Icons in the Modern (and Postmodern) World

Icons in the Modern (and Postmodern) World May 1, 2010

“Use a glass mirror to see your face; use works of art to see your soul”
– George Bernard Shaw

Contents of this Article

  • Introduction
  • History of icons
  • Divergence in Art and Practice
  • Iconoclasm in the 8th and 9th Century
  • The Emergence of the Modern Era
  • Lutherans and icons
  • Reform Churches and Icons
  • Anglicans and Icons
  • The Radical Reformaton and icons
  • Icons in the “Modern” Catholic church
  • Icons in the “Modern” Eastern church
  • Bearing the image of God in a Post-Modern World

For many Christians in the west today the practices of the Eastern Orthodox church concerning religious icons seem odd to those who are familiar with them, or perhaps even idolatrous to many outside observers. Many ask how kissing an image came to be a central part of the spiritual practice of the nearly 30 million Orthodox Christians in the world today.1 This seemingly idiosyncratic behavior of the east is often dismissed as irrelevant to the church in the west. However the theology and history of icons in the church sketches for us much of what is at the heart of Christian theology more broadly and can help us to differentiate what makes us Christian in an increasingly diverse Christianity, and in an increasingly pluralistic society.
Much like the Church today the earliest Christians lived in a world of religious pluralism. Many cults, philosophies, and Gods were syncretisticly enveloped into an over all intercultural narrative which was used to support the roman religion of Emperor worship. Navigating between the spiritualized philosophy or Platonism, and wooden ritualism of Roman religion the Christian’s believed in both a physical and spiritual salvation which was achieved through the life death and Resurrection of Jesus. Who was both God and Man, spiritual and Physical.

Early History of Icons2
Christian worship from its earliest days reflected this tension in the way it worshiped. Physical matter was intentionally made a part of the liturgy. There was the use of bread and wine in the Eucharist, the greeting of one another with a kiss, the practice of baptising converts in water, and the use of painted icons in prayer. All of these things reflected a conviction that God’s creation was good, and Jesus’ death encompassed the whole person.

The origin of painted christian icons are traced back in Orthodox tradition to Saint Luke the evangelist, who is said to have painted three portraits of the Virgin Mary. There is a tradition of unpainted icons in both the Catholic and the Orthodox world where Christ imprints his face onto a cloth. Within Orthodoxy the cloth was made to heal a leprous king named Abgar, in the western church the legend tells us the icon was made for a woman named Veronica (which means “true icon”).3

How icons developed historically is somewhat unclear. There is some reason to believe that the church was using them from their earliest days. The second-century Jewish synagogue at Dura Europos seems to indicate there was use of icons within Jewish worship4 where Christian worship finds its roots. We do know the practice of using icons in prayer and worship had become widespread by the fourth century, and certainly in use in many places in the third century. Although icon from before this period have still been preserved. It was clear the early church was not interested in serving God simply in their minds, but intended to make him known through all their phenomenological receptors.

Divergence in Art and Practice
As time went on the artistic methods and subjects became more uniform throughout the church and the use of icons become widespread. Some important distinctions did arise. The church at this time began diverging artistically into three general camps: the Roman, the Byzantine, and the Coptic.

There had been a practice of depicting Jesus as a lamb. This was rejected, and continues to be rejected, by the Eastern Churches at the council of Quinisext5. By this time the holy images in the churches were being used in veneration, and restrictions were put in place to keep veneration from becoming idolatry.

Veneration of icons was less central to worship and liturgy in the west, and the depiction of religious images was less restrictive. Although the western church used many of the same themes and settings for its art the way it looked evolved a great deal more. Instead of seeing icons as primarily windows into heavenly realities, western religious art was allowed to become more realistic and reflected the culture and technique of the culture around it.
This difference can be clearly seen in the art produced in the modern and post-modern periods. While Byzantine traditions produce icons today that looks almost identical to the art produced one thousand years ago, we can see in the works of western artists a great deal of development over time. Byzantine icons remain two dimensional and depict the human form less realistically, but more theological. Western art has depth, vanishing points, photo realism, and places a greater emphasis on the historical moment as apposed to the heavenly reality. When a western artist paints a scene he is interested in recreation, an Eastern artist is concerned with transfiguration.

The Coptic church separated from the east and west after the Council of Chalcedon. The iconography from that tradition tends to be more influenced by the folk art of Alexandria. However unlike how the West developed the Coptic icons were designed to show the soul of the subject rather then the body, and were painted by simple ordinary people as well as monks. It is this tradition that influenced the development of icons in the Ethiopian Orthodox church.6

The Iconoclasm of the Eighth and Ninth Centuries
The use of icons within the Byzantine empire had gained such a level of usage by the Seventh Century that in 695 the emperor Justinian II began minting coins with the face of Jesus on one side. This move flew in the face of the Muslim empire which banned the use of images. Up to this point the Muslim world, or Ummah, had shared currency with the Byzantine Empire. After these coins were minted the Muslim Cailph, Abd almalik, went to war with the Byzantine Empire.

As the Byzantine empire experienced loses in battle, and tragedy within the empire people began wonder if God had removed his favor from the Christians. People began too look for theology and practices that might be angering God. This question brought to a head a theological disagreement on the nature of icons. One group believed that an icon of Jesus showed only his human side, while another group argued that the divine nature of Jesus could never be separated even in depicting him, to do otherwise would be to be guilty of an old heresy called Nestorianism, which taught Jesus had a human person and a divine person who were distinct within him.

This tension came to a head after two periods where Icons were banned by the Byzantine Emperors Leo III and Leo V. In this struggle Monks and many Orthodox Christians found themselves at odds with the state which would tear down religious imagery. This tension spilled over into a the west. The papacy supported the use of icons, which resulted in conflict with the Byzantine Emperor as well as with Charlemagne.7 This period seems to foreshadow many of the conflicts with icons that will emerge again in the modern period with the reformation
The Second Council of Nicaea (787), which is believed to have the Seventh Ecumenical Council by most of the Christian world was called at this time. This council was convened to deal with the icon controversy that was dividing the church in the east. At this time Saint John of Damascus wrote in support of the use of icons. His position was ultimately the position taken by the council and can be summarised in his words from On Holy Images:

“Of old, God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was never depicted. Now, however, when God is seen clothed in flesh, and conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honouring that matter which works my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God.”8

This council made clear the position of the church on the issue of icons in worship. If asked why they used them the response would be, “Christology.” Icons are used as a testimony to the Hypostatic Union. Because God humbled himself to the point of becoming matter we can now represent him as material, and honor material because it was through matter that our salvation came.
The Modern Period
The modern age is an era in history that by most accounts is said to have begun around 1500 and still persists in some ways to the present day. The religious character of this era within the Christian world is greatly formed by the Protestant reformation in the West, The fall of Constantinople in 1453, and the discovery of the Americas in 1492. Out of this centers of religious power, and sources of authority were pushed into new territories.
The use of icons at this time was widespread, but varied. As we look at the use of icons around the world we must make a distinction between icons as seen in the life of the Eastern Church and icons in the west. The icons in the East had a theological and ritualistic role that was not part of the experience of the church in the West. This did not mean the church as a whole did not have a similar theology on Icons, but rather it had different forms of expression of the theology that was cemented in the Second Council of Nicea.

The differences in practice stemmed from a differences in worlds. The East and the West had developed under different political powers, using different languages, and being concerned with different goals. This divergence ultimately led to a schism between the two churches in 1054. As the forces of Modernism and Reformation challenged the authority of political powers, the role of language in worship, and the concerns of Christians in the west the way people looked at the use of Icons also changed.
As new paradigms emerged the way people began to look at the question, “why do (or don’t) you use icons in worship?” began to change. The Reformation birthed four major steams into the church: The Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, and Radical in our next few sections we will examine how these churches answered that question, and why.

Icons in the Lutheran Churches
The Reformation began when a German monk named Martin Luther began to publicly question the sale of indulgences within the Catholic Church. The finer theological points of what indulgences are and why Luther disagreed with them are beyond the scope of this paper. What is important is that his dissension set a series of events into play that eventually led to Luther’s excommunication from the Catholic church. Some of the German princes, inspired by Luther, or perhaps simply seeking opportunity, also separated from Rome and began looking to Luther as a guide to how the church was to move forward. This group came to be known as Lutherans, and quickly established itself as a major force within northern Europe.
At the heart of Lutheranism was a doctrine called Sola Fide or “faith alone.” After years of lecturing on Hebrews, Romans, and Galatians Luther had come to the conclusion that salvation is a gift from God that is not dependent on any deed but simply on allowing the Holy Spirit to work faith in a believer.9 This gift was made possible by Jesus’ death and Resurrection. This conviction was the nucleus out of which the rest of Lutheran Doctrine emerged.
Lutheranism has never had a strong position on icons. The most important thing was an emphasis on the Gospel we receive through faith. If images can assist in the greaching of the Gospel then they are good, if they hinder they are bad. The following quote from The Defense of the Augsburg Confession by the successor of Luther, Philip Melanthen makes this clear:
“the true adornment of the churches is godly, useful, and clear doctrine, the devout use of the Sacraments, ardent prayer, and the like. Candles, golden vessels [tapers, altar-cloths, images), and similar adornments are becoming, but they are not the adornment that properly belongs to the Church. But if the adversaries make worship consist in such matters, and not in the preaching of the Gospel, in faith, and the conflicts of faith, they are to be numbered among those whom Daniel describes as worshiping their God with gold and silver”10
Melanthen voiced the heart of the Lutheran concern about icons, namely there is a risk that they might become idols. The Lutheran churches had no problem incorporating physical elements into worship, but if asked “why do you use icons in worship?” The answer would seem to be grounded in the Sola Fide Soteriology of Luther rather then in Christology. Icons are good in so far as they proclaim the Gospel, through which we receive faith and salvation.
Icons in the Reform Tradition
The primary voices in the emergence of Reformed Protestantism were from Ulrich Zwingli and his community in Zurich, and from John Calvin and has community in Geneva. Both had a strong dislike of images which resulted in churches becoming bare walled and austere.
Ulrich Zwingli forbade the use of images believing that they took away from the glory of God.11 He looked at the Bible as the only thing that one should use to teach a Christian how to worship. In doing so all icons were supplanted for a new image, namely that of The Holy Scriptures, and Zwingli’s interpretation of them.
Calvin, like Zwingli, opposed the use of icons. He reasoned that they were a late invention and their introduction correlates to the downfall of the church he wrote in his Institutes:

“If the authority of the ancient church moves us in any way, we will recall that for about five hundred years, during which religion was still flourishing, and a pure doctrine thriving, Christian Churches were commonly empty of images. Thus, it was when the purity of the ministry had somewhat degenerated that they were first introduced for the adornment of churches.”12

This quote shows how ill informed people were on how early icons emerged within Christianity. As discussed earlier icons were definitively part of Christian worship by at least the third century and, in all likelihood, earlier. Icons are the main subject of an entire Chapter of Calvin’s Institutes13 and in that chapter he makes it clear that he finds the use of icons to be idolatry citing the Decalogue and making the bold statement, “God makes no comparison between images, as if one were more, and another less befitting; he rejects, without exception, all shapes and pictures, and other symbols by which the superstitious imagine they can bring him near to them.”14 This quote seems to ignore the understanding of the Seventh Ecumenical Council which pointed out that God did indeed make an exception in the person of Jesus Christ. The reason for this seems to be rooted in Calvin’s own understanding about human nature. Calvin believed that humans and all of creation with them were incapable of doing any good with any part of themselves, only God could sovereignly choose to extend grace to his depraved creation and work in them good. Since God was spirit, and creation was physical there emerged an ethos of dualism within Reformed churches. This coupled with the iconoclasm of Zwingli meant that images in worship became something not seen within Reform tradition churches.

The implications of this were drastic. If a territory came under the rule of a Calvinist, images were not safe, even in churches that were Lutheran. One example of this is under the rule of Elector Frederick III in the Rhine Basin. Images were destroyed in Lutheran churches after Frederick made a dramatic conversion to Calvinism.15 If a person was Calvinist their iconoclasm could create conflict. An example of this is an encounter John Knox is purported to have had in which he was asked to kiss an icon of the Virgin Mary while on a ship. Knox grabbed the icon and threw it over the side of the boat crying, “let Our Lady learn to swim!”16
If a Christian in the early reform tradition were to be asked, “Why don’t you use icons.” The answer may well be, “They are idols that presume that we can create a pretext to manifest God in this fallen world.” The emphasis in reformed theology is not Christology, or Soteriology, but Sovereignty. To sum up the reform perspective: Only God himself can create an image worthy to point to himself, and the only physical image that gives us any special revelation today is the Scriptures.

Icons in the Anglican Communion
The reformation came to England when King Henry VIII broke ties with Rome over an issue over canon law that went political. Henry argued that he should be able to have his marriage annulled, the Pope at that time, Clement VII, refused. Henry went ahead and had it annulled anyways. The break that ensued between the two was total and complete, and what we know today as the Anglican communion was born. Images had been a huge part of the life of Christians in England before this split. Icons were made from wood cuts and distributed among people. People kissed these images, and received indulgences for their veneration.17

After the Church of England broke with the Church of Rome there was a good deal of stability. At first things looked, and smelled like the Catholic churches. A new prayer book was released and in its first edition it was clear that Henry VII had no intention of causing a radical reformation in any way. Since little was changed little about images was changed, in fact the use of images was explicitly encourage in the ten articles of 1536 which were the basis for the churches at that time. The first article related to ceremonies reads: “images are useful as remembrancers, but are not objects of worship.”18

While time went on it became clear that there were two strong forces vying for power in English religion. One group wanted a return to Catholicism, and the other side wanted a more radical reformation. Whenever the former power gained control in the Church the traditional practice of using images in worship became imperiled.

The greatest challenge to iconophiles19 came during the the ascension of Oliver Cromwell to power in 1649. Cromwell had been influenced by a radical Protestant sect that viewed the use of images in churches as idolatry. Cromwell’s forces would strip shrines and churches of religious images. And was doing it in places around England even before he had achieved victory in 1649.20 His iconoclasm was violent and thorough.
Cromwell’s assent to power was only one major shift in a long series of bloody confrontations between different factions of people looking to control both the Governance of England and the Church. Over time it became clear to Christians in England that extreme doctrines were dangerous things in some hands. The church of England began to pursue a middle way or Via Media. Instead of a church that was held together by having common beliefs, they became a church with a common liturgy which was expressed in The Book of Common Prayer.21

When asked, Why do you use icons?” The answer for Anglicans is not clear. Anglican belief is informed by scripture and tradition. For some within the church they might answer, “I don’t use icons.” For others, you might find the answer, “tradition.” The Anglican communion was birthed in tension and has never lost it. Although the Church affirms the seventh Ecumenical council, the thirty-nine articles that have historically been the definitive list for Anglican belief, describe images as “repugnant to the word of God.”22 The emphasis within the Anglican Church is paradoxical and mysterious but works itself out in the common life of the church. In other words the focus is not on Christology, Soteriology, or Sovereignty, but is Sacramental.23

Icons in Radical Reformation groups
Writing about the radical reformation is always difficult. The term seems to be a catch-all for any group that emerged out of the reformation that isn’t Reformed, Lutheran, or Anglican. There is no consensuses on where the radical reformation began, and certainly no common document on images held by all by which we can judge the groups.

Perhaps the best way to look at the radical reformation is as a group along a spectrum. On one side of the spectrum is the Catholic Church and as the spectrum moves along there is more and more of a desire to do away with traditional ways of worship. The Radical groups would be on the opposite side of the spectrum as the Catholics. Because of this there is a tendency to move away from icons within these groups.

One thing is common among Radical Reformers; they refuse to compromise what they believe is the call of God regardless of who was in charge. They did not believe the Church was a physical building or a temporal system, but something invisible and incorporeal. If one were to ask an early Radical reformer why they didn’t use icons in worship, they might respond, “I choose to look to that which is not passing away.” Their focus was on Eschatology.

Icons in the Catholic Church
By 1530 Catholic opponents of the reformation were recognizing and challenging the iconoclasm of the Reformed traditions. Catholic apologist Johann Eck began to attack Zwingli for his belief that images “be destroyed and burned.”24Eck said that Zwingli and those who followed this teaching “ought to be regarded as heathen and publicans.”

When the Catholic church finally got together and had a council to discuss many of the issues raised by the groups in the reformation they condemned those who taught against images, and upheld the decision of the Second Council of Nicea. Holy images were to be retained in churches, however they did make sure to clarify that “the honour which is shown them is referred to the prototypes which those images represent;”25 The Catholic Church affirmed the decision of The Second Council of Nicea.

Icons in The Orthodox church
The irony of the reformation was that it split many churches in the West in extremes away from the Eastern understanding of images just as technology was beginning its rapid surge that would bring these two peoples into closer and closer communication with one another. For Orthodox Christians the attitude of the west was foreign, strange, and uncomfortable.
One story about this comes from the memoirs of Daniel Wheeler, who was a Quaker26in Russia. A practice of the Eastern Church for many centuries is that when you enter a home you are to pray before an icon before you proceed to whatever business you might have in the home. Wheeler had gone to Russia as an engineer near the end of the eighteenth century. One day a group of Russians came to deliver an urgent message to him. They searched the home for icons and became confused. They wondered what icons this man used, being from the West. They finally decided that his icon must be the impressive mantelpiece clock. They decided that it must be an English icon so they bowed before it and recited their prayers.27 As cultures were mixing a clear dissonance between societal norms was emerging.

The reformation tendency toward iconoclasm did not spread to the East in any very wide spread ways, however its affects can be seen in certain Eastern communities which came into contact with Protestants. One example of this is in the sectarian movement of the Stundists in Ukraine in the 19th century. These peasants which were influenced by German colonists in their area, and often embraced a strongly spiritualistic which led to a rejection of the ritual in their spiritual practice. One of the Radical leaders, Iakov Koval, cut out the eyes of his icon of Saint Nicholas, and used it as a scarecrow.28

Iconoclasm was not, however, normative behavior. For the most part Eastern Christianity was Orthodox, and Orthodoxy held the Seventh Ecumenical Council in very high esteem. There is a special Divine Liturgy offered during the first Sunday in Lent called “The Triumph of Orthodoxy,” which commemorates the decision of this council. On this day a procession is made with the icons of the church which serves as a reminder of the Christological declaration made at Nicea in 787.

Bearing God’s image in a Post-Modern World

As we can see in the chart above, the theology related to icons can be a window into the core values held by a group. An Icon can be a mirror that shows us part of us that no normal mirror could hope to show. To some it reflects the image of what they hope to become. To others it reminds them of their own brokenness. To still more an icon shows beauty, and with it reminds the observer of the icon of God they were created to be. However some turn away. They are disgusted by the arrogance of the depraved soul who would seek to dare to cast an image towards a sovereign God. Others turns away from the icon because they view it as a distraction from the incorporeal reality they deeply long for.

The Church today dwells within a plurality of differing perspectives on what is important, both without and within. However at the core of the Christian message is the message that through the life death and Resurrection of Jesus, we have received both a physical and spiritual salvation. We cannot be dualist who reject a creation which God called good, and we can’t be materialist who see the world as physical system which can be understood completely through empirical observation. We are physical and spiritual icons of God who are in the process of being transformed more into God’s image and have been called to take the whole of creation with us in the process of redemption. Icons serve as reminders of all of this.

1 Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church: New Edition (London : Penguin), 1993, 4.

2 Icon comes from the Greek word, εἰκών, meaning simply “image.” I will use the term icon and image somewhat interchangeably. If icons from a particular tradition are mentioned I will make sure that the place or tradition of origin is made explicit either in context or in apposition.

3 Michel Quenot, The Icon: Window on the Kingdom (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s seminary press), 1991, 23.

4 Rachel Hachlili, Ancient Jewish Art and Archaeology in the Diaspora, Part 1 (Boston: BRILL),1998, 89

5 Canon 82, Mansi, CI, col.960

6 Michel Quenot, The Icon: Window on the Kingdom (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s seminary press), 1991, 33-35.

7 Arnold Joseph Toynbee, A Study of History: Abridgement of volumes VII-X (Chicago: Oxford University Press), 1987, 259.

8 St. John Damascene. On Holy Images. Translated by Mary H. Allies. (London: Thomas Baker, 1898), 1:15-16.

9 Wriedt, Markus. “Luther’s Theology,” in The Cambridge Companion to Luther. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 88–94.

10 Philip Melanthen , “The Defense of the Augsburg Confession — The Mass.” The Book of Concord. http://old.bookofconcord.org/augsburgdefense/23_mass.html (accessed April 15, 2010).

11 Belting, Hans. Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art. New Ed ed. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1997.

12 John Calvin, “Book 1 Chapter 11.” Institutes of the Christian Religion Translated by Henry Beveridge. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 May 2010. .

13 Book 1, Chapter 11

14 John Calvin, “Book 1 Chapter 11.” Institutes of the Christian Religion Translated by Henry Beveridge. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 May 2010. .

15 Friedrich Bente, “Historical Introductions to the Lutheran Confessions.” Book of Concord. http://www.bookofconcord.org/historical-18.php (accessed April 18, 2010).

16 Murray, David P . “Lessons From John Knox .” Reformation Scotland. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 May 2010. http://www.reformation-scotland.org.uk/articles/lessons-from-john-knox.php.

17 Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580, Second Edition. 2 ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 215.

18 Thomas Fuller. The Church History of Britain, From the Birth of Jesus Christ Until the Year MDCXLVIII Vol. III. (Albany New York: Bibliolife, 2009, Print), 243.

19 lovers of images

20 Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580, Second Edition. 2 ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 385.

21 Stephen W. Sykes, The Integrity of Anglicanism. (London: Mowbrays, 1978), 44-50.

22 Article XXII

23 The word “sacrament” comes from the Latin “sacramentum,” which meant “an oath, a sacred thing, a mystery.” It was tied to being part of a community. I think this understanding is very fitting to the heart of the Anglican Communion.

24 Johann Eck, “Johann Eck’s 404 Theses.” the Book of Concord. http://www.bookofconcord.org/eck404-theses.php (accessed April 30, 2010).

25 “Chapter 25.” Council of Trent. http://www.americancatholictruthsociety.com/docs/TRENT/trent25.htm#2 (accessed May 1, 2010).

26 Quakers emerged out of the Radical branch of the reformation

27 James H. Forest. Praying with Icons. (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2008), 36.

28 Sergei I. Zhuk, Russia’s lost reformation :peasants, millennialism, and radical sects in Southern Russia and Ukraine, 1830-1917 (Washington, D.C. : Woodrow Wilson Center Press), 2004, 212.

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