Thursday, November 29, 2007

Icons: Windows on the Sacred

[Icons] became so central to the Byzantine experience of God, however, that by the eighth century they had become the center of a passionate doctrinal dispute in the Greek Church. People were beginning to ask what exactly the artist was painting as he painted Christ. It was impossible to depict his divinity, but if the artist claimed that he was only painting the humanity of Jesus, was he guilty of Nestorianism, the heretical belief that Jesus' human and divine natures were quite distinct? The iconoclasts wanted to ban icons altogether, but icons were defended by two leading monks: John of Damascus (656-747) of the monastery of Mar Sabbas near Bethlehem, and Theodore (759-826), of the monastery of Studius near Constantinople. They argued that the iconoclasts were wrong to forbid the depiction of Christ. Since the Incarnation, the material world and the human body had both been given a divine dimension, and an artist could paint this new type of deified humanity. He was also painting an image of God, since Christ the Logos was the icon of God par excellence. God could not be contained in words or summed up in human concepts, but he could be described by the pen of the artist or in the symbolic gestures of the liturgy.

The piety of the Greeks was so dependent upon icons that by 820 the iconoclasts had been defeated by popular acclaim. This assertion that God was in some sense describable did not amount to an abandonment of Denys's apophatic theology, however. In his Greater Apology for the Holy Images, the monk Nicephoras claimed that icons were "expressive of the silence of God, exhibiting in themselves the ineffability of a mystery that transcends being. Without ceasing and without speech, they praise the goodness of God in that venerable and thrice-illumined melody of theology." Instead of instructing the faithful in the dogmas of the Church and helping them to form lucid ideas about their faith, the icons held them in a sense of mystery. When describing the effect of these religious paintings, Nicephoras could only compare it to the effect of music, the most ineffable of the arts and possibly the most direct. Emotion and experience are conveyed by music in a way that bypasses words and concepts. In the nineteenth century, Walter Pater would assert that all art aspired to the condition of music; in ninth-century Byzantium, Greek Christians saw theology as aspiring to the condition of iconography. They found that God was better expressed in a work of art than in rationalistic discourse. After the intensely wordy Christological debates of the fourth and fifth centuries, they were evolving a portrait of God that depended upon the imaginative experience of Christians.

-Karen Armstrong in "The God of the Mystics," from A History of God: The 4000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (Ballentine Books, 1993) pp. 222-223


NOTE: Icons are not "painted." The work of making an icon is called "writing an icon."


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