Sunday 1 September 2013

Understanding icons in their eschatological context

According to tradition, the icon of Our Lady at the Sanctuary was written by St Luke (icons are written) on the rock face of what was a cave formation at the summit of Mellieħa ridge, around A.D. 60. These cave formations are typical of the karst landscape of the Mediterranean. 

Two attempts at restoration and a single incident of wilful damage, the most recent event taking place in 1614 have been recorded

By what of the earlier years? The iconoclastic controversy which plagued the early Church years, goes some way towards explaining what might have happened before the matter was finally resolved in A.D. 843.
The subject of iconography initiates the longest running (approximately 120 years) and the most violent of theological debates to shake the internal life of the Byzantine Church, known as iconoclastic controversy. This event, which occurs into two phases, also triggers ‘one of the greatest political, cultural, and religious upheavals of the Middle Ages’. [1] The first period opens in 726 when Leo III takes steps to implement imperial sanctions ordering destruction of religious images in the Byzantine Church [2] and ends in 780 when the Empress Irene suspends the persecutions of defenders of images. The Iconophiles position is uphold by the seventh and last Ecumenical Council (787), which assembled as the first has done, at Nicaea. The second iconoclastic period starts when Emperor Leo V the Armenian openly declares his iconoclastic views in 815, [3] and continues until 843 when the icons are again reinstated, this time permanently, by the Empress Theodora. [4]
Icons were subject to sanctions issued by Pope Leo III (between A.D. 726 and 780) and by Emperor Leo V (between A.D. 815 and 840). Scientific analysis of pigments suggest that the present icon was drawn sometime between A.D. 1100 and 1200; some pigments may date back to A.D. 800 [5].

The theological argument of the iconoclasts goes as follows:  
One of the main iconoclastic arguments is based on their comparison of Christian images as pagan idols, thereby denouncing idolatry, which iconoclasts believe to have entered Christian practice through the worship of images.[6] In addition to this theory, the iconoclasts also place their emphasis on what constitutes nature of true worship. They argue that God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth,[7] rather than worshipping God through images made of matter.[8] Furthermore, the iconoclasts hold the view that every image must necessarily be identical and have the same essence with its prototype. Consequently, an icon of Christ or a saint is, according to the iconoclasts, a material and inanimate and therefore can not have the same essence as their prototype.[9] The iconoclasts claim that consecrated elements in the Eucharist are the only licit non-anthropomorphic 'form' of Christ’s body’[10], depicting his flesh in image‘not made by hands’.
The narrow view of the early iconoclasts is contrasted with the position taken by the Church at the seventh and last Ecumenical Council of Nicaea held in A.D. 787 which has its roots in the writings of Origen; [11] an idol paints a figure of something which does not exist while an icon points to an extant archetype. Similarly, Theodoret of Cyrus viewed an idol as a form of something without substance, for example tritons, centaurs or indeed the Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel (Figure 1). An image, on the other hand is a form of subsisting things, for example, the stars, moon, and human persons [12]. Icons are natural images which serve as reminders of intelligible realities [13] an idea based on the Platonic view. This view would seem to fly in the face of the fantastic creatures encountered by the Prophet in Chapter 10 of the Book of Ezekiel; the winged creatures and wheels, each with four faces, synonymous with the glory of Yahweh (again we are confronted with the Hebrew "galgal": the "rolling thing" see Further note: "a"). [14]

St John of Damascus develops the Platonic view where natural images are seen as reminders of intelligible realities emphasising the biblical view that God is known through creation. [15] Underlining the so-called ‘representational theory’ is the idea that while between image and archetype are of different essences (ousia) the veneration of images is legitimate, worship can indeed be transferred to prototype.[16]

Further distinction is made in classic Byzantine image theory between thesis and physis, i.e. between imitation by art and natural or supernatural generation; this being a synthesis of the Platonic-Aristotelian-Patristic view. [17] 

This is the starting point of iconography. Icons themselves always point to the Easter experience. In doing so, they have the capacity to make real that which is represented within. When we light a candle in front of an icon, we make the light of Easter to shine in space and time. 

Figure 2: The dappled horses of Peche-Merle of the 
Gravettian Period c. 25,000 B.C.
(Photo: Phaidon Press Limited 2007)

Figure 1: The Lion Man of Hohlenstein-
Stadel Aurignacian period c. 28,000 B.C.
(Photo: Phaidon Press Limited 2007)

The Easter experience is the means by which mankind transcends the beginning and end of space and time. This is why the Church has (wisely) promulgated a theology of icons. At Easter, we are joined to our first Ancestors and this includes the artists who carved the Lion Man in Hohlenstein-Stadel during the Aurignacian period (c. 28,000 BC), the horsemen of the Peche-Merle in the Gravettian epoch (c. 25,000 to 21,000 BC) and the Argentinian hunter gatherers of the late Pleistocene early Holocene period (c. 11,000 to 7,500 B.C). (Figures 1-3). [18]

Figure 3: Cave art Late Pleistocene, early Holocene hunter
gatherers of Argentina. Hand stencils in Cveuas de las
manos (Cave of the hands). Both left and right hand are
represented and point in all directions.
(Photo: Phaidon Press Limited 2007)

In Man's Search For Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl sums up what he calls man's existential vacuum:
At the beginning of human history, man lost some of the basic animal instincts in which an animal's behavior is embedded and by which it is secured. Such security, like Paradise, is closed to man forever; man has to make choices. In addition this this however man has suffered another loss in his more recent development inasmuch as the traditions which buttressed his behavior are now rapidly diminishing. No instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do. Instead he either wishes to do what other people do (conformism) or he does what other people wish him to do (totalitarianism). [19]
To be sure, it is this vast inner emptiness that is addressed in the Easter experience. There are certain qualities to existence and being that are revealed only at Easter. The icon of Our Lady points to the one who is mother of all [20].


Note: References [1] to [4], [6] to [13], [15] to [17] are attributed to Professor Anita Strezova: paper titled Relation of Image to Its Prototype in Byzantine Iconophile Theology 

[1] B. Nassif, ‘The Semantics of Image and Idolatry in the Byzantine Iconoclastic Controversy’, Parergon, no. 6 (1991) 21-25 
[2] There have been serious scholarly debates as to the causes of Iconoclasm, which was the first major internal battle faced by Byzantium. For this issue see J.H. Haldon, ’Some Remarks on the Background to the Iconoclastic Controversy’, Byzantinoslavica vol. 37-8 (1976-77) 161-89; also A. Schmemann, ‘Byzantium, Iconoclasm and the Monks’, St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, vol. 3, 3 (1959) p. 18-34 (18); W.E. Kaegi, ‘The Byzantine Armies and Iconoclasm’, Byzantinoslavica vol. 26-7 (1965-66) 49-71
[3] P.J. Alexander, ‘The Iconoclastic Council of St. Sophia (815) and Its Definition (Horos)’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, no. 7  (1953) 35-57; also M. Anastos, ‘The Ethical Theory of Images formulated by the Iconoclasts in 754 and 815’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, no.8 (1954) 154-160
[4] L. Ouspensky, ‘Icon and Art’, trans. L. Pavear, Christian Spirituality: Origins to the Twelfth Century, vol. 16 (1985) 382-393; p. 388
[5] The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Mellieha - Malta,  booklet published by the Church, p. 3-4
[6] J.D. Mansi, Sacrorum Conciliorum Nova et Amplissima Collectio, vol. 12-13 (Florence 1767 repr. Graz 1960); English trans. of sixth session, D. Sahas, Icon and Logos: Sources in the Eight Century Iconoclasm (Toronto 1986) Mansi XIII, 268C, 353B
[7] John 4, 24; quoted by Epiphanius of Salamis, Treatise against images, ed. H. Henneohof, Textus Byzantinos ad Iconomachiam Pertinentes, in usum academicum, Byzantina Neerlandica, series A, texts, fasc.1 (Leiden 1969) p. 50
[8] This iconoclastic supposition is indicative of Platos’s observation on man-made images in Cratylus; Plato, Cratilys 431-32, ed. E. Hamilton, and H. Cairns, The Collected Dialogues of Plato, Princeton University Press (Princeton 1961) p. 496-97
[9] A. Besancon, The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm, trans. J.M. Todd, University of Chicago Press (Chicago 2000) p. 125
[10] Fragment 21, 22; Nikephoros of ConstantinopleAntirrhetici Tres Adversus Constantinum, Migne, Patrologia Graeca, vol. 100-534 (Antirrheticus I, 205-328; Antirrheticus II, 329-74; Antirrheticus III, 375-534); Nikephoros, Antirrheticus II, 3; PG 100, 337A, 337CD
[11] Origen, Homiliae in Psalmos, PG 12, 353-354 and 17, 16c
[12] Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Quaestiones in Octateuchum, PG 80, 263
[13] Ps. Dionysius the Areopagite, De Ecclesiastica Hierarchia I, 2; PG 3, 373AB
[14] Book of Ezekiel, Chapter 10, TNJB
[15] John of Damascus, Contra Imaginum Calumniatores Orationes Tres, ed. B. Kotter, Schriften des Johannes von Damaskos, vol. 3 (Berlin 1975); Oration I, 11; Kot. 3, 84-85;
[16] John of Damascus, Oration I, 16; PG 94, 1245AB; III, 6; PG 94, 1325AB; III, 34; PG 94, 1353
[17] Plotinus made this distinction clear when he spoke of images of art as analogous to corporeal things, which had reality in so far as they were in conjunction with the intelligible images of the unimaginable unity, the One; Plotinus, The Enneads, trans. S. MacKenna and J. Dillon (London, 1991); Plotinus, Enneads V, 9, 5; cf., 2,1, V, 3, 7
[18] 30,000 Years of Art, Phaidon Press Limited (2007) p. 4.5, 6.7, 16.17.
[19] Frankl V.E. Man's Search For Meaning (2004) Ebury Publishing, p. 111-112
[20] Book of Revelation, Chapter 12: 1-18, TNJB

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