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Posts Tagged 'iconoclasm'

Early Christian Attitudes toward Images by Steven Bigham

Last fall, as I mentioned here, I sat in on an Art History seminar titled “Problems in Early Christian Art.” It was a really valuable experience for several reasons, and one of the big takeaways for me was the rather frank admission on the part of the professor, as well as several of our readings, that the origins of Christian uses of figurative art are murky at best. As much as art historians might like there to be a clear narrative of “pristine original Christianity seeing any and all images as idolatry” vs. “big corrupted institutional church with pagan ceremony adapted for imperial use,” that narrative just isn’t supported by the evidence, and the narrative that can be constructed from the evidence is still quite foggy. There is definitely a strain of what can be read as image-cautious (at least) rhetoric in some early writers, but the fact is that the images were nonetheless there in one form or another from earliest days, and they didn’t go away. What struck me was that veneration of images always seemed popular, in the sense of it being something that the people did, and it didn’t appear to matter too much who was telling them not to do it — it was instinctive to make an image of the object of one’s devotion, and this had even more meaning in an era when not everybody had digital cameras on their cell phones. For me, it raised the question — is it possible that the theological place of images was simply something God chose to reveal in a “bottom-up” fashion rather than “top-down”? The question of divine intent is obviously not the kind of matter one can address using secular historical methodology, but in any event it was fascinating to hear a secular academic acknowledge that the history doesn’t fit into as neat of a little box as they would like.

Early Christian Attitudes toward Images by Fr. Steven Bigham, published in 2004 by the Orthodox Research Institute, examines this absence of a neat narrative from an explicitly confessional point of view. It is a translation of a work he originally published in French in 1992; Fr. Bigham is a Carpatho-Russian priest who serves the Francophone Orthodox community in Montreal, and who teaches Orthodox theology at Université de Sherbrooke. In a nutshell, his argument is that the historical and scriptural witness in no way supports the idea of the Second Commandment being understood by the Jews as an absolute prohibition on figurative art, with or without a liturgical use, and neither is there a clear, unambiguous witness either from the New Testament or from patristic writings supporting such a blanket hostility towards images. Examining the historical evidence up to 313 A. D. (in other words, using the Edict of Milan as the dividing line) he argues that while there is a clear and universal condemnation of idolatrous images, it does not follow that all images are presented as idolatrous. In fact, he points out, St. John of Damascus understood a writer like Eusebius of Caesarea to be supportive of Christian images, as opposed to the contemporary perception of Eusebius as proto-iconoclast.

In many ways, a book like this is useful as a tool for the faithful more than as a scholarly work. It is an excellent introduction to the historiography of this problem, a good overview of the major scholarly players and the literature (with whom and which Fr. Bigham is clearly very familiar), and it’s extremely useful as a tour through the source texts and the archaeological evidence. His argument, as presented, is an absolutely fair set of points; he makes plain that the rhetoric of the textual sources must be both properly understood in terms of their context as well as reconciled with archaeological evidence, and that when you do that, there is no way to arrive at the conclusion that pre-Constantinian Christians were uniformly and universally against the use of images for Christian purposes. For the Orthodox Christian wanting to understand more about what the scholarly discourse is regarding the history of Christian art, this book is a terrific place to start, and should also be an excellent catechetical tool.

From a scholarly perspective, however, the book is problematic. The most glaring problem is that the translation from the French is awkward and not necessarily well-edited; mistakes like not distinguishing between “principle” and “principal” abound, for example. In addition, Fr. Bigham’s treatment of the primary source texts leaves the impression that he is reading them in translation. An extreme case that underscores the problem is the following citation of St. Irenaeus of Lyons:

Gnosticos se autem vocant: etiam imagines, quasdam quidem depictas, quasdam autem et de reliqua materia fabricatas habent, decentes formam Christi factam a Pilato, illo in tempore quo fuit Jesus cum hominibus: (p. 99)

The footnote for this passage doesn’t actually cite St. Irenaeus, but rather a scholar quoting him. Fr. Bigham then gives the following translation:

As if all above-mentioned things were not enough, these people even have images… which practice they justify… by saying that an image of Christ… (ibid.)

This is, Fr. Bigham qualifies, a “free translation” from the scholar he’s quoting. The trouble is, it’s a translation so “free” as to have nothing to do with the Latin that’s quoted. To make things worse, a reasonable, if elliptical, translation is quoted on the previous page, properly citing the Eerdmans ANF edition:

Irenaeus of Lyons informs us that the Gnostic Carpocratians “also possess images, some of them painted, and others formed from different kinds of materials; while they maintain that a likeness of Christ was made by Pilate at that time when Jesus lived among them.” (p.98)

It seems likely that this is just an author’s mistake not caught by the translator or the editor; that the English translation on p. 99 was probably just mismatched to the wrong Latin text — or there was some similar error — and nobody along the way in the editorial process knew enough Latin to be able to catch the problem. Even if that was what happened, it is unclear which passage we are supposed to understand as being important to Fr. Bigham’s point. The net result is that it just looks like it was translated wrong one way or the other, and it doesn’t leave the reader who does have knowledge of Greek and/or Latin with confidence in Fr. Bigham’s ability to properly analyze these texts.

Another, more minor, quibble is that, while extensively footnoted, the book lacks a comprehensive bibliography. The footnotes are perhaps the single most valuable asset this book has, but a catalogue of primary and secondary sources would make the book more efficiently accessible from a scholarly point of view.

In summary, this is a book well worth reading by the armchair Orthodox Christian art historian — perhaps in conjunction with a sourcebook like Cyril Mango’s The Art of the Byzantine Empire 312-1453as a clear discussion of the issues, the sources, and the scholarship. It is also a worthwhile read for the theology student who is interested in a frankly Orthodox exploration of the topic. Fr. Bigham demonstrates considerable facility in engaging the literature on the matter, and his citations alone are extremely valuable as a reading list on the topic for both scholar and casual reader (although do be aware that, while the English translation is recent, the original French text dates back eighteen years, so scholarship cited tends to not be later than the 1980s). In terms of its academic use, however, it seems to me that it might best function as a roadmap for somebody who is more comfortable accessing the Greek and Latin sources in the original languages, and be able to more convincingly analyze those texts with authority. It is certainly the kind of contribution that Orthodox scholars should be trying to make to the bigger conversation, and it would be a welcome thing if it could be made in a way that makes a bigger audience more inclined to take it seriously.

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Week 5 of grad school and all is well

The last couple of times I had a hiatus in blogging, it was because things weren’t altogether well for me.

This time, to be honest, I’ve got nothing to complain about. Things are going really well.

I’m going to repeat that, just for emphasis and the sheer joy of being able to say that truthfully and unreservedly, perhaps for the first time since moving out here over six years ago:

Things are going really well.

The last several weeks have been something of a whirlwind; after getting back from Greece I had two papers to finish, a godson’s wedding to hold crowns for, my wife to murder, and Guilder to frame for it — er, wait. That is to say, two days after the wedding, Orientation Week started, during which I had to take a Latin and a Greek diagnostic exam; then the semester started for real, and it was off to the races.

Im photographing them being photographed. Theres something kind of uncomfortable meta about this, dont you think?

I'm photographing Matthew and Erin being photographed. There's something kind of uncomfortably "meta" about this, don't you think?

Matthew and Erin’s wedding was wonderful; we were in South Bend for the three days leading up to it to help out with various things, and it was a joy to be part of it at every step. Fr. George Konstantopoulos at St. Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Church in South Bend served with Fr. Peter, and this was a lucky match for everybody — Fr. George has decades of experience and knows all of the little things that often get left out in the simplified versions of services that are often done these days. For example, I was a lot busier as the koumvaros at this wedding than I was for another one at All Saints last year — at that wedding, I just stood there. Here, I did the crown exchange and the ring exchange — and let me tell you, I was sweating it during the ring exchange. Oh, I thought. These rings are very small, and my fingers are very big. And all three sets of hands are shaking. If I drop them it will be very bad. Now I remember why I don’t do brain surgery. Fr. George also had the gravity and authority (to say nothing of the beard) that comes from many years of doing this, and it complemented well Fr. Peter’s still-youthful energy (he’s 35, I guess it’s not inappropriate to say that, right?).

The next morning, the newly-crowned Mr. and Mrs. Wells met us at St. Andrew’s for Divine Liturgy, and Fr. George gave them a big ol’ head pat during the announcements — “Matthew and Erin from Bloomington were married here yesterday,” he said, “and this morning they were here for Divine Liturgy. To me, that is an example of what living life as an Orthodox Christian is all about.” His meaning could hardly be plainer had he hoisted a neon sign saying, Please take being here as seriously as they do.

I need a calculator to adequately express in mathematical terms how much shorter than me you are, Megan...

"I need a calculator to adequately express in mathematical terms how much shorter than me you are, Megan..."

Before driving home, we headed to Chicago to see our friend Tessa Studebaker, an old singing colleague of mine from Seattle whom we hadn’t seen since before we moved to Indiana. When I met her ten and a half years ago, she worked at Barnes and Noble for the discount and was still in high school; now she’s in her upper twenties, is a college graduate, took a job in France for a while, moved back, and is possibly getting serious about somebody. It’s incredible to think that the last ten years have gone by so quickly that all of that could have happened, but there we are. It’s even more incredible that the majority of that ten years has been spent here in Bloomington — it means I’ve spent more time here than I spent in Seattle after dropping out of college the first time. It means that the address I’ve had the longest in my entire life (four years) has been here. It means that by the time I’m done with my PhD, I’ll have spent probably over ten years at a place I thought maybe I’d spend three years at the very most.

But enough with the existential pondering for the moment. I guess seeing old friends has a way of bringing that out of me.

Orientation was more or less a non-event; I’ve been here for six years, I know where the library is, my e-mail account hasn’t changed in all of that time, so there wasn’t really any particular novelty for which I required context. That said, a couple of things stick out for me — one, Ed Watts, the Director of Graduate Studies for the History department here (who also happens to be my PhD advisor), strongly impressed on everybody to find a schedule for working, a rhythm of grad school life, that gets the job done and can be adhered to, and then to stick to it. Coming from a situation where I was trying to fit being a half-time (or more like three-quarter time) student in around having a fulltime 8-5 job, that advice really resonated with me; I’ve done my best to take that to heart, and I think it’s served me well thus far.

Secondly, I observed this kind of thing while students were introducing themselves:

“Hi, I’m Jacob Goldstein, and I’m doing Jewish history with an emphasis on Holocaust education.”

“My name is Sankar Ramasubramanian, and I’m interested in modern Indian history.”

“I’m Ramon Santiago, and I do early modern Latin American history.”

Do you see where I’m going with this? It seems that who one is can’t help but inform their research interests, and the correlation there appears to be entirely natural and predictable. That said, the same correlation appears to be viewed with some amount of suspicion when it comes to Christians doing Christian history. I haven’t directly experienced that among my cohort yet, but I’ve seen it in other contexts, and something I’ve picked up on a bit is a certain point of view, perhaps almost subconsciously held, that can be expressed as, I’m interested in history because I want to prove that everybody has always been as petty, nasty, and not to be trusted as they are now. It’s a fundamental skepticism of humanity bordering on loathing (but ironically, I think its proponents would probably self-identify as humanists), and it seems to cross disciplinary and ideological lines. I’m not exactly sure what to make of it.

My Greek and Latin exams evidently went well enough; for each language, I had three passages, a dictionary, and an hour. In each case I got through more or less the first passage and the first third to the first half of the second. I don’t remember what the passages were, but they didn’t generate any particular concern. I was worried, when I next saw Watts, that he’d get a concerned look on his face and say, “We need to talk,” but that didn’t happen. He just said I did very well with the Greek, and while the Latin wasn’t as good, it was still pretty good. I figured the Latin would be the weaker of the two anyway.

Then it was time to actually start classes.

So, I’m taking three classes for real, sitting in on two, and then doing some individual reading with Watts for one credit. I’m taking third year Modern Greek, a mandatory “Welcome to the History Department” course called “Introduction to the Professional Study of History,” and then a course in Classical Studies where we’re reading Ancient Greek judicial oratory — Antiphon, Lysias, and Demosthenes, namely. Modern Greek I have to take for my funding (and I should be doing as much with it as I can, anyway), and then Watts wanted me to take some upper-level Classical Studies courses so I could have a chance to sharpen my Greek a bit. The one credit of individual reading we’re doing finds us reading St. Jerome’s Life of St. Hilarion, so I’m also getting some Latin in this semester. Since I’m ahead of the game a bit in terms of my coursework, Watts thought it was important to give my languages some extra time, and he’s right — it’s been a good thing.

(Watts and I have had a couple of simpatico moments with our iPhones — today, for example, we were reading Jerome and needed to look up a word. I pulled out my sketchy little pocket dictionary, and he said, “I’ll one-up you there.” With a gleam in the eye only recognizable by the fellow geek, he pulled out his iPhone and asked, “Do you know about the Latin Dictionary app?” I didn’t, but within two minutes I had it along with its companion Greek Lexicon by the same developer.)

I’m also sitting in on an undergraduate survey Watts is teaching on the Late Antique Roman Empire, as well as a seminar in Art History called Problems in Early Christian Art. The former is really useful background, and I’m doing it instead of taking Watts’ actual graduate seminar on the same material (since I’m actually at a point where it’s vital I take seminars from people other than him). The latter is a result of recognizing a) that my interests, the way I want to talk about them, are interdisciplinary, and b) given certain realities, I will be best served doing some of the interdisciplinary work on my own time. The course is basically dealing with Christian art up to Iconoclasm; the reading is actually highly useful stuff for me, and I’m learning a lot, with certain things I can already talk about being discussed in a very different context than that to which I’m accustomed.

Anyway, it’s a lot, but it’s not a back-breaker of a schedule by any means. Yes, it’s a good amount of work, but I’m finding it easier to manage now than I found it to manage less work while having to juggle a fulltime job. It means I’ve had less time for blogging, yes, but it’s been for a good reason. I think I’m at a point where I understand the rhythm well enough that I can post a bit again.

So, in brief, that’s where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing. Coming up, there’s another wedding this weekend, that of a certain Daniel Maximus Greeson and Chelsea Coil, plus I’m also supposed to run a book review for these folks by 10 November. Plus there are any number of other things for me to talk about regarding what I’ve been reading and what I’m thinking about — it’s more “Where the heck do I begin?” than “What do I have to say?” Let me tell you, these are all problems I am thrilled to have.

I will close this post in the manner which I think I may start closing for the time being — that is, with a rundown of what I’ve recently finished reading and what I’m currently reading.

Recently finished:

Currently reading:

Sunday of Orthodoxy qua Orthodoxy in America

This last Sunday, being the first Sunday in Great Lent, was the so-called “Sunday of Orthodoxy,” commemorating the victory of iconodules over iconoclasm at the Seventh Ecumenical Council (“Nicea II — The Wrath of Arius”). In years past, there has been a Sunday evening Vespers in Indianapolis, participated in by all the area clergy and their parishes. This year, instead of Vespers, a morning Divine Liturgy was planned at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, who had just started worshiping in their new building in December.

All Saints’ participation was determined rather late in the game; being an hour and twenty minutes south, and with some of our parishioners commuting from as much as an hour away even further south, it took some figuring out. Ultimately our deacon stayed behind and served a Typika for those who weren’t going to Indianapolis, allowing Fr. Peter to concelebrate and a group of us from All Saints to attend.

The morning was stunning in several respects. For the occasion, a new icon was commissioned of All Saints of North America, which now includes Indiana-born St. Barnabas. The original was put out for us to venerate, and we were all given prints of it as well. I’ve jokingly called Holy Trinity’s new building the satellite campus of Hagia Sophia, but it really is frickin’ huge. As the pictures make clear, I think we had close to a thousand people in there, and people were still having to gather in the narthex. We had everybody, too (among the clergy as well as the people); Serbians, Greeks, Arabs, Bulgarians, Russians, Ukrainians, Romanians, American converts, and even a handful of Copts, Ethiopians, Eritreans and Indians. (Okay, I’m not sure we had any Finns or Estonians.) The communion of the faithful easily took half an hour, and that was with six chalices, I believe. Add another twenty minutes or so for the communion of the clergy.

Some general observations: Holy Trinity is an example of a church which I think would be too big for me to be comfortable in it as my home parish. It is a beautiful building, and it will only get more beautiful as they fresco it, marble the floors, put up the iconostasis, etc., but I’d rather see the design principles applied to a church maybe a quarter of the size. (This begs the question of why Holy Trinity, which I believe has something like 600 people, doesn’t plant some churches, but never mind that now.) I’ve heard it suggested that past 250 souls or so, you really overtax a priest’s ability to minister; I’ll throw out another possible metric, which is that you don’t want the building to be any larger than that in which the cantor can sing comfortably and be understood and heard without needing a microphone. (This assumes that churches are being built with attention to acoustics, which isn’t even necessarily the case with Holy Trinity, unfortunately — there were one or two odd decisions made on that front.) That said, I think it’s wonderful that a traditional-looking Byzantine temple now exists which is large enough to hold everybody in the metro area. I somewhat wonder if perhaps, with Detroit being, well, Detroit, there might not be talk behind the scenes of moving Metropolitan Nicholas’ throne to Indianapolis, hence the building being a size more appropriate to a cathedral than a parish church.

I wound up joining the choir; Max Murphy, my counterpart at Ss. Constantine and Elena, conducts the choir for these big combined services and I sing for him when I am able. The music was, more or less, OCA music with some simplified Byzantine things reworked for a large ensemble. My trouble is that the Orthodox musical heritage is so much richer than the utility music which tends to dominate services like this, but the reason why it dominates services like this is because it is easily scalable to huge ensembles (as well as makes congregational singing reasonably easy). Mark Bailey once told me that Kievan common chant is great because you can get 50 people singing the front page of the New York Times to it in fifteen minutes; on the other hand, he freely admitted, the downside of Kievan common chant is that you can get 50 people singing the front page of the New York Times to it in fifteen minutes. There wasn’t an overabundance of Kievan common chant at this service, but the principle was still largely the same. At any rate, it was, mostly, the music that virtually everybody in the Indianapolis area sings except Holy Trinity (and All Saints, for that matter), so it was familiar to Max, the majority of the choir, and a good chunk of the congregation.

There were some interesting moments during the procession of the icons; Fr. Taso (the pastor of Holy Trinity) originally asked the congregation to all sing the litany responses in their own languages, in the spirit of our coming together as a symbol of our unity as Orthodox Christians. This didn’t quite work the way he intended, so ultimately he led us in the Tone 4 threefold English “Lord, have mercy” common to Greek parishes (and Antiochian parishes during Holy Week if one is following Kazan). That worked just fine (although it was different from the responses the choir prepared — Max gave up when he realized that Fr. Taso was going off-script).

One always wonders what happens behind the scenes when that many clergy gather on another priest’s turf, particularly when the event functions something of a “coming out party” for said turf, but Fr. Peter made a point of bringing up that very question last night after the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. “It was very peaceful, as surprising as that sounds,” he said. “Fr. Taso called us all together and said, ‘Brothers, what do you want to do?’ To have the protos do something like that, particularly at a Greek church, is unheard of.” (When there were some inevitable uncomfortable chuckles, he said, “That’s not a swipe against the Greeks — they’d tell you the same thing!”)

Given events of the last few weeks, there have been conversations about what Orthodox unity in America means, if it can even happen at all now, if we’re looking a big step backwards, what’s the path from here, etc. etc. etc. I think that to some extent these nervous questions are a bit misguided; it’s not exactly like the AOCNA and OCA were preparing to announce an administrative merger next week and the news out of Damascus derailed it at the last second. However, I think we can look at events like this Sunday of Orthodoxy Divine Liturgy and make some informed guesses about what the practical side of jurisdictional unity might look like.

  • Somebody’s going to have to be the protos, as it were, and it’s probably going to be whoever has the resources to be so effectively, including the space to be a meeting ground for everybody. This was true in 1975 when Met. PHILIP and Met. MICHAEL unified the Antiochian churches in this country, and Met. MICHAEL stepped down; it will still be true going forward.
  • Along similar lines, there will be a group who is numerically dominant. There were ten or so parishes represented at Holy Trinity this last Sunday, and at least half of the congregation was Holy Trinity’s own people.
  • It will be up to the group who is numerically dominant and who functions as the “protos” to be a loving and welcoming brother in Christ. It will be up to the others to be receptive to that, and to return it in-kind.
  • It might be a bit of a cacophony for awhile until people figure things out. The job of the dominant group will be to help guide everybody into unity, and to do so in love.

Looking at these points, I’d argue this wouldn’t be a bad model for how things should be now, even, with or without unity on paper.

One other thought for the moment. That icon of All Saints of North America? A couple of them are American born; some of them were active in America. However, with the exception of St. Peter the Aleut (who was martyred young), none of those saints were both born here and active here. Let me suggest that before we have an indigenous church, we’re going to need indigenous saints. Some might argue that we should start with Fr. Seraphim Rose (which reminds me — I’m reading The Soul After Death right now); while recognizing he’s a controversial figure, I don’t really think that it’s in question that he is a native-born model of sanctity. I personally think he is a saint, and I believe he interceded to heal my mother from a heart issue a few years back, but I also think it will take time for the amen of American faithful to be uttered. I know a priest, and perhaps a bishop or two, who I believe might be glorified after their respective reposes. I have heard some suggest Lynette Hoppe; certainly this book seems designed to make that case. There are others I can think of, too.

My point is, until there are models of holiness who have been raised up out of “our people,” as it were, I’m not sure it makes any sense to be so neurotic and anxious about our earthly organization. Once we start producing saints, administrative questions will take care of themselves. The importance of saints who are local and recent, I have come to realize, is that they shine forth the light of Christ in a way that is immediate. What is more powerful, reading a story about somebody who supposedly did something fifteen hundred years ago, or hearing first-hand accounts of people who did those very things within the last few years? We run a great risk by holding ourselves at a distance from saints — they are less convicting that way, I suppose, meaning they’re more comfortable to be around, but they are also less compelling and convincing.

In other words — if we want a solution to the jurisdictional problem in this country, maybe what we need to do is, before we write a letter or join a lay activist organization or start a blog (all potentially worthy things to do, don’t get me wrong), we need to go out and be saints.

We will see.

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

I didn’t intend for it to take me over five months to translate the second half of this, but here we are. I have a nice long French article to read for a course this semester (70 pages or so, I think), so finishing this particular project seemed like a prudent refresher.

By the way, I don’t claim perfection by any means, and there were some passages here that had me tearing my hair out for a couple of hours. If there are any portions where you’re scratching your head thinking, “There’s no way that’s what the French says,” let me know and maybe you can help. I’d post a pdf of the original for comparison purposes, but I’m uncertain of the propriety of doing so.

Anyway, here’s part one if you want to remind yourself where our intrepid heroes were back in August. And now, finally, part two:

It is with Theodore Studite that one finds a constructive synthesis of these arguments and a truly creative solution of the problem of veneration of images.

Theodore notices first of all that the Chalcedonian and post-Chalcedonian Christology do not solely consider in Christ the existence of two natures, but also a hypostasis or “person”[1]: it is the doctrine of the hypostatic union which makes possible the image of the God-man. “Any picture,” he writes, “is a picture of a hypostasis and not of a nature”[2].

The humanity of Christ itself, per Theodore, is an individual humanity. This point was not always apparent with certain Byzantine authors of the sixth and seventh centuries who considered foremost Christ as the Word, having only human “characteristics.” With Theodore, the concept of the humanity of Christ is far more concrete:

Christ was not simply an ordinary man (ψιλὸς ἄνθρωπος) (he writes); and it is not orthodox either to say that he had accepted an individual among men (τόν τινα τῶν ἀνθρώπων), but the unity, the totality of the nature (human): it is necessary to say, however, that this whole nature was contemplated in an individual manner (ἐν ἀτόμῳ) – for otherwise how could it have been seen? –, in a manner which made it visible and circumscribable… which allowed him to eat and drink…[3]

Resolutely Aristotelian, Theodore refutes the position of the Iconoclasts whereby the humanity of Christ would have been “indescribable” (ἀχαρακτήριστος), because it was “man in general” (καθόλου ἄνθρωπος) as “New Adam.” In Christ, the humanity was not an “ideal” humanity. An ideal humanity is not, moreover, an abstraction; to deny to Christ a concrete and individual humanity therefore amounts to regarding him only as God. “The humanity [of Christ],” he wrote, “does not exist as it does in Peter and Paul”; if human nature was not a reality contemplated “intellectually,” the experience of Thomas, placing his finger in the wound of Jesus, would have been impossible.

The very name of Jesus makes him distinct, through his hypostatic natures, compared with other men.[4]

“An undescribable Christ would also be Incorporeal: and yet, Isaiah (VIII, 3) designates him as a male being (ἄρσην τεχθείς) and only the shapes of the body make man and woman distinct”[5].

Fully individualized in the human plan, the unique Person of Jesus was, however, no other than the pre-existing hypostasis of the Word, Son of God. The post-Chalcedonian Christological system is, in effect, inconceivable if one does not admit the real difference between the concepts of “nature” (or “essence”) and “hypostasis.” If the term “hypostasis” designates a simple “internal relationship” with the divine nature, in the Thomist sense, it would be inconceivable to say, as Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Fifth [Ecumenical] Council (553) did, that “the Word suffered in the flesh”: this expression necessarily meant that the divine nature itself was subdued in the Passion. And yet, the “Theopaschite” formulae, as well as the term Theotokos applied to Mary, became to Byzantium, in the fifth and sixth centuries, a criterion of orthodoxy: one could and should say that the Word truly suffered and that Mary had been truly Mother of God, not that the Divine nature, common to the Father, Son, and the Spirit, had been given birth to by a woman or would be dead in the human way, but because the hypostasis of the Word became fully the center, the source, [and] the conscience of the human life of Jesus. The hypostasis, [that is,] personal existence, is not therefore defined by the “nature” which it “hypostasizes,” but it is that [hypostasis], on the contrary, which gives existence to each “individual nature.” Thus, the humanity of Jesus was able to be fully “human” without having a human hypostasis: the post-Chalcedonian christology means thus a totally personalist concept of the hypostasis[6]. This concept sets up the keystone of the iconology of Theodore.

The image is, for him, distinct, concerning the essence, compared with its Prototype. Whose essence is made the image of Christ – [be it] wood, colors [or] mosaic – is in effect different from the [essence] of the Model. But, concerning the hypostasis, the image and the model are not as one[7]. The icon of Christ is thus the image of the very hypostasis of the Word incarnate – the hypostasis of the Logos in his human existence – without being, in any way, an image of the indescribable and invisible Divinity.

It is thus as Theodore comments on the Byzantine tradition of writing on the cruciform nimbus surrounding the face of Christ the letters ὤν which are the Greek translation of the holy Tetragrammaton of the Hebrews, YHWH (cf. Ex. III, 14): Jesus is truly the personal God of the Bible, he appeared in the flesh, made visible through the authentically human traits of the Son of Mary[8]. It is thus impossible, according to Theodore the Studite, to write on the icons of Christ such impersonal terms as “Divinity,” “Lordship” or “Royalty”, which indicate the divine nature, common to the Father, Son, and the Spirit: only the inscription ὁ ὤν, “the one who is,” and not ὀντότης, “the being,” are suitable for the image of the Person of the Word incarnate[9].

*

* *

These few brief remarks do not in any way pretend to be an analysis of the Christological problem in its entirety, in the manner which it has put itself in Byzantium during the period of the Iconoclast dispute. The mind of Theodore would deserve for itself a whole monograph. Our aim, in this collection devoted to a Master who contributed so much to making understandable the problems of Byzantine art, and in particular that of the Iconoclast period, was solely to bring attention to the importance of the personality of Theodore in the purely theological development of iconology. He is known above all as one of the grand lawmakers of Eastern monasticism, as a hymnographer, as a man of action, as a personal enemy of Iconoclast emperors, and also of all those who, like the patriach Nicephorus, were tending to adopt in the life of the Church and the State a politics of “economy”; the abbot of Studium merits also our attention as a rigorous theologian. It is not only his zeal for the faith and his contempt for compromise which made to triumph the party of Iconodules in Byzantium, but also the decisive contribution which he achieved in making to a properly doctrinal problem, posed by the veneration of images.

New York. John Meyendorff.


[1] Two authors have briefly noticed the originality of Theodore on this exact point: N. Grossu, Prepodobny Theodor Studit, Kiev, 1907, p. 204, and V. Grumel, “L’iconologie de saint Théodore Studite,” in Échos d’Orient, XX, 1921, p. 258.

[2] Antirrh. III, col. 405 A.

[3] Antirrh. I, col. 332 D-333 A.

[4] Antirrh. III, col. 396 C-397 A.

[5] Ibid., col. 409 C.

[6] On this concept of hypostasis see in particular V. Lossky, Théologie Mystique de L’Église d’Orient, Paris, Aubier, 1944, pp. 52-53.

[7] Διαφορότης οὐκ ἐπὶ τῆς ποστάσεως, ἀλλὰ κατὰ τὸν τῆς οὐσίας λόγον, Ep. 212, P.G., 99, col. 1640; cf. also Antirrh. III, 1, 34, col. 405.

[8] Antirrh. III, col. 400 D-401.

[9] Lettre à Nancratius, II, 67, col. 1296 AB; cf. also Antirrh. III, col. 420 D.

“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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