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1 What is an image?

The word εικων in Greek simply means 'a figure, image or likeness.' Any old figure, image or likeness. There are little images that appear on your mobile phone. You click on them to open 'apps'. They are called 'icons' and in the Greek understanding of the word, that is perfectly correct. I would like to begin with a few general remarks about images.

During the Hay Festival this year (2016) I heard Peter Lord talking about Welsh art. He began by showing us a fifteenth century mural painting recently uncovered and restored in the church at Llancarfan, near Cardiff. 

The talk was given at 4.00 p.m. and Lord remarked that during the course of that day we, his audience, had probably seen more images than a Welsh peasant of the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries would have seen in an entire lifetime. It may have been that the images in the church - soon to be whitewashed over - would have been the only images they would have seen. The image would have been something remarkable, indeed problematical.

It is often suggested that churches were decorated with images as a means of educating a population that could not read. Although that thought has impressive authority behind it - among others Pope Saint Gregory the Great - I don't really accept it. The people may not have been able to read but they had traditions of story telling and probably memories much better than our own. The word would have come more naturally to them than the image. We need to understand that while for ourselves the image is commonplace, for most of humanity throughout human history it has been rather exotic and even dangerous. It poses the question - what is the relationship between the image and the thing it represents?

I think it may be true to say that most human societies have regarded the image as in its own nature religious. This includes societies that objected to the image in principle, on religious grounds. They have not had the idea of simply copying the appearances of the world about them for their own sake - though they may incorporate elements of the natural world into essentially decorative schemes.

In this latter case the main idea is still to please the eye with a pattern, not to create a likeness, a duplicate, so to speak, of something that exists in the world about us. Believing that there is some sort of intrinsic connection between the image and the thing it represents, the notion of making a likeness of a person could easily be seen as diabolical, an attempt to gain power over the person.

The Pope being burned in effigy in Lewes, Co Sussex, in 2011.

The fact that the image is static, unmoving, may give an impression of a fixed Eternity, as in the monumental art of the Assyrians or Egyptians,

but it can also be seen as an insult to the living, moving reality. The Roman writer Diodorus Siculus tells how the barbarians when they reached Delphi and saw the lifelike statues burst out laughing, saying 'These people worship corpses'. There is actually nothing n the Qu'ran forbidding representational art, but one of the hadith - the sayings attributed to Muhammad - says: 'On the day of the Resurrection the most terrible punishment will be inflicted on the painter who will have imitated beings created by God. God will say to them: "endow these creations with life."'

My reason for evoking the different ways in which the image can be understood is not to turn this into a general discussion of the image, interesting as that might be, but to stress that what distinguishes the 'icons', the 'images' of the Eastern Orthodox Church, is not so much a particular artistic style or practise, as a particular theory of what the image is. And I stress the word 'theory'. What is called 'Orthodox Christianity' is in the first instance the Christianity of the Roman Empire, an Empire that straddled many different cultures and therefore many different ideas as to what an image might be. Much of the territory in question was later taken by Islam with its very different concept of the image. The emergence, then, of the 'icon' - the 'holy icon' - as we know it today, had to be theorised. It had to be thought about.

It happens that Rome and 'New Rome' (Constantinople) at the centre of the Roman Empire was one of the few cultures in the world in which the idea of the image as a likeness, a faithful copy of the external appearances of the world, was well accepted - at least in the realm of portraiture. 

 Roman statue showing a patrician holding busts of his ancestors.

And the idea was also widely accepted that the gods could be represented in realistic human form. 

And that there was an ontological connection between the god and the representation of the god, ie the god could be addressed and venerated through the representation, as the Emperor (in this case, Constantine) could be venerated through his statues.

What characterises the classical gods, however, is what may be called a principle of limitation. They behave in a very human manner. The Universe is conceived as an interaction of psychological forces but the psychology is represented as human. The gods assume human form and involve themselves in human affairs, not as, say, guides towards a higher spiritual life, but in pursuit of their own, very human-like, interests.

Within classical culture, however, the idea had developed of an original Unity as the source of all things, thought of as, if you like, 'spiritual' rather than material, but not psychological, not moved by recognisably human feelings. Such a 'god' - and the term 'god' was used - could not reasonably be represented in human form. Plato, developing this idea, also argued against representational art, and against poetry, principally Homer. And his objection to poetry was that it gave a false - a psychological - view of the gods. In the philosophical idea that was beginning to be established, God, or even 'the gods', represent not a reflection of life as it is experienced, but a higher state of being to which human beings can and should aspire.

One of the attractions of Judaism - which in the classical period was a proselytising religion - was that it represented a universal aspirational god with sufficient psychological characteristics to facilitate something like the sort of personal relationship that had been possible with the old gods. Christianity probably appeared in the first instances as a variety of Judaism that didn't require circumcision. But Judaism as we know was opposed to any representational art and most especially to 'idolatry' - the veneration of God or gods through man-made objects.

There are perhaps two ways of understanding the Jewish prohibition of representing God. First, that the appearance of the unique God, Creator of the Universe, was so terrible that no-one could bear it. When Moses asked to see God, the reply was:

I will pass by before thee with my glory, and I will call by my name, the Lord, before thee; and I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and will have pity on whom I will have pity. 20 And God said, Thou shalt not be able to see my face; for no man shall see my face, and live. 21 And the Lord said, Behold, there is a place by me: thou shalt stand upon the rock; 22 and when my glory shall pass by, then I will put thee into a hole of the rock; and I will cover thee over with my hand, until I shall have passed by. 23 And I will remove my hand, and then shalt thou see my back; but my face shall not appear to thee.

Exodus 33: 19-23

The images of God that appear in Isaiah Ch.6, Ezekiel Ch.1, Daniel Ch.7, and Job Ch.38 emphasise the terrible, awesome nature of the vision - much more awesome than any of the appearances of the gods, even Zeus, in classical literature. One can imagine the powerful impact this could have had on minds used to the classical imagery. It occurs to me to say in parenthesis that I don't think there's anything like it in the Qu'ran. Muhammad never sees God as such, his relations are all with God's messenger, the archangel Gabriel. But the awesome imagery of the Bible shades into the more philosophical argument, shared with Islam, that if God is universally present then He obviously cannot be confined in a limited shape - even in the powerful symbolic images given in the Bible.

The question of the use of images in religious worship became a very live issue in the Roman Empire during eighth and ninth centuries. By this time, the Western Empire had collapsed and the Eastern Empire, centred on Constantinople, was under pressure from Islam. The great historical patriarchates of Alexandria, Jerusalem and Antioch were now under the control of the Muslim caliphate, centred on Damascus. The Patriarch of Old Rome, the Pope, was still attached to the Empire but a new Empire was developing in the West around the court of Charlemagne, largely on the basis of peoples - Germans, Franks, Angles, Saxons, Celts, Visigoths - who had never been fully part of the Roman Empire, peoples often with a different, non-classical idea of what an image is. 

This is a point which I cannot develop here (*) but it is important. It is the East, much more than the West, that represents a continuity with the Roman classical tradition. I'm not saying that out of any partisan loyalty to the Orthodox Church. I am not personally very sympathetic to the Roman classical tradition, especially its art. I have much more sympathetic interest in the evolution of early mediaeval Western art.

*  I have developed it in my essay 'The Council of Frankfurt and the Seventh Ecumenical Council' in The Beauty of God's presence in the Fathers, Proceedings of the Eighth International Patristics Conference, Maynooth, Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2014.

But my concern now is with the Eastern development. In the eighth and ninth centuries there were two periods in which the production and veneration of icons was forbidden in the Eastern Empire. Representational art as such was not forbidden but specifically religious images were removed from churches and replaced by secular scenes, with landscapes, animals and buildings. We may have some idea of what the iconoclastic art would have been like from mosaics that have been uncovered on the Great Mosque of Damascus, built at the beginning of the eighth centuries employing craftsmen sent by the Roman Emperor in Constantinople.

This situation forced those in favour of icons to defend and formulate their position. The leading spokesmen were, in the eighth century, St John of Damascus and in the ninth century, St Theodore the Studite (so called for the name of his monastery, the Studion). Their argument was, very briefly, that although God was indeed transcendent, invisible and without form in the days covered by he Jewish Bible, the Word of God, second Person of the Trinity, had taken on human flesh and therefore a visible, limited human form. In the Person of Christ human flesh had been 'deified', made one with God. The Old Testament had refused the representation and veneration of images of God because God was invisible and formless. To refuse to paint and venerate images of Christ was to refuse to recognise Christ in his visible, human, fleshly form, as God. It was to refuse the most fundamental teaching of the Christian faith.

Furthermore, the union of God and human flesh in the Person of Christ meant that the visible, material flesh of those who were united with Christ was also deified and could also be venerated. And this was recognised in the veneration of relics of the saints and martyrs, which had been accepted from the earliest Christian days and was not, so far as I know, challenged by the iconoclasts. So images of the saints could be made and venerated, above all, of course, the first of the Saints, the Mother of God, since it was in her womb that the miracle of this union of the omniscient, omnipresent God with human flesh had taken place, and the flesh was her flesh. To quote the troparion to the Mother of God used in the Liturgy of St Basil but traditionally ascribed to St John of Damascus:

All creation rejoices in you, O full of grace, the assembly of angels and the race of men. O sanctified temple and spiritual paradise, the glory of virgins, from whom God was incarnate and became a child - our God before the ages. He made your body into a throne and your womb He made more spacious than the Heavens. All creation rejoices in you, O full of grace, glory to you!'