A Message from Father Nick 29: 4th October 2020

Signs & Symbols (II), the Art of Faith

In matters of faith, as in so many other aspects of our lives, we take a great deal for granted. We speak of Jesus as the “Word of God”, yet we think about him mainly in visual form. Indeed, we rely heavily on centuries of religious art to shape our faith response to him.

Yet it could have been very different. Coming from Judaism with its ban on making images, the first Christians had no tradition of religious art. It was gentile influence which nurtured a wish to portray. Greek and Roman gods had always been sculpted and painted; now their attributes were channelled in a new direction. Some of these crept into our saints, who came to be represented as patrons of particular human needs.

Even the image of Jesus was only gradually fixed. At first there was no consistency of depiction, but the early mosaic in Santa Pudenziana church in Rome shows a merging of Christianity with Roman imperial authority. In it Jesus is bearded and dominating – an emperor surrounded by the apostles, his senators. This imagery of power would become the standard one. Nevertheless, later mosaics in Ravenna’s two baptisteries show two ways of representing Christ. In the Orthodox baptistery he is depicted at his baptism as mature and bearded. In the Arian baptistery he is shown as younger and beardless (Arian Christians did not accept the divinity of Christ).

And it was through Ravenna that the biggest controversy over religious art reached the West. In 730 AD, the emperor in Constantinople demanded the taking down or whitewashing of images throughout his empire. Influenced by the rise of Islam as well as by earlier Jewish practice, he wanted to avoid the danger of idolatry. Those who pursued his policy became known as iconoclasts; those who resisted were iconodules or iconophiles. Symbols like the cross replaced the figure of Christ in places of worship, and the practice grew widespread.

The Church itself was divided, not least because in the east icons were thought to have an almost sacramental quality. Moreover, as Gregory the Great said, “Pictures are the Bibles of the illiterate. What they cannot read, they understand through images”.

It was St John of Damascus who defended images most strongly, because, as he pointed out, this is our way of showing that Christ truly did take on human nature and so share our life – to be able to depict Christ is to give witness to his Incarnation.

The Church accepted John’s teaching. The last of the Seven Great Ecumenical Councils was called at Nicea in 787 and ordered all right-thinking Christians to honour holy icons (while prohibiting their adoration as idolatry). Dispute continued however, and icon veneration was finally restored by a woman, the Empress Theodora in 843 – a feast still celebrated in the east as the “Triumph of Orthodoxy”. She has her own enduring place in the Church’s story of faith.