Medieval Sourcebook: John of Damascus: In Defense of Icons, c. 730

The Iconoclastic controversy lasted from 726, when Emperor Leo III (717-741) began an attack on the use of religious images, until 843, when The Empress Theodora allowed their restoration. The two periods of Iconoclasm were separated by the reign of the Empress Irene, who venerated icons, and under whom the Second Council of Nicea 787 was held. There were serious theological issues at stake. A number of defenses of Icons were made: based on the existence of Divinely approved images in nature and Scripture, based on the reality of the incarnation; and based on a Platonic metaphysics of images which participated in an ascending prototype. The first two defenses are here presented in the first reading; the Platonic defense in second. Both were written by the Icons' most distinguished proponent, St. John of Damascus (c.675-c.749); John was able to write freely since he lived under Muslim rule, outside the boundaries of the Roman emperor. In this hundred years' discussion of art, we find one of the most searching investigations into the nature of art in culture before the Italian Renaissance.

from On Holy Images (c. 730)

As we are treating of images and their worship, let us draw out the meaning more accurately and say in the first place what an image is; (2) Why the image was made; (3) How many kinds of images there are; (4) What may be expressed by an image, and what may not; (5) Who first made images. Again, as to worship: (1) What is worship; (2) How many kinds of worship there are; (3) What are the things worshipped in Scripture; (4) That all worship is for God, who is worshipful by nature; (5) That honour shown to the image is given to the original.

1st Point.What is an Image?

An image is a likeness and representation of some one, containing in itself the person who is imaged. The image is not usually an exact reproduction of the original. The image is one thing, the person represented another; a difference is generally perceptible, even though the subject of each is the same. For instance, the image of a man may give his bodily form, but not his mental powers. It has no life, nor does it speak or feel or move. A son being the natural image of his father is somewhat different from him, for he is a son, not a father.

2nd Point. For what purpose the Image is made.

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 popularizing of secret things, as a pure benefit and help to spiritual health, 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.

3rd Point.How many kinds of Images there are.

Images are of various kinds. First there is the natural image. In everything the natural conception must be the first, then we come to a construction according to imitation. The Son is the first natural and unchangeable image of the invisible God, the Father, showing the Father in Himself. "For no man has seen God" (Jn. 1.18). Again, "Not that any one has seen the Father" (Jn. 6.46). The apostle says that the Son is the image of the Father: "Who is the image of the invisible God" (Col. 1.15), and to the Hebrews, "Who being the brightness of His glory, and the figure of His substance" (Heb. 1.3). In the Gospel of St John we find that He does show the Father in Himself. When Philip said to Him, "Show us the Father and it is enough for us," our Lord replied, "Have I been so long with you and have you not known Me, Philip? He who sees Me, sees the Father" (Jn. 14.89). For the Son is the natural image of the Father, unchangeable, in everything like to the Father, except that He is procreated, and that He is not the Father. The Father procreates, being uncreated. The Son is procreated, and is not the Father, and the Holy Spirit is the image of the Son. For no one can say the Lord Jesus, except in the Holy Spirit. (I Cor. 12.3) Through the Holy Spirit we know Christ, the Son of God and God, and in the Son we look upon the Father. For in things that are conceived by nature, language is the interpreter, and spirit is the interpreter of language. The Holy Spirit is the perfect and unchangeable image of the Son, differing only in His procession. The Son is procreated, but does not proceed. And the son of any father is his natural image. Thus, the natural is the first kind of image.

The second kind of image is that foreknowledge which is in God's mind concerning future events, His eternal and unchanging counsel. God is unchangable and His counsel without beginning, and as it has been determined from all eternity, it is carried out at the time preordained by Him. Images and figures of what He is to do in the future, the distinct determination of each, are called "predeterminations" by holy Dionysius [the Areopagite]. In His counsels the things predetermined by Him were given their character and depicted and unchangably fixed before they took place.

The third sort of image is that by imitation which God made, that is, man. For how can what is created be of the same nature as what is uncreated, except by imitation? As Mind [the Father], the Word [the Son], and spirit [the Holy Spirit], are one God, so mind and word and spirit are one man, according to God's will and sovereign rule. For God says: "Let us make man according to our own image and likeness," and He adds, "I and let him have dominion over the fishes of the sea and the birds of the air, and the whole earth, and rule over it" (Gen. 1.26).

The fourth kind of image comprises the prefigurations and prototypes set forth by Scripture of invisible and immaterial things in bodily form; this happens for a clearer apprehension of God and the angels, because we are incapable of perceiving immaterial things unless clothed in similar material form, according to Dionysius the Areopagite, who was a man skilled in divine things. Anyone would say that our incapacity for reaching the contemplation of intellectual things, and our need of familiar and related materials, both make it necessary that immaterial things should be clothed in form and shape. If, then, holy Scripture adapts itself to us in seeking to elevate us above sense, does it not make images of what it clothes in our own matter, and bring within our reach that which we desire but are unable to see? The spiritual writer, Gregory, says that the mind striving to banish corporeal images reduces itself to helplessness. But from the creation of the world the invisible things of God are made clear by the visible creation. We see images in created things, which remind us faintly of divine attributes. For instance, sun and light and brightness, the running waters of a perennial fountain, our own mind and language and spirit, the sweet fragrance of a flowering rose tree, are images of the Holy and Eternal Trinity.

The fifth kind of image is that which is typical of the future, as the burning bush and Gideon's fleece, the rod and the urn, foreshadowing the Virginal Mother of God, and the serpent lifted up in the desert healing through the Cross those bitten by the serpent of old. Thus, again, the sea, and water and the cloud foreshadow the grace of baptism.

The sixth kind of image exists to remember past events, of a miracle or a good deed, for the honor and glory and abiding memory of the most virtuous, or for the shame and terror of the wicked, for the benefit of succeeding generations who see it, so that we may avoid evil and do good. This image is of two kinds: 1) through the written word in books, for the word represents the thing, as when God ordered the law to be written on tablets (Deut. 5.22), and the lives of God-fearing men to be recorded (Ex. 17.14); or 2) through a visible object, as when He commanded the urn and rod to be placed in the ark for a lasting memorial (Ex. 16.3334; Num. 17.10), and when He commanded the names of the tribes to be engraved on the stones of the humeral [ephod], the Jewish priestly vestment (Ex. 28.11-12). And also He commanded the twelve stones to be taken from the Jordan as a sacred sign (Jos. 4.20 ff). Consider the wonder, the greatest which occurred to the faithful people, the taking of the ark of the covanent, and the parting of the waters. So now we create the images of valiant men as an example and a memory for ourselves. Therefore, either reject all images, and be in opposition to Him who ordered these things, or receive each and all with becoming greeting and manner.

Fourth Chapter. What an Image is, what it is not; and how each Image is to be set forth.

Bodies, as having form and shape and colour, may properly be represented in image. Now if nothing physical or material may be attributed to an angel, a spirit, and a devil, yet they may be depicted and defined after their own nature. Being spiritual beings, they are believed to be present and to energize in places known to us in our minds. They are represented materially, as Moses made an image of the cherubim who were looked upon by those worthy of the honor, the material image offering them an immaterial and spiritual sight. Only the divine nature is uncircumscribed and incapable of being represented in form or shape, and incomprehensible.

If Holy Scripture clothes God in figures which are apparently material, and can even be seen, they are still immaterial. They were seen by the prophets and those to whom they were revealed, not with bodily but with spiritual eyes. They were not seen by all. In a word it may be said that we can make images of all the forms which we see. We apprehend these as if they were seen. If at times we understand prefigurations from reasoning, and also from what we see, and arrive at their comprehension in this way, so with every sense, from what we have smelt, or tasted, or touched, we arrive at apprehension by bringing our reason to bear upon our experience.

We know that it is impossible to look upon God, or a spirit, or a demon, as they are. They are seen in a certain form, divine providence clothing in symbol and figure what is without substance or material being, for our instruction, and more intimate knowledge, so that we should not be greatly ignorant of God and of the spirit world. For God is a pure Spirit by His nature. The angel, and a soul, and a demon, compared to God, who alone is incomparable, are bodies; but compared to material bodies, they are bodiless. God therefore, not wishing that we should be in ignorance of spirits, clothed them in symbol and figure, and in images like our nature, material forms visible to the mind in mental vision. These we put into form and shape, for how were the cherubim represented and described in image? But Scripture offers forms and images even of God.

Who first made an Image.

In the beginning God created His only created Son, His word, the living image of Himself, the natural and unchangeable image of His eternity. And He made man after His own image and likeness (Gen. 1.26). And Adam saw God, and heard the sound of His feet as He walked in the evening, and he hid in paradise (Gen. 3.8). And Jacob saw and struggled with God. It is evident that God appeared to him in the form of a man (Gen. 32.24 ff). And Moses saw as it were the back of a man (Ex. 33.24 ff), and Isaias saw Him as a man seated on a throne (Is. 6.1). And Daniel saw the likeness of a man, and as the Son of Man coming to the ancient of days (Dan. 7.9, 13). No one saw the nature of God, but the symbol and image of what was to be. For the Son and Word of the invisible God was to become man in truth, that He might be united to our nature, and be seen upon earth. Now all who looked upon the symbol and image of the future, worshipped it, as St Paul says in his epistle to the Hebrews: "All these died according to faith, not having received the promises, but beholding them afar off, and greeting them." (Heb. 11.13) Shall I not make an image of Him who took the nature of flesh for me? Shall I not reverence and worship Him, through the honor and worship of His image? Abraham did not see the nature of God, for no man ever saw God, but the image of God, and falling down he adored (Gen. 18.2). Josue saw the image of an angel (Jos. 5.14), not as he is, for an angel is not visible to bodily eyes, and falling down he adored, and so did Daniel. Yet an angel is a creature, and servant, and minister of God, not God. And he worshipped the angel not as God, but as God's ministering spirit. And shall not I make images of Christ's friends? And shall I not worship them as the images of God's friends, not as gods? Neither Josue nor Daniel worshipped the angels they saw as gods. Neither do I worship the image as God, but through the image of the saints, too, I show my worship to God, because I honor His friends, and do them reverence. God did not unite Himself to the angelic nature, but to the human. He did not become an angel: He became a man in nature, and in truth. It is indeed Abraham's seed which He embraces, not the angel's (Heb. 2.16).

The Son of God in person did not take the nature of the angels: He took the nature of man. The angels did not participate in the divine nature, but in working and in grace. Now, men do participate, and take part in the divine nature when they receive the holy Body of Christ and drink His Blood. For He is united in person to the divine nature, and two natures in the Body of Christ shared by us are united permanently in person, and we take part in the two natures, of the body in a bodily way, and of the divine essence in spirit, or, rather, of each in both. We are made one, not in person, for we already are a person, and then we are united by taking on the body and the blood. How are we not greater than the angels, if through faithfulness to the commandments we keep this perfect union? In itself our nature is far removed from the angels, on account of death and the heaviness of the body, but through God's goodness and the body's union with Him it has become higher than the angels. For angels stand by that nature with fear and trembling, as, in the person of Christ, it sits upon a throne of glory, and they will stand by in trembling at the judgment. According to Scripture they do not take part in the divine glory. For they are all ministering spirits, being sent to minister because of those who are to be heirs of spiritual health (Heb. 1.14), not that they shall reign together, nor that they shall be together glorified, nor that they shall sit at the table of the Father. The saints, on the contrary, are the children of God, the children of the kingdom, heirs of God, and co-heirs of Christ (Rom. 8.17). Therefore, I honor the saints, and glorify the servants and friends and co-heirs of Christ servants by nature, friends by their choice friends and co-heirs by divine grace, as our Lord said in speaking to the Father (Jn. 17).

As we are speaking of images, let us speak of worship also, and in the first place determine what it is.

On Adoration. What is Adoration?

Adoration is a token of subjection, that is of submission and humiliation. There are many kinds of adoration.

On the kinds of Adoration.

The first kind is the worship of latreia, which we give to God, who alone is adorable by nature, and this worship is shown in several ways, and first by the worship by servants. All created things worship Him, as servants their master. "All things serve You" (Ps. 119.91), the psalm says. Some serve willingly, others unwillingly; some with full knowledge, willingly, as in the case of the devout, others knowing, but not willing, against their will, as the devil's. Others, again, not knowing the true God, worship in spite of themselves Him whom they do not know.

The second kind is the worship of admiration and desire which we give to God on account of His essential glory. He alone is worthy of praise, who receives it from no one, being Himself the cause of all glory and all good, He is light, incomprehensible sweetness, incomparable, immeasurable perfection, an ocean of goodness, boundless wisdom, and power, who alone is worthy of Himself to excite admiration, to be worshipped, glorified, and desired.

The third kind of worship is that of thanksgiving for the goods we have received. We must thank God for all created things, and show Him perpetual worship, as from Him and through Him all creation takes its being and subsists (Col. 1.16-17). He gives lavishly of His gifts to all, and without being asked. He wishes all to be saved (I Tim. 2.4), and to take part in His goodness. He is patient with us sinners. He allows His sun to shine upon the just and unjust, and His rain to fall upon the wicked and the good alike (Mt. 5.45). And being the Son of God, He became one of us for our sakes, and made us to take part in His divine nature, so that "we shall be like Him" (I Jn. 3.2), as St John says in his universal epistle.

The fourth kind is suggested by the need and hope of benefits. Recognising that without Him we can neither do anything good nor possess anything good, we worship Him, asking Him to satisfy our needs and desires, that we may be preserved from evil and arrive at good.

The fifth kind is the worship of contrition and confession. As sinners we worship God, and prostrate ourselves before Him, needing His forgiveness, as it becomes servants. This happens in three ways. A man may be sorry out of love, or lest he should lose God's benefits, or for fear of chastisement. The first is prompted by goodness and desire for God himself, and the condition of a son: the second is interested, the third is slavish.

What we find worshipped in Scripture, and in how many ways we show worship to creatures

First, those places in which God, who alone is holy, has rested, and His resting-place in the saints, as in the holy Mother of God and in all the saints. These are they who are made like to God as far as possible, of their own free will, and by God's indwelling, and by His interior grace. They are truly called gods, not by nature, but by participation; just as red-hot iron is called fire, not by nature, but by participation in the fire's action. He says: "Be ye holy because I am holy" (Lev. 19.2). The first thing is the free choice of the will. Then, in the case of a good choice, God helps it on and confirms it. "I will live in them" (Lev. 26.12), He says. "We are the temples of God, and the Spirit of God dwells in us" (I Cor. 3.16). Again, "He gave them power over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all manner of diseases, and all manner of infirmities" (Mt. 10.1). And again, "That which I do you shall do, and greater things" (Jn. 14.12). Again: "As I live, God says, whosoever shall glorify Me, him will I glorify" (I Sam. 2.30). Again: "If we suffer with Him that we may be also glorified with Him (Rom. 8.17). And "God stood in the synagogue of the gods; in the midst of it He points out the gods" (Ps. 82.1). As, then, they are truly gods, not by nature, but as taking part in God's nature, so they are to be worshipped, not as worthy on their own account, but as possessing in themselves Him who is worthy by nature. Just in the same way iron when ignited is not by nature hot and burning to the touch, it is the fire which makes it so. They are worthy as exalted by God, as through Him inspiring fear to His enemies, and becoming benefactors to the faithful. It is love of God which gives them their free access to Him, not as gods or benefactors by nature, but as servants and ministers of God. We hold them worthy, then, as the king is honored through the honor given to a loved servant. He is honored as a minister in attendance upon his master--as a valued friend, not as king. The prayers of those who approach with faith are heard, whether through the servant's intercession with the king, or whether through the king's acceptance of the honor and faith shown by the servant's petitioner, for it was in his name that the petition was made. Thus, those who approached through the apostles obtained their cures. Thus the shadow, and winding-sheets, and girdles of the apostles worked healings (Acts 5.15). Those who perversely and profanely wish them to be adored as gods are themselves damnable, and deserve eternal fire. And those who in the false pride of their hearts disdain to hold God's servants worthy are convicted of impiety towards God. The children who derided and scorned Elisseus are witnesses to this, inasmuch as they were devoured by bears (II Kgs. 2.23).

Secondly, we hold creatures worthy by honoring those places or persons with whom God has associated the work of our spiritual health, whether before our Lord's coming or since the provision of His incarnation. For instance, I venerate Mount Sinai, Nazareth, the stable at Bethlehem, and the cave, the sacred mount of Golgotha, the wood of the Cross, the nails and sponge and reed, the sacred and saving lance, the dress and tunic, the linen cloths, the swathing clothes, the holy tomb, the source of our resurrection, the sepulchre, the holy mountain of Sion and the Mountain of Olives, the Pool of Bethsaida and the sacred garden of Gethsemane, and all similar spots. I cherish them and every holy temple of God, and everything connected with God's name, not on their own account but because they show forth the divine power, and through them and in them it pleased God to bring about our spiritual health. I venerate and hold angels and men worth, and all matter participating in divine power and ministering to our spiritual health through it. I do not worship the Jews. They are not participators in divine power, nor have they contributed to my spiritual health. They crucified my God, the King of Glory, moved rather by envy and hatred against God their Benefactor. "Lord, I have loved the beauty of Your house" (Ps. 26.8), says David, "we will adore in the place where his feet stood. And adore at His holy mountain" (Ps. 132.7; 99.9). The holy Mother of God is the living holy mountain of God. The apostles are the teaching mountains of God. "The mountains skipped like rams, and the hills like the lambs of the flock" (Ps. 114.3-5).

The third kind of worship is directed to objects dedicated to God, as, for instance, the holy Gospels and other sacred books. They were written for our instruction who live in these latter days. Sacred vessels, again, chalices, thuribles, candelabra, and altars belong to this category. It is evident that respect is due to them all. Consider how Baltassar made the people use the sacred vessels, and how God took away his kingdom from him (Dan. 5.2 ff).

The fourth kind of worship consists in images seen by the prophets. They saw God in sensible vision, and images of future things, as Aaron's rod (which is the figure of Our Lady's virginity), the urn, and the table. And Jacob worshipped on the point of his rod (Gen. 47.31). He was a prefiguration of our Lord. Images of past events recall their remembrance to present or future events. The tabernacle was an image of the whole world. "See," God said to Moses, "the symbol which was shown to you on the mountain, and the golden cherubim, the work of sculptors, and the cherubim within the veil of woven work" (Ex. 25.40). Thus we adore the sacred figure of the Cross, the likeness of our God's bodily features, the likeness of her who bore Him, and all belonging to Him.

The fifth manner is in the worship of each other as having upon us the mark of God and being made after His image, humbling ourselves mutually (Eph. 5.21), and so fulfilling the law of charity.

The sixth manner is holding as worthy those in power who have authority. "Give to all men their dues," the apostle says; "give honor where it is due" (Rom. 13.7). Jacob did this in worshipping Esau as his elder brother, and Pharaoh as the ruler established by God.

In the seventh place, the worship of servants towards their masters and benefactors, and of petitioners towards those who grant their requests, as in the case of Abraham when he bought the double cave from the sons of Emmor (Gen. 23.7, 12).

It is needless to say that fear, desire, and honor are tokens of worship, as also submission and humility. No one should be worshipped as God except the one true God. Whatever is due to all the rest is for God's sake.

You see what great strength and divine energy are given to those who venerate the images of the saints with faith and a pure conscience. Therefore, brothers, let us take our stand on the rock of the faith, and on the tradition of the Church, neither removing the boundaries laid down by our holy fathers of old (Prov. 22.28), nor listening to those who would introduce innovation and destroy the economy of the holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of God. If any man is to have his foolish way, in a short time the whole structure of the Church will be reduced to nothing. Brothers and beloved children of the Church, do not put your mother to shame, do not rend her to pieces. Receive her teaching through me. Listen to what God says of her: "You are all fair, O my love, and there is not a spot on you" (Cant. 4.7). Let us worship and adore our God and Creator as alone worthy of worship by nature, and let us worship the holy Mother of God, not as God, but as God's Mother according to the flesh. Let us worship the saints also, as the chosen friends of God, and as possessing access to Him. If men hold worthy kings subject to corruption, who are often bad and impious, and those ruling or deputed in their name, as the holy apostle says, "Be subject to princes and powers" (Tit. 3.1), and again, "Give to all their due, to one honor, to another fear" (Rom. 13.7), and our Lord, "Give to Caesar that which is Caesar's, and to God that which is God's" (Mt. 22.21), how much more should we worship the King of Kings? He alone is God by nature; and we should worship His servants and friends who reign over their passions and are constituted rulers of the whole earth. "You must make them princes over all the earth" (Ps. 45.16), says David. They receive power against demons and against disease (Lk. 9.1), and with Christ they reign over an incorruptible and unchangeable kingdom. Their shadow alone has put forth disease and demons (Acts 5.16). Should we not judge a shadow a slighter and weaker thing than an image? Yet it is a true outline of the original. Brothers, the Christian is faith. He who walks by faith gains many things. The doubter, on the contrary, is as a wave of the sea torn and tossed; he profits nothing (Jam. 1.6). All the saints pleased God by faith. Let us then receive the teaching of the Church in simplicity of heart without questioning. God made man sane and sound. It was man who was over-curious (Eccl. 7.30). Let us not seek to learn a new faith, destructive of ancient tradition, St Paul says, "If a man teach any other Gospel than what he has been taught, let him be excommunicated" (Gal. 1.9). Thus, we hold images worthy, and it is not a worship of matter, but of those whom matter represents. The honor given to the image is referred to the original, as holy Basil rightly says.

And may Christ fill you with the joy of His resurrection, most holy flock of Christ, Christian people, chosen race, body of the Church, and make you worthy to walk in the footsteps of the saints, of the shepherds and teachers of the Church, leading you to enjoy His glory in the brightness of the saints. May you gain His glory for eternity, with the Uncreated Father, to whom be praise for ever. Amen.

from St. John Damascene On Holy Images, trans. by Mary H. Allies (London, Thomas Baker, 1898), pp. 10-17.

from The Fount of Wisdom

But since some find fault with us for worshipping and honoring the image of our Savior and that of our Lady, and those, too, of the rest of the saints and servants of Christ, let them remember that in the beginning God created man after His own image. On what grounds, then, do we shew reference to each other unless because we are made after God's image? For as Basil (the Great, c. 330-379), that highly-educated expounder of divine things, says, the honor given to the image passes over to the original entitly. Now an original is that which is depicted, from that which the derivative is obtained. When was it that the people of Moses honored uniformly the tabernacle which bore an image and type of heavenly things, or rather of the whole creation? God indeed said to Moses, "Look that you make them according to their pattern that was shown you in the mount." The Cherubim, too, which overshadow the mercy seat, are they not the work of men's hands? What, further, is the celebrated temple at Jerusalem? Is it not handmade and fashioned through the skill of men?

Moreover divine Scripture blames those who worship carved images, but also those who sacrifice to demons. The Greeks sacrificed, and the Jews also sacrificed: but the Greeks to demons and the Jews to God. And the sacrifice of the Greeks was rejected and condemned, but the sacrifice of the just was very acceptable to God. For Noah sacrificed, and "God smelled a sweet savor," receiving the fragrance of the right choice and goodwill towards Him. And so the carved images of the Greeks, since then, were images of deities, were rejected and forbidden.

But besides this who can make an imitation of the invisible, incorporeal, uncircumscribed, formless God? Therefore to give form to the Deity is the height of folly and impiety. And hence it is that in the Old Testament the use of images was not uncommon. But after God in His bowels of pity became in truth man for our salvation, not as He was seen by Abraham in the semblance of a man, nor as He was seen by the prophets, but in being truly man, and after He lived upon the earth and dwelt among men, worked miracles, suffered, was crucified, rose again and was taken back to Heaven, since all these things actually took place and were seen by men, they were written for the remembrance and instruction of us who were not alive at that time in order that though we saw not, we may still, hearing and believing, obtain the blessing of the Lord. But seeing that not every one has a knowledge of letters nor time for reading, the Fathers gave their sanction to depicting these events on images as being acts of great heroism, in order that they should form a concise memorial of them. Often, doubtless, when we have not the Lord's passion in mind and see the image of Christ's crucifixion, His saving passion is brought back to remembrance, and we fall down and worship not the material but that which is imaged: just as we do not worship the material of which the Gospels are made, nor the material of the Cross, but that which these typify. For wherein does the cross, that typifies the Lord, differ from a cross that does not do so? it is just the same also in the case of the Mother of the Lord. For the honor which we give to her is referred to Him Who was made of her incarnate. And similarly also the brave acts of holy men stir us up to be brave and to emulate and imitate their valor and to glorify God. For as we said, the honor that is given to the best of fellow-servants is a proof of good-will towards our common Lady, and the honor rendered to the image passes over to the prototype. But this is an unwritten tradition, just as is also the worshipping towards the East and the worship of the Cross, and very many other similar things.

A certain tale, too, is told, how that when Augarus [ie. Abgar V (4BCE-50CE), King of Edessa and a reputed correspondent of Christ] was king over the city of the Edessenes, he sent a portrait painter to paint a likeness of the Lord, and when the painter could not paint because of the brightness that shone from His countenance, the Lord Himself put a garment over His own divine and life-giving face and impressed on it an image of Himself and sent this to Augarus, to satisfy thus his desire.

Moreover that the Apostles handed down much that was unwritten, Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles, tells us in these words: "Therefore, brethren, stand fast and bold the traditions which ye have been taught of us, whether by word or by epistle." And to the Corinthians he writes, "Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the traditions as I have delivered them to you."

trans S.D.F. Salmon in John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, in Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, (repr. Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1955), Vol IX, p. 88

Medieval Sourcebook: Iconoclastic Council, 754

Medieval Sourcebook: Iconoclastic Council, 754



The holy and Ecumenical synod, which by the grace of God and most pious command of the God-beloved and orthodox Emperors, Constantine and Leo,(2) now assembled in the imperial residence city, in the temple of the holy and inviolate Mother of God and Virgin Mary, surnamed in Blachernae, have decreed as follows.

Satan misguided men, so that they worshipped the creature instead of the Creator. The Mosaic law and the prophets cooperated to undo this ruin; but in order to save mankind thoroughly, God sent his own Son, who turned us away from error and the worshipping of idols, and taught us the worshipping of God in spirit and in truth. As messengers of his saving doctrine, he left us his Apostles and disciples, and these adorned the Church, his Bride, with his glorious doctrines. This ornament of the Church the holy Fathers and the six Ecumenical Councils have preserved inviolate. But the before-mentioned demi-urgos of wickedness could not endure the sight of this adornment, and gradually brought back idolatry under the appearance of Christianity. As then Christ armed his Apostles against the ancient idolatry with the power of the Holy Spirit, and sent them out into all the world, so has he awakened against the new idolatry his servants our faithful Emperors, and endowed them with the same wisdom of the Holy Spirit. Impelled by the Holy Spirit they could no longer be witnesses of the Church being laid waste by the deception of demons, and summoned the sanctified assembly of the God-beloved bishops, that they might institute at a synod a scriptural examination into the deceitful coloring of the pictures (omoiwmatwn) which draws down the spirit of man from the lofty adoration (latreias) of God to the low and material adoration (latreian) of the creature, and that they, under divine guidance, might express their view on the subject.

Our holy synod therefore assembled, and we, its 338 members, follow the older synodal decrees, and accept and proclaim joyfully the dogmas handed down, principally those of the six holy Ecumenical Synods. In the first place the holy and ecumenical great synod assembled at Nice, etc.

After we had carefully examined their decrees under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we found that the unlawful art of painting living creatures blasphemed the fundamental doctrine of our salvation--namely, the Incarnation of Christ, and contradicted the six holy synods. These condemned Nestorius because he divided the one Son and Word of God into two sons, and on the other side, Arius, Dioscorus, Eutyches, and Severus, because they maintained a mingling of the two natures of the one Christ.

Wherefore we thought it right, to show forth with all accuracy, in our present definition the error of such as make and venerate these, for it is the unanimous doctrine of all the holy Fathers and of the six Ecumenical Synods, that no one may imagine any kind of separation or mingling in opposition to the unsearchable, unspeakable, and incomprehensible union of the two natures in the one hypostasis or person. What avails, then, the folly of the painter, who from sinful love of gain depicts that which should not be depicted--that is, with his polluted hands he tries to fashion that which should only be believed in the heart and confessed with the mouth? He makes an image and calls it Christ. The name Christ signifies God and man. Consequently it is an image of God and man, and consequently he has in his foolish mind, in his representation of the created flesh, depicted the Godhead which cannot be represented, and thus mingled what should not be mingled. Thus he is guilty of a double blasphemy--the one in making an image of the Godhead, and the other by mingling the Godhead and manhood. Those fall into the same blasphemy who venerate the image, and the same woe rests upon both, because they err with Arius, Dioscorus, and Eutyches, and with the heresy of the Acephali. When, however, they are blamed for undertaking to depict the divine nature of Christ, which should not be depicted, they take refuge in the excuse: We represent only the flesh of Christ which we have seen and handled. But that is a Nestorian error. For it should be considered that that flesh was also the flesh of God the Word, without any separation, perfectly assumed by the divine nature and made wholly divine. How could it now be separated and represented apart? So is it with the human soul of Christ which mediates between the Godhead of the Son and the dulness of the flesh. As the human flesh is at the same time flesh of God the Word, so is the human soul also soul of God the Word, and both at the same time, the soul being deified as well as the body, and the Godhead remained undivided even in the separation of the soul from the body in his voluntary passion. For where the soul of Christ is, there is also his Godhead; and where the body of Christ is, there too is his Godhead. If then in his passion the divinity remained inseparable from these, how do the fools venture to separate the flesh from the Godhead, and represent it by itself as the image of a mere man? They fall into the abyss of impiety, since they separate the flesh from the Godhead, ascribe to it a subsistence of its own, a personality of its own, which they depict, and thus introduce a fourth person into the Trinity. Moreover, they represent as not being made divine, that which has been made divine by being assumed by the Godhead. Whoever, then, makes an image of Christ, either depicts the Godhead which cannot be depicted, and mingles it with the manhood (like the Monophysites), or he represents the body of Christ as not made divine and separate and as a person apart, like the Nestorians.

The only admissible figure of the humanity of Christ, however, is bread and wine in the holy Supper. This and no other form, this and no other type, has he chosen to represent his incarnation. Bread he ordered to be brought, but not a representation of the human form, so that idolatry might not arise. And as the body of Christ is made divine, so also this figure of the body of Christ, the bread, is made divine by the descent of the Holy Spirit; it becomes the divine body of Christ by the mediation of the priest who, separating the oblation from that which is common, sanctifies it.

The evil custom of assigning names to the images does not come down from Christ and the Apostles and the holy Fathers; nor have these left behind then, any prayer by which an image should be hallowed or made anything else than ordinary matter.

If, however, some say, we might be right in regard to the images of Christ, on account of the mysterious union of the two natures, but it is not right for us to forbid also the images of the altogether spotless and ever-glorious Mother of God, of the prophets, apostles, and martyrs, who were mere men and did not consist of two natures; we may reply, first of all: If those fall away, there is no longer need of these. But we will also consider what may be said against these in particular. Christianity has rejected the whole of heathenism, and so not merely heathen sacrifices, but also the heathen worship of images. The Saints live on eternally with God, although they have died. If anyone thinks to call them back again to life by a dead art, discovered by the heathen, he makes himself guilty of blasphemy. Who dares attempt with heathenish art to paint the Mother of God, who is exalted above all heavens and the Saints? It is not permitted to Christians, who have the hope of the resurrection, to imitate the customs of demon-worshippers, and to insult the Saints, who shine in so great glory, by common dead matter.

Moreover, we can prove our view by Holy Scripture and the Fathers. In the former it is said: "God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth;" and: "You shall not make you any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath;" on which account God spoke to the Israelites on the Mount, from the midst of the fire, but showed them no image. Further: "They changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man,... and served the creature more than the Creator."

Supported by the Holy Scriptures and the Fathers, we declare unanimously, in the name of the Holy Trinity, that there shall be rejected and removed and cursed one of the Christian Church every likeness which is made out of any material and color whatever by the evil art of painters.

Whoever in future dares to make such a thing, or to venerate it, or set it up in a church, or in a private house, or possesses it in secret, shall, if bishop, presbyter, or deacon, be deposed; if monk or layman, be excommunicated ["anathematised"], and become liable to be tried by the secular laws as an adversary of God and an enemy of the doctrines handed down by the Fathers. At the same time we ordain that no incumbent of a church shall venture, under pretext of destroying the error in regard to images, to lay his hands on the holy vessels in order to have them altered, because they are adorned with figures. The same is provided in regard to the vestments of churches, cloths, and all that is dedicated to divine service. If, however, the incumbent of a church wishes to have such church vessels and vestments altered, he must do this only with the assent of the holy Ecumenical patriarch and at the bidding of our pious Emperors. So also no prince or secular official shall rob the churches, as some have done in former times, under the pretext of destroying images. All this we ordain, believing that we speak as does the Apostle, for we also believe that we have the spirit of Christ; and as our predecessors who believed the same thing spake what they had synodically defined, so we believe and therefore do we speak, and set forth a definition of what has seemed good to us following and in accordance with the definitions of our Fathers.

(1) If anyone shall not confess, according to the tradition of the Apostles and Fathers, in the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost one godhead, nature and substance, will and operation, virtue and dominion, kingdom and power in three subsistences, that is in their most glorious Persons, let him be excommunicated.

(2) If anyone does not confess that one of the Trinity was made flesh, let him be excommunicated.

(3) If anyone does not confess that the holy Virgin is truly the Mother of God, etc.

(4) If anyone does not confess one Christ both God and man, etc.

(5) If anyone does not confess that the flesh of the Lord is life-giving because it is the flesh of the Word of God, etc.

(6) If anyone does not confess two natures in Christ, etc.

(7) If anyone does not confess that Christ is seated with God the Father in body and soul, and so will come to judge, and that he will remain God forever without any grossness, etc.

(8) If anyone ventures to represent the divine image (karakthr) of the Word after the Incarnation with material colors, let him be excommunicated!

(9) If anyone ventures to represent in human figures, by means of material colors, by reason of the incarnation, the substance or person (ousia or hypostasis) of the Word, which cannot be depicted, and does not rather confess that even after the Incarnation he [i.e., the Word] cannot be depicted, let him be excommunicated!

(10) If anyone ventures to represent the hypostatic union of the two natures in a picture, and calls it Christ, and fires falsely represents a union of the two natures, etc.!

(11) If anyone separates the flesh united with the person of the Word from it, and endeavors to represent it separately in a picture, etc.!

(12) If anyone separates the one Christ into two persons, and endeavors to represent Him who was born of the Virgin separately, and thus accepts only a relative (sketikh) union of the natures, etc.

(13) If anyone represents in a picture the flesh deified by its union with the Word, and thus separates it from the Godhead, etc.

(14) If anyone endeavors to represent by material colors, God the Word as a mere man, who, although bearing the form of God, yet has assumed the form of a servant in his own person, and thus endeavors to separate him from his inseparable Godhead, so that he thereby introduces a quaternity into the Holy Trinity, etc.

(15) If anyone shall not confess the holy ever-virgin Mary, truly and properly the Mother of God, to be higher than every creature whether visible or invisible, and does not with sincere faith seek her intercessions as of one having confidence in her access to our God, since she bare him, etc.

(16) If anyone shall endeavor to represent the forms of the Saints in lifeless pictures with material colors which are of no value (for this notion is vain and introduced by the devil), and does not rather represent their virtues as living images in himself, etc.

(17) If anyone denies the profit of the invocation of Saints, etc.

(18) If anyone denies the resurrection of the dead, and the judgment, and the condign retribution to everyone, endless torment and endless bliss, etc.

(19) If anyone does not accept this our Holy and Ecumenical Seventh Synod, let him be excommunicated from the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, and from the seven holy Ecumenical Synods!

[Then follows the prohibition of the making or teaching any other faith, and the penalties for disobedience. After this follow the acclamations.]

The divine Kings Constantine and Leo said: Let the holy and ecumenical synod say, if with the consent of all the most holy bishops the definition just read has been set forth.

The holy synod cried out: Thus we all believe, we all are of the same mind. We have all with one voice and voluntarily subscribed. This is the faith of the Apostles. Many years to the Emperors! They are the light of orthodoxy! Many years to the orthodox Emperors! God preserve your Empire! You have now more firmly proclaimed the inseparability of the two natures of Christ! You have banished all idolatry! You have destroyed the heresies of Germanus [of Constantinople], George and Mansur [mansour, John Damascene]. Excommunication to Germanus, the double-minded, and worshipper of wood! Excommunication to George, his associate, to the falsifier of the doctrine of the Fathers! Excommunication to Mansur, who has an evil name and Saracen opinions! To the betrayer of Christ and the enemy of the Empire, to the teacher of impiety, the perverter of Scripture, Mansur, excommunicated! The Trinity has deposed these three!(1)

from The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church, trans H. R. Percival, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, ed. P. Schaff and H. Wace, (repr. Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1955), XIV, pp 543-44

Medieval Sourcebook: Decree of Second Council of Nicea, 787


. (Found in Labbe and Cossart, Concilia. Tom. VII., col. 552.)

The holy, great, and Ecumenical Synod which by the grace of God and the will of the pious and Christ-loving Emperors, Constantine and Irene, his mother, was gathered together for the second time at Nice, the illustrious metropolis of Bithynia, in the holy church of God which is named Sophia, having followed the tradition of the Catholic Church, has defined as follows:

Christ our Lord, who has bestowed upon us the light of the knowledge of himself, and has redeemed us from the darkness of idolatrous madness, having espoused to himself the Holy Catholic Church without spot or defect, promised that he would so preserve her: and gave his word to this effect to his holy disciples when he said: "Lo ! I am with you always, even unto the end of the world," which promise he made, not only to them, but to us also who should believe in his name through their word. But some, not considering of this gift, and having become fickle through the temptation of the wily enemy, have fallen from the right faith; for, withdrawing from the traditions of the Catholic Church, they have erred from the truth and as the proverb saith: "The husbandmen have gone astray in their own husbandry and have gathered in their hands nothingness," because certain priests, priests in name only, not in fact, had dared to speak against the God-approved ornament of the sacred monuments, of whom God cries aloud through the prophet, "Many pastors have corrupted my vineyard, they have polluted my portion."

And, in truth, following profane men, led astray by their carnal sense, they have calumniated the Church of Christ our God, which he has espoused to himself, and have failed to distinguish between holy and profane, styling the images of our Lord and of his Saints by the same name as the statues of diabolical idols. Seeing which things, our Lord God (not willing to behold his people corrupted by such manner of plague) has of his good pleasure called us together, the chief of his priests, from every quarter, moved with a divine zeal and brought hither by the will of our princes, Constantine and Irene, to the end that the traditions of the Catholic Church may receive stability by our common decree. Therefore, with all diligence, making a thorough examination and analysis, and following the trend of the truth, we diminish nought, we add nought, but we preserve unchanged all things which pertain to the Catholic Church, and following the Six Ecumenical Synods, especially that which met in this illustrious metropolis of Nice, as also that which was afterwards gathered together in the God-protected Royal City.

We believe of the world to come. Amen.[The Nicene- Constantinopolitan Creed]

We detest and excommunicate Arius and all the sharers of his absurd opinion; also Macedonius and those who following him are well styled "Foes of the Spirit" (Pneumatomachi). We confess that our Lady, St. Mary, is properly and truly the Mother of God, because she was the Mother after the flesh of One Person of the Holy Trinity, to wit, Christ our God, as the Council of Ephesus has already defined when it cast out of the Church the impious Nestorius with his colleagues, because he taught that there were two Persons [in Christ]. With the Fathers of this synod we confess that he who was incarnate of the immaculate Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary has two natures, recognizing him as perfect God and perfect man, as also the Council of Chalcedon hath promulgated, expelling from the divine Atrium [aulhs] as blasphemers, Eutyches and Dioscorus; and placing in the same category Severus, Peter and a number of others, blaspheming in divers fashions. Moreover, with these we excommunicate the fables of Origen, Evagrius, and Didymus, in accordance with the decision of the Fifth Council held at Constantinople. We affirm that in Christ there be two wills and two operations according to the reality of each nature, as also the Sixth Synod, held at Constantinople, taught, casting out Sergius, Honorius, Cyrus, Pyrrhus, Macarius, and those who agree with them, and all those who are unwilling to be reverent.

To make our confession short, we keep unchanged all the ecclesiastical traditions handed down to us, whether in writing or verbally, one of which is the making of pictorial representations, agreeable to the history of the preaching of the Gospel, a tradition useful in many respects, but especially in this, that so the incarnation of the Word of God is shown forth as real and not merely phantastic, for these have mutual indications and without doubt have also mutual significations.

We, therefore, following the royal pathway and the divinely inspired authority of our Holy Fathers and the traditions of the Catholic Church (for, as we all know, the Holy Spirit indwells her), define with all certitude and accuracy that just as the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross, so also the venerable and holy images, as well in painting and mosaic as of other fit materials, should be set forth in the holy churches of God, and on the sacred vessels and on the vestments and on hangings and in pictures both in houses and by the wayside, to wit, the figure of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady, the Mother of God, of the honorable Angels, of all Saints and of all pious people. For by so much more frequently as they are seen in artistic representation, by so much more readily are men lifted up to the memory of their prototypes, and to a longing after them; and to these should be given due salutation and honorable reverence (aspasmon kai timhtikhn proskunh-sin), not indeed that true worship of faith (latreian>) which pertains alone to the divine nature; but to these, as to the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross and to the Book of the Gospels and to the other holy objects, incense and lights may be offered according to ancient pious custom. For the honor which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres in it the subject represented. For thus the teaching of our holy Fathers, that is the tradition of the Catholic Church, which from one end of the earth to the other hath received the Gospel, is strengthened. Thus we follow Paul, who spake in Christ, and the whole divine Apostolic company and the holy Fathers, holding fast the traditions which we have received. So we sing prophetically the triumphal hymns of the Church, "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Sion; Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem. Rejoice and be glad with all your heart. The Lord has taken away from you the oppression of your adversaries; you are redeemed from the hand of your enemies. The Lord is a King in the midst of you; you shall not see evil any more, and peace be unto you forever."

Those, therefore who dare to think or teach otherwise, or as wicked heretics to spurn the traditions of the Church and to invent some novelty, or else to reject some of those things which the Church has received (e.g., the Book of the Gospels, or the image of the cross, or the pictorial icons, or the holy reliques of a martyr), or evilly and sharply to devise anything subversive of the lawful traditions of the Catholic Church or to turn to common uses the sacred vessels or the venerable monasteries,[1] if they be Bishops or Clerics, we command that they be deposed; if religious or laics, that they be cut off from communion.

[After all had signed, the acclamations began (col. 576).]

The holy Synod cried out: So we all believe, we all are so minded, we all give our consent and have signed. This is the faith of the Apostles, this is the faith of the orthodox, this is the faith which has made firm the whole world. Believing in one God, to be celebrated in Trinity, we salute the honorable images ! Those who do not so hold, let them be excommunicated. Those who do not thus think, let them be driven far away from the Church. For we follow the most ancient legislation of the Catholic Church. We keep the laws of the Fathers. We excommunicate those who add anything to or take anything away from the Catholic Church. We excommunicate the introduced novelty of the revilers of Christians. We salute the venerable images. We place under excommunication those who do not do this. Excommunication to them who presume to apply to the venerable images the things said in Holy Scripture about. idols. Excommunication to those who do not salute the holy and venerable images. Excommunication to those who call the sacred images idols. Excommunication to those who say that Christians resort to the sacred images as to gods. Excommunication to those who say that any other delivered us from idols except Christ our God. Excommunication to those who dare to say that at any time the Catholic Church received idols.

Many years to the Emperors, etc., etc.

from The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church, trans H. R. Percival, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, ed. P. Schaff and H. Wace, (repr. Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1955), XIV, pp 549-551

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(c)Paul Halsall Feb 1996