I recently gave a lecture at my local parish at the end of last year concerning sacred images. The talk was about an hour and a half long and I received a positive response from those who attended the lecture. After some thought I decided that it may make a decent multi-part blog series. During the talk I used slide images to illustrate critical points, and although I will not include all of them on these blog posts, I will add some images in with each post. I want to keep the posts fairly brief so that readers will have time to read them, rather than being burdened by a 23 page single spaced essay. The sacred image, and the devotion that surrounds it is dear to my heart. I hope that these series of posts may increase your love of God and His Saints through an increased veneration of the sacred image. I hope to also put the entire talk on a podcast in the future. Now, part I.
The Splendor and Glory of the Sacred Image
Matthew J Bellisario 2012 (2013)
Part I Introduction
“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” John 1:14
The par excellence of all theologians, Saint Thomas Aquinas, wrote in his explanation of the sacred image the following, “There were three reasons for the introduction of the use of visual arts in the Church: first, for the instruction of the uneducated, who are taught by them as by books; second, that the mystery of the Incarnation and the examples of the saints be more firmly impressed on our memory by being daily represented before our eyes; and third, to enkindle devotion, which is more efficaciously evoked by what is seen than by what is heard.”
If we were to be transported back almost 1200 years, to the 11th of March, 843 to the glorious crown jewel of Christendom at the time, Constantinople, we would be witnessing one most richest and jubilant processions to ever be held in the city. We would see the Empress Theodora, along with the Archbishop, his priests and all the faithful chanting as they passed through the streets of the city carrying icons to the grand Byzantine church, the Hagia Sophia, the church of Holy Wisdom. This would be where the Eastern Church would celebrate the triumph of Orthodoxy, that is, the victory over the iconoclasts who had plagued the Church of the East for over 100 years. As the people chanted their way into Justinian’s masterpiece, anathematizing the iconoclasts, they must have recollected the many men and women who had been tortured, exiled or even murdered to defend the sacred image. Do any of you remember how you felt when we had the dedication of Christ the King, where the Latin Mass almost arose from the ashes after 60 years of oppression? The Byzantines must have felt much the same, yet even more appreciative of their triumph, since it was one which had overcome the blood of their brothers, sisters and forefathers which now stained the soil of their streets and monasteries. A Byzantine scholar writes that the heroic virtue of the Saints of this period would fill several volumes of books. Why did the Christians of Constantinople fight so vehemently to retain the use of the icon, or sacred image? Hopefully by the end of this lecture I will have provided some answers.
There are certainly several reasons why such a topic is of great importance to us as Catholics today. With the dawn of this new iconoclasm in the Church of our age, it would be of little effort to prove that a new spirit of evangelization is needed in the realm of Sacred Imagery within the Western Church. Many of our once beautiful Catholic churches built by our forefathers have been openly desacralized, and many of their Sacred Images have either been destroyed or removed from these holy places of worship. Our modern iconoclastic crisis is not limited to the destruction of the older churches, but many of our new churches were constructed under this most heinous heretical enterprise. Our modern church architecture has declined far beyond even the barren whitewashed tombs born out of the iconoclastic mindset of the pretended “Reformers” of the sixteenth century. The primary aim of my lecture today is not only to condemn the errors of the iconoclasts of our age. This lecture is to be first and foremost oriented towards the love of God, His Church, and His Saints, and to hopefully inspire you to develop a devotion to Christ and His Saints through the holy icon.
If we are to understand the important role of the sacred image in our lives as Catholics, and if we are to prudently share the one true faith with others as the Church calls us to do, we must be armed fully with faith and reason. This means that we must put an effort into learning more about our faith, and putting what we learn into practice. Benedict XIV, had just cause to write: "We declare that a great number of those who are condemned to eternal punishment suffer that everlasting calamity because of ignorance of those mysteries of faith which must be known and believed in order to be numbered among the elect." So my aim is also to give you more information about our Catholic faith, so you may be enriched and then enrich others in the Catholic faith. This lecture is not by any means an in depth analysis of this most theologically and historically complex subject. I have composed this lecture to hopefully give you the tools to make the sacred image your own in your Catholic church and your home. Furthermore I hope to demonstrate that we have not only a just cause to rebel against those who seek to eradicate the use of sacred image in our Church, but it is a duty. I hope that this presentation will inspire you to live the Catholic faith in the midst of our own persecutions. I will make available the many sources I have used so that you may obtain them for further study if you wish. It may come as a surprise that many of the sources I used are from Orthodox scholars. The reason being is that Catholic scholarship on this subject is embarrassingly limited. I hope that this will change in the future.
With Advent fast approaching, and in the dire times of unbelief that we find ourselves in today, I thought it may also do us well to meditate on the incarnation of Christ, to which the Sacred Image is so uniquely and intimately bound. It can be said that the icon is truly Christological and theological, and outside the dogmas and doctrines of the faith, they cannot be properly understood. Metropolitan Hilarion, the chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations, and who is also one of the most relevant modern scholars concerning the icon, in his Feb 5th, 2011 lecture on the meaning of icons said, “The icon is closely bound up with dogma and is unthinkable outside its dogmatic context. Through artistic means, the icon communicates the essential doctrines of Christianity of the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, salvation and human deification.” This is an important fact to keep in mind as we go through this presentation. Sacred images, or icons as I will also refer to them throughout this lecture, are not like any other art in the world, being that they are uniquely Christian, created not only to teach the Christian faith, but to lead us more fully into the Christian faith. They are more than depictions of past events, portraits, or mere decorations designed for our churches. The icons are windows or doorways to the eternal. They are the gospel of Jesus Christ in image.
Stay tuned for Part II