In my last post I walked through a series of statements by early church fathers on the topics of imagery. Specifically regarding their polemics against Pagan idolatry but more broadly on the shortcomings of the medium itself in the words of the Fathers themselves. In this next piece, however, I am looking to examine the shift in the attitude towards images by Christians on this subject. Most notably in the writing and argumentation of John of Damascus in the 7th century. Yet my last entry closed in the 5th so I will now attempt to encapsulate the development of Christian attitudes towards images, namely by drawing on the work of Byzantine Historian Ernst Kitzinger on the topic.

Images between Julian the Apostate and the Iconoclasm

From the close of the 4th century, the use of and focus on material objects in worship began to notably increase. At the start of the century they had been defended as purely didactic or educational in purpose, yet this was no longer the case. This was initially to be found in the focus on and adoration of crosses and relics. The cross, in particular, received a notable boost in popularity due to the adoption of the Labarum. This was the standard of Constantine’s Army that was based on the shape of the Cross and had begun to appear on coins from the earlier decades of the 4th century. By the end of the century adoration of Cross’s (namely in Churches) was relatively common. At the same time the growth of the cult of relics, such as fragments of the true Cross, increased at an exponential rate. So much so that when Julian the Apostate became Emperor he condemned Christians who adored crosses and the tombs of their dead.

And yet, ye misguided men, though there is preserved among us that weapon which flew down from heaven, which mighty Zeus or father Ares sent down to give us a warrant, not in word but in deed, that he will forever hold his shield before our city, you have ceased to adore and reverence it, but you adore the wood of the cross and draw its likeness on your foreheads and engrave it on your housefronts.

Julian the Apostate, Against the Galileans, Book 1


Therefore, since this is so, why do you grovel among tombs? Do you wish to hear the reason? It is not I who will tell you, but the prophet Isaiah : “They lodge among tombs and in caves for the sake of dream visions.” You observe, then, how ancient among the Jews was this work of witchcraft, namely, sleeping among tombs for the sake of dream visions.

Julian the Apostate, Against the Galileans, Book 1

Despite this, however, there is little show of image adoration or worship in a religious context. Yet, as mentioned briefly in my initial entry Christians had since come to terms, by the 4th century, with the worshipping, honour and obesience paid to statues of the Emperor. A practice that continued with the growth of Christianity uninterrupted in the Roman Empire. Sacrifices weren’t offered to the images, but incense and candles were. These images continued to be carried in processions, were acclaimed, like in the prior account of John Malalas, and offered proskynesis. These images embodied the Emperor, Pagan or Christian, when they were unable to be present in person. To object to this practice was considered to reject the Emperor and his image existed in marketplaces, assembly rooms, law courts and theatres. Something earlier Christians were considered guilty of as evidenced by the writings of Tertullian and the martyrdom account of Polycarp. This was something Christians had come to accept as the religion grew and as the Empire became Christian these images possessed not just legal agency but religious agency too. For example, in the Chronicle of Joshua the Stylite we hear of an event in Edessa, during the year 496 AD, where a statue of Emperor Constantine let go of a Cross it was holding for a period of three days. This was in response to the conduct of Christians celebrating the ending of a drought. Within 50 years later another miracle was associated with an image in Edessa, but this time it was one of Christ himself. An account which we will consider shortly.

Divine images

The progressive collapse between ‘image’ and ‘prototype’ is something that at the close of the 6th century was something reaching new peaks, and in a specifically religious context. It is during this time that we start to see accounts of pilgrims having prominent narrative features giving space to their interaction with divine images. Antonius of Piacenza, a pilgrim, provides an early account of someone explicitly praying to an image around the year 570AD to an image of Christ supposedly painted during the Messiah’s lifetime. The first explicit miracle associated with an image is an account in John Moschus’s “The Spiritual Meadow” written in a broadly similar period of time to Antonius’s account. In it, he describes a hermit who prayed to an image of the Virgin Mary with Child for fortunate travels, and to keep the candle burning before the image whilst he was away. Apparently every time he returned from his adventures he would find the candle continuing to burn.

The growing association with images, possessing their own agency, and the miraculous would go on to reach new heights as time went on. Kitzinger writes…

In the miracle stories, some of which are thinly disguised or rationalised as dreams, the image acts or behaves as the subject itself is expected to act or behave. It makes known its wishes, as in the well known story told by Gregory of Tours of a painted picture of the crucified Christ at Narbonne, which demands to be covered. It enacts evangelical teachings, as in the dream in which an image of Christ at Antioch appears clothed with garments previously given to a beggar. When attacked it bleeds, as it does in another story told by Gregory of Tours about an image of Christ pierced by a Jew, and in a story about an attack by Saracens on an image of St. Theodore, which John of Damascus quotes from the writings of Anastasius Sinaita (A.D. 640-700). In some cases, it defends itself against infidels with physical force, for instance, in a previously quoted story about an image of St. Symeon at Antioch related in the Life of that Saint, and in a legend told by Arculf in connection with an image of St. George on a column, to which in the Saint was allegedly tied while being scourged. In others it demonstrates its immunity to attack through various miraculous deeds. It makes promises. But it also demands fulfillment of promises made to it by others, as in a second story told by Arculf in connection with the image of Lydda. By far the most common type of miracle, however, is that in which the image bestows some kind of material benefit upon its votaries.

Ernst Kitzinger, The Cult of Images in the Age before Iconoclasm p101, 102.

Images as apotropaia

This view on the role of images even had a pragmatic bent and was even used in the defence of cities. When Constantinople was seiged by the Avars in 626 the Patriarch ordered every gate facing the enemy (West) to be painted with an image of the Virgin and Child as a form of apotropaia. During the siege itself, he led a procession of an image of Christ himself around the walls in an effort to solicit his protection. It’s debatable whether this was for moral or an attempt to elicit some form of more spectacular display of divine power like those mentioned above, but it goes to show the centrality images now played in the life of Christians during this period. As another example, in an earlier siege (544AD) of the (aforementioned) city of Edessa by the Sassanids, an account was written by the historian Procopius makes mention of a letter, written by Christ, to the king of the city which was subsequently put above the main gate. A later historian Evagrius builds on this and makes mention not just to a letter but an image of Christ himself (known famously as the Mandylion) that was above the gate. It was to this that survival of the city was attributed. The account itself is told in such a way that pitched the attacking Shah of Persia as attempting to overcome Christ himself. In both cases, the idea of a holy image existed as a sign of the special protection of Christ and was even extended to armies. Armies that were arguably following the precedent set by Constantine’s original Labarum. This medium, of adorning or fusing military standards with religious images reflecting an antecedent Pagan practice that had been rehabilitated by later Christians.

Images at the outset were originally associated with relics (tombs of saints) or made by the hand of God himself (The Mandylion) but soon came to be understood as possessing power entirely of their own with little to no direct connection to the figure they depicted. Andre Grabar, a historian of Eastern Christian Art, argued that it was during the latter half of the 6th century that the Image replaced the Relic as a principal object of religious devotion in the Eastern Church, especially in comparison to the West. Grabar further argued that Images found fruitful reception due to the long history of belief within the Greco-Roman world of religious images being treated as synonymous with divine forces. The theological justifications found philosophical foundations in preexisting systems of Neoplatonic thought which Kitzinger and Grabar argue resulted in images playing a key role in what constituted a form of animism for the Christians of the period.

The influence of Pseudo-Dionysius

When it came to undergirding these practices with a more robust theology the writing of Pseudo-Dionysius in the 5th century was seen as a suitable place to look by many later clergy in the 6th century. Kitzinger writes…

To Pseudo-Dionysius the entire world of the sense in all its variety reflects the world of the spirit. Contemplation of the former serves as a means to elevate ourselves toward the latter. He does not elaborate his theory specifically in the realm of art, but its special applicability in that field was obvious and enhanced further by his frequent references to the objects which make up the world of the senses. Small wonder, then, that Areopagitic concepts and terms were promptly seized upon by clerics anxious to provide a theoretical foundation for the increasingly conspicuous role accorded to images in the life of the Church. It is as the earliest known document testifying to this step that the letter written by Bishop Hypatius of Ephesus to Julian of Atramytion has its peculiar and outstanding importance. The Bishop brushes aside his suffragan’s legalistic distinctions between painting and sculpture and stresses the necessity of probing more deeply into the reasons for the Scriptural prohibitions. The defense of images  which Hypatius works out is essentially a traditional one, namely, that images are useful for the religious education of simple people. But the simple and uneducated now have become part of a hierarchic system, and the tools provided for them have a legitimate place, indeed, an important function in the divine order of things: “We leave material adornment in the churches … because we conceive that each order of the faithful is guided and led up to the Divine in its own way and that some are led even by these [i.e. the material decorations] toward the intelligible beauty and from the abundant light in the sanctuaries to the intelligible and immaterial light.” This is unmistakably the thought and indeed, the very language of Pseudo-Dionysius, language which the Bishop applies to the concrete problem of the admissibility of images in churches. Written within little more than a generation of the Areopagitica, Hypatius’ letter shows how rapidly the terms of the concepts and terms of the theology of Pseudo-Dionysius were taken up by the defenders of Christian images.

Ernst Kitzinger, The Cult of Images in the Age before Iconoclasm p138.

Despite this Hypatius is hard pressed to be seen as arguing for the worship of images from his writing. Instead, he is more plainly understood to be arguing a developed form of Gregory the Great’s point (in my last entry) that images were used for didactic ends, albeit the wheels are already in motion for this understanding to be transformed in yet more radical ways.

Accusations of idolatry

Even by this time, Pagans had begun to note that the arguments employed by Christians against their use of images no longer carried the same weight they used to. St Symeon in his work ‘On Sacred Images’ notes that during this period that the Pagans now accused the Christians of the same crime they had historically been accused, especially given Christians now worshipped images of Angels, Martyrs, and Saints. Leontius, Bishop of Neapolis in Cyprus, likewise faced similar criticism from Jews who accused the Christians of introducing idolatry into the Church. Historian Norman Baynes, writing on the exchange summarised it as…

The Jews took their stand upon the God-given Law, and for the Christians also that Law formed part of their sacred scriptures since they had laid claim to the Old Testament as their own and refused to follow Marcion in rejecting the earlier revelation. And that Law had expressly ordained Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth, thou shalt not bow down thyself to them nor serve them (Exodus 204-5). You shall make you no idols nor graven image … neither shall ye set up any image of stone in your land to bow down unto it (Levit. 26′; cf. Deut. 58).

Such was the tradition; but, Leontius argued, there was another legal tradition: God had said to Moses that he should fashion two Cherubim graven in gold (Exodus 2518), while God showed to Ezekiel a temple with forms of palms and lions and men and with Cherubim from pavement to roof (Ezekiel 41). Thus had God revoked his own ordinance. If you wish to condemn me, wrote Leontius, on account of images, then you must condemn God for ordering them to be made. And though God gave no instructions concerning the adornment of His temple yet on the legal precedent of God’s command to Moses Solomon filled the building with lions and bulls and palm-trees and men in bronze and with carved and molten images. It was important for Leontius to prove that the Christians were not innovators, they were but maintaining a tradition derived from the scriptures which were sacred alike to Jew and Christian.

Norman Baynes, Icons before Iconoclasm, The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 44, No. 2. p97,98

Yet even in this objection, it was clear that Christians by this time had begun to employ images towards ends not in keeping with the Old Testament precedents. Yet this form of argumentation would go on to form John of Damascus’s own formulation for the use of images. Moreso, the idea of Man as an image representing the Prototype of God (Genesis 1:27) was drawn on in order to argue for the worship of human images. Albeit in a way opposite to that of earlier Christians and Jews. Leontius himself writing…

The image of God is Man, who is made in the image of God, and particularly that man who has received the indwelling of the Holy Ghost. Justly, therefore, I honor and worship the image of God’s servants and glorify the house of the Holy Ghost.

Leontius of Neapolis, cited from Ernst Kitzinger, The Cult of Images in the Age before Iconoclasm p141

The human form then is a vessel for the dwelling of God which is the actual object of worship by a worshipper of images. The image itself by bearing the form of man is also a vessel for the dwelling of God. Kitzinger reflects on this by stating…

At the basis of Leontius’ use of Genesis 1:27 lies an essentially Neoplatonic belief in the divine manifesting itself in a descending sequence of reflections. By implication at least, the work of the artist becomes an extension of the divine act of creation, a concept far removed from Early Christian indictments of the artist as a deceiver.

Ernst Kitzinger, The Cult of Images in the Age before Iconoclasm p141

With regard to Kitzinger’s latter statement, we may do well to remember the writings of Clement of Alexandria, Arnobius of Sicca and Lactantius in particular on this topic. Fathers who argued that representations replaced reality.

Images as apologetics

Yet this form of argumentation based on the image of God reached its culmination in an argument from the Incarnation itself. That because God had become the man we were free from the prohibition of visual representation because he had walked and suffered on this earth, the saints likewise. The angels also appeared as Men to Man. This served as a Christian distinctive that was argued exempted them from Pagans whose gods can never be said to have literally walked the earth despite possessing human form. This apologetic argumentation was so extensively employed that later councils actively objected and outlawed depictions of Christ that did not show his humanity. One canon from a council in 692 reads…

In some pictures of the venerable icons, a lamb is painted to which the Precursor points his finger, which is received as a type of grace, indicating beforehand through the Law, our true Lamb, Christ our God. Embracing therefore the ancient types and shadows as symbols of the truth, and patterns given to the Church, we prefer grace and truth, receiving it as the fulfilment of the Law. In order therefore that that which is perfect may be delineated to the eyes of all, at least in colored expression, we decree that the figure in human form of the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world, Christ our God, be henceforth exhibited in images, instead of the ancient lamb, so that all may understand by means of it the depths of the humiliation of the Word of God, and that we may recall to our memory his conversation in the flesh, his passion and salutary death, and his redemption which was wrought for the whole world.

Canon 82, Council of Trullo

The view clearly articulated is that one form of expression was clearly superior to another and again reinforced the relationship, and collapse, between the image and its prototype. It wasn’t just a reminder of the Incarnation, it was arguably an extension of it via the work of the Holy Spirit through the image. It was now sacramental. Kitzinger closes his examination on the role of images for Christians the period between Julian the Apostate and the Iconoclasm with the following words…

Taken in its entirety the evidence reviewed in this study reveals a major revolution in the sphere of religious art. It was a revolution primarily in the extent and degree of the everyday use made of religious images by private persons, by the clergy and by secular authorities, not only in devotional practices but also for the attainment of concrete and specific purposes. At the root of this movement was a vastly increased desire to make the presence of the Deity and of the saints and the succour which they could be expected to give visually palpable. Actively fostered by secular and clerical authorities this desire inevitably led to a breakdown of the distinction between the image and its prototype. For practical purposes the two tended to merge more and more. In the wake of this development, which remained by no means unopposed and uncriticized even before the outbreak of official Iconoclasm under Leo III, Christian thinking on the subject of images also made important strides. Two developments in the realm of apologetic theory are particularly significant: An increasing preoccupation with the relationship of the image to its prototype (rather than to the beholder) and an increasingly strong belief in the potentialities of the image as a vehicle of divine power

Ernst Kitzinger, The Cult of Images in the Age before Iconoclasm, p149

The image was increasingly something detached from humanity and in touch with heaven. Yet there was a pushback in the form of the Iconoclasm and it is into this that John of Damascus steps. It is his work which arguably lays the formalised foundation which would lead to the eventual return of the images and the triumph of Eastern Orthodoxy. In the absence of any surviving works from Iconoclasts themselves, however, I will focus predominantly on the argument for the use of images as formalised by John of Damascus. I will then briefly reflect on this but save my own fuller conclusion for a separate, and final, entry.

The writings of John of Damascus


In response to growing criticism towards the practice of icons John of Damascus, a Monk, living in the aniconic Muslim territories of Syria came out in defence of Icons. His writing arguably being the most refined synthesis of all prior arguments in defence of image worship by Christians to date. The full text of John of Damascus’s defence of images can be found here. I will be, however, quoting from a modernised and abridged account, at least initially, for the sake of clarity. Before diving into the full text.

Old Testament prohibitions on images don’t apply to Christians

God says, “You shall not have any gods other than me. You shall not make yourself a graven image, or any likeness. You shall not adore them or serve them, for I am the Lord thy God.” [Deut. 5.7-9] You see that he forbids image—making to avoid idolatry, and because it is impossible to make an image of the immeasurable, invisible God. As St Paul said at the Areopagus, “As we are the offspring of God, we must not imagine God to be like gold, silver, stone, or anything created by humans.” [Acts 17.29] But these instructions were given to the Jews because they were prone to idolatry. We, on the other hand, are no longer tied to apron strings. We have outgrown superstitious error, and know God in truth, worshipping him alone, enjoying the fullness of his knowledge. We are no longer children but adults. We receive our habit of mind from God, and know what may be depicted and what may not. The Scripture says, “You have not seen his face.” [Ex. 33.20] How wise the Law is! How could one depict the invisible? How picture the inconceivable? How could one express to the limitless, the immeasurable, the invisible? How give infinity a shape? How paint immortality? How put mystery in one place?

Defense Against Those Who Oppose Holy Images by St John of Damascus. Trans. Mary H. Allies. Abridged, modernized and introduced by Stephen Tomkins. Edited and prepared for the web by Dan Graves.

John here is setting up his broader argument by drawing on the fact that Christians are distinct from Jews by being no longer being prone to idolatry, however, this is arguably begging the question. He does not give evidence for this but asserts it in a context in which Iconoclasts, Pagans, Jews, and Muslims are all calling Christians idolaters, the reason he is writing this text in the first place. Yet unless the nature of Christians has changed over the years, we all still struggle against the passions of the flesh and the temptation for our heart to seek solace in things other than God. Until we are joined to Christ at the culmination of all things there is always the temptation to sin and the potential to drift into error. History has shown us that even Pope’s and Patriarch’s can fall into the Devil’s snares. Even the existence of Christian iconoclasts could show to iconodules that capacity for Christians to veer into gross error existed and should have prompted more sober reflection.

He then continues by pointing out that scripture states that God is invisible. He asks the audience “How can one depict the invisible?” He does so rhetorically because we know of the Incarnation. Which he then immediately proceeds to expound upon.

The Incarnation gives licence to fashioning images

But when you think of God, who is a pure spirit, becoming man for your sake, then you can clothe him in a human form. When the invisible becomes visible to the eye, you may then draw his form. When he who is a pure spirit, immeasurable in the boundlessness of his own nature, existing as God, takes on the form of a servant and a body of flesh, then you may draw his likeness, and show it to anyone who is willing to contemplate it. Depict his coming down, his virgin birth, his baptism in the Jordan, his transfiguration on Mt Tabor, his all-powerful sufferings, his death and miracles, the proofs of his deity, the deeds he performed in the flesh through divine power, his saving Cross, his grave, his resurrection and his ascent into heaven. Give to it all the endurance of engraving and color. Have no fear or anxiety; not all veneration is the same. Abraham venerated the sons of Emmor, impious men who were ignorant of God, when he bought the double cave for a tomb. [Gen. 23.7] Jacob venerated his brother Esau and the Egyptian Pharaoh. [Gen 33.3] He venerated, but he did not worship in the full sense. Joshua and Daniel venerated an angel of God [Jos. 5.14, Dan. 8:16-17] they did not worship in the full sense.

Defense Against Those Who Oppose Holy Images by St John of Damascus. Trans. Mary H. Allies. Abridged, modernized and introduced by Stephen Tomkins. Edited and prepared for the web by Dan Graves.

There are three broad points in this next section that John seems to be arguing for. These are…

  • The incarnation means the invisible has become visible and can now be depicted in the form of Christ. As can the events from the his life.
  • Images can be an aide to contemplation and education.
  • Not all worship is the same therefore we can draw a distinction between worship of God and worship of his image, and the image of his creation.

Of these arguments the most conservative and longstanding, I believe, is the second point here. Gregory the Great makes the point regarding education, we see a developed form of it too in our reflection on the later writings of Hypatius too. It isn’t in itself objectionable yet John arguably goes further tying it into his broader view that images may exceed the role of contemplation and education.

In regard to the first point, that the Incarnation means the invisible has become visible, this is true, yet the argument “you may then draw his form” does not necessarily entail. Especially when we consider the reasoning of an earlier Father like Clement of Alexandria or Lactantius of Numidia who says, respectively …

Now the images and temples constructed by mechanics are made of inert matter; so that they too are inert, and material, and profane; and if you perfect the art, they partake of mechanical coarseness. Works of art cannot then be sacred and divine.

Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, Book 7, Chapter 5. The Holy Soul a More Excellent Temple Than Any Edifice Built by Man


In the case of God, whose spirit and influence are diffused everywhere, and can never be absent, it is plain that an image is always superfluous. But they fear lest their religion should be altogether vain and empty if they should see nothing present which they may adore, and therefore they set up images; and since these are representations of the dead, they resemble the dead, for they are entirely destitute of perception. But the image of the ever-living God ought to be living and endued with perception. But if it received this name from resemblance, how can it be supposed that these images resemble God, which have neither perception nor motion? Therefore the image of God is not that which is fashioned by the fingers of men out of stone, or bronze, or other material, but man himself, since he has both perception and motion, and performs many and great actions. Nor do the foolish men understand, that if images could exercise perception and motion, they would of their own accord adore men, by whom they have been adorned and embellished, since they would be either rough and unpolished stone, or rude and unshapen wood, had they not been fashioned by man

Divine Institutes, Book II (Of the Origin of Error). Chapter 2. What was the first cause of making images; of the true likeness of God, and the true worship of him.

Now we see the extent of the influence Neoplatonism has on John of Damascus’s writings by contrast. Images are a form of the divine even if they are such by several degrees of separation. He is essentially reiterating the earlier quoted argument of Leonitus, Bishop of Neapolis. That an image of the image of God is still worthy of praise, veneration, worship and a conduit of God’s grace as the distinction between the prototype and its image is collapsed via the agency of the Holy Spirit. It is for this reason, therefore, that John argues that one may extend worship to these images as worship exists by differing degrees by his reasoning. John invokes old testament examples of people praising other humans but again here he goes further by extending it to images. A practice, by this point, long accepted as part of the Imperial cult of the Emperor and his own images. We see an example of this in the earlier writing of Gregory of Nazianzus in a letter to Julian the Apostate.

They (Emperors) must needs have adoration through which they may appear more awful—-and not merely that adoration which they receive in person, but also that received in their statues and pictures, in order that the veneration may be more insatiable and more complete.

Orations of Gregory of Nazianzus/First invective against Julian the Emperor, Paragraph 80

John draws on the Old Testament for his examples of worship yet allows himself to go further than the Jews by his earlier argument that Christians are no longer vulnerable to the accusation of idolatry. Something we’ve already queried.

The existence of varying degrees of worship

John’s new claim is that worship can be applied to inanimate objects. Something he goes on to further justify…

You must understand that there are different degrees of worship. First of all the full worship which we show to God, who alone is by nature worthy of worship. But, for the sake of God who is worshipful by nature, we honor and venerate his saints and servants. It is in this sense that Joshua and Daniel worshipped an angel, [Jos. 5.14, Dan. 8:16-17] and David worshipped the Lord’s holy places, when be said, “Let us go to the place where his feet have stood.” [Ps. 132.7] Similarly, his dwelling place is worshipped, as when all the people of Israel adored in the tabernacle, and they stood round the temple in Jerusalem gazing at it from all sides worshipping, as they still do. Similarly, we honor the rulers established by God, as when Jacob gave homage to Esau, his elder brother, [Gen. 33.3] and to Pharaoh, the divinely established ruler. [Gen. 47.7] And Joseph was worshipped by his brothers. [Gen. 50.18] That kind of veneration is based on honour, as in the case of Abraham and the sons of Emmor. [Gen. 23.7] So then, either do away with all worship, or accept it in all its different kinds

Defense Against Those Who Oppose Holy Images by St John of Damascus. Trans. Mary H. Allies. Abridged, modernized and introduced by Stephen Tomkins. Edited and prepared for the web by Dan Graves.

John here lists examples, from the Old Testament, of what he constitutes worship between one person and another. Yet the implication, again is that one may go beyond the examples provided and extend a measure of such worship to a representation of the person in question. To images. Yet even if we grant the distinction or notion of progressive degrees of worship towards individuals we still have issues extending this to images when we consider what Paul says in Acts in a relevant context, a passage John himself has already cited by this point in the argument…

God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising.

Acts 17:24‭-‬29 NKJV


Paul here is making the connection that Fathers in the earliest centuries will also go on to make. That the Divine Nature is not shaped by man’s devising nor composed of inert matter. In light of this even if we granted John’s contention of progressive degrees of worship this cannot be said to extend to inert matter unless it is granted to be a purely secular form of praise. John also, elsewhere, argues that Paul is invoking this in an argument to Greek pagans to represent the position of Gods people ‘before’ the incarnation (“these instructions were given to the Jews”). The problem is Paul is upholding this after the resurrection, having encountered the living Christ himself and addressing not Jews but Pagans!

The broader problem is that John does seem to believe the Divine Nature can be associated or said to reside in art and acts of man’s devising. Which seems to put John at odds with Paul here. I would even go so far to say that Paul seems tonally consonant with his Jewish heritage in light of the Incarnation. The Fathers I covered in my last entry, also seem in line with Paul here too. John, by contrast, seems more in line with the Pagans Paul is talking to in Acts 17, at least on this topic.

Yet John presses on and in the subsequent paragraph is arguing that the cherubim and tabernacle were fashioned by human hands asking “Was it not an image? Did it not depict a reality beyond itself?” and goes on to argue…

The honouring of all matter

So, since the law is a forerunner of images, how can we say that it forbids images? Should the law ban us from making images, when the tabernacle itself was a depiction, a foreshadowing? No. There is a time for everything. [Eccl. 3.1] In the old days, the incorporeal and infinite God was never depicted. Now, however, when God has been seen clothed in flesh, and talking with mortals, [Baruch 3.37] 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. How could God be born out of lifeless things? And if God’s body is God by its union with him, it is changeless. The nature of God remains the same as before, the flesh created in time is brought to life by a logical and reasoning soul.

Defense Against Those Who Oppose Holy Images by St John of Damascus. Trans. Mary H. Allies. Abridged, modernized and introduced by Stephen Tomkins. Edited and prepared for the web by Dan Graves.

Again reiterating his belief that because of the Incarnation we can fashion depictions of Christ. From this he argues again that he does not worship matter, but its creator. Despite this he does not give an example of to what degree one should venerate matter. This is, arguably, a rhetorical sleight of hand because he sets a floor by praising all matter but leaving unspoken any definition of idolatry (as mentioned before he actually argues Christians cannot be idolaters, ipso facto, something plainly false). Could one venerate an image too much? Do we praise all matter? He doesn’t say although one could argue you could from this statement. Yet again, his statements here cut against that of his predecessors. Pope Gregory having written to a Brother Bishop when he encountered people adoring images in Church…

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.

Gregory the Great, Epistle 105: to Serenus, Bishop of Massilia (Marseilles)

Gregory therefore upholding the didactic ends of imagery but preventing adoration. An astute critic, however, might argue that adoration is different from veneration yet we see a more explicit condemnation from Augustine of Hippo…

It will be said, we also have very many instruments and vessels made of materials or metal of this description for the purpose of celebrating the Sacraments, which being consecrated by these ministrations are called holy, in honour of Him Who is thus worshipped for our salvation : and what indeed are these very instruments or vessels, but the work of men’s hands? But have they mouth, and yet speak not? have they eyes, and see not? do we pray unto them, because through them we pray unto God ? This is the chief cause of this insane profanity, that the figure resembling the living person, which induces men to worship it, hath more influence in the minds of these miserable persons, than the evident fact that it is not living, so that it ought to be despised by the living.

Expositions on the book of Psalms, Psalm 115

So it is clear the leaders of the Church over time have not always have been of one mind on this topic. Augustine explicitly condemned prayer towards inert matter and the worship of it. John’s bifurcation or definition of worship by progressive degrees is a criterion that is hard to read in the statements of earlier Fathers. It is at this point we must note that even though John references scripture, his argument is predominantly a philosophical one.

Different types of matter already praised

He continues…

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 three-times 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.

Defense Against Those Who Oppose Holy Images by St John of Damascus. Trans. Mary H. Allies. Abridged, modernized and introduced by Stephen Tomkins. Edited and prepared for the web by Dan Graves.

John invokes several criteria of objects..

  • Objects and locations linked to the Crucifixion and Resurrection
  • Utensils and objects used in Church services
  • Christs body in the Incarnation

He then issues an ultimatum to his critics “Either stop venerating all these things, or submit to the tradition of the Church in the venerating of images” yet if we stop and parse each of these criteria he’s listed we realise the picture is more complicated than what John presents. We will also see that John is, by refusing to engage with the distinctions of his critics (moving interchangeably betweens terms like worship, veneration, honour), what is really meant by veneration when used is employing what can arguably be called a form of Motte and Bailey argumentation.

With regard to the first criteria, this practice can be seen among all ranks of people, including the Jews. It is even employed in a secular context, we have statues commemorating famous people and we visit the sites of historic events. In the Old Testament the Hebrew people commemorated tombs and constructed objects to commemorate events. So one can show reverence and respect for a place or object without this having any regard to images but by arguing that this constitutes a form of veneration or worship that exists in some form of unique category for Christians is not an argument. Since no critics existed for this practice, what Christians were doing at this point was something distinct.

The same can be said for the utensils and objects used in the Church services. If anything what we are beginning to see at this point is something of a sleight of hand for John because critics are not objecting to one showing respect to objects set apart for holy usage, again the Jews did the same. What is objectionable is the worship or praying to these inert objects. Something we’ve just seen Augustine likewise rebuke.

Finally, John invokes the incarnation as a justification for the veneration of images. We’ve already addressed this point with regard to Acts 17.

These three broader points constitute the Motte (more easily defensible proposition) to the Bailey (harder to defend proposition) of the distinct practice of the veneration of images carried out by the iconodules. He builds up his Bailey by flattening the distinctions in the nature of veneration (extending it to all matter) and by an appeal to the authority of the tradition of the Church. The big problem is that the time of John’s writing the tradition only went so far, there was an older tradition (covered in my last entry) wherein any worship, veneration or adoration of artifice was lampooned by Church Fathers. How does one reconcile the words of Clement of Alexandria…

It is with a different kind of spell that art deludes you, if it leads you not to the indulgence of amorous affections: it leads you to pay religious honour and worship to images and pictures.

Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Heathen, Chapter 4. The Absurdity and Shamefulness of the Images by Which the Gods are Worshipped.

So how does one reconcile this with this contention of Johns? You cannot. Likewise, this appeal to tradition is not really an argument pertaining to the truth of the practice but rather to the progressive inertia of the prior centuries upon the institution.

Jewish use of artifice and the didactic role of images

Let us see what John says next…

If you dishonor and reject images because they are produced by matter, consider what the Scripture says: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have called Bezelel of Judah, and filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, understanding and knowledge of many crafts, to make artifacts from gold, silver, brass, marble, precious stones, and various kinds wood.’” [Ex. 31.1-5] This is the glorification of matter, which you call inglorious. How then, can you make the law a pretence for giving up what it orders? If you invoke the law it against images, you should keep the Sabbath, and practice circumcision. “If you observe the law, Christ will not profit you. You who are justified in the law are fallen from grace.” [Gal. 5.2-4] Israel of old did not see God, but we see the Lord’s glory face to face. [2 Cor. 3.18] God ordered twelve stones to be taken out of the River Jordan, and explained why. “When your son asks you the meaning of these stones, tell him how the water left the Jordan by God’s command, and how the ark of the covenant was saved along with all the people.” [Jos. 4.21-22] So how can we not record in images the saving pains and miracles of Christ our Lord, so that when my child asks me, “What is this?” I may say, “That God the Word became man, and that for His sake not Israel alone passed through the Jordan, but the whole human race regained their original happiness. Through him human nature rose from the lowest depths of the earth higher than the skies, and in his Person sat down on the throne his Father had prepared for him.”

Defense Against Those Who Oppose Holy Images by St John of Damascus. Trans. Mary H. Allies. Abridged, modernized and introduced by Stephen Tomkins. Edited and prepared for the web by Dan Graves.

Now I personally find this the least contentious part of what John is saying and in light of this assume the Iconoclasts favoured a total prohibition on all imagery. Yet it isn’t an argument for religious worship and honour being shown towards depictions, commemorations, and celebrations of events from the Gospel. What John is arguing for could be seen in graffiti, children’s books, film, television, illustrations, and diagrams today. These all fall under the rubric for the right use of images we see in the earlier letter from Gregory the Great on the topic.

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.

Epistle 105: to Serenus, Bishop of Massilia (Marseilles)

Yet at the same time, we see that the use of images for educational purposes has been bundled in a form of switch and bait with the worship of images. We see this in what John goes on to argue in the full body of his text in successive paragraphs (21 – 24). Which culminates in…

John’s Neoplatonism and the Cult of the Saints

You, who refuse to worship images, would not worship the Son of God, the Living Image of the invisible God, (Col. 1.15) and His unchanging form. I worship the image of Christ as the Incarnate God; that of Our Lady (theotokos), the Mother of us all, as the Mother of God’s Son; that of the saints as the friends of God. They have withstood sin unto blood, and followed Christ in shedding their blood for Him, who shed His blood for them. I put on record the excellencies and the sufferings of those who have walked in His footsteps, that I may sanctify myself, and be fired with the zeal of imitation. St Basil says, “Honouring the image leads to the prototype.”

Apologia of St John of Damascus Against Those who Decry Holy Images by John of Damascus. Paragraph 24. p8

Which directly taps into and highlights the Neoplatonic influence (which Kitzinger earlier highlighted) and the collapse between the image and its prototype. We see now, more clearly, here the Motte that goes with John’s Bailey now. What starts with education “can we not record in images the saving pains and miracles of Christ our Lord” ends up with the worship of the images.

This influence in John’s writing is further born out in later paragraphs where we read.

Of old they who did not know God, worshipped false gods. But now, knowing God, or rather being known by Him, how can we return to bare and naked rudiments? (Gal. 4.8–9) I have looked upon the human form of God, and my soul has been saved. I gaze upon the image of God, as Jacob did, (Gen. 32.30) though in a different way. Jacob sounded the note of the future, seeing with immaterial sight, whilst the image of Him who is visible to flesh is burnt into my soul. The shadow and winding sheet and relics of the apostles cured sickness, and put demons to flight. (Acts 5.15) How, then, shall not the shadow and the statues of the saints be glorified? Either do away with the worship of all matter, or be not an innovator. Do not disturb the boundaries of centuries, put up by your fathers. (Prov. 22.28)

Apologia of St John of Damascus Against Those who Decry Holy Images by John of Damascus. Paragraph 27. P9

Which begins to introduce to the argument the miraculous claims associated with images by drawing a line between that and the cult of relics that was by this point long established. Again a Platonist influenced foundation allows this bridge to built, as the product of a long series of developments established over time.

An unwritten tradition of the Church

John builds on this by subsequently quoting Basil of Caesarea on the unwritten tradition of the Church  “In the cherished teaching and dogmas of the Church, we hold some things by written documents; others we have received in mystery from the apostolical tradition.” (paragraph 28) before asking his audience “As, then, so much has been handed down in the Church, and is observed down to the present day, why disparage images?” John will later go on to include multiple sayings from Fathers that he believes support his beliefs on this topic but one has to wrestle with the circular nature of this claim. The belief in an unwritten tradition is itself an unwritten tradition which, at least on this topic, I have shown in my previous post is built on shaky foundations. Moreso, the quotations from his predecessors that he later cites do not (by my reading) date to before the 5th century or perhaps the latter part of the 4th. This is in keeping with Ernst Kitzinger’s charting of developments in the Church and it takes place long after the acquiescence of the Church to the Imperial cult and its practices around images.

Worship of images is different for a Christian and a Pagan

In the next part of his argument, John writes…

If you bring forward certain practices, they do not inculpate our worship of images, but the worship of heathens who make them idols. Because heathens do it foolishly, this is no reason for objecting to our pious practice. If the same magicians and sorcerers use supplication, so does the Church with catechumens; the former invoke devils, but the Church calls upon God against devils. Heathens have raised up images to demons, whom they call gods. Now we have raised them to the one Incarnate God, to His servants and friends, who are proof against the diabolical hosts.

Apologia of St John of Damascus Against Those who Decry Holy Images by John of Damascus. Paragraph 29. P10

Drawing a distinction between pagan practices and Christian ones. Yet let us consider some of the objections of earlier fathers to these pagan practices…

But it is clear to every one that piety, which teaches to worship and honour, is the highest and oldest cause; and the law itself exhibits justice, and teaches wisdom, by abstinence from sensible images, and by inviting to the Maker and Father of the universe.

Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, Book 2, Chapter 18. The Mosaic Law the Fountain of All Ethics, and the Source from Which the Greeks Drew Theirs.

In a word, if we refuse our homage to statues and frigid images, the very counterpart of their dead originals, with which hawks, and mice, and spiders are so well acquainted, does it not merit praise instead of penalty, that we have rejected what we have come to see is error?

Tertullian of Carthage, ANF03. Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, Chapter 12

In designating others by the epithets of uninstructed, and servile, and ignorant, Celsus, I suppose, means those who are not acquainted with his laws, nor trained in the branches of Greek learning; while we, on the other hand, deem those to be uninstructed who are not ashamed to address (supplications) to inanimate objects, and to call upon those for health that have no strength, and to ask the dead for life, and to entreat the helpless for assistance.  

Origen, Against Celsus, Book 6. Chapter 14

If they had any natural properties previously, all these they retain when bulk up in the bodily forms of statues. What stupidity it is — for I refuse to call it blindness — to suppose that the natures of things are changed by the kind of form into which they are forced, and that that receives divinity from the appearance given to it, which in its original body has been inert, and unreasoning, and unmoved by feeling!

Arnobius of Sicca, Against the Heathens, Book 6. Chapters 15

God is greater than man: therefore He is above, and not below; nor is He to be sought in the lowest, but rather in the highest region. Wherefore it is undoubted that there is no religion wherever there is an image. For if religion consists of divine things, and there is nothing divine except in heavenly things; it follows that images are without religion, because there can be nothing heavenly in that which is made from the earth.

Lactantius of Numidia, Divine Institutes, Book II (Of the Origin of Error). Chapter 19. Of the Worship of Images and Earthly Objects.

These quotations are to say nothing of the criticism of the medium itself. The Fathers as a rule objected to representations being praised as reality itself, as Kitzinger noted they viewed the “artists as deceiver” (Cult of images before Iconoclasm p.141) and briefly references texts like Clement’s Exhortation to the Heathen (None of these, nor of the images formed by human hands, and destitute of feeling, is held to be a God) and Tertullian’s On the Shows (According to the mind of God, who forbids the making of every likeness, and especially then the likeness of man who is His own image? The Author of truth hates all the false; He regards as adultery all that is unreal. Chapter 23) to affirm this. It wasn’t just the content of their praise, as John calls out, it was the medium of praise itself. For the earliest fathers “The medium was the message” when it came to the worship of inanimate objects.

John subsequently goes on (paragraph 30) to address the claims of Epiphanius, which I mention in my last entry, calling his writings “fictitious and unauthentic” saying it was made up by someone under his name and that his church today bears images so he must have accepted them. This, again, seems somewhat like question begging but goes on to assert that “one swallow does not make a summer” which is true, however, we realise that the writings of Epiphanius were tonally consistent for the period. There is not one swallow but a full flight on this topic in the earliest centuries. Yet again this writing highlights John’s struggle to uphold a practice that had become normative in praxis but has not yet had a fully fledged theology formulated around it (yet).


We could go on but it is at this point I feel we have touched on the core contentions of John’s argument here. What we see in later passages reiterates these points in more detail but he does go on to define his terms somewhat. On the section detailing “To what purpose is an image made” he writes…

Every image is a revelation and representation of something hidden. For instance, man has not a clear knowledge of what is invisible, the spirit being veiled to the body, nor of future things, nor of things apart and distant, because he is circumscribed by place and time. The image was devised for greater knowledge, and for the manifestation and popularising of secret things, as a pure benefit and help to salvation, so that by showing things and making them known, we may arrive at the hidden ones, desire and emulate what is good, shun and hate what is evil.

Apologia of St John of Damascus Against Those who Decry Holy Images by John of Damascus. Paragraph 93. P29

What isn’t mentioned is the fact that a depiction of an image has the capacity to be false. Something the earlier Fathers were aware of. At the same time, this is defined in such a way that it would pass Gregory’s outlining of images as serving a didactic role in the Church. There is no mention of worship or veneration.

However, John does go on and eventually outlines what he believes is an appropriate hierarchy of worship…

  1. Towards God
  2. Places or Persons God is associated with (Golgotha, the True Cross, Saints)
  3. Objects dedicated to God
  4. Prophetic and holy images and symbols (Cross shapes etc.)
  5. All people for being made in the image of God
  6. Those in authority over us (Jacob towards Esau his elder brother)
  7. That of servants towards masters and benefactors

He distinguishes this from adoration which is believed to be reserved for God alone and is represented by ‘submission and humiliation’. Wherein worship is “fear, desire, and honour are tokens of worship, as also submission and humiliation”. To my mind this is another form of Motte and Bailey distinction with the exemption of adoration being the more easily defensible Motte and the broader Bailey being the different categories of worship.

In reading John’s argumentation it is interesting that this isn’t so much an apologetic text to detractors but is very much an in-house discussion that is shown by his capping the argument with an appeal to his Church’s tradition. Something we’ve already shown to be problematic but reveals a view of the Church and its Magisterium in John’s writings  (“Receive her teaching through me.” paragraph 112) that doesn’t rest easy when we step back and look at the whole sum of the witnesses available on this topic. It also reveals the philosophical influences at work in the church that is now animating it and its ‘economy’ (John’s term). Influences which are less clearly defined in earlier centuries.


Having looked at the intervening years between the Ascendancy of the Church in the Empire and the Iconoclasm, and ultimately in the writings of John of Damascus, I feel there are two big areas of interest for the Church in its view on the topic of images.

In John’s argumentation, I see an appeal to both an unchanged tradition and the faculties of reason. Yet the tradition he invokes is not unchanged, as evidenced by our earlier entry and the first half of this post. The appeal to reason likewise rests on assumptions and beliefs that are not be shared by earlier generations of the Church and I do not think they bare out in light of the earlier reasoning employed by Church Fathers. Nor do I think are supported by scripture in its original context.

This leaves me with a number of options…

  • I am wrong in my view of the earlier history of the Church and the reasoning they employed. This seems to be the most obvious criticism of my writing on this. I cannot really say anything on this apart from that I am personally confident that the writings of the earlier Fathers present a substantially different position to what John later articulates. Moreso, that a number of historians Kitzinger, Grabar, and Baynes seems to share my fundamental assertions on the topic of icons. Historian Peter Brown has also helped fundamentally shape my understanding of the Cult of the Saints on this and seems tonally consistent.
  • A doctrine of development. One may align the two positions by arguing that the change over time was the inspiration of the holy spirit and it is essentially the Magisterium that is faithful in all things by bringing the Church into progressive maturity. We can also argue in this way that the Church of earlier centuries was wrong and subsequently got brought in a ‘greater awareness’ compared to previous generations. The problem with this approach, however, is that we cannot really ascertain whether this is true or false. All change can be explained in this way and it is necessarily a post-hoc assessment. Even John himself makes clear that he believed the Church tradition remained ‘unchanged’.
  • John and the Church he defended during this time was wrong in this instance. That the Church went through several changes and that on this issue they got things wrong both in the area of the history of church tradition and their reasoning that was employed. At first, this sounds ridiculous for me to assert, yet it doesn’t appeal to my own reasoning but an epistemic appeal to an objective truth as far as we have it available. In a strange way, I believe this is consistent with John’s own approach to argumentation. He repeatedly stressed we have nothing to fear from the truth and whilst he was wrong in his argumentation I think this was the right approach. It differs, however, because it requires admitting the Church has gotten it wrong. It does this because it also appeals to a time when the Church got it right, namely in its earliest centuries.

For anyone who has read all this, it shouldn’t be a surprise that my view is the last one. I will, therefore, be looking to a final piece to expound what I feel are the implications and appropriate response to the evidence we have available. With a little help from those wiser than me.

3 thoughts on “Images in the Church. Part Two: Use of images between Julian the Apostate and the Iconoclasm

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