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“The image of Christ according to Theodore the Studite” by Fr. John Meyendorff (part 1 of 2)

This was my final project for the French reading knowledge class I took this summer. It is a short essay Fr. John Meyendorff wrote for a book entitled Synthronon: Art et Archéologie de la fin de l’Antiquité et du Moyen Age (Paris: Libraire C. Klincksieck, 1968). I’ve seen it cited before, but to the best of my knowledge it has never been translated into English. This is the first half; the second half is forthcoming. Numbered footnotes are Meyendorff’s; cross notes are mine (usually a comment, for the sake of the instructor, as to why I chose to translate something the way I did, in at least one occasion in response to his remarks on an early draft).

Nowhere other than in Byzantium has the problem of Christian art sparked off a purely theological debate. The Christian, and non-Christian, philosophers often discussed the religious implications of art and, conversely, were able to establish that the religious sentiment is inseparable from an aesthetic experience. In Byzantium, however, during the course of the long Iconoclast controversy, the problem acquired straightaway a whole other dimension and effort of thought and of expression which the adversaries of images, as well as their defenders, provided, and which left a deep mark on Byzantine art. For the Byzantine, the icon became at the time a confession of faith and a quasi-sacramental presence, and “the Christian doctrine was left enriched by the Iconoclast crisis.”[1]

The debate concerned, first of all, the very nature of the “image.” The cultural, psychological, and social elements which contributed, within Christianity, to the formation of an “iconoclast” tradition and an “iconodule” tradition, in the centuries which preceded the crisis, were resolved through a philosophical problem: was the image a suitable representation of the prototype, “consubstantial” with it, or, by contrast, was it only a crude form, only fitting to distract the intellect and to divert its natural enthusiasm towards the Invisible? But this philosophical problem itself depended on a precondition: the nature of the Protoype. If, for a Jew and a Muslim, God is essentially invisible and one could not therefore make an image of Him, is it the same for a Christian who believes that “the Word became flesh”?

Thus it is that, from the third century, until the age when the problem of religious images began to be debated between the Neo-Platonists Celsus and Porphyry on one side, and, on the other side, the Christian apologists who attacked pagan idolatry, the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation of the Word found itself at the center of the debate. Accused of idolatry by the Christians, the Neo-Platonists proceeded to the counterattack:

If some Greeks (writes Porphyry) are so weak of mind as to believe that gods live inside of idols, their thought remains rather more pure than the thought of these (Christians) who believe that the Divine entered the bosom of the Virgin Mary, became a fetus, was begotten and wrapped in linens, full of blood, of tissue, of bile and of things even more base.[2]

The contemptuous tone set aside, the argument of Porphyry was not lacking in gravity: if the Christian faith was founded on the historic fact of the Incarnation, there was no longer a question for the Christians of despising matter. Consequently, a recent historian was able to write:

There came a moment, between the third and the fifth centuries, when the Christians adopted (in the problem of images) the pagan arguments.[3]

Certainly not in order to restore idolatry, but in order to say that the images, within Christianity, were genuinely able to be suitable to the Prototype, since the Object of Christian worship is the Word Incarnate, a visible and circumscribable reality.

From the beginning of the Iconoclast quarrel itself, the Orthodox recalled this argument. Germanus, patriarch of Constantinople, writes, for example:

This is in memory eternal of the life in the flesh of Our Lord Jesus Christ, of his passion, of his salvific death and of the redemption for the world which resulted, that we have received the tradition of the depiction of his human body, that is to say his visible theophany, understanding well that by it we glorify the humiliation of God the Word.[4]

The Iconoclasts responded by elaborating their own Christological argument: Christ is at once God and man; he possesses, therefore, two natures, which the Council of Chalcedon (451) declared to be united “without mixture, without transformation, without division, without separation”; in rendering the image of Christ, does the iconographer depict the humanity of Christ? But then he “separates” the humanity from the Divinity and becomes guilty of Nestorianism. Does he represent at once the two natures? If such is his claim, it is not possible to avoid saying that he represents “God” himself, he who is inconceivable.[5] The union of the two natures makes, therefore, according to the iconoclasts, a “suitable” image of Christ impossible.

This iconoclast Christology necessitated a response from the orthodox side. This response would be worked out by theologians from the beginning of the ninth century, the patriarch Nicephorus and Saint Theodore the Studite. While continuing the debate regarding the notion of the “image” and the educational value of Christian art, they developed the argument which, for them, was certainly decisive: Jesus was truly man, visible, therefore “circumscribable” (περιγραπτός), and the Council of Chalcedon, while defining the union of the natures, had specified that “each of them (the natures) retained its proper manner of being.”[6] Being circumscribable constitutes a character proper to humanity: no man could be deprived of it without ceasing to be man; thus, according to Theodore the Studite, “Christ would not be Christ, if he could not be depicted.”[7] This new insistence regarding the fully real humanity of Jesus certainly contributed to the turnaround of the dominant tendency for Byzantium, since the age of Justinian, to favor exclusively the Alexandrian Christology and to exclude the Antiochene heritage, in which it had something eminently positive: the vision of the Christ-Man.


[1] A. Grabar, L’Iconoclasme Byzantin. Dossier Archéologique, Paris, 1957, p. 5.

[2] Against the Christians, fragment 77, ed. A. Harnack, in Abhandlungen der Königlich Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Berlin, 1916, p. 93.

[3] P. J. Alexander, The Patriarch Nicephorus, Oxford, 1958, p. 33.

See following note.

[4] De Haeresibus et synodis, P. G. 98, col. 80 A. In one his first articles devoted to iconoclasm, G. Ostrogorsky drew attention to the central character of the Christological argument, “Soedinenie voprose o sviatykh ikonah s khristologicheskoi dogmatikoi”, in Seminarium Kondakovianum, I, 1927, pp. 35-48.

[5] Mansi, Collectio Conciliorum, XIII, col. 252 AB; 256 AB; for a recent analysis of the arguments of the iconoclast council of 754, see M. Anastos, “The argument for iconoclasm as presented by the iconoclastic council of 754”, in Late Classical and Medieval Studies in Honor of A. M. Friend, Jr., Princeton, 1955, pp. 177-188.

The French word Meyendorff uses, descriptible, is translated in most dictionaries as “describable” or “representable”; as he is using the word to translate the Greek word περιγραπτός, a technical term in the Iconoclastic controversy for which the proper English translation is “circumscribable,” I have translated the Greek term in both instances of descriptible rather than translating Meyendorff’s translation.

[6] Mansi, Collectio, VII, col. 116.

[7]Χριστὸς οὐ Χριστὸς εἰ μῂ ἐγγράφοιτο, Antirrh. III, 1, P. G., 99, col. 389.

Consulting this author’s works in English on similar topics, “Christ-Man” is a term used a number of times, and it appears unlikely that “Man-Christ” is what he intends here. See, for example, Meyendorff, Living Tradition, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1975, p. 180.

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