American Orthodox Catholic Christianity

Faith Of Our Fathers Series

St. John of Damascus: On the Holy Images

Commemorated December 4 

     St. John grew up at the court of Damascus where he succeeded his father as the caliph's chief councillor. He was educated as a Christian by a slave who was an Orthodox monk. A talented writer, he wielded his pen so successfully in battle against the iconoclasts that they slandered him before the Caliph, whereupon he was dismissed and his right hand cut off. It was miraculously restored after fervent prayer before an icon of the Mother of God. St. John then retired to the monastery of St. Sabbas near Jerusalem, where he continued to produce an inspired stream of commentaries, hymns and apologetical writings, including the Octoechos (the Church's service book of eight tones) and An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, a summary of the dogmatic writings of the Early Church Fathers. He died in 749 as a revered Father of the Church.


(On the Divine Images: extracts)

       Things which have already taken place are remembered by means of images, whether for the purpose of inspiring wonder, or honor, or shame, or to encourage those who look upon them to practice good and avoid evil. These images are of two kinds: either they are words written in books, as when God had the law engraved on tablets and desired the lives of holy men to be recorded, or else they are material images, such as the jar of manna, or Aaron's staff, which were to be kept in the ark as a memorial. So when we record events and good deeds of the past, we use images .... 

      In former times God, who is without form or body, could never be depicted. But now when God is seen in the flesh conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take His abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter. Never will I cease honoring the matter which wrought my salvation! I honor it, but not as God. How could God be born out of things which have no existence in themselves? God's body is God because it is joined to His person by a union which shall never pass away. The divine nature remains the same; the flesh created in time is quickened by a reason endowed soul. Because of this I salute all remaining matter with reverence, because God has filled it with His grace and power. Through it my salvation has come to me. Was not the thrice-happy and thrice blessed wood of the Cross matter? What of the life bearing rock, the holy and life-giving tomb, the fountain of our resurrection, was it not matter? Is not the ink in the most holy Gospel-book matter? Is not the life-giving altar made of matter? From it we receive the bread of life! Are not gold and silver matter? From them we make crosses, patens, chalices! And over and above all these things, is not the Body and Blood of our Lord matter? Either do away with the honor and veneration these things deserve, or accept the tradition of the Church and the veneration of images... 

       ...Just as words edify the ear, so also the image stimulates the eye. What the book is to the literate, the image is to the illiterate. Just as words speak to the ear, so the image speaks to the sight; it brings us understanding. For this reason God ordered the ark to be constructed of wood which would not decay, and to be gilded outside and in, and for the tablets to be placed inside, with Aaron's staff and the golden urn containing the manna, in order to provide a remembrance of the past, and an image of the future.

      Who can say that these were not images, heralds sounding from far off? ...Obviously they were not adored for their own sake, but through them the people were led to remember the wonders of old and to worship God, the worker of wonders. They were images serving as memorials; they were not divine, but led to the remembrance of divine power.

      Some would say: Make an image of Christ and of His Mother, the Theotokos, and let that be enough. What foolishness! Your own impious words prove that you utterly despise the saints. If you make an image of Christ, and not of the saints, it is evident that you do not forbid images, but refuse to honor the saints. You make images of Christ as one who is glorified, yet you deprive the saints of their rightful glory, and call truth falsehood. The Lord says, I will glorify those who glorify Me (1 Sam. 2:30)....The Scripture calls the saints gods, when it says, God has taken His place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods He holds judgment (Ps. 82:1). St. Gregory interprets these words to mean that God takes His place in the assembly of the saints, determining the glory due to each. The saints during their earthly lives were filled with the Holy Spirit, and when they fulfill their course, His grace continues to abide with their spirits and with their bodies in the tombs, and also with their likenesses and holy images, not by the nature of these things, but by grace and power. 

     If you speak of pagan abuses, these abuses do not make our veneration of images loathsome. Blame the pagans, who made images into gods! Just because the pagans used them in a foul way, that is no reason to object to our pious practice. Sorcerers and magicians use incantations and the Church prays over catechumens; the former conjure up demons while the Church calls upon God to exorcise the demons. Pagans make images of demons which they address as gods, but we make images of God incarnate, and of His servants and friends, and with them we drive away the demonic hosts....If the Scripture says, The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of men's hands (Ps. 135:15), it is not forbidden to bow before inanimate things, or the handiwork of men, but only before those images which are the devil's work. 

       The holy Basil says: "Both painters of words and painters of pictures illustrate valor in battle; the former by the art of rhetoric; the latter by clever use of the brush, and both encourage everyone to be brave. A spoken account edifies the ear, while a silent picture induces imitation."

       What more conspicuous proof do we need that images are the books of the illiterate, the never silent heralds of the honor due the saints, teaching without use of words those who gaze upon them, and sanctifying the sense of sight? Suppose I have few books, or little leisure for reading, but walk into the spiritual hospital--that is to say, a church--with my soul choking from the prickles of thorny thoughts, and thus afflicted I see before me the brilliance of the icon. I am refreshed as if in a verdant meadow, and thus my soul is led to glorify God...

(St. John of Damascus, On the Divine Images, SVS Press, 1980; 107 pp.)

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