Since the year 843, the first Sunday of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church has come to be what is called officially the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, and on this day in America, Orthodox Christians in various cities and regions get together to celebrate this special feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. The first Sunday of Lent received this name because in the year 843, on the first Sunday of the Great Lenten season, the holy icons were formally and officially returned into the churches and into the Cathedral of Holy Wisdom in Constantinople for veneration. This ended a period of more than a century of attack against the making and the venerating—particularly the venerating—of images of Christ and of his mother Mary and of the saints, holy people, and of the events in the Scriptures. There were those who said that making images, painting them on wood or making them from mosaic stones or painting them as frescoes on the walls of the churches was improper, that it was wrong, that it was contrary to the Christian faith.
The making of icons began relatively early in Christian history, particularly in the areas of the Roman Byzantine empire. The Semitic Christians, from early times, did not have the holy icons. It wasn’t part of the tradition until later. But already in the fourth century, we know that there were paintings, frescoes, depicting Christ. We know, earlier even, that there were paintings on the walls of the catacombs in the earliest Christian period, kind of symbolic paintings, showing Jesus as a young man with a lamb on his shoulder, or there were sometimes symbolical things put on the walls which the Christians praised, like the sign of the cross and so on.
But then there developed the practice of making frescoes and mosaics and images of Christ and venerating them in the church. Already St. Basil the Great in the fourth century said the veneration and the honor that is shown to an icon, an image, goes to its archetype, goes to its prototype. So if the Christian would venerate an icon of Jesus or of some saint or some martyr, the veneration and the honor that would be shown to that person that was depicted would be, obviously—or at least it should be obvious—transferred to the person himself, and in the case of Jesus, this would be to the Lord himself.
Now, this practice wasn’t too widespread. Epiphanios of Salamis, for example, in the end of the fourth century, was opposed to making images of Christ. He thought that that wasn’t proper. So it was a kind of a debated issue, but already we know that by the sixth century, when Justinian was the emperor, beautiful churches were built with mosaics. For example, in Italy you can still see from that period in Ravenna the mosaics of Christ and the Theotokos and the martyrs, and particularly on Mount Sinai, at St. Catherine’s Monastery, there are even panel icons that dated from about that time with the splendid mosaic of the Transfiguration of Christ in the apse. So the icon was a part of the Church Tradition.
The making of icons and the venerating of icons was part of the Church Tradition—until the early part of the eighth century, the 700s. What happened at that time is that there emerged a movement that attacked the making and venerating of icons. They said this is just not right; it is not according to the Christian faith. And then there was a persecution, sponsored by the emperors, who were opposed to the holy icons, persecuting those who protected them, those who held them, those who venerated them. This period of martyrdom lasted for about a hundred years, and it was a controversy of very bloody nature. In fact, some historians think that perhaps more Christians suffered and even died in defense of the holy icons than in the early period of Christianity when the Church was an illegal institution in the Roman Empire. Sometimes this century, from the middle of the eighth century to the middle of the ninth century, to the year 843, is sometimes even called in Orthodox history the Century of Blood. The Century of Blood.
Why were Christians opposed to the making of holy icons? And there seem to be even such Christians around today who would be opposed to making icons, and certainly opposed to venerating them, bowing down before them, incensing them, kissing them. They would say that this is simply wrong, that this is against Christian faith. Well, the arguments that were used were, first of all, from the Old Testament, saying: God is invisible and you shall not make graven images; there shall be no graven images made of God. God cannot be seen, therefore you cannot have images of any kind.
There also was, at this time, the influence of Islam, [which] became very powerful. We know that in the 600s, in the seventh century, Mohammed began the religion that was called, is now known as Islam or Mohammedanism or the Muslim religion. St. John of Damascus, who was himself an Arabic Christian, at that time, he called Islam a Christian heresy. He listed it as a kind of deviation of the Christian faith among Arab people.
But Islam was and still is violently opposed to the making of any kind of images, including images of human beings. In mosques you will have beautiful calligraphy but no images at all. When Islam began to triumph, and then you had the… especially later, in the times of the Turkish empire, the Ottoman Empire, then the Christian icons were often destroyed or they were painted over or the faces were gouged out, because it was considered impious and even blasphemous to paint the image of a person. And of course God in Islam—Allah—is not incarnate. God is God, totally invisible, incomprehensible, ineffable to the human mind, and that is a point, of course, upon which Christians would agree with Muslim people.
However, the issue at stake was the issue of the Incarnation of the Son of God. The Christian faith held that Jesus Christ was begotten of the Father before all ages and was born of the Virgin Mary on earth as a real human being. The very essence of the Christian faith, as Dostoyevsky, a Russian writer of the 19th century once said when he was asked, “What really differentiates Christianity from all the other philosophies and religions on earth, all that human beings would hold and believe?” he said: The main thing is that middle of the prologue of the Gospel according to St. John, which, by the way in the Orthodox Church is read on Easter Sunday, on the Feast of the Holy Pascha, where it is written that:
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him. Nothing came to be except through him. In him was life. In him was light.
And then by the time you get to the 14th verse, you have what Dostoyevsky said was the very essence of the Christian faith, the very essence of Christian conviction, and that is the famous line:
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. And we beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.
So the center of Christianity is the Incarnation of the Logos or the Word of God, who is also called his only-begotten Son in the Gospel of St. John: the Incarnation, meaning that the divine Son of God really became the Son of Mary and really became a human being, so that, in Jesus Christ, the invisible God becomes visible; the uncontainable God is contained; the uncircumscribable God is circumscribed in human flesh; and the center of Christian faith is incarnation, and that is what Islam denied. Islam believed that Jesus was born of a virgin. They believed that he was a holy man. The believe that he was the penultimate prophet before Mohammed, but he was not God’s Son. And they also, according to the Quran, [believe that] Jesus never died on the cross; he never could be crucified, because God’s prophet could not be humiliate; God’s prophet could not take on a shameful death, he could not be rejected: he was the power person. And therefore, according to the Quran, Jesus never really died.
So as St. John of Damascus said at that very time—and it’s been repeated very much through Christian history—what Islam did was to deny the two main Christian doctrines: the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, namely, that the one God and Father begets a Son who is incarnate as Jesus and breathes forth his most-Holy Spirit so that divinity, the Godhead, is the one God and Father and the Lord Jesus Christ and the most-Holy Spirit; and then denying that Jesus is divine, then Islam also denies an incarnation of a divine Person, because Jesus is merely human; he is not divine at all.
As someone once said, Islam came into existence to deny the Trinity and the Incarnation. Someone once put it that Islam denies in Orthodox terminology the Trikirion and the Dikirion, and in Orthodox church services when a bishop serves, he very often walks around carrying two candles, or two candlesticks with and around the bishop. One is called a trikiri, which has three candles, and the other has two candles, a dikirion, but these stand for the Holy Trinity and the fact that Jesus Christ is both God and man. So the painting of an image and venerating it and certainly the image of Jesus Christ would be considered absolutely unacceptable.
Now the Christians who did believe in the divinity of Christ, many of them were against the veneration of icons, not only because the Old Testament forbade making graven images, but also because they said that God is invisible, so if you paint an icon, you only have the humanity of Christ; you don’t have the Person of Christ himself, who is both God and man, divine with the same divinity as God the Father and the Holy Spirit and human with the same humanity that we all share, which are Orthodox Christian dogmas. These are dogmas: that Jesus is homoousion tō Patri, of one essence with the Father—that’s what Nicaea said—and that he is also homoousion or of the very same substance, nature, humanity, that we all share according to his humanity, which is the teaching of the Third and the Fourth and the Fifth Ecumenical Councils of the Orthodox Church.
There were those who were against the icons because they said it divides the divinity and the humanity of Jesus. You only have the humanity depicted, and therefore that’s not really Christ, who is both God and man, because the divinity of Christ cannot be depicted.
So it happened that in the eighth century Christians, probably influenced by Islam, began to attack the veneration of holy icons. When the emperors and the bishops adopted that particular position by military force, the frescoes and the mosaics and the icons were removed from churches. People were not allowed to keep icons. Those who were caught with icons were persecuted. Many of them were put to death because they refused to surrender their icons, or they refused to degrade them.
For example, one St. Stephen, the story goes that the soldiers caught him with icons and venerating them. So they took the icons from his hands and threw them on the ground and told Stephen to step on the icon, and he refused. And they said, “Well, why? It’s just a board. It’s just paint. It’s just a picture. There’s nothing particularly sacred about it.” And so Stephen responded by saying to the soldiers, “Whose insignia is that on your uniform and your soldiers’ clothing?” And they said, “That’s the image of the emperor, the emperor’s image.”
And Stephen said, “Rip it off and throw it on the ground and trample it.” Then the soldiers beat him and said to him, “How can you say that? That’s the image of the emperor and you’re asking us to trample it on the ground?” And Stephen said, “Well, this image is my emperor. Christ is my king, and I will not degrade or do any kind of violation to his image, because that image is holy because it’s the image of him. It is the presence in the image, in the painting, in the mosaic, of Christ himself. Just like the Lord is present in his word, in holy Scripture, so the Lord is present in his image in the holy icon.”
Here we find the main defense of the holy icons by those who defended them. The great defenders were St. John of Damascus, whom I just mentioned, and St. Theodore and the other monks of the Studios Monastery in Constantinople. Their argument was very simple, very biblical, very scriptural. They said when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, it’s written in Scripture, we beheld his glory. We saw the glory of God in Jesus. We saw the divinity of God shining through his humanity. We saw this in his face. And then the Apostle Paul would write this in his [letters], especially in his second letter to Corinthians and the letter to Colossians. He said it; St. Paul said it in so many words. He said:
The light of the glory of God that comes to us now through the Gospel that once shone from the face of Moses when he was on the mountaintop now shines forth to us (he says) apo tou prosopou tou Kyriou, from the face of the Lord (the Lord Jesus Christ), hos estin eikon tou theou, who is the icon of God.
That every human being was made kat’ eikona Theou, according to the image of God, but that image of God according to which all human beings were made is the Lord Jesus Christ himself. And in the letter to the Colossians the Apostle Paul said that Christ is the head over all things, he’s the first of all creatures, he’s the firstborn of the dead. And then it says, then the Apostle Paul even wrote that he is the icon of the invisible God. Eikōn tou Theou to aoratou, it says in Greek. Here St. Irenaeus in the second century, third century, quoted St. Paul when he said that Jesus Christ is the visible of the invisible. The invisible God is God the Father; the visible God is Jesus Christ, and he’s visible in his humanity, because God as God is invisible.
So what St. John and St. Theodore and the other defenders of the holy icons claimed is that Jesus reveals God through his humanity. He doesn’t conceal God; he reveals God. God is made known through his human flesh, and therefore can be seen and heard and tasted and touched and smelled; that God really is with us in Jesus. And here, the defenders of the icons would also refer to the Gospel according to St. John. In the Gospel according to St. John, at this final discourse, when Jesus was speaking with his disciples after the Supper, at the very long discourse that goes from 13:31 all the way to the end of the 17th chapter, Jesus was teaching openly about his relationship to God the Father and his relationship to the Holy Spirit, his relationship to the Christians.
Then when he was speaking openly, the Apostle Philip says to him—it’s the 14th chapter—he said to him, “Ah, now you are speaking openly, no longer in parables. But one thing still is lacking.” He said, “Show us the Father and we’ll be satisfied.” And Jesus said to Philip, with some exasperation; he said, “Philip, have I been with you so long and you still do not understand? He who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”
So we Christians believe that he who sees Jesus sees the Father in him. The Father’s invisible, but he becomes visible in his Son, who is his word, who is his image, who is his wisdom, who is his truth, who is his peace, who is his light, who is his life. He actually becomes flesh and becomes visible. Therefore, when you have an image of Jesus, you have an image of God becoming visible; that in the humanity of Jesus, you are given insight into the invisible character of God. As St. John of Damascus said, if a person wants to know what a Christian believes, just show them an icon, because the icon testifies to the incarnation of the Son of God, the real incarnation of the Son of God; that God really became a human being whose image can be depicted.
So the event of his birth can be depicted, his crucifixion can be depicted, the activities of his human life could be depicted, his ascension into heaven can be depicted. Then there developed a whole language of how to do these depictions, how to make an icon. Sometimes the Orthodox say that you write an icon. Perhaps it’s not necessary to say that, because graphein in Greek means both “to write” and “to draw” or “to paint,” but in any case when you make an icon you use a certain style and a way of painting that shows that Jesus is a real human being, but he’s the human being that God himself has become, the Son of God, the second Person of the Holy Trinity.
And when you depict a saint, you show that saint as a real human being. Already early on, Paul and Peter and John the Baptist and Andrew were painted in certain ways that you could identify them. All through history they are painted, from England all the way to India, looking pretty much the same way so that you know who they are. But when they are painted, they are also painted as saints, filled with grace, holy, sanctified, deified, illumined, enlightened. They’re shown really as human beings, but human beings who have been made divine by grace, who have been made holy. So the icon is a testimony to the Gospel. It’s a testimony to the reality of the Christian faith, and therefore the making of icons is totally proper. It’s a testimony; it’s a witness. And then venerating them is totally proper.
Now, there can be superstitious things. People can be superstitious about icons; that’s always possible. And it even happened in Christian history that sometime really unacceptable things were done with icons. I don’t know. I heard once that at one period people would take an icon of St. Nicholas as their sponsor at a baptism or something; well, that’s absolutely unacceptable. Or they would scrape the paint from the icon and keep it as if it were something particularly holy, which is, of course, ridiculous and not acceptable. But if you paint the icon in the way that it should be made and depicted, drawn, when you venerate it, then, as St. Basil said way back in the fourth century, the veneration goes to the prototype. So in venerating an icon, incensing an icon, kissing an icon, we are actually venerating and showing honor and glory to the one who is depicted, or to the event that is depicted.
In the year 787, there was a Council that said all of these things, that absolutely defended the holy icons and said exactly what I just told you. They said the icon is a defense of the Christian faith, that we confess our faith not only in words, but in images. Jesus is not only God’s word; he is God’s icon. [They said] that the word really became flesh and dwelt among us; that Jesus really is the icon of the invisible God, as the St. Apostle Paul said. So this Council defended all these things, and it also said that icons are not to be worshiped; only God is to be worshiped. And the word for “worship” in Greek was latreia. So there is no eikonolatreia. People do not worship icons—but there is proskynēsēs; there is veneration; there is showing honor, showing respect, and that’s not worship. God alone is to be worshiped; Christ is worshiped, but Christ’s image is venerated, it is honored. And this is totally fitting and proper.
But that Council that said that in the year 787 was not accepted in the Church. Emperors and bishops opposed it; they said it was wrong. They made their own councils. They made their own statements of faith, attacking the holy icons. [It] became a very complicated issue, but to make it very simple: By the year 843, the teaching of the Council of 787, which is now known in Orthodox and in Christian history generally as the Seventh Ecumenical Council, was accepted; it was affirmed. And it was affirmed in the West as well, where there wasn’t much persecution of icons. It was accepted by the Church of Rome, that icons are absolutely proper.
Now, people may not have a taste for icons. They may feel a little squeamish about bowing in front of them or kissing them, but no Christian who believes in the Gospel can oppose them, and no Christian who believes in the Gospel can attack people who make icons in the proper way and offer them proper treatment, proper veneration, proper honoring, proper comportment, and use them as a confession of the very Christian faith itself.
On the first Sunday of Great Lent, when the Church—Orthodox Church—celebrates the return of the holy icons to the Church permanently—and they’ve remained in the Church since that day; they have never been removed since the year 843—the hymn, the main hymn of the day goes like this:
We venerate your most-pure icon, O Good One, and we ask forgiveness of our transgressions, O Christ our God. Of your good will you were pleased to ascend the Cross in the flesh, and to deliver your creatures from the bondage to the enemy. Therefore, with thankfulness, we cry aloud to you: You have filled all with joy, O our Savior, for you came to save the world.
And the other main hymn of the feast, called a kontakion, goes like this:
No one could describe the Word of God the Father, but when he took flesh from you, O Theotokos…
—and “Theotokos” is a name for Mary, meaning “the one who gave birth to God”—
...when he took flesh from you, O Theotokos, he accepted to be described. And he restored the fallen image (the fallen icon) to its former state by uniting it to divine beauty.
And that means that he restored to human beings the image of God in which they were created from the beginning. And then the hymn ends:
We confess and we proclaim our salvation in words and images, by word and by icon.
And that confession of faith, that proclamation of faith, is the faith in the incarnate Son of God, who really became a human being who could be heard, seen, smelled, tasted, touched, and we would even say in the Orthodox Church eaten and drunk in the sacrament of holy Communion in the Church.
Orthodox Christians really believe in the Incarnation. Orthodox Christians really believe that the Son of God, who is divine with the same divinity as God the Father, really became a human being, a man just like us, without ceasing to be God. Orthodox Christians really believe that Jesus is fully divine and fully human in one Person. And therefore, Orthodox Christians believe that his image can be painted, and not only painted but venerated and honored. And Orthodox Christians believe that by doing that we are confessing the faith and proclaiming the Gospel of our salvation in Jesus Christ our Lord.