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Defense of Icon Veneration by John of Damascus Toumpouri, Marina


The three treatises on the holy icons by St. John of Damascus were written during the first phase of the iconoclastic conflict, between the years 726 and 730-731 CE, on the occasion of the uproar caused in Byzantium after the issue of a decree by the emperor Leo III the Isaurian, which forbade the faithful to kneel in front of the holy icons and ordered that the icons should be hanged higher, so that it would not be possible to worship them. Despite the careful wording of the first decrees issued by emperor Leo, the rage of the iconoclasts against the holy icons did not take long to show its true face, as they were also opposed to the veneration of the Virgin Mary and the relics of the saints. Thus, iconoclasm took on explosive proportions and afflicted Byzantium and the Orthodox Church for more than 110 years. Among the reactions provoked by emperor Leo's measures against the holy icons were the intense theological debates, in which John of Damascus took part. John was a monk, priest, hymnographer, and apologist. He was born and raised in Damascus circa 675 to a prominent Damascene Christian Arab family. His father, Sarjun ibn Mansur, served as an official of the early Umayyad Caliphate. John was a savant, whose fields of interest and contribution included law, theology, philosophy, and music. He became a priest and monk at Mar Saba monastery near Jerusalem and undertook a spirited defence of the holy images in three separate treatises. The earliest among these works is his “Apologetic Treatises against those Decrying the Holy Images”. The purpose of this first treatise was not to defeat the rival iconoclasts, but to offer a helping hand to the truth. However, because the content of his treatise was not properly understood, John was motivated to write a second treatise shortly following a second decree issued by emperor Leo. John wrote a third treatise in late 730 or early 731, where he attempted a more systematic account of the teaching on the holy icons, the veneration of the Virgin Mary, the saints and the holy relics. According to Damascene, the iconoclastic notions that the miracles, passions and achievements of Christ and the saints are not allowed to be depicted, is nothing but an evil inspiration, as are all heresies. In the case of the holy icons, the devil envies man because, by honouring the holy icons he can see the image of Christ and be sanctified through Him. According to Damascene, the purpose for which the holy icons are made is to reveal and show things that refer to the invisible reality, for which direct and complete knowledge cannot be otherwise accessed. This is considered an aid for one’s spiritual benefit and, ultimately, salvation. The concept of “holy icon” includes inter alia the following types: the “physical” image because the physical existence comes first and then the imitation follows. More specifically, and as far as the holy icons are concerned, the first natural and unchanging image of the invisible God is his Son, Jesus Christ, who revealed the Father through himself. Another kind of image is man, who was created in the image and likeness of God. In addition, there is the painted image, which represents shapes, forms and types of the invisible and incorporeal in a perceptible way, in order to obtain a vague idea of God and the angels, since it is impossible to perceive and understand the incorporeal without figures. There are also the icons that represent religious events, miracles or virtues in order to be preserved in the memory of the faithful and as a glorification for those who excelled in virtue. Damascene concludes that we worship only God creator, for the veneration given to the icon passes over to its prototype. Decades after John Damascene’s death, presumably at Mar Saba monastery on 4 December 749, his writings would play an important role during the Second Council of Nicaea (787), which was convened in order to settle the icon dispute.

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