An Ancient Christian Theory of Images

Forefeast of the Conception of the Theotokos

John_Damascene_Square_2.jpgSEVERAL TIMES a year the Spiritual Life Center hosts an evening similar to the Hall of Men and the Sisters of Sophia. They call it Dinner with the Doctors. After dinner a lecture is presented on one of the 36 Doctors of the Catholic Church. The dinner and lecture take place in a hall that is decorated with images of those 36 doctors (whether or not they are icons is a matter of debate!).

I had the privilege of presenting one of those Doctors this past Monday evening. The focus of my presentation, the eighth century St John of Damascus, happens to be my personal patron saint, as well as the patron saint of Eighth Day Institute. He also happens to be the most famous defender of icons.

I've converted my notes from one small section of that lecture below. It presents the first, and foundational, part of St John's argument for icons in the first of his three treatises. There is much more to his argument, especially the relationship between icons and Christology (the seventh and final Ecumenical Council, which affirmed icons, was essentially a Christological council) but this is a good starting point. In fact, it's the necessary starting point, as you shall see if you indulge me and continue reading.

An Ancient Christian Theory of Images: Accept the Icon or Reject Reality

St John of Damascus was born into the world of Islam around A.D. 650. He is well known for his hymnography. Attend an Orthodox funeral service and you'll experience both the lament of loss and the joy of the resurrection in his hymns. Or attend the Orthodox liturgy for Pascha (Easter) and you'll experience the joy of the resurrection articulated in his words. And he penned many other hymns, including hymnography for the Feast of the Nativity (Become an Eighth Day Member at any level and join us at our 7th annual Feast of the Nativity on Dec 29 and you'll learn about those hymns). He is also known for theological treatises, especially his defense of Orthodoxy in his famous work The Fountainhead of Knowledge. But St John of Damascus is probably most famous for his defense of icons.

When iconoclasm erupted in the Byzantine Empire in 726 A.D., St John had already been a monk living in the Judean wilderness for two decades. Outside of the Byzantine Empire, and thus free to respond with no fear of retribution, he penned three defenses of icons. It is in these apologies that we find the first formulation of a coherent theory of images.

St John begins by defining the term image:

An image is a likeness depicting an archetype, but having some difference from it.

An archetype is defined as an original that has been imitated. A son, for example, is an image or likeness of his father, the archetype.

St John next explains the purpose of an image:

Every image makes manifest and demonstrates something hidden . . . the image was devised to guide us to knowledge and to make manifest and open what is hidden.                    

With the term image defined and its purpose set forth, St. John goes on to enumerate the various types of images – six in all.

First, there is a natural image in the Godhead itself:

The Son is a living, natural and undeviating image of the Father, bearing in Himself the whole Father, equal to Him in every respect, differing only in being caused.

At least two passages from scripture should come to mind immediately:

Colossians 1:15 tells us the Son is the image of the invisible Father. 

Hebrews 1:3 tells us the Son is brightness of God’s glory, the express image of His person.

Second, there are images in God of things to come:

There are in God paradigms of what He is going to bring about, that is His will that is before eternity and thus eternal.        

Every good builder and architect knows that they need to have a plan – a paradigm or image – of the finished product in order to execute well. This is precisely the illustration St John provides: “if one wants to build a house, its form is described and depicted first in the mind.” God has an image of where history is leading; the image of history was already formulated in the mind of God before time ever existed.

Third, according to St. John:

There are images of invisible and formless things, that provide in bodily form a dim understanding of what is depicted.

Rublev_Trinity.jpgImages, analogies, metaphors help us understand invisible spiritual realities. St. Paul teaches this in his epistle to the Romans: “the invisible things of God, since the creation of the world, have been clearly perceived through the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20). St John offers four illustrations for the Trinity, what he calls “created things intimating to us dimly reflections of the divine”: 

There is an image of the holy Trinity, which is beyond any beginning, in the sun, its light and its ray, or in a fountain dwelling up and the stream flowing out and the flood, or in our intellect and reason and spirit, or a rose, its flower and its fragrance.

Icons themselves also serve this purpose of providing images of invisible things. The famous fifteenth-century Russian icon of the hospitality of Abraham by Andrei Rublev depicts the three angels who visited Abraham at the Oak of Mamre (Gen. 18:1-8). This particular icon is more commonly referred to as the icon of the Trinity because it helps us understand the Trinity as a communion of three persons.

Fourth, St John tells us there are images of the future that describe things to come. The Old Testament is filled with these. The burning bush, for example, is an image of the Virgin Mary bearing the living God in her womb without being consumed by the glory of His divinity. The holy of holies in the Temple is another image of the Virgin Mary who would become a temple of the living God, and thus an image of what we too are to become: living temples of God.

Fifth, St John continues,

There are said to be images of the past, either the memory of a certain miracle, or honor, or shame, or virtue, or vice…

This type of image comes in two forms:

through words written in books, as God engraved the Law on tablets and ordered the lives of men beloved of God to be recorded; and through things seen by the sense of sight, as when He ordered the jar and the rod to be placed in the ark as a memorial.

So whether in words or objects or paintings, this type of image is meant to inspire us. They are “for the benefit of those who behold them later, so that they may flee what is evil and be zealous for what is good.”

Finally, man is an image of God. As we know from the creation account in Genesis, every human being is created in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:27).

So there are six types of images, according to St John:

  1. Imagery in the Godhead itself with the Son as an image of the Father
  2. Images in the mind of God of things to come
  3. Images of invisible realities
  4. Images of the future
  5. Images of the past
  6. Imagery in humanity with man created in the image of God

Why does St John take the time to enumerate these six types of images before he even begins to talk about the icon? What is St John up to here?

He’s making an essential point that is foundational to a proper understanding of the icon. EVERYTHING is characterized by images. From the uncreated Godhead to the created cosmos and all of humanity, images are built in everywhere. Simply put, we cannot escape them.         

If we think of images hierarchically, at the top of the ladder we find the supreme image in the Son of God as the image of the Father. So what do we find at the bottom of that hierarchical ladder? A humble piece of wood with colors painted on it to portray the scenes from Scripture, the life of Christ, and the lives of the saints: an icon. As humble as this image may be, however, it nevertheless remains an integral part of the very nature of reality that is image-filled. Fr. Andrew Louth, the translator of St John’s three defenses, explains this best: 

Reality echoes reality . . . images establish relationships between realities . . . The Image, in its different forms, is always mediating, always holding together in harmony. Images in the form of pictorial icons fit into this pattern, in a quite humble way. But to deny the icon is to threaten the whole fabric of harmony and mediation based on the image.

St John therefore concludes: “Either destroy every image and establish laws against the One who ordered that these things should be” or accept the way things are: Images are built into very structure of the cosmos, including both God and humanity, and the icon is merely one small and humble part of it. To deny the icon is to deny both created and uncreated reality.


Erin Doom is the founder and director of Eighth Day Institute. He lives in Wichita, KS with his wife Christiane and their four children, Caleb Michael, Hannah Elizabeth, Elijah Blaise, and Esther Ruth.

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