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The idea ingrained in the classical art of Constantinople, heir to Rome, is the idea of likeness, the copying of the external appearances of nature. The beauty is borrowed from the beauty of the external world - usually human beauty since this is not normally a painting of landscape (though there are some indications that landscape painting, and animal painting, were encouraged under the iconoclasts). The decorative elements are there to enhance the beauty of the model - it is an art that requires a model, and the idea of the 'model' is central to the defence of religious imagery mounted by the great opponents of iconoclasm, Saint John of Damascus and, later, Saint Theodore the Studite. 

St John, for example, writing during the first period of iconoclasm in the eighth century, quotes St Athanasius of Alexandria commenting on John 10:30 - 'I and the Father are one' and 14:11 - 'I am in the Father and the Father in Me':

'If we use the example of the Emperor's head we will find this easier to understand. This image bears his form and appearance. Whatever the Emperor looks like, that is how his image appears. The likeness of the emperor on the image is precisely similar to the emperor's own appearance so that anyone who looks at the image recognises that it is the Emperor's image; also anyone who sees the emperor first and the image later, realises at once whose image it is. Since the likenesses are interchangeable, the image might answer someone who wished to see the emperor after he had seen the image, "The emperor and I are one for I am in him and he is in me. That which you see in me you will also see in him, and if you should see him, you will recognise us to be the same." He who venerates the image venerates the emperor depicted on it, for the image is his form and his likeness.' [5]

[5]  In the documentation appended to the 'Third Apology of Saint John of Damascus against those who attack the divine images' in Saint John of Damascus: On the Divine Images, translated by David Anderson, St Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood NY, 1980, p. 101.

The theme was developed in the ninth century, during the second period of iconoclasm, by St Theodore the Studite [6]:

'Every man is the prototype of his own image. There could not be a man who would not have a copy which is his image ... the copy is inseparable from the prototype.' (Second Refutation of the Iconoclasts, para 6)

[6]  Saint Theodore the Studite: On the Holy Icons, translated by Catharine P. Roth, St Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood NY, 1981.

He quotes St Basil the Great saying: 'the painter, the stone carver and the one who makes statues from gold and bronze: each takes matter, looks at the prototype, receives the imprint of that which he contemplates, and presses it like a seal into his material.' (ibid., para 11)

So art is a matter of copying a model.

In the Third Refutation of the Iconoclasts St Theodore says, rather remarkably in my view, that what characterises the 'hypostasis', or individual reality, of a person is the peculiarity of his or her appearance not of his or her individual spiritual life:

'When anyone is portrayed, it is not the nature but the hypostasis that is portrayed ... For example, Peter is not portrayed insofar as he is animate, rational, mortal and capable of thought and understanding; for this does not define Peter only but also Paul and John and all those of the same species. But insofar as he adds along with the common definition certain properties such as a long or short noise, curly hair, a good complexion, bright eyes or whatever else characterises his particular appearance, he is distinct from the other individuals of the same  species.' (3.a.34)


'The image of Christ is nothing else but Christ, except for the difference of essence ...' (3.c.14) - the essence being the painted board. He sees the image as being quite inseparable from the prototype, comparing it to a shadow:

'The prototype and the image have their being, as it were, in each other. With the removal of one, the other is removed' (3.d.5) ... 'that which is not portrayed in any way is not a man but some kind of abortion ... Christ must undoubtedly have an image transferred from His form and shaped in some material. Otherwise He would lose His humanity.' (3.d.8) ... 'the failure to go forth into a material imprint eliminates His existence in human form.' (3.d.10).