Sunday, March 31, 2013
Saturday, March 30, 2013
Eucharist and Covenant in John's Last Supper Account
(A Theological Gift for Our Time)
Matthew J. Bellisario
Pope Pius XII wrote in `Mediator Dei', "Liturgical practice begins with the very founding of the Church." Monsignor La Femina's revolutionary new theological work, 'Eucharist and Covenant in John's Last Supper Account' sheds new light on this very fact, in examining the Johannine Last Supper Account, which until now has not been revealed. There has always been a problem which has separated the synoptic Gospels from the Gospel of Saint John. One of the major problems has always been the absence of the institution of the Eucharist in the Gospel of John, which appears in every synoptic account and in Paul. Likewise, the mystery is reciprocal being that the synoptic Gospels and Paul do not mention the footwashing in their Last Supper accounts. Many biblical scholars over the centuries have come up with a variety of opinions as to why this apparent problem exists, and even among the Church Fathers there has been no unanimous interpretation of Saint John's Footwashing account. Monsignor's book begins by laying out this fundamental problem, and proposes a solution to the problem: Jesus' death was indeed made present at the Last Supper, and John indicated this through his Footwashing analogy of the Eucharist.
This may seem to be a strange interpretation at first, and indeed it is "strange" being that Saint John's account of the Footwashing has never been interpreted in such a manner. Yet this theological gem gives a very convincing argument that Saint John did speak about the institution and nature of the Eucharist in his account of the Last Supper. It is hidden in analogy. The problem and the proposed solution is then built upon by explaining what type of analogy Saint John uses in his account. The book is nicely documented by easy to follow footnotes, so that you can research further into each topic as you study the work. As the book progresses, you will learn many other interesting facts about the Church and the Catholic faith, as well as some of its Jewish roots, especially those that pertain to covenant.
One reason this work is important for our times however lies in the fact that the Church is now in a time of crisis when it comes to understanding and believing the doctrine of the Eucharist, and how it pertains to us. Of course the Eucharist given to us and the person of Jesus Christ are truly inseparable. This is clearly and uniquely articulated in the book. There are however many other important theological topics that are covered as the book unveils this hidden account about the nature of the Eucharist of the Last Supper. For example, do most Catholics really understand the role of Christ as Messiah? Do they understand the meaning of Jesus' command to "love one another as I have loved you"? Do they truly understand Jesus' kingship which is "not of this world?" What about His title, "Son of Man?" Is the Father truly greater than the Son? These any many other important questions pertaining to the person of Jesus Christ are also clearly answered. As the book progresses one begins to truly understand the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist and how the Church actually takes its origin from Christ and the Eucharist. Monsignor states, regarding the Church, "...she is essentially eucharistic because her very origin is essentially bound to the Eucharist and can never be separated from it."
After reading this book you will clearly see how Saint John's Footwashing account flows along side by side with the Last Supper accounts. Monsignor indicates the similarities in circumstances, attributes and effects of the Eucharist in the synoptic and Pauline Last Supper Accounts and the Footwashing in the Johannine Last Supper Account. Moreover, one begins to understand how Saint John views the reality of the Eucharistic covenant. As Monsignor covers the Royal Investiture Tradition and the analogy used by Saint John of the Hittite vassal treaty, this all comes together nicely. After reading this work you truly begin to see the relationship between God the Father, Jesus the Son, and his "children of God."
There is much to be learned from reading this book. It will not only be an eye opener for Catholics, but it will also give Protestants yet another Scriptural conundrum to wrestle with in regards to the Christ and the Eucharist. I highly recommend this work, and having read the other reviews here on Amazon, I must say that this is not really a difficult work. Yet, if you are expecting one of those warm fuzzy books that you read before bed, this is not one of them. This book is best read at the desk with your pencil and Bible close at hand. It is a theological work in the truest sense, and those that understand and appreciate older theological works that are rooted in Saint Thomas will really appreciate the amount of time and effort that went into this theological study. In my copy there is underlining on every page, and although I read the book in two days, I am now going back and rereading it again. This book may truly be the next colossal breakthrough in Catholic Scripture scholarship. With the mayhem brought upon us today by those who have sought to degrade and desacralize the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, this book contains the remedy to their errors. One other note, the book's forward is penned by non-other than Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke. Whether or not you come away from this book convinced of Monsignor's premise, which is truly convincing, I guarantee you will not come away from it without seeing the Gospel of Saint John, and Scripture in general, in a new light.
Thursday, March 21, 2013
A friend sent this link over to me which is a website containing a very cool virtual tour of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in Rome. I visited back in 2005 and it was of course among my favorite churches that I visited. Check it out.
Monday, March 18, 2013
The Splendor and Glory of the Sacred Image Part IV Summary
Now I want to turn briefly to the theological explanations that came out of this controversy, and then I will proceed in the second part of the lecture to examining the icon itself, and the theology that separates them from other forms of artistic expression. Perhaps the most notable Saint and theologian to arise out of this era was Saint John Damascene. He wrote an infamous apologia for the use of sacred images. I think it is worth reading a small portion of his document to explain the proper understanding of the Old Testament ban on graven images, and how it relates to the Church.
“Now adversaries say: God's commands to Moses the law-giver were, "Thou shalt adore shalt worship him the Lord thy God, and thou alone, and thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath."
They err truly, not knowing the Scriptures, for the letter kills whilst the spirit quickens--not finding in the letter the hidden meaning...
You see the one thing to be aimed at is not to adore a created thing more than the Creator, nor to give the worship of latreia except to Him alone. By worship, consequently, He always understands the worship of latreia. For, again, He says: "Thou shalt not have strange gods other than Me. Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor any similitude. Thou shalt not adore them, and thou shalt not serve them, for I am the Lord thy God." (Deut. 5.7-9) And again, "Overthrow their altars, and break down their statues; burn their groves with fire, and break their idols in pieces. For thou shalt not adore a strange god." (Deut. 12.3) And a little further on: "Thou shalt not make to thyself gods of metal." (Ex. 34.17)
You see that He forbids image-making on account of idolatry, and that it is impossible to make an image of the immeasurable, uncircumscribed, invisible God....These injunctions were given to the Jews on account of their proneness to idolatry. Now we, on the contrary, are no longer in leading strings. Speaking theologically, it is given to us to avoid superstitious error, to be with God in the knowledge of the truth, to worship God alone, to enjoy the fulness of His knowledge. We have passed the stage of infancy, and reached the perfection of manhood. We receive our habit of mind from God, and know what may be imaged and what may not....
It is clear that when you contemplate God, who is a pure spirit, becoming man for your sake, you will be able to clothe Him with the human form. When the Invisible One becomes visible to flesh, you may then draw a likeness of His  form. When He who is a pure spirit, without form or limit, immeasurable in the boundlessness of His own nature, existing as God, takes upon Himself the form of a servant in substance and in stature, and a body of flesh, then you may draw His likeness, and show it to anyone willing to contemplate it. Depict His ineffable condescension, His virginal birth, His baptism in the Jordan, His transfiguration on Thabor, His all-powerful sufferings, His death and miracles, the proofs of His Godhead, the deeds which He worked in the flesh through divine power, His saving Cross, His Sepulchre, and resurrection, and ascent into heaven. Give to it all the endurance of engraving and colour. Have no fear or anxiety; worship is not all of the same kind.
The incarnation is the binding agent that grafts the sacred image into the body of the Church. Here Saint John amply explains the orthodox Christian understanding of these Old Testament texts. You can find his entire apologia on the internet. I think it is also important to briefly cover some of the statements made by the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which formally upheld the traditional teaching of the Church’s use of sacred images. At the end of the first session of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, John, the most reverend bishop and legate of the Eastern high priests said: “This heresy is the worst of all heresies. Woe to the iconoclasts! It is the worst of heresies, as it subverts the incarnation (οἰκονομίαν) of our Savior.”
In Session 1 the following anathemas were proclaimed by bishops reconciling themselves to the Church.
Anathema to the calumniators of the Christians, that is to the image breakers.
Anathema to those who apply the words of Holy Scripture which were spoken against idols, to the venerable images.
Anathema to those who do not salute the holy and venerable images.
Anathema to those who say that Christians have recourse to the images as to gods.
Anathema to those who call the sacred images idols.
Anathema to those who knowingly communicate with those who revile and dishonour the venerable images.
Anathema to those who say that another than Christ our Lord hath delivered us from idols.
Anathema to those who spurn the teachings of the holy Fathers and the tradition of the Catholic Church, taking as a pretext and making their own the arguments of Arius, Nestorius, Eutyches, and Dioscorus, that unless we were evidently taught by the Old and New Testaments, we should not follow the teachings of the holy Fathers and of the holy Ecumenical Synods, and the tradition of the Catholic Church.
Anathema to those who dare to say that the Catholic Church hath at any time sanctioned idols.
Anathema to those who say that the making of images is a diabolical invention and not a tradition of our holy Fathers.
This is my confession [of faith] and to these propositions I give my assent. And I pronounce this with my whole heart, and soul, and mind.
Furthermore, the Council proclaimed,
“We, therefore, following the royal pathway and the divinely inspired authority of our Holy Fathers and the traditions of the Catholic Church (for, as we all know, the Holy Spirit indwells her), define with all certitude and accuracy that just as the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross, so also the venerable and holy images, as well in painting and mosaic as of other fit materials, should be set forth in the holy churches of God, and on the sacred vessels and on the vestments and on hangings and in pictures both in houses and by the wayside, to wit, the figure of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady, the Mother of God, of the honourable Angels, of all Saints and of all pious people. For by so much more frequently as they are seen in artistic representation, by so much more readily are men lifted up to the memory of their prototypes, and to a longing after them; and to these should be given due salutation and honourable reverence (ἀσπασμὸν καὶ τιμητικὴν προσκύνησιν), not indeed that true worship of faith (λατρείαν) which pertains alone to the divine nature; but to these, as to the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross and to the Book of the Gospels and to the other holy objects, incense and lights may be offered according to ancient pious custom. For the honour which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres in it the subject represented. For thus the teaching of our holy Fathers, that is the tradition of the Catholic Church, which from one end of the earth to the other hath received the Gospel, is strengthened. Thus we follow Paul, who spake in Christ, and the whole divine Apostolic company and the holy Fathers, holding fast the traditions which we have received.”
I could spend much more time on this most important Ecumenical Council. In many ways this Council is more important to us today than the Second Vatican Council, since we have had more than 50 years of a silent iconoclasm destroying the Church from within, with little to no resistance. I think it would be safe to say that the great Saints of this time period would be astonished at the laxity in which we have allowed the sacred image to be desacralized in our Church today. The sacred image instills in us a love for God and His Saints. There is a much needed devotion for the icon in our sad time of unbelief. In the end it comes down to the faithful, like you and I, who must resurrect the devotion and veneration of the icons in the West, of which these most valiant Saints have passed on to us.
Sunday, March 17, 2013
The iconoclastic controversy of the eighth century is one of the most important events of Church history, being that it not only directly addresses the use of sacred images, but more importantly it addressed the incarnation of Christ. In other words, the Council was primarily Christological in nature. The event brought a waxing and waning of infighting concerning the use of sacred images to a head in the Church. Metropolitan Hilarion illustrates the importance of the Council, “The entire Christological dispute, in fact, reaches its climax with this council, which gave the icon its final ‘cosmic’ meaning… In this way the justification of icon veneration brought to a close the dogmatic dialectic of the age of the universal councils.” The event also provides an excellent platform to discuss the Old Testament prohibition of the use of graven images, and how this Biblical text is to be understood in its proper Christian context. Deuteronomy 5:8-9 and Exodus 20:4, are the proof texts often used by heretics claiming that the Catholic Church is guilty of idolatry. The text of Deuteronomy claims, “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, and you shall not bow down and worship them.” And the Second Commandment given to Moses in Exodus says, "Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath" How do we reconcile this prohibition with the doctrine of the sacred image of the Catholic Church?
It must be noted that the prohibition is obviously not a prohibition on all images since in Exodus 25:1-22 God actually commands the Jews to make images of the cherubim on the Ark. The cherubim commanded to be depicted by God seem to directly go against the text prohibiting graven images. Likewise in Exodus 26 we see the cherubim embroidered on the linens in the tabernacle. Other Old Testament references such as that of Moses and the Bronze Serpent, a prefigurement of Christ, as well as the building of Solomon’s temple, a prefigurement of later church buildings, further demonstrate this point. The ban does not prohibit all images, but first and foremost it bans the idolatrous depictions of false gods, which would be used for false worship, which would be a breaking of the second commandment. Secondly it was not possible at the time for the Jews to depict the one true God Himself, since no man had ever seen God in any corporeal sense. Hence the Jews were forbidden to depict God in the heavens above. Of course this would all change, since through the coming of Christ, we are now able to see the Father. "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”(John 14:16) Saint John of Damascus, the great apologist of the sacred image, hymnographer and defender of sacred music wrote, “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 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 honoring that matter which works my salvation.”
It is important to understand the development of the Christian teaching of these Old Testament texts concerning the depictions of the one true God. Before Christ, God had not yet been revealed in the flesh. Once Christ took on human flesh, this obviously revealed something that had not previously been revealed to the Jews. The unique bond between Christ’s incarnation and the sacred image is most beautifully explained by two of the great Saints of the iconoclastic period, Saint Theodore the Studite and Saint John Damascene, whom I will again later quote at length. Likewise the texts of the Seventh Ecumenical Council provide us more insight into the Christian understanding of the use of sacred image. The apparent problem of reconciling the Old Testament ban lies only in misunderstanding the context of the prohibition, which ultimately depends on Christ’s incarnation, one’s ability to understand the difference between idolatrous and non-idolatrous images, and the intended use of the image. We must understand that the Christian does not worship the image, but gives veneration to the person depicted in the image, such as the Saints or the Theotokos. Worship that is given to God alone is reserved to God alone, and when for example Christ is depicted in the icon, then we are able to give that worship which is due to God, through the icon. The icon, when properly understood, is not an end within itself, but leads to the eternal reality beyond itself.
Although the history of the iconoclastic period in the East is quite complex, I will attempt to give you a simplified overview. The era between Constantine in the early 4th century and the iconoclastic period of the early 8th century is one which develops the use of the icon in large churches. Justinian and Theodora’s rule during the sixth century was a rich period for church iconography. It can be said that this period was the last time that East and West enjoyed a united empire, one which soon quickly unraveled. One example of this artistic development is the 6th century church in Ravenna, San Vitale, which contains some of the most famous icons from the pre-iconoclastic period. Thankfully this jewel of Christendom remained untouched during the period of iconoclasm. Although many influences can be cited as to the cause of the crisis, such as the rise of the Islamic heresy, the definite Jewish influence on the Byzantine Emperor, as well as political pressures, the main instigator appears to have been the Nestorian bishop, Xenaeas of Hierapolis, who’s party gained influence over the Byzantine emperor Leo III. (Nestorianism teaching that Christ is two persons, one human one divine.) Likewise as I previously mentioned, there had also been a waxing and waning of sorts between iconophiles and iconoclasts since the earliest days of the Church, and this clash was finally to come to a head under Leo’s reign. As a result of all of these influences and pressures, in 726 Leo III issued an edict which restricted the use of icons in Christian places of worship.
This restriction quickly developed into a widespread campaign to destroy these supposed idolatrous images, and the icons on the church apses and walls were covered by whitewashing. The controversy quickly became heated when the great image of Christ above the main entrance gate to Constantinople was taken down and destroyed. Orthodox Christians rightfully viewed this as an assault on Christ Himself. Just as when someone burns the US flag, the image itself is not what is being attacked, but what it represents. During this incident we see how very different the Christians of that era are to our own. A group of pious women, offended by this assault, physically tried to stop the soldier climbing up the ladder to the icon above the city gate. They arose from the crowd and made their way past the guards and ended up knocking over the ladder, which lead to the soldier’s demise. In short, these women were not going to stand for the image of their Lord being desecrated before them. The women were slain immediately on the spot by the emperor’s soldiers with the exception of the alleged ringleader, St. Theodosia, who is now honored among our Saints. She received more cruel punishments. She was dragged off through the streets, tortured, humiliated and later executed. Riots broke out in the city, and one of the great opponents to the iconoclasts Saint Germanus the patriarch of Constantinople, appealed to Pope Gregory II to condemn this outrageous action.
Pope Gregory II responded quickly to the dire situation and commanded Leo to stop meddling in the affairs of the Church. This is a problem which has always plagued the Eastern Church. Church and state never seemed to able to define their boundaries in Byzantium. Leo responded and commanded the Pope to convene a general council to address the issue of idol worship. Gregory in return chastised him, telling him that no council was needed, and that there was no heresy involved in the proper veneration of the sacred images. Of course, as with most heretics, Leo payed no heed to the Pope’s words and escalated the war upon the monasteries, which were now one of the fiercest opponents to his heretical effort. Monks were murdered, tortured, and their sacred images desecrated and destroyed. The vigilant Patriarch Germanus who opposed Leo and appealed to the Pope was eventually banished as a traitor, but he always remained firm in his orthodox stance. While things were heating up in the East, this tragedy was thankfully something the Western Church did not have to endure. Things remained relatively quiet in the West, where thankfully even those often sympathetic to the East, such as the church in Ravenna, ignored the heretical emperor’s wishes.
In 741 emperor Leo died and there was an uprising to overthrow his son Constantine V. Anastasius, the bishop who replaced Germanus saw an opportunity and now turned on the iconoclasts and sought to restore the use of sacred images to Constantinople. The uprising was short lived however when Constantine’s army marched upon the city and then had Anastasius flogged, blinded and driven into the streets, until he finally gave in to accepting the heresy. Blinding was a favorite punishment for the Byzantines, and it was actually viewed by them as a merciful punishment. Every punishment in the history books seem to read, “he was tortured, blinded and exiled.” Anastasius eventually died in 754, a crippled and broken man. Being that the Pope did not convene the council that his father had demanded, Constantine decided to call his own council. He gathered like-minded heretics from around the known world to officially condemn the use of sacred images. They held what was later known as “the robber council” and published their false anathemas against the iconophiles of the Church. Constantine V escalated the persecutions against the monastics who opposed his “council”. One head abbess was taken and tortured by having burning icons poured over her head. Constantine and his heretical clergy had nuns and monks marched into the hippodrome and humiliated, and then were forced to break their vows and marry. The priest monk, Saint Stephen the Younger took many persecuted monks into his monastery. He out-rightly rebelled against the emperor and his alleged council, and was imprisoned. Finally a group of soldiers riled up a mob of iconoclasts and he was brutally dragged through the streets of the city, clubbed, stoned and finally expired after his brains were literally beaten from his skull. The monastics certainly took a beating, and a Byzantine historian writes, “...monastic property was confiscated and monastic buildings were turned over for military use.” Despite these harsh persecutions, the iconodules did not give up.
There many were many more great martyrs who stood up to the iconoclasts such as Peter the monk who was murdered after refusing to trample on an icon. Andrew of Crete actually left his post as archbishop, set sail from Crete and came to Constantinople to personally address the emperor. He withstood Constantine V to the face, condemned his cruel actions and denounced his heresy. Constantine got so enraged that he had Saint Andrew arrested, tortured, killed and then thrown into a pit where common criminals were disposed. There is also one unexpected hero of sorts, of our story, the Empress Irene who was the wife of Leo IV the son and successor of Constantine V, and now who’s son, Constantine VI, only 9 years old was set to take the place of his father Leo IV. Being that he was of young age, his mother Irene became co-ruler. It was Empress Irene (787) who now sought to restore the use of sacred images to the East. In order to do this however she needed complete control of the government. If you know anything about the Byzantines, there was no shortage of drama, intrigue and hatched plots among their 1000 plus year existence. Irene had a problem, there were several rivals for the throne who had been waiting for her husband to die, so they could take advantage of the supposed weak empress. They certainly underestimated her tenacity. What clever device would she use to neutralize her and her son’s rivals? You guessed it, she had these rivals blinded so she would not have to worry about being interfered with. Yes, even heros have their flaws. As Irene maneuvered key loyalists in place, she was able to secure her spot as empress. Her reign however would later become a problem when her son came of age. There were probably political motives of course, but Irene proved to be an asset for the orthodox Christians in the case of the iconoclastic crisis. She used any and all means to restore the sacred image. Furthermore, she also initiated an effort to have a legitimate ecumenical council called, to counter the earlier robber council.
During this period we see the great Saints such as Saint John of Damascus,, among many other valiant men and women, continuing in the war against the iconoclasts. Due to their efforts as well as a sympathetic empress, a general council was soon called. An effort was first made to convene at Constantinople, but was thwarted by troops who were iconoclastic sympathizers. Irene underestimated the local army’s loyalty to the iconoclasts. Again the determined empress slowly disbanded the local army and replaced it with other soldiers who were loyal to her. The entire Church finally spoke in an official capacity at Nicea in 787 when a legitimate Ecumenical Council was finally convened and the heresy was vigorously condemned by a series of anathemas. The Pope had at least 2 representatives present at the Council along with over 350 bishops from the known world and the Eastern Patriarch of Constantinople.
Although the controversy subsided after the Council, a resurgence of iconoclasm began again 27 years later due to remaining sympathizers again gaining a foothold in the government. More persecutions came and the renown iconographer of the time Lazaros was brought before the high court where his hands were cauterized. This did not stop him, he also withstood them to the face and continued to paint icons with his scarred hands. Others were brought before the court and had inscriptions carved onto their foreheads identifying them falsely as heretics. A second wave of heroes arose such as Saint Ioanikios, Saint Theodore the Studite and the great patriarch Nicephorous, who stood firmly against the icon smashers. Nicephorous the archbishop, too like Germanus years before him under Leo III, was eventually banished across the Bosphorous. Likewise he never ceased to vigorously oppose the heretics. The controversy finally came to an end due to another valiant women, the empress Theodora. Due to her sympathies and influence, on the 11th of March, 843, fifty five years after the Seventh Ecumenical Council, and 116 years after the iconoclastic heresy began, a large procession of clergy and laity with icons in hand, put the iconoclastic controversy to end in the Hagia Sophia. The kontakion (Byzantine hymn) sung during this procession sums up the Church’s teaching well, "No one could describe the Word of the Father; but when He took flesh from you, O Theotokos, He accepted to be described, and restored the fallen image to its former state by uniting it to divine beauty. We confess and proclaim our salvation in word and images."
To this day the Eastern Churches proclaim this victory on the Feast of Orthodoxy on the first Sunday in Lent, where a synodicon is chanted along with the procession of icons, complete with the recitation of the anathemas proclaimed at the Seventh Ecumenical Council. The feast not only celebrates the Church’s victory against the iconoclasts, but also remembers and honors the many Saints who gave their lives, and suffered great sacrifice to defeat this horrific heresy. This feast has unfortunately been long lost to the West, if it ever existed. It cannot be overstated as to the amount of suffering our Catholic forefathers underwent during this atrocious persecution. I certainly cannot do them justice in such a short lecture. I have only mentioned the names of a few of our brothers and sisters in heaven who suffered and died so that we today can enjoy the freedom of use of the sacred image, which we unfortunately as a Catholic whole seem to hold little regard for.
Thursday, March 14, 2013
Our journey in tracing the use of the sacred image leads us to the catacombs just outside of Rome. Here we have some of the earliest depictions of Christ frescoed on the walls underground where Christians had Masses for the dead who were buried there. The images of ‘Christ and the Samaritan Women’ and ‘Christ the Good Shepherd’ date back to the early third century. Here we see an image of Christ the Good Shepherd from the catacombs of St. Callixtus. The image brings to mind the Gospel of John 10:14-15, “I am the good shepherd; and I know mine, and mine know me. As the Father knoweth me, and I know the Father: and I lay down my life for my sheep.” These images and others from the catacombs were once thought to be the only Christian images to exist from this period. The excavations from the house church in Dura-Europos on the Euphrates however would change all of that. This archaeological treasure would now prove that the early Christians used sacred images in their regular liturgical functions. The Dura excavations of 1932 not only proved to be a pleasant surprise to Christian iconophiles with the discovery of the Christian house chapel and its astounding wall paintings, but also to the Jewish religious scholars who were completely astonished to find a buried synagogue covered interiorly by iconic depictions of the Old Testament. This unearthing event brought new light to Jewish scholars who previously believed that images had no place in Jewish worship. It is also interesting to note that the Jewish mural paintings are for the most part void of movement, a core characteristic of the Christian sacred image. We will talk more about this later in the lecture.
The Dura excavation disproves two common theories that modern iconoclasts often pose against the use of images in the Christian Church. The first being that there were no public places of worship in the early Church that used images, and that the use of images were only an infiltration of Roman pagan practice. We can firmly state, based on the opinions of archaeological scholars, that the Dura house church was not a prototype of the Christian image, but an example of a Christian practice already well established. A scholar commenting on the Dura site as it was being excavated wrote, “We are not dealing with prototypes, but with types that are already firmly fixed. How much earlier than 200 A.D. these iconographical forms were first invented, where, and by whom, we are not yet ready to say. But this much, at least, is certain, as the study of the iconography indicates, the tradition has nothing to do with Rome.” Being that we have images firmly established in the Roman catacombs and in the Syrian desert both in the early to mid third century indicates that the use of images was more than an isolated practice in the Church, confined to under ground burial chambers. Newer archaeological excavations are also increasing our knowledge base of early Christian imagery. For example, the new excavations in the catacombs of St. Thecla near Rome have now revealed late 4th century images of the apostles.
The icon or sacred image, developed in the same way that dogma and doctrine developed in the Church. Just as the Church’s theology advanced in depth and understanding in the first centuries of the Church, the design of the icon also developed and advanced. Through the Church’s Ecumenical Councils, of which the first seven were primarily of a Christological nature, the Church did not invent new teachings, but concretized that which had already been passed down from Christ and His apostles. This development of theology and sacred image are inseparable. The iconographic theologian Leonid Ouspensky writes, “In all its fullness, (the icon) has been inherent in the Church from the very first, but, like other aspects of its teaching, it becomes affirmed gradually, in response to the needs of the moment, as for instance in... reply to heresies and errors, as in the iconoclastic period.” It was the Seventh Ecumenical Council of 787 that brought upon the repose of the iconoclastic controversy of the eighth century. Certainly controversy was present in the early Church over the use of images, this we cannot not deny. The early Church had good reason to be cautious about the use of images for fear that the idol worship of the pagans would not infiltrate the Church. I believe that this is the main reason we do not see the use of statues earlier. Statues were readily identified more closely with pagan idols, and therefore were not introduced until much later, and primarily in the West. The technique used to paint these images were obviously borrowed from earlier Persian, Egyptian, Roman and Greek secular imagery. Like many things, the Church has always had a unique way of cleansing and elevating secular practices, making them uniquely Christian, and the use of images would be no exception. We can see a similarity of secular Egyptian funerary paintings to the earliest Christian images. However, Byzantine art scholars seem to unanimously state that the Christians, although borrowing artistic ideas from their secular ancestors, created a unique Christian art paradigm that would in essence demonstrate a reversal of the role of images from that of their pagan ancestors. The material world would now be secondary to the eternal spiritual world. For the Christian the spiritual world was not some far off journey across the river of Styx as it was for the Egyptians, it was a very clear and present reality for them. For the Christian, the sacred image was a direct reminder of the corporeal integrating with the eternal.
The harsh persecution against the early Christians made the widespread and open use of images difficult, and many were probably destroyed under such persecutions. This is certainly one reason we do not have earlier archaeological evidence than the early third century. The persecutions made the symbolic images such as the fish, the cross, the sailing ship, the lamb, or the palm expedient to use, being that they were not explicit enough to attract attention, yet the images such as that of the fish were invented to contain certain truths of the faith, yet hidden to the untrained eye. We must recognize that after the rise of Constantine and his Edict of Milan in 313, that many small older house churches were most likely destroyed and replaced with larger churches. The edict which allowed the free practice of Christianity in the Roman Empire made the house church obsolete, and any that may have had images have probably been long buried or destroyed, as the Dura Church. What early evidence we do have however demonstrates that the early Church used images in her places of worship. This evidence also gives us good reason to think that the Church authorities of the era also approved of their use, since they would have been present at the liturgical functions which took place at these sites.
The universal Tradition among all of the apostolic Churches, including not only the Eastern and Western Catholic Churches, but also the Eastern Orthodox and Coptic Churches, etc all retain the use of the sacred image. The Church Fathers of the 4th century such as Saint Gregory of Nyssa firmly substantiate the use of images as one rooted in apostolic tradition and readily present in the larger churches of his age. Saint Gregory describes one of them with great enthusiasm, “When a man comes to a place like the one we are gathered here today, ... he is at once inspired by the magnificence of the spectacle, seeing as he does, a building splendidly wrought with regard to size and the beauty of its adornment, as befits God’s temple,...The painter too has spread out the blooms of his art, having depicted on an image the martyr’s brave deeds, his resistance, his torments...” In Saint Gregory’s time, the mid fourth century, the Church had begun a new phase of large basilica type churches which utilized fresco and mosaic mediums in iconography. The iconography from some of the churches of the mid fourth century in Italy and Greece give us examples of what Saint Gregory was speaking about. Examples include the chapel of San Aquilino in Milan, and the Hagios Giorgios in Salonika. These mosaic and frescoed images became the standard medium of the icon until the turn of the millennium, when other mediums became more predominate.