Cleansing your Mind Through Icons

Icons, a part of the Christian faith that have been very misunderstood by many people, are a sure way to cleanse the mind and heal the soul! Certainly, there have been a number of abuses with the use of icons but this does not make icons unorthodox. Let’s take a look at reason, Scripture and tradition (history) to see that icons are extremely useful for the Christian walk!

First, icons have been used as early as the first century. When the Christians worshipped in the catacombs, while hiding from the emperor’s men, they drew icons on the walls. Recent discovery of some first century documents carved in metal aslo show that the Church heavily embraced icons. Icons were a part of early Church worship!

St. John of Damascus wrote, “We are led by perceptible Icons to the contemplation of the divine and spiritual”  (PG 94:1261a).  This is an important quote of one the early fathers, in that it gives solid reason for icons. Icons shape the mind! Icons do what words take many pages to do. Icons can be a very powerful and concise way of communicating the faith: through image. See what the Psalmist says about images, in general:

I will set no evil thing before mine eyes – Psalm 101:3

Turn my eyes away from worthless things; preserve my life according to your word. – Psalm 119:37

Evil images construct an evil mind and so it stands to reason that godly images construct a godly mind. Purifying the mind is done through many different graces of the Church and icons are certainly one of these graces. When one gazes upon icons and crucifixes one seers these images into their mind, in turn helping one combat against the evil images they encounter within society.

Allow no sleep to your eyes, no slumber to your eyelids. – Proverbs 6:4

He who walks righteously and speaks uprightly, He who despises the gain of oppressions, Who gestures with his hands, refusing bribes, Who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed, And shuts his eyes from seeing evil… – Isaiah 33:15

The Scriptures urge us to give discipline to our eyes so that we may be holy. Again, it stands to reason that we should put holy things before our eyes.

Regarding those that say we pray to icons: Christians do not pray to icons. There is no worshiping of the icon. Christians pray in the presence of icons. Some call this veneration. Now, there are some Third World cultures that may seem like they are worshiping icons, and if indeed they are, then they are in sin. Christians no more worship icons, than Americans, for instance, who worship the American flag. Like the flag, it is what the icon represents that is important.

Another misconception about icons is that they are gods themselves or that they actually contain God within them. The fact of the matter is that when an icon is blessed it is blessed within this sphere of time and space. All the earth is God’s and when a priest prays over a certain part of God’s matter to be set apart for veneration, God takes dominion of that matter. God’s blessing sets apart His matter for His worship. Remember when people touched the Apostle Peter’s clothing to be blessed and healed? Matter matters! God desires that the kingdom be “ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN!” Sound familiar?

Doesn’t the second commandment forbid the worship and bowing down to images? The context of the second commandment was that of pagan images – images that represented foreign gods. If the second commandment was referring to any image, then Moses would be guilty for creating the symbol of healing and many of God’s people would be guilty of even creating the temple images, which God commanded them to make in the first place.

On the Ark—Ex. 25:18

On the Curtains of the Tabernacle—Ex. 26:1

On the Veil of the Holy of Holies—Ex. 26:31

Two huge Cherubim in the Sanctuary—1st Kings 6:23

On the Walls—1st Kings 6:29

On the Doors—1st Kings 6:32

On the Furnishings—1st Kings 7:29,36

St. John Damascus says:

“Of old, God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was never depicted. Now, however, when God is seen clothed in flesh, and conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honouring that matter which works my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God. How could God be born out of lifeless things? And if God’s body is God by union, it is immutable. The nature of God remains the same as before, the flesh created in time is quickened by, a logical and reasoning soul.”

Comments

  1. Rev. Mike,

    Once again, thank you. One of the poignant quotes in regard to images in this one:

    I have myself heard those who oppose pictures, read from my German Bible. . . . But this contains many pictures of God, of the angels, of men, and of animals, especially in the Revelation of St. John, in the books of Moses, and in the book of Joshua. We therefore kindly beg these fanatics to permit us also to paint these pictures on the wall that they may be remembered and better understood, inasmuch as they can harm as little on the walls as in books. Would to God that I could persuade those who can afford it to paint the whole Bible on their houses, inside and outside, so that all might see ; this would indeed be a Christian work. For I am convinced that it is God’s will that we should hear and learn what He has done, especially what Christ suffered. But when I hear these things and meditate upon them, I find it impossible not to picture them in my heart. Whether I want to or not, when I hear of Christ, a human form hanging upon a cross rises up in my heart: just as I see my natural face reflected when I look into water. Now if it is not sinful for me to have Christ’s picture in my heart, why should it be sinful to have it before my eyes?”
    – Martin Luther, quoted in Ohl pp. 88-89.

    Likewise, look how the gospel came to England:

    AUGUSTINE, COMING INTO BRITAIN, FIRST PREACHED IN THE ISLE OF THANET TO KING ETHELBERT, AND HAVING OBTAINED LICENCE, ENTERED THE KINGDOM OF KENT, IN ORDER TO PREACH THEREIN. [A.D. 597.]

    AUGUSTINE, thus strengthened by the confirmation of the blessed Father Gregory, (i.e. Pope St. Gregory the Great) returned to the work of the word of God, with the servants of Christ, and arrived in Britain… In this island landed the servant of our Lord, Augustine, and his companions, being, as is reported, nearly forty men… But they came furnished with Divine, not with magic virtue, bearing a silver cross for their banner, and the image of our Lord and Saviour painted on a board; and singing the litany, they offered up their prayers to the Lord for the eternal salvation both of themselves and of those to whom they were come.

    I posed a question to a dear friend of mine, “At what point in the history since the beginning of written revelation has the worship of God been without images?”

    Let them answer…

  2. Good post, Rev. Mike. And, as usual, great additional comments, Maximus.

  3. Dave Kinsella says:

    “Works of art cannot be considered sacred and divine”
    Clement of Alexandria 2.188 ANF c.195

    “Demons have their abode in the images of the dead”
    Tertullian 3.84 ANF c.197ad

    “How could [Peter] have known Moses and Elijah except in the Spirit? People could not have had their images, statues, or likenesses. For the Law forbade that.”
    Tertullian 3.383 ANF c.197ad

    “They too are not less insane who think that images-fashioned by men of worthless and sometimes most wicked character-confer any honour upon genuine divinities.”
    Origen 4.494 ANF c.248ad

    “These different tribes erected temples and statues to those individuals I have previously enumerated. In contrast we have refrained from offering to the Divinity honour by any such means, seeing that they better adapted to demons”
    Origen 4.477 ANF c.248ad

    “It has been sufficiently shown… how vain it is to form images”
    Arnobius 6.518 ANF c.305ad

    “Such practices are illegal for us… Are not such thing [pictures and statues] excluded and banished from churches all over the world? Lest we appear like idol worshipers carrying our God around in an image.”
    Eusebius – Letter to Constantia

  4. Hello Dave,

    Thank you for your response and the quotes.

    If you look closely as those quotes most of them actually condemn idolatry.

    “Works of art cannot be considered sacred and divine”
    Clement of Alexandria 2.188 ANF c.195

    When Clement says that “works of art” cannot be sacred and divine we Orthodox would certainly agree that PAGAN works cannot be sacred and no work of art could be “divine”. Amen. However, surely you must agree that the Ark of Covenant and the Holy Cherubim images in the Tabernacle/Temple would be considered sacred. Even secular art can be considered “sacred” to some small degree or we wouldn’t have art museums and no one would bother to even preserve ancient works of art. Surely, just as you would’nt use an illuminated Celtic manuscript of the Scriptures to clean up a spill you also wouldn’t use the Mona Lisa for a coffee table right?

    “Demons have their abode in the images of the dead”
    Tertullian 3.84 ANF c.197ad

    Amen. This is a known fact which many of the monastics who lived in the deserts amidst the ancient temples of Egypt have attested to. Pagans worshipped their dead heroes and kings as gods. Their cult, rites and images attracted demons.

    “How could [Peter] have known Moses and Elijah except in the Spirit? People could not have had their images, statues, or likenesses. For the Law forbade that.”
    Tertullian 3.383 ANF c.197ad

    Very true. The Law forbade likesnesses in certain contexts; not all contexts. There were no likenesses of men in the Temple precincts. However, the reason for that is because the Temple was an icon of Paradise so it was full of cherubim, beasts, plants, precious metals and stones. Man was expelled from Paradise so he was absent. But since our Lord has became man and led man back into Paradise, we now re-introduce man back into Paradise iconographically. Our churches are also icons of Paradise and we make soteriological statements with architecture and iconography.

    “They too are not less insane who think that images-fashioned by men of worthless and sometimes most wicked character-confer any honour upon genuine divinities.”
    Origen 4.494 ANF c.248ad

    Amen! Images formed by immoral pagans in honor of false gods avail one nothing.

    “These different tribes erected temples and statues to those individuals I have previously enumerated. In contrast we have refrained from offering to the Divinity honour by any such means, seeing that they better adapted to demons”
    Origen 4.477 ANF c.248ad

    Admittedly, this one can be problematic. I would have to read the entire work “Against Celsus” for the context. One thing you must know is that we Orthodox don’t hold one voice to be authoritative but we prefer bishops working together in council and a patristic consenus. Mormons also utilize Origen to prove the ancient Christian provenance of a pre-existent soul. Origen is a genius to whom every Christian is indebted but ultimately he was condemned by the Church.

    “It has been sufficiently shown… how vain it is to form images”
    Arnobius 6.518 ANF c.305ad

    Images of what? Deified pagans and false gods? That is indeed vain. How far can one carry this though? Is drawing a sin and art inherently sinful? Is it sinful and vain to teach children about the Bible using pictures? Is it vain and sinful to watch a Biblical movie?

    “Such practices are illegal for us… Are not such thing [pictures and statues] excluded and banished from churches all over the world? Lest we appear like idol worshipers carrying our God around in an image.”
    Eusebius – Letter to Constantia

    Eusebius is known to dislike holy icons. However, he reports this in his Ecclesiastical History:

    Book 6: CHAPTER 18.

    SINCE I have mentioned this city I do not think it proper to omit an account which is worthy of record for posterity. For they say that the woman with an issue of blood, who, as we learn from the sacred Gospel, received from our Savior deliverance from her affliction, came from this place, and that her house is shown in the city, and that remarkable memorials of the kindness of the Saviour to her remain there. For there stands upon an elevated stone, by the gates of her house, a brazen image of a woman kneeling, with her hands stretched out, as if she were praying. Opposite this is another upright image of a man, made of the same material, clothed decently in a double cloak, and extending his hand toward the woman. At his feet, beside the statue itself, is a certain strange plant, which climbs up to the hem of the brazen cloak, and is a remedy for all kinds of diseases. They say that this statue is an image of Jesus. It has remained to our day, so that we ourselves also saw it when we were staying in the city. Nor is it strange that those of the Gentiles who, of old, were benefited by our Saviour, should have done such things, since we have learned also that the likenesses of his apostles Paul and Peter, and of Christ himself, are preserved in paintings, the ancients being accustomed, as it is likely, according to a habit of the Gentiles, to pay this kind of honour indiscriminately to those regarded by them as deliverers.

    As you can see by Eusebius’ account there were miracle working icons present in the early church. Plus, Eusebius was an Arian so a Jehovah’s Witness could make the case that the early church was Arian since the “Father of Christian History” was. One mistake we can also make is if we take a quote referring to the vanity and wickedness of pagan imagery and then make that apply to all religious imagery. For instance, I could quote verses from the Scriptures that could persuade one to think that the Old Covenant worship was aniconic:

    Exo 20:4 You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

    Isa 45:16 All of them are put to shame and confounded; the makers of idols go in confusion together.

    However we all know that this is not the case:

    Exo 31:2-5 See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft.

    Exo 37:1-2, 7 Bezalel made the ark of acacia wood. Two cubits and a half was its length, a cubit and a half its breadth, and a cubit and a half its height. And he overlaid it with pure gold inside and outside, and made a molding of gold around it. And he made two cherubim of gold. He made them of hammered work on the two ends of the mercy seat,

    Also, in Ezekiel’s vision of the eschatalogical Temple he even saw holy images of cherubim with human faces:

    Eze 41:17 to the space above the door, even to the inner room, and on the outside. And on all the walls all around, inside and outside, was a measured pattern. It was carved of cherubim and palm trees, a palm tree between cherub and cherub. Every cherub had two faces: a human face toward the palm tree on the one side, and the face of a young lion toward the palm tree on the other side. They were carved on the whole temple all around. From the floor to above the door, cherubim and palm trees were carved; similarly the wall of the nave.

    I could also do the same with one of my favorite saints.

    St. Cyril of Alexandria:

    …the intention of those who worship idols, of discerning perhaps who is the maker of the universe, is corrupt and false nevertheless, an innate and necessary law is operative therein and spontaneous knowledge does stir up the need to conceive of something more excellent and incomparably better than ourselves, which is God. (Polished Comments, ante 429 a.d.)

    He says that idolatry is corrupt and false. But look what he says about holy icons: Even if we make image of pious men it is not so that we might make adore them as gods but that when we see them we might be prompted to imaitate them; and if we make images of Christ, it is so that our minds might wing aloft yearning for him. (Commentary on the Psalms, Ps. 113B[115])

    Now, I haven’t read those works you quoted in their entirety nor have I read all that each author has to say on images. Maybe you have. If not, it can be very misleading to utilize a bunch of quotes without reading a work in it’s context. Scripture has been used in that manner and the results have been disasterous. Perhaps those authors also say some things in favor of holy images which you may be unaware of. I do have some questions for persons who hold your opinions:

    At what point in salvation history since the beginning of written revelation to Moses has the worship of the one true God been without images?

    Did the Old Covenant priests and prophets make use of icons in the Tabernacle/Temple?

    Did the Apostles worship in the Temple with holy icons after Pentecost?

    Hint: read this account by Hegesippus ca.110-180, “After the apostles, Jacob the brother of the Lord surnamed the Just was made head of the Church at Jerusalem. Many indeed are called Jacob. This one was holy from his mother’s womb. He drank neither wine nor strong drink, ate no flesh, never shaved or anointed himself with ointment or bathed. He alone had the privilege of entering the Holy of Holies, since indeed he did not use woolen vestments but linen and went alone into the temple and prayed in behalf of the people, insomuch that his knees were reputed to have acquired the hardness of camels’ knees.”

    Herod’s Temple had icons in the Holy of Holies. Hebrews 9:4-5 says so specifically.

    Is there a specific verse in the New Testament which commands Christians to depart from worshipping with images?

    If there is worship along with images throughout the whole time of the inspiration of Scripture, by whose authority and by what tradition did this practice cease? And when?

    Did the ancient Jews use images in their synagogues?

    Hint: see Dura Europa Synagogue and these statements. The Palestinian Talmud records (in Abodah Zarah 48d) “In the days of Rabbi Jochanan men began to paint pictures on the walls, and he did not hinder them” and “In the days of Rabbi Abbun men began to make designs on mosaics, and he did not hinder them.” There was also a first century synagogue discovered in Jerusalem in 2009:

    In the middle of the 120 square meter main hall of the synagogue archaeologists discovered an unusual stone carved with a seven branched menorah …. “We are dealing with an exciting and unique find,” said excavation director and Israeli Antiquities Authority archaeologist Dina Avshalom-Gorni…In addition to the engraved stone Avshalom-Gorni said they discovered preserved frescoes on the walls with “vivid” colors. (CNN)

    Therefore we know the Temple utilized images and the two oldest synagogues that we know of did too.

    Did at least some portions of the early Church use images?

    Who is worshipping in same the manner of Moses, the Prophets, the Priests, the Old Covenant Kings, Christ, the Apostles and even the ancient rabbinic Jews; those who use images or those who prefer bear walls?

    Dave, admittedly there have been a few notable persons in the early Church who seemed to not like images of any kind. There were also some who preferred them. This issue has indeed troubled the Church and we Orthodox have no need to hide that fact. The point is that it has been decided by an Ecumenical Council and we Orthodox believe and have faith in one, holy, apostolic Church guided by the Spirit. Just as can affirm that the Church has never been doctrinally Arian, neither has it ever been doctrinally iconoclastic.

  5. Dave Kinsella says:

    Yes, thank you. I have been passing these quotes around to a few Orthodox Christians for their views and comments. Your comments have been very helpful. I am seriously considering joining the Orthodox Church, and this has been one of the big stumbling blocks for me. The other one is praying to the saints which would include Mary and all that is connected with her. Could you suggest a good book on the subject of icons?

  6. May the Lord guide you into His Church my brother!

    St. John Damascene wrote the classic work on the subject of icons:
    Apologia Against Those Who Decry Holy Images

    You can read it here:
    http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/johndamascus-images.html

    There is also Leonid Oupsensky and Vladimir Lossky’s work “The Meaning of Icons” and “Early Christian Attitudes toward Images” by Fr. Steven Bigham

    Additionally, we did two posts on the “Communion of Saints” here:
    http://classicalchristianity.com/2011/02/10/on-the-communion-of-saints/
    http://classicalchristianity.com/2011/04/10/orthodoxy-and-communion-with-the-saints/

    These two issues were my greatest stumblingblock as well. Perhaps you should find a knowledgable priest to discuss these issues with at this point in your studies. I would also gladly make myself available to you to hash these things out.

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