Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Defense of the Holy Icons (Part III – Veneration of Icons in Early Christianity)

Previous installment: Part II (Presence of Icons in Early Christianity)


Now that we've established that icons were present in the early Church, the next question that must be answered in our examination of the historical validity of iconography is how these ancient icons were viewed and used by Christians during that time. Were they merely decorative? Were they an active part of the worship service or merely a background setting for it? Most importantly, were they venerated?


The only honest and straightforward answer that can be given to these questions is the admission that we don't know anything for sure. There are some things that archaeologists just don't have access to – and the minds and hearts of early third century Christians and Jews are amongst those things. Of course, we can't travel back in time to witness their worship services and pious practices or to interview them on these things for ourselves. But we do have a few clues withinin the archaeological evidence if we pay close attention.


Returning to the syngagogue at Dura Europos as our outstanding example, we find, as in nearly every synagogue, a niche in which the Torah scroll was placed located on the wall towards the direction of Jerusalem, in this case the western wall. This is the holiest place in a Jewish temple, the location of the scroll containing the Torah, the Law of Moses, the direction, again, towards Jerusalem, which Jews face for prayer, the center of the community's liturgical life.32 And on this same wall, surrounding the Torah niche, are dozens of icons. This means that the Jewish congregants at this synagogue would have been facing toward these images throughout their worship, chanting, singing, praying, and bowing.


Also of note is the orientation of the figures depicted in the iconography at the synagogue; they are facing outward, toward the viewer, looking at the individual looking at them. This is true not only of those icons intentionally painted in portrait style, but even of those which illustrate a biblical story or otherwise show a scene or movement; the individual depicted is almost always facing toward the worshipers.


Visualize yourself, for a moment, in this synagogue in the third century in the midst of a worship service. You are facing toward a wall filled with images. You pray and raise your eyes, looking at the Saints of God, and they are looking back at you. The effect that these icons must have been intended to have and surely did have is obvious.


Similarly, the surviving icons in the church at Dura Europos are not located in a backroom or even in the back of the room; they are in the baptistry, the place within the church building where baptism, one of the most sacred rites of Christianity, takes place. The icon of Christ as the Good Shepherd is located in an apse above the baptismal font at about eye level with a standing man. Is it really a stretch of the imagination to wonder if the priest or bishop presiding at the baptism, given that he would have been standing eye to eye with this image of Christ, might have been looking with love upon this image of his Savior as he recited the prayers which would bring another sheep into the Good Shepherd's pasture? Is it really such a stretch of the imagination to think that this newly-illuminated Christian, arising from the baptismal waters cleansed of his sins and a new creation in Christ, might have looked to this icon of his Master and uttered even the briefest prayer, exclamation, or thought of thanks? I don't think that either is a very far stretch, but instead the greatest likelihood.


In trying to determine whether early Christians, or Jews for that matter, venerated icons, the question of what exactly constitutes veneration must first be answered. Webster's Dictionary defines the word venerate as to “regard with reverence.”33 Veneration is not merely the outward act we currently see in Orthodox churches; veneration is much, much more. One need not touch or even come especially close to an icon to venerate it. The very presence of these icons at all in fact attests to their veneration. Why else did the early Christians and ancient Jews decorate their temples so lavishly with icons? In the ancient world, art was not only intended for beauty but almost always for utility as well.34 These icons, then, were created as and for more than mere decoration.


The artists who made these images and/or the individuals who originally commissioned their production were moved by their piety and reverence to create these depictions of holy men and women in the service of God. It is hard to imagine that these same individuals who were so moved to create them, as well as the many others who would view them in the temple, would not also be moved by their piety and devotion to God with feelings of reverence and awe as they gazed upon the beauty of the finished product. What truly reverent Jew could look into the eyes of the image of the Prophet Moses in the synagogue during Sabbath worship and not feel moved with awe at this great holy man of God? What truly religious Christian could look upon the image of Christ healing the paralytic in the church and not feel moved with love and gratefulness to his Lord and Savior for healing his own spiritual sickness?


So, did early Christians perform the standardized ritual of bowing twice, kissing the icon, and bowing once more as Orthodox Christians commonly do today? Perhaps, but probably not. Did they bow while standing in front of these icons? Unless the Christians and Jews of Dura Europos were the only Christians and Jews who didn't bow during worship, the answer is a clear affirmative. Did they pray in front of these icons? Clearly they did; as we have seen, the icons are located on walls which would have been faced during prayer. Did they kiss these icons? There's no way to tell; as these ancient cultures were certainly “kissing cultures” I don't think it's a great leap of logic to think they might have, but, as far as I know, archaeologists haven't looked for lipstick smudges yet! But did they venerate these icons? Did they “regard [them] with reverence”? Absolutely, without a doubt.


Next installment: Part IV (Necessity of Iconography)



Notes

32Morrison, R. "Missionary Intelligence." The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Miscellany 4 (1817): pg. 403. For example, see Daniel 6:10.

33 Specifically: Morehead, Albert H., Loy Morehead, Philip D. Morehead, and Andrew T. Morehead. The New American Webster Handy College Dictionary. New York, N.Y.: New American Library, 1981. see the entry for “venerate”.

34 Cary, Richard. Critical Art Pedagogy: Foundations for Postmodern Art Education. New York: Garland Pub., 1998. pg. 71.


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