I love reading about Eastern Orthodoxy, scripture, and nonfiction works that challenge me to expand my view of the world.
St. John of Damascus, Three Treatises on the Divine Images, translated by Andrew Louth (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003). Pp. 163. Paperback $17.00.
If anyone is interested in Orthodox iconography, or the tradition of Christian painting, this book is a must read. Because this book is well translated and very accessible, I highly recommend simply reading this book – a primary source – rather than reading a secondary source where an author describes St. John of Damascus’s theology of iconography. What makes this book an especially “must read” for those interested in iconography is the influence St. John had on the theology of Christian images. This book provides the foundation for all subsequent theology. In addition, St. John not only articulates the theology of images, but he articulates how iconography is central to all of Christian theology. His treatment is all-inclusive, and it goes much further than simply arguing that now that God has been seen in the person of Jesus Christ we can depict his image. Because iconography is so central to Christian theology and salvation, this book is a must read.
I won’t write out his full theology here, but I will give a brief introduction. He starts by taking a look at the Old Testament prohibition against idols. St. John views this prohibition from two perspectives: 1) the nature of the commandment, and 2) the definition of veneration. He says that the nature of the commandment was to prevent the Israelites from falling into idolatry. He also argues that the commandment is more specifically against depicting the nature/essence/substance of God, and to prevent humanity from worshiping creation instead of the Creator. Iconography, St. John points out, does neither of these: it’s not a depiction of God’s essence, nor does it lead one to worship creation. The second aspect, veneration, boils down to an articulation of definition. St. John argues that veneration has two meanings: one is worship, and the other is to pay honor to someone. While worship is due to God alone, honoring the person depicted in an icon is not worship, but it is paying honor, which ultimately glorifies God.
It is, at this point, that St. John is able to fully turn his attention to iconography. What changes the entire game is the revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ, that is God enfleshed, or Incarnate. St. John writes, “Therefore I am emboldened to depict the invisible God, not as invisible, but as he became visible for our sake, by participating in the flesh and blood. I do not depict the invisible divinity, but I depict God made visible in the flesh” (I.4).
Even the Incarnation has several levels of understanding. In the first aspect of the argument, St. John argues that what was invisible is now visible. Here he does a lengthy analysis of the definitions of “image.” He states that it is important to note that images make manifest what was hidden or unseen. In this way, an image holds two realities together: the seen/visible and unseen/invisible. With this in mind, St. John is able to say that icons of Christ both depict the Son of God as he was in the 1st century, as well as indicate his invisible presence among us now.
At this point, that St. John delves deeper into Incarnational theology. He reminds us that after God created the visible (earth, animals, seas, etc.) and invisible (heaven, angels, etc.) worlds, God created humanity to unite the two worlds (i.e., we were created in His image to attain His likeness). Our task, in sum, was to make creation a sacrament. However, we failed in this task; but Christ, through his Incarnation, was able to succeed where we failed. This union means that humanity is now infused with divinity. Matter is recreated, and it is now glorified with God’s presence. It is for this reason that we can venerate the icons.
St. John writes, “I do not venerate matter, I venerate the fashioner of matter, who became matter for my sake, and in matter made his abode, and through matter worked my salvation. ‘For the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ It is clear to all that flesh is matter and is a creature. I reverence therefore matter and I hold in respect and venerate that through which my salvation has come about, I reverence it not as God, but as filed with divine energy and grace” (II.14). In this way, the use of icons in worship is a sacramental act.
It is also because of the Incarnation that we can glorify God through the saints; after all they able to participate in the life of God because of the divine/human union in Christ. So when we venerate the image of the saints, we are, in actuality, glorifying God. St. John takes it further by writing, “The temple that Solomon built was dedicated with the blood of animals [Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement] and adorned with images of animals, of lions and bulls and phoenixes and pomegranates. Now the Church is dedicated by the blood of Christ and his saints and adorned with an image of Christ and his saints” (II.15).
There’s much more in this these amazing three treatises; however, it’s really about the Incarnation, the Son of God taking on flesh, and the transfiguration of matter that takes place as a result, which allows for our deification. It’s also about the meaning of image and veneration, the dignity of matter, and the importance of the unwritten tradition handed down by the Church through the apostles and now articulated by St. John.