Monday, November 14, 2005

On the Holy Icons

We appear to be nearing the end of an iconoclastic age of that has stripped our churches bare of ornament and objects of reverence. This smashing of sacred images has happened before, and the Second Council of Nicea in A.D. 787 was called by the Church to condemn this.

Excerpt from the decrees of the Council, from the EWTN library:
...We declare that we defend free from any innovations all the—written and—unwritten ecclesiastical traditions that have been entrusted to us.

One of these is the production of representational art; this is quite in harmony with the history of the spread of the gospel, as it provides confirmation that the becoming man of the Word of God was real and not just imaginary, and as it brings us a similar benefit. For, things that mutually illustrate one another undoubtedly possess one another's message.

Given this state of affairs and stepping out as though on the royal highway, following as we are the God-spoken teaching of our holy fathers and the tradition of the catholic church — for we recognize that this tradition comes from the holy Spirit who dwells in her—we decree with full precision and care that, like the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, the revered and holy images, whether painted or made of mosaic or of other suitable material, are to be exposed in the holy churches of God, on sacred instruments and vestments, on walls and panels, in houses and by public ways, these are the images of our Lord, God and saviour, Jesus Christ, and of our Lady without blemish, the holy God-bearer, and of the revered angels and of any of the saintly holy men.

The more frequently they are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration. Certainly this is not the full adoration (latria) in accordance with our faith, which is properly paid only to the divine nature, but it resembles that given to the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, and also to the holy books of the gospels and to other sacred cult objects. Further, people are drawn to honour these images with the offering of incense and lights, as was piously established by ancient custom. Indeed, the honour paid to an image traverses it, reaching the model, and he who venerates the image, venerates the person represented in that image.

So it is that the teaching of our holy fathers is strengthened, namely, the tradition of the catholic church which has received the gospel from one end of the earth to the other.

So it is that we really follow Paul, who spoke in Christ, and the entire divine apostolic group and the holiness of the fathers, clinging fast to the traditions which we have received.

So it is that we sing out with the prophets the hymns of victory to the church: "Rejoice exceedingly O daughter of Zion, proclaim O daughter of Jerusalem; enjoy your happiness and gladness with a full heart. The Lord has removed away from you the injustices of your enemies, you have been redeemed from the hand of your foes. The Lord the king is in your midst, you will never more see evil, and peace will be upon you for time eternal."

Therefore all those who dare to think or teach anything different, or who follow the accursed heretics in rejecting ecclesiastical traditions, or who devise innovations, or who spurn anything entrusted to the church (whether it be the gospel or the figure of the cross or any example of representational art or any martyr's holy relic), or who fabricate perverted and evil prejudices against cherishing any of the lawful traditions of the catholic church, or who secularize the sacred objects and saintly monasteries, we order that they be suspended if they are bishops or clerics, and excommunicated if they are monks or lay people.

Anathemas concerning holy images:

  • If anyone does not confess that Christ our God can be represented in his humanity, let him be anathema.

  • If anyone does not accept representation in art of evangelical scenes, let him be anathema.

  • If anyone does not salute such representations as standing for the Lord and his saints, let him be anathema.

  • If anyone rejects any written or unwritten tradition of the church, let him be anathema.

This is the authoritative teaching of the Church. The Eastern Churches celebrate this as a feast on the first Sunday of Great Lent, the "Triumph of Orthodoxy".

The first iconoclastic crisis started in 726, when Byzantine Emperor Leo III (the Isaurian) made an edict ordering the destruction of holy images and relics; he was directly influenced by Islam in this attitude. Countless holy pictures and relics of the Saints were destroyed, including items of clothing worn by the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Pope and Eastern monastics were the main opponents of the iconoclasts, and this led the emperor to destroy monasteries and torture and kill many monks. Things got even worse under subsequent emperors, but Irene, wife of Emperor Leo IV, remained steadfastly orthodox, and after his death, started the Ecumenical Council that restored the veneration of icons.

There were abuses with the images, for example, receiving the Eucharist from the hands of a statue of Our Lord. But this was not the reason why the Emperor acted, for he was mainly interested in ecumenical relations.

This is an example of someone, for the sake of ecumenism, saying that we must change in order to be acceptable to others. During the recent Synod in Rome, the heterodox group 'Call to Action' said that the Church needed to eliminate the doctrines of the Eucharist so that we could have better ecumenical relations with Protestants. Never mind that this would destroy relations with the Orthodox and the tens of millions of Traditional Anglicans who are considering changing loyalties from Canterbury to Rome.

Iconoclasm is often seen among heretics, especially those who think that matter is evil, and incapable of forming holy objects. I've noticed a trend among exclusively spiritual religions: they avoid holy images completely, but often end up reveling in the profane instead. Just look what happened to the Puritan movement: it started as a purely spiritual religion, plain, simple, with no ornament, then became fantastically wealthy, and now the tail-end of the movement uncritically embraces the sexually libertine lifestyle with all of its perverse art forms. The Cathars ended up the same way, starting with extreme asceticism, but ending in wild abandon. The Catholic position is anchored midway between the spiritual and the material, with the body on earth, and the head in heaven.

Orthodox churches I've seen have many portable icons and accessible reliquaries. The icons are often right there, easily picked up and venerated. Relics are also exposed for general veneration and not locked up in the sacristy safe. One reliquary I saw had dozens of Saints, right at waist level under glass. Icons are an integral part of Eastern Liturgy. Not surprisingly, the Orthodox say that Latin Catholics are semi-iconoclastic, because the icons are high up on the wall, cannot be directly venerated, and are only rarely used in the Liturgy. Actually, they musn't have seen modern Catholic churches, or otherwise they would have said that we are fully in iconoclastic heresy!

Pope Benedict XVI, in his book the Spirit of the Liturgy, agrees with the Orthodox theology of icons and says that it should be normative for the Catholic Church, although she shouldn't duplicate the Orthodox canons on making the images.

The traditional form of the icons, with the elongated shapes of bodies, is often unattractive to western eyes, even though the style traditionally goes back as far as Saint Luke the Evanglist, painting a portrait of the Blessed Virgin Mary. During the 1960s there was a great interest in all things Eastern in the Latin Church, but unfortunately artists thought that the icons looked like something Picasso might have made, and often ended up making pseudo-icons in the modern style.

The main point of eastern iconography seems to be lost on many westerners. The icon artist needs to be a virtuous person, morally, intellectually, and spiritually, and he makes a Platonic image of that which is in Heaven. In this way, the icon is not an end in itself, either for the icon maker or for the viewers of the icon. Westerners tend to see art as an end it itself, while western artists tend to see their art as the reason or meaning of their existence. Both these attitudes must change before the proper use and appreciation for the icons will be possible in the Latin Church.

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