St. John of Damascus: Patron Saint of Visual Communication

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St. John of Damascus: Patron Saint of Visual Communication

Terry Lindvall,
Ph.D. Virginia Wesleyan University

Journal of Christian Teaching Practice Home Page

Abstract: This article traces the rise and fall of the image in Christian history, ultimately examining the impact of St. John of Damascus and his defense of holy images in Apologetic Treatises against those Revile the Holy Images and other treatises. St. John confronted not only cultural obstacles but Christological controversies of his day, articulating an apology for the use of images that applies to communication and visual culture today. His contributions to the study of religious communication reaffirm the orthodoxy of the Church and set a theological foundation for artists who work in the visual media and for those who study it.  



When Moses brought down the imposing Ten Commandments from Mt. Sinai, the second law seemed to quarantine the place of the visual arts outside the communal life of God’s chosen people. At the very moment when Moses was dutifully engaged in receiving this law amid smoke and thunder on the mountain, Aaron was down on the plain uneasily constructing an idol in the Egyptian form of a calf, gathering the necessary funding for its production, coordinating the various artisans, and celebrating its completion with fitting sacrificial ceremonial rituals.[1]  Coming down the mountain to this wild, even orgiastic, gathering of idolaters, Moses brought the Decalogue, which dampened the festivities considerably.  Already the first two commandments had been broken, specifically the prohibition against making “a graven image, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.  You shall not worship them or serve them; for I the Lord your God, am a jealous God.”[2]

From the reception of this commandment, an inclination to idolatry seemed to plague Israel, an inclination that only increased after they had conquered and settled down amidst the Canaanites, the Philistines, and other pagan nations of ancient Palestine.  The specious promises of the cults with their deified idols seduced the Hebrews.  Humanly constructed gods rushed in to fill a void of human longing and desire by insinuating a power to satisfy human needs.  The cult image had the ability to arouse instincts and trigger emotions that belong to the realm of worship, even though the graven simulacra could never fulfill the desires they stirred.[3]  Cults of the nature gods and nude goddesses set upon the high places and beside phallic poles provided adherents with the experience of living in a sort of frenzy of the visible. Baal, at least according to Erasmus, transmogrified into the Babylonian snake-god, commanding worship from superstitious and wanton adherents.[4] Shrines to fertility and prosperity frequently connected them to an unbridled, licentious immorality.[5]

The desire for vision was paramount, with adherents of the faith desiring to see and thereby know the power of the gods. One sought to see the heavens by means of the world’s materials, an idea that leads to both idolatry and the Incarnation: invisibilia per visibilia.  The devotion and worship of that which is seen could easily lapse into covetousness and moral decline. What is looked upon and seen commands either worship or want.[6]  Female idols like the Asherim aroused idolatry in wayward Hebrews. Film scholar Scott MacDonald equated erotic idolatry with a repressed and spiritual form of adultery; as Jesus admonished, insomuch as you look upon a woman with lust, you have committed adultery.[7] The phenomenon of idolatry works to seduce faith from its true Object to artistic productions, resulting in their gaining power over the viewer. One surrenders, as it were, to the principalities and powers behind a desirable material or sexual graven image.  Images become charged with presence, invested with power, brimming with the tease of spurious gratification so that we find, as David Freedberg astutely put it, that “god is in the image.”[8]  Freedberg argues for a belief in the efficacy of pictures, whereby both pious and lascivious images call for imitation. Imitation stems from one’s perception, contemplation, and then an ascent/descent into the suggestion of the image. He suggests that the fear of idolatry is rooted in the [often repressed] power of images to arouse and provoke.[9]

Within a discussion of Nicolas Poussin’s painting of The Dance Round the Golden Calf that stands as the loci classici of idolatrous image worship in which the prohibition against graven images is contrasted with the incontrovertible visible evidence of debauched sensuality, Freedberg playfully notes that “the erection and invocation of a material image invariably engages the senses.” He argues, convincingly, that images do have such powers, and while many, especially theologians, seek to repress that idea, pagans are fully aware of the erotic possibilities of the material constructions of their idols.[10]

Images Have Consequences

It was this tendency that drew people away from God to lesser idols that sparked one of the controversies of the early church.  The eruption of the submarine volcano in the Aegean Sea brought ash and tidal waves to the shores of the seemingly impregnable fortress of Constantinople.  Some saw the natural disaster as a sign that the use of images had incurred the Wrath of God.  Emperor Leo III, the Isaurian of Constantinople, ruling Byzantium from 717 to 741, was probably one of them.  Viewing the veneration of images as a “craft of idolatry,” he demanded that an icon of Christ situated over the Chalke Gate be removed and that various reliquaries decorated with religious figures be confiscated and destroyed. What would ensue would be the great debate over the role of images in the church, the first iconomachy, the battle of the icons.

For decades some of his Eastern Church leaders had studied the Torah and become obsessed with the second commandment against the making of graven images. As they reflected upon the construction of venerated images of Jesus, Mary, and the saints which had entered the Church, they reinterpreted such trends as a form of idolatry.  Perhaps it was such transgression that deserved and summoned such Divine judgment that had endangered the empire. Thus, they viewed the volcanic ash that covered the city as a sign of God’s displeasure and called for the citizens to repent of their idol-making. In particular, Leo castigated the idolatrous devotion to images of holy figures including Christ, the Virgin (known as Theotokos, or “God-bearer”), and saints.

Leo was not alone in his rejection of images.  In this act, he had support from the Jews and the encroaching power of the Muslim nation. In fact, the Muslim military victories may have influenced their Christian neighbors to accommodate their cultural position. The Islamic rejection of images coupled with their success in expanding their territory seemed to be of the same cloth.

Joining the two groups, Leo issued an edict banning the exhibition and veneration of holy images around 726.  He sparked a wave of iconoclasm, a mob of icon-breakers. Most church fathers and monks protested his imperial regulation with a revolt breaking out in Greece. Supported by the Western Church of Pope Gregory II and Gregory III, the great Patriarch Germanos I of Constantinople resisted the decree until he was replaced by Anastasios, Leo’s supporter. Yet in spite of various acts of excommunication of the iconoclasts, Leo triumphed for a brief period. He sent his mighty fleet to Ravenna, but it was sunk by a storm, suggesting that God may have sent another sign against the iconoclasts.

The outbreak of the image-breakers in Constantinople around 730 AD compromised several aspects of orthodox theology.  First, it seemed in accordance with aspects of the Manichees’ dualism, which consigned all material existence into the realm of evil.  Frequently, but not always, a rejection of the image was rooted in suspicion of the natural world and of the body itself. Against a backdrop of pagan idols, the purist and pessimistic thought of Manicheaism rejected the image.  A second concern was grounded in a religious ontology of the Hebrews, who viewed the veneration of artistic human images as idolatry. Finally, the eastern influence of the religion of Mohammed led to the fanatic destruction of images by Moslem true believers.  Under these influences, Leo III championed a movement to purify the church from pagan superstition, a purification that included banning the use of icons and religious pictures in worship.  Leo demanded that all Roman subjects swear a hatred of images. He was followed by his son, Constantine V, who also condemned pictures because they allegedly drew “down the spirit of man from the lofty adoration of God to the low and material adoration of the creature.”[11] Bishops found that numerous visual representations of Jesus adorned the churches.[12]  In the midst of moral laxity in Constantinople, many fanatic legalists thought the problem stemmed from all the graven images that lined the city.  The iconoclasts saw their smashing of images as parallel to the destruction of the sacred groves of Phoenicia.[13]

Patron Saint of Visual Communication

Sequestered away from the central venues of the Eastern Orthodox Church down in the deserts of Damascus, an obscure Syrian monk served as a Chief Administrator to the Muslim caliph of the area. A polymath scholar, poet, and priest, he would emerge as the last of the Eastern Orthodox Fathers of the Church, learned in both the Scriptures and the books of the Muslims.

St. John of Damascus (676-754) became renowned for his Fountain of Knowledge, a tripartite work covering an introduction to philosophy and logic, a section on heresies, and an exposition of the Orthodox Christian faith. But the work which was to make a mark for communication scholars of the 21st century was his lucid defense of holy images which appeared during the great Iconoclastic Controversy of the 8th century.  In particular, his Apologetic Treatises against those Revile the Holy Images would provide a theological foundation for artists working in the visual media.

St. John rose up against the heresy, writing his three treatises. As Leo did not have access to the articulate saint as a Byzantine subject, he could not imprison or execute him, however, he allegedly sent a forged letter of slander that implicated John in a plot to attack Damascus.  The Saracen Caliph reacted predictably, firing his able administrator and ordering that his right hand be severed.  In the later legend, John prayed before an icon of the Theotokos and the hand was miraculously restored with a calling to continue his unwavering defense of the Virgin and Her Child.  In gratitude for the healing, St. John allegedly incorporated a silver model of his hand which was attached to the icon, which became known as the “Three-handed” (or “Tricheirousa”) icon.  Upon hearing of the miracle, the caliph sought to restore his servant, but St. John gave up all his belongings to the poor and humbly entered the monastery of St. Sabbas the Sanctified. Tucked away in the monastery, St. John was safe and able to write.  The distance from Constantinople to Palestine was sufficient to keep him safely ensconced from the violence of the iconoclasts and enabled him to articulate an orthodox response.

Contra Heresies

However, St. John had to tackle not only cultural obstacles, but Christological controversies that swirled during the first centuries.  In opposition to gnostic and Arian heresies, he upheld the doctrine of the incarnation, of Jesus as fully God and fully man, as central to his defense of the icon. The Word of God assumed a human body, taking on material flesh, so that what was eternal became temporal, what was invisible became visible.  God became dust, a person whom the apostle John described in his first epistle could be handled, seen, heard, and touched.

In the midst of these controversies about whether one could communicate the Godhead in images made of silver or paint, the patron saint of film would emerge as a champion of this orthodox teaching.  Upon a foundation of Scriptural and early church teachings, St. John of Damascus would articulate an apology for the use and veneration of images and formulate a theory of communication for Christians to engage in visual culture.

Against the theological danger of inching toward Docetism or Gnosticism, toward the idea that Jesus only seemed human or that his humanity was not actual, a defense of the nature of images would also offer an apologetic for the created world. St. John gently reasoned with the heretics against inadequate or wrong understandings of the incarnation. The invisible God who spoke in the past now entered history with a physical presence.

The Incarnation marked a dynamic event in the history of Christian communication, moving the people of God from an oral culture to a visual one as well. “In former times, God, being without form or body, could in no way be represented. But today, since God has appeared in the flesh and lived among men, I can represent what is visible in God.”  St. John sets forth his argument that Christians are not to despise matter, “for it is not despicable. God has made nothing despicable. To think such things is Manicheaism.”[14] He sets forth his argument with succinct power:

In former times, God, Who is without form or body, could never be depicted. But now when God is seen in the flesh conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take His abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter. Because the Divine took on flesh, I salute all remaining matter with reverence.[15]

The decisive change invited artists to join prophets and scribes in expressing the presence of the Divine. In the past, the temples of God had been adorned with depictions of living organisms, plants, and animals and even angels. But now, God, having entered into a material existence, was not only visible but representational. The disciple John had made a point of emphasizing against the gnostic Cerenthius that what they heard, saw with their eyes, looked at and touched with their hands, “this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.  We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us.”[16] St. John would take these biblical principles and marshal them into a coherent argument.

In his introduction to John of Damascus’ thought, David Anderson warned that it would be a great mistake to “treat the iconoclastic controversy as well as the treatises of St. John as anachronistic curiosities, of interest only to students of Church history….  How often is the material placed in direct opposition to the spiritual?”[17]  The danger of a disincarnate Christianity, of a merely spiritual world, turns and twists us back to early heresies.

The Text

St. John starts out recognizing the urgent need for him to speak out on the issue. One cannot shrink back when one sees the sword coming. One must speak. He proclaims that the Church has not degenerated into idolatry, but needs teaching to elucidate her traditions.  He begins by affirming that the Lord our God is one and alone should be worshipped. Secondly, he agrees with his adversaries by asserting that one must not worship strange gods or make any likeness of Him to be worshipped.  He makes his orthodox confession of the Trinitarian God and rejects any worship of the creature over the Creator.

He first confronts his opponents for their misinterpretations of the Scriptures in support of iconoclasm. Significantly, John identifies with the command that one should not worship anything other than the Lord, but he warns that one must not apply Moses’ commandment too literally as the “letter kills but the Spirit gives life.” He argues that the crux of the debate comes with the forbidding of making images because of the suspicion of idolatry.  It is, he avers, “impossible to make an image of the immeasurable, uncircumscribed invisible God;” for God’s people only heard a voice. He points to Paul’s testimony on Areopagus, where “being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the Deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, a representation by the art and imagination of man.”[18] He counters their arguments by turning the tables on them.  Iconodules are not making the invisible visible in their own image, but following the logic that when you “contemplate God becoming man then you may depict him clothed in human form. When the invisible One becomes visible to flesh, you may then draw his likeness.”[19]

The public acts from the birth and baptism of Jesus through His transfiguration, sufferings and death on a Cross to His Resurrection open up a communication for every kind of drawing, word, or color. “Since the creation of the world the invisible things of God are clearly seen by means of images.” These images, dim lights, not only reflect the work of God, but remind us of God. They hint of His mysterious workings through “something hidden in riddles and shadows.” “The brazen serpent, for example, typifies the cross and Him who healed the evil bite of the serpent by hanging on it.”[20]

John holds up the example of Bezalel, the first to be filled with the Holy Spirit, who is given “ability and intelligence, knowledge and all craftsmanship to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting and in carving wood for work in every craft.”[21] This demonstrates that the ark, the staff, and the mercy seat were made by human hands, and they are the handiwork of men created to the glory of God, serving as a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary. Such images are important; for just as words edify the ear, so also the image stimulates the eye. “What the book is to the literate, the image is to the illiterate.”[22] Both images and sermons serve the same purpose. The Word of God can be shown in both preaching and pictures. Virtue is communicated to those who cannot read through the “never silent heralds of the honor due the saints, teaching without use of words those who gaze upon them, and sanctifying the sense of sight.” “Both painters of words and painters of pictures illustrate valor in battle; the former by the art of rhetoric; the latter by clever use of the brush, and both encourage everyone to be brave.  A spoken account edifies the ear, while a silent picture induces imitation.”[23]

Apparently, not feeling that his first explanation was clear or cogent enough, St. John reworked his material, augmenting it with new emphases from church fathers in his Second Apology against Those Who Attack the Divine Images. With the authority of the patriarchs, he quotes sermon of the great St. John Chrysostom and inserts a particularly compelling verbal icon from the golden mouth orator.  Chrysostom draws a “picture” or icon of an angel fighting barbarian hordes that conveys spiritual truth in the midst of historical realities. St. John adds the experience of St. Ambrose of Milan who, seeing the face of Paul on an icon, found himself brought into a posture of great peace.[24]

St. John prudently conceded that the devil did scheme as an enemy of truth to urge the heirs of Adam that they make images of corruptible man or birds or beasts or reptiles and worship them as gods.  But John adds that Christians do not make images of the invisible God nor images of man and believe them to be gods. Neither do Christians adore such images. Such acts would be impious.

While no one has ever seen God, John argues his key point, namely that “we are not mistaken if we make the image of the God incarnate, who was seen on earth in the flesh, associated with men, and in His unspeakable goodness assumed the nature, feeling, form, and color of our flesh.”[25] The apostle Paul, he points out, wrote how we see through a glass darkly. Now, John continues, “the icon is also a dark glass, fashioned according to the limitations of our physical nature.” It exists to help our faith, to provide a glimpse into the glory of God.

In educing insights from the author of Hebrews, St. John punctuates how God spoke in many and various ways in the past.  In particular, He employed visual means to express His presence, as John pointed to the Hebrew commandments to make a mercy seat of pure gold with two cherubim of hammered gold.  So, too, the temple of Solomon was decorated with images of animals, lions and oxen, palm trees and pomegranates.[26]

St. John took on the devil as well for his wicked ways in trying to frustrate the existence of icons. “Shame on you, wicked devil, for grudging us the sight of our Master’s likeness.”[27] He pointed out how the holy Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, had warned that those who “prevent the veneration of images are the imitators and instruments of the devil; for instead of further tempting the old man, the demon of lust attempted to deprive our Lady’s icon of honor, since he knew which would be the greater evil.”[28] The disciples of Satan were none other than the accursed Manicheans and Gnostics, both of whom despised matter and called it contemptible. But for God, everything made was very good. Blessed are your eyes when they see, said Jesus, bestowing His own blessing upon the organ of sight.

Finally, in his third discourse, St. John, like a Syrian Aristotle, returns to the consideration of basic questions of definition and categories that may be overlooked by his opponents: what is an image? Why are they made? How many kinds are there? What may be depicted by an image and what may not? Who first made images? Concerning worship, he inquires, what is worship? How many kinds of worship are there? How many things in Scripture can we discover that were worshipped? All worship is for the sake of God, who is by nature worshipful. For John, any honor given to an image is transferred to its prototype.[29]

In visual communication, St. John limns out six different kinds of images.  The most supreme image is the image of the Father in the Son, the first natural image of the invisible God, for Christ reveals the fullness of the Father in His own person. The second kind of image is God’s foreknowledge of things which have yet to happen. The third kind of image is made by God as an imitation of Himself, as in His own image He made man, male and female. The fourth kind deals with shadows and forms and types of invisible and bodiless things which are described by the Scriptures in physical terms, such as give us a faint apprehension of God and the angels. The fifth kind prefigures what is to happen, as the Brazen Serpent foreshadows the cross.  The sixth is made for remembrance of past events, miracles or good deeds, and can be communicated through words or relics or icons.[30] He asks what may be depicted by an image and concludes that any physical things which have shape, even bodily representations of cherubim (as Moses depicted) are legitimate.

Contributions to Communication

At least three contributions of St. John to the study of religious communication can be gleaned from his treatises. First, he punctuates the virtue of connecting communication to Christian orthodoxy, actually providing a theology of the icon.  Second, along with Church Fathers, he legitimizes the use and functions of visual communication for expressing God’s work among His people. Third, he points out the kinds of worship involved in our attachment to the visual, offering both a warning and an opportunity.

St. John substantiated the significance of the incarnation as the source of honoring the physical created world. Unlike Marcion and other Gnostics, he established God’s creation as set forth in the Hebrew Scriptures as foundational to Christian theology.  With Pope Gregory III, John prevented the church from becoming iconoclastic.  He excommunicated the Iconoclasts and pronounced that the image was a vital means of communication for the Church, writing that “pictures are for the illiterates what letters are for those who can read.” The vital distinction made by the Seventh Ecumenical Council ultimately hung on the difference between honoring and worshipping icons.  Theologically, St. John emphasized that the icon failed when it drew attention to itself.  He makes the key distinction that an image is a likeness or model; it merely shows what it depicts and is not identical to its prototype.  What the image does is to reveal and make perceptible those things which are hidden; it makes manifest what is not seen.  Two features to be distinguished are “looking at” and “looking through.”[31] The icon, unlike the image, was a means to see beyond the artistic material. One receives a glimpse of the transcendent when one looks through the image toward what it points. A key characteristic of the icon is that it exists to be seen through.  One looks through the icon to see the transcendent rather than to merely look at it.  One contemplates an image seen through the “windows of heaven,” as well as enjoying the icon.  The icon beckons outward and upward.  The religious icon, like the burning bush, appears not to be gazed upon and admired, but to direct the attention to a reality, a truth beyond itself. It is a window rather than a mirror.

The scandal of the visible was resolved at the council of Nicaea in 787 that decreed that pictures, the cross, and the Gospels “should be given due salutation and honorable reverence.” Essentially the justification of the icon was based upon the fact that Jesus Christ was very man and that the Gospel records were truly historical and actual.[32]

Second, St. John set the stage for recognizing the functions of the visual image. His cause was taken up by Pope Gregory III, who eventually excommunicated the Iconoclasts and pronounced that the image was a vital means of communication for the Church. During the eleventh through the twelfth centuries, Pope Gregory’s articulation of a comprehensive apologetic for holy aesthetics, namely that painting can teach as well as illustrate religious ideas, diffused throughout Europe.  As art historian E. H. Gombrich pointed out, “Images lived on in the minds of the people even more powerfully than did the words of the preacher’s sermon.”[33] In the 13th century, Saint Bonaventura carried on the legacy of the Pope Gregory and the Council and summarized the pontiff’s defense of using images in churches. He offered three reasons for the indispensable worth of images:

They were made for the simplicity of the ignorant, so that the uneducated who are unable to read Scripture can, through statues and paintings of this kind, read about the sacraments of our faith in, as it were, more open Scriptures.

They were introduced because of the sluggishness of the affections, so that men who are not aroused to devotion when they hear with the ear about those things which Christ has done for us will at the least be inspired when they see the same things in figures and pictures, present, as it were, to their bodily eyes.  For our emotion is aroused more by what is seen than by what is heard.

They were introduced on account of the transitory nature of memory, because those things which are only heard fall into oblivion more easily than those things which are seen.[34]

This triad of functions served as cures for human weaknesses: for ignorance, sloth and forgetfulness.[35]  Images in the churches were the libri idiotarum, the books of the illiterate, a truth repeatedly emphasized by Pope Gregory the Great: “We do no harm in wishing to show the invisible by means of the visible.”[36] From this point on, the doctrines of the church and the ideas of the transcendent were increasingly conveyed through images: through panel paintings, illuminations, calendar manuscripts, brass fonts and even candlesticks. An apologetic for religious imagery slowly but surely developed within the Roman Catholic tradition. The vital distinction made by the Seventh Ecumenical Council ultimately hung on the difference between honoring and worshipping icons.[37]  The scandal of the visible was resolved at the Council of Nicaea in 787 that decreed that pictures, the cross, and the Gospels should be given their due salutation and honorable reverence, but not the true worship which pertains alone to God.

Third, St. John also made a concrete distinction between absolute worship and adoration, which belongs only to God, and relative worship or veneration, which can be bestowed upon men as well.  One could bow down to those in authority, recognizing that they had been given position deserving honor. But one was not to surrender one’s allegiance or praise to anything else. That would be idolatry.

In his varying degrees of worship, he lists absolute worship or adoration first, which is offered to God, Who alone by nature is worthy to be worshipped.  Our awe, yearning, and thanksgiving ascend to Him alone. In contrast, relative worship can be bequeathed upon created things and places established by God. From Mount Sinai to Bethlehem, objects dedicated to God, chalices, candlesticks altars, images seen by the prophets, veneration of others made in the image of God.  Here one may properly honor His friends and His dwellings, even as David venerated the prophets and God’s holy places, paying honor to whom honor is due.

In his articulation of the importance of the visual for Christians communicating to their world, St. John of Damascus reaffirmed the orthodoxy of the Church and previewed what could come from the creativity of God’s people in the centuries to come.


[1] A Smithsonian Institute Exhibit of Hollywood Legend and Reality showcased director Cecil B. DeMille’s tinny and tacky oak wood and gold leaf construction of the Golden Calf.  His facsimile was embarrassingly shoddy, but vividly reminded one of how superficial idols were.  Eerily enough, the Academy Award of the Netherlands, the Dutch Oscar as it were, is known as the Golden Calf award.

[2] Exodus 20:4-5; Deuteronomy 4:15.

[3] Worship in the Greek literally means “pro” toward and “kuneo” kissing. Thus to prostrate oneself and kiss the hand or feet was to surrender your allegiance and affection to the object of worship. Canaanite and Phoenician religions afforded extremely debasing forms of idol worship, with Baal towering over the other demons. See John Bright, History of Israel (Westminster Press, 1959), 108; See also Lionel Kochan, Beyond the Graven Image: A Jewish View (New York UP, 1997) and Lindvall, Terry, Sanctuary Cinema (NYU Press, 2001).

[4] Desiderius Erasmus, The Praise of Folly (Trans. by Hoyt Hopewell Hudson) (Princeton UP, 1941), 89.

[5] Isaiah 30: 19-22 Isaiah castigated those “idols overlaid with silver,” admonishing the Hebrews to defile them, throw them away like a menstrual cloth and say: “Away with you.” Israel was prone to surrender to superstition, and to worship these molten images. St. John of Damascus: On the Divine Images (Crestwood, NY: Sr. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1994), 18. See John Durham Peters, “Beauty’s Veils: The Ambivalent Iconoclasm of Kierkegaard and Benjamin” in The Image in Dispute (ed. by Dudley Andrew) (University of Texas Press, 1997), 9-32.

[6] The visual objectifying and commodifying of the female image, for example, would lead to its desire and consumption as an object. Feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey sees women being the exploited “object of the male gaze,” while positing that the root of desire is in the encounter with the image. For all practical purposes, the gaze in the movie theater is gendered male, directed toward the eroticized female body. Yet might we mischievously suggest that one other paradigm analogy for the serpentine image might be the brazen woman called Medusa, with her unruly head of hair-snakes? She holds the power not only to make those men who gaze upon her impotent, but to transform them into deaf and dumb idols of stone themselves. The mythically divine woman condensed into a material object has her own revenge.  Laura Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures (Indiana University Press, 1989).

[7] “The gaze in the movie theater is, for all practical purposes, gendered male: the pay off for the viewer, as often as not, is the eroticized female body, and the very fact of looking at conventional films becomes a form of repressed adultery.  Just as so many men in films have sex with more than one woman, the male or “male” spectator comes to “know” the women in films in addition to whatever women they know in real life.” Scott MacDonald, “From Zygote to Global via Su Friedrich’s Films” Journal of Film and Video 44:1-2 (Spring/Summer 1992), 31; See Colossians 3:5; Ephesians 5:5; and Philippians 3:19.

[8]  David Freedberg, The Power of Images (University of Chicago Press, 1989), xxiii.

[9] Ibid.76 See especially Freedberg’s chapter on the “Arousal by Image” (317-344).

[10] Ibid.378-9, 423; See also James L. Crenshaw, The Psalms: An Introduction (Eerdmans, 2001); In the book of Proverbs, young Hebrew men slipping away at dusk to a cultic courtesan were forewarned against becoming oxen going to the slaughter, of being enticed, excited and executed.  The apostle Paul later admonished the Corinthians with a vivid illustration of the consequences of Israel’s idolatry: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.  We should not commit sexual immorality as some of them did–and in one day 23,000 of them died.  We should not test the Lord as some of them did–and were killed by snakes.” I Corinthians 10: 7-9 The disciple John confronted a similar crisis finding in the city of Pergamos the devotees of the Nicolaitans and Balaam (those who compromised the Christian faith rather than combat it), worshipping the snake, often in orgiastic feasts that led people into idolatry and sexual immorality. Mark 16:18 Revelation 2:14-15.

[11] Bright, John History of Israel (John Knox, 2000), 149 In a clever bit of mockery, St. John penned “The Manichaeans wrote the Gospel according to Thomas; will you now write the Gospel according to Leo?” (63).

[12] Kazhdan, Alexander (ed) “Leo III” The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium (Oxford University Press, 1991).

[13] In his intellectual history of iconoclasm, Alain Besancon showed that even after Orthodox Christianity’s vindication of the acceptable nature of icons, the hydra heads of opposition to the forbidden essence of images continued to be raised by radical reformers and other philosophers. See Alain Besancon, (trans. by Jane Marie Todd) The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm (University of Chicago Press, 2001).

[14] St. John op. cit. 24.

[15] Ibid. 23.

[16] I John 1: 1-3.

[17] Anderson, David in St. John op. cit., 11.

[18] Ibid., 17.

[19] Ibid., 18.

[20] Ibid., 21.

[21] Exodus 31: 2-5.

[22] St. John op. cit. 25; However, their loathsome idolatry does not make the Christian veneration of images wrong. “Just because the pagans used them in a foul way is no reason to object to our pious practice.” (32) One must give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, namely the image of God, oneself.

[23] Ibid. 39.

[24] Ibid. 68-69.

[25] Ibid. 53.

[26] Ibid. 58, 62.

[27] Ibid. 53.

[28] Ibid. 73.

[29] Ibid. 73.

[30] Ibid. 74.

[31] Cf. Lewis, C. S. “Meditation in a Toolshed” in God in the Dock (Eerdmans, 2014), 212-216.

[32] Cf Pelikan, Jaroslav Imago Dei (Princeton University Press, 1990) and Ousepensky, Leonid Theology of the Icon: Volumes I and II (trans. Anthony Gythiel) (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1992).

[33] E. H. Gombrich, The Story of Art (London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 1972), 130.

[34] Saint Bonaventura. Liber III, Sententiarum: Dist. IX, Art. I, Quaestio II, Opera Theologica Selecta (Florence, 1941), 194; While uneducated people could not read books, they could read images on a wall. Poet Francois Villon rhapsodized on this experience in verses written for his mother in the mid-fifteenth century: “I am a woman, poor and old,/Quite ignorant, I cannot read./They showed me in my village church/A painted Paradise with harps,/And Hell where the damned souls are boiled./One gives me joy, the other frightens me.” Gombrich, 130.

[35] St. Thomas Aquinas echoed Bonaventura: “the instruction of the unlettered, who might learn from them as if from books; second, so that the mystery of the Incarnation and the examples of the saints might remain more firmly in our memory by being daily represented to our eyes; and third, to excite the emotions which are more effectively aroused by things seen than by things heard.” Commentarium super libros sententiarum: Commentum in librum III dist. 9, art. 2. qu. 2. See also Bonaventure Itinerarium mentis ad Deum 2: 11.

[36] Gregrory the Great Lib. IX, Epistola LII Ad Secundinum in PL 77, cols. 990-91. Cited in Freedberg, 470 fn9.  Dionysius Areopagaticus also emphasized how meditation is enabled by the cult of images: “We are led up, as far as possible, through visible images to a contemplation of the divine.” (De ecclesia hierachia, 1.2 (trans. by Ernst Kitzinger) PG 3, col. 373: 1952), 137-38.

[37] As the Scriptures (II Corinthians 4:4) indicated, Jesus Christ was the image of the Father.  Thus, the Council declared that one could “render icons the veneration of honor (proskune-sis), not true worship (latreia) of our faith which is due to the divine nature.”  Such an honor shown to the icon is conveyed to its prototype, passing to the One depicted.  So Christ could be worshipped as God, just as Mary and the saints could receive their own due veneration.

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