iconodules? It certainly wasn’t political, and it makes no sense to claim that they were simply going against the traditions of St Epiphanius. That would be akin to blasphemy, given how Christians felt about apostolic tradition. Does it not make far more sense to conclude that his iconoclastic feelings were a later fabrication, as all the evidence cited would seem to indicate?

A full study of the alleged iconoclastic writings of Epiphanius can be found in a 2008 work by Fr Steven Bigham, Epiphanius of Salamis, Doctor of Iconoclasm?: Deconstruction of a Myth. Fr Steven gives an extensive treatment of every major argument both in favor and against the authenticity of the aforementioned letter that is attributed to St Epiphanius, among other writings falsely ascribed to him. He also discusses the debate on this very issue between Karl Holl (1866-1926) and George Ostrogorsky (1902-1976), concluding that the evidence points to what the Fathers have already argued over a millennium before us: an iconoclastic Epiphanius is an iconoclastic fantasy.

In the fifth and final post, I will summarize the evidence that has been offered so far, as well as respond to the concluding remarks from Pr Wedgeworth.

Also Available: Parts 1, 2, and 3


  1. Just a note to say I appreciate the back-stories like this…especially behind so-called “proof-quotes” that end up being bogus. Seems there is another popular letter from a Bishop or Pope against Icons that has been shown to be fraud? I wonder, given the influence of the Muslims’ hostility to Icons, if this is not more prominent than a history-novice might realize? Was not the influence of Islam on the Iconoclasts pretty significant? Will there be room to point this out in #5, as something more than just incidental? Just wondering. Taken all together, this all does seems to indicate that a superficial dabbling into history is not enough, but can lead one into a false confidence in their error? This assumes, of course, the student really does want the Truth, egh?

  2. The Council of Elvira, ca. 306
    36. Pictures are not to be placed in churches, so that they do not become objects of worship and adoration.

    Justin Martyr, (Иустин Философ) c. A.D. 150

    We have strayed from the Immortal’s ways
    And worship with a dull and senseless mind
    Idols, the workmanship of our own hands,
    And images and figures of dead men. (Hortatory Address to the Greeks 16, citing the Sybil, a collection of Greek prophecies)

    Hippolytus (Ипполит Римский) 170-236:

    And they make counterfeit images of Christ, alleging that these were in existence at the time (during which our Lord was on earth, and that they were fashioned) by Pilate.

    Irenaeus, A.D. 183 – 186

    Others of them employ outward marks … They style themselves Gnostics. They also possess images, some of them painted and others formed from different kinds of material. They maintain that a likeness of Christ was made by Pilate at that time when Jesus lived among them. They crown these images, and set them up along with the images of the philosophers of the world, such as Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle, and the rest. They have also other modes of honoring these images just like the Gentiles. (Against Heresies I:25:6)

    “These men [heretics], moreover, practise magic; and use images, incantations, invocations, and every other kind of curious art.” (Against Heresies, 1:24:5)

    Clement of Alexandria, (Климент Александрийский) c. A.D. 190

    For, in truth, an image is only dead matter shaped by the craftsman’s hand. But we have no sensible image of sensible matter, but an image that is perceived by the mind alone: God, who alone is truly God. (Exhortation to the Heathen 4)
    But it is with a different kind of spell that art deludes you … it leads you to pay religious honor and worship to images and pictures. (Exhortation to the Heathen 5)
    The law itself exhibits justice and teaches wisdom by abstinence from sensible images and by calling out to the Maker and Father of the universe. (Miscellanies II:18)
    And again, “Don’t wear a ring, nor engrave on it the images of the gods,” enjoins Pythagoras. This is as Moses ages before enacted expressly, that neither a graven, molten, molded, nor painted likeness should be made, so that we may not cleave to tangible things, but instead move on to intellectual objects. For familiarity with the sight disparages the reverence of what is divine. And to worship that which is not material with matter is to dishonor it by sensation. Therefore the wisest of the Egyptian priests decided that the temple of Athene should be hypaethral [open air, roofless], just as the Hebrews constructed the temple without an image. (MiscellaniesV:6)

    But images, being motionless, inert, and senseless, are bound, nailed, glued,—are melted, filed, sawed, polished, carved. The senseless earth is dishonored by the makers of images, who change it by their art from its proper nature, and induce men to worship it; and the makers of gods worship not gods and demons, but in my view earth and art, which go to make up images. For, in sooth, the image is only dead matter shaped by the craftsman’s hand. But we have no sensible image of sensible matter, but an image that is perceived by the mind alone,—God, who alone is truly God.… For we are expressly prohibited from exercising a deceptive art: “For you shall not make,” says the prophet, “the likeness of anything which is in heaven above or in the earth beneath.” (Exhortation to the Heathen IV)

    Tertullian, (Тертуллиан) c. A.D. 200

    Even at this day [idolatry] can be practised outside a temple and without an idol. But when the devil introduced into the world craftsmen of statues, of images, and of every kind of likenesses, that former rude business of human disaster attained from idols both a name and a development. From then on every art which in any way produces an idol instantly became a fount of idolatry. For it makes no difference whether a molder cast, a carver grave, or an embroiderer weave the idol; … since even without an idol idolatry is committed, when the idol is there it makes no difference of what kind it be, of what material, or what shape; lest any should think that only that which is consecrated in human shape should be called an idol. (On Idolatry 3)

    So we would now make a remark about the arts of the theater … We know that the names of the dead are nothing, as are their images; but we know well enough, too, who, when images are set up, none other than spirits accursed, than devils, under these names carry on their wicked work, exult in the homage rendered to them, and pretend to be divine. We see, therefore, that the arts also are consecrated to the service of the beings who dwell in the names of their founders and that things cannot be held free from the taint of idolatry whose inventors have got a place among the gods for their discoveries. (The Shows 10)

    “For how could he [Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration] have known Moses and Elias, except by being in the Spirit? People could not have had their images, or statues, or likenesses; for that the law forbade.” (Against Marcion, 4:22)

    [Hermogenes] despises God’s law in his painting, maintains repeated marriages, alleges the law of God in defense of lust, and yet despises it in respect of his art. (Against Hermogenes 1)

    Origen, (Ориген) c. A.D. 225

    If the Persians cannot bear the sight of temples, altars, and images, it does not follow that because we cannot bear them any more than they that the grounds on which we object to them are the same as theirs. … The Scythians, the Nomadic Libyans, the godless Seres, and the Persians agree in this with the Christians and Jews, but they are actuated by very different principles. For none of these former abhor altars and images on the ground that they are afraid of degrading the worship of God and reducing it to the worship of material things made by the hands of men. Nor do they object to them from a belief that the demons choose certain forms and places … where they may pursue their criminal pleasures, in partaking of the smoke of sacrificial victims. But Christians and Jews have regard to this command, “You shall fear the Lord your God, and serve him alone.” And this other, “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make any graven image for yourself, nor any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them, nor serve them.” And again, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.” It is in consideration of these and many other such commands that they not only avoid temples, altars, and images, but are ready to suffer death when it is necessary, rather than debase by any such impiety the conception which they have of the Most High God. (Against Celsus VII:64)

    [I]f one will examine their polity from its first beginning, and the arrangement of their laws, he will find that they were men who represented upon earth the shadow of a heavenly life, and that among them God is recognized as nothing else, save He who is over all things, and that among them no maker of images was permitted to enjoy the rights of citizenship. For neither painter nor image-maker existed in their state, the law expelling all such from it; that there might be no pretext for the construction of images,—an art which attracts the attention of foolish men, and which drags down the eyes of the soul from God to earth. There was, accordingly, among them a law to the following effect: “Do not transgress the law, and make to yourselves a graven image, any likeness of male or female; either a likeness of any one of the creatures that are upon the earth, or a likeness of any winged fowl that flies under the heaven, or a likeness of any creeping thing that creeps upon the earth, or a likeness of any of the fishes which are in the waters under the earth.” The law, indeed, wished them to have regard to the truth of each individual thing, and not to form representations of things contrary to reality, feigning the appearance merely of what was really male or really female, or the nature of animals, or of birds, or of creeping things, or of fishes. Venerable, too, and grand was this prohibition of theirs: “Do not lift up your eyes unto heaven, lest, when you see the sun, and the moon, and the stars, and all the host of heaven, you should be led astray to worship them, and serve them.” (Against Celsus IV.31)

  3. It is in consideration of these and many other such commands, that they not only avoid temples, altars, and images, but are ready to suffer death when it is necessary, rather than debase by any such impiety the conception which they have of the Most High God….it is not possible at the same time to know God and to address prayers to images.” – Origen (Against Celsus, 7:64-65)

  4. Excellent article, thank you so much for your diligence and research. Holy Saint Epiphanius, pray for us!

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