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Is there EVIDENCE the 1st century Church used ICONOGRAPHY? by Fr. Gabriel Wissa

November 25, 2020

Is there evidence the early Church used iconography? Or is iconography an innovation? If there is evidence, how early is it? How do these questions fit with the commandment of not making carved images found in Exodus 20? These are the questions we’re hoping to answer today. 

 

To some non-Orthodox Christians, iconography is an emotionally charged subject. To others, it is a massive stumbling block. These reactions stem mainly from a specific understanding of Exodus 20, verses 4 and 5. It says the following: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; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God…” Based on these verses from the Hebrew Bible many have been taught that any carved image is an abomination. However, it is clear from the same Hebrew Scripture that not all images are considered an abomination. God orders images of cherubim to be formed on the mercy seat in Exodus 25. Exodus 31 even says that God filled Bezalel with His Spirit and put wisdom in the hearts of gifted artisans to build the tabernacle including the mercy seat and the cherubim. Clearly, the Old Testament Scripture does not regard all images as abomination. Other examples of such images are the oxen supporting the water tank in Solomon’s temple in 1st Kings 7 and the brazen serpent in Numbers 21. Therefore, we have to read Exodus 20 in its context. The Hebrews, at the time were surrounded by polytheism, and therefore, were plagued by idolatry left, right and center. These carved images referred to in Exodus 20 were images of false pagan gods who were being worshipped. Thus, God wanted to make the Hebrews understand that He is the Only True God, the creator of the Cosmos. That is precisely the reason He says in the passage that He is a jealous God. Although He is not literally jealous, He wants them to relay the message that no other god is worthy of worship. Interestingly, the Jewish Study Bible confirms that the text of Exodus 20 should not be taken to mean all images are an abomination. It says: “only images made for worship are prohibited. Nonidolatrous statues of certain creatures were permitted… I am stating this information to demonstrate that the tension between Christian Iconography and these verses is not real. Fr. Anthony Mourad has recorded a couple of videos on iconography and its associated theology which we will put the links to in the description section below. Now, let us look at iconography in the early Church. 

 

The question of iconography in the first centuries is not a simple one because the Church then was under much persecution and did not have many permanent buildings to worship in as today. However, there is evidence of iconography early on in the Church. In addition to the examples I will provide now from the 4th century, I will present in the latter end of the video an interesting archeological finding of the Oldest Church in the world that sheds light on how we ought to approach this subject. First, St. Basil the Great, in the 4th century says: “Arise now before me, you iconographer’s of the saint’s merits… Let me be conquered by your pictures of the valiant deeds of the martyr!… Let me look at this fighter most vividly depicted in your image… Let also the Instigator of the fight, Christ, be represented in your picture.” He also says: “What the word transmits through the ear, that painting silently shows through the image.” We can see St. Basil clearly encouraging the use of iconography. What we have to understand is that in the first centuries AD most people were illiterate. Data from UNESCO and OECD show that 44% of the world population were illiterate in 1950, 68% in 1920 and almost 88% were illiterate in 1820. We can only imagine the illiteracy rate in the first centuries. In addition, the Bible was not readily available as today since there was no printing press and the cost of transcribing one copy of the Bible was extremely expensive. So the combination of illiteracy and lack of Scripture availability meant that Christians did not have easy access to Scripture, but even if they did, most of them would not be able to read it. It is only natural, then, that the Church, who seeks the salvation of her children, to provide the gospel in a way that is accessible to the average Christian at the time. Therefore many gospel stories were depicted. Icons gave those who were unable to read the possibility to meditate on the beauty of Christ and his many wonderful healings. Iconography is an edifying gift to the members of the Body of Christ. Iconography is theology in colors. No wonder St. Basil was encouraging its use. Similarly, Eusebius of Caesaria in the 4th century said the following about the tradition of icons: “We have learned also that the likenesses of his apostles Paul and Peter, and of Christ himself, are preserved in paintings.” Eusebius also mentions the existence of a statue commemorating the healing of the woman who had a flow of blood for twelve years. He says that the statue is located in front of the woman’s house and it has remained to his day implying its antiquity. He also mentions that he himself saw the statue. Again, none of these things should surprise us. Remember that the shadow of St. Peter in Acts 5 and the handkerchiefs of St. Paul in Acts 19 healed the sick. These are simple examples of material objects that were used to glorify Christ. These objects should never be worshipped, but to ignore their existence is baseless. Christ blessed the material world with His Incarnation. He made clay to heal the man born blind in John 9. He sent the twelve who healed the sick through the medium of oil as it says in Mark 6:13. The incarnation changes everything. Again, these created things should not be worshipped but we cannot ignore their blessings unless we want to be selective in our own reading of the Bible     

 

Now one of the very interesting archeological findings can be found in Syria, in the ancient city of Dura-Europos. This city was founded in circa 300 BC by a Macedonian successor of Alexander the Great and it was home to many Christians, Jews and Pagans. What is especially fascinating about Dura-Europos is a couple of well-preserved buildings located 200 meters apart. One building is an ancient house church and the other is a Jewish synagogue. In his book the World’s Oldest Church, Michael Peppard says that the house church is the only surviving non-funerary Christian sacred space from the pre-Constantinian era. In other words, it is the only Christian worship space that is not a catacomb from the time prior to King Constantine. Some believe that the house was built in approximately 230 AD and transformed into a church in approximately 240 AD. We can see on the top-left of this picture the main hall which was a gathering space for teaching, prayer and the Eucharist, where approximately 75 people would assemble. Unfortunately, the eastern wall, where the icons and the altar would be, was not preserved when the church house was buried centuries ago. However, in the baptistery, which can be located on the top-right of the picture, all four walls were painted with images. The walls were tall enough to allow for two different panels of images—like these. On the left is a picture of the plate found in the room depicting Christ and St. Peter walking on water. The right is a tracing of the plate which provides better clarity. Here, we have the plate and tracing of the paralytic man. Although the images weren’t very sophisticated, they serve their purpose which is to depict the story to the average faithful. Here’s another one with a shepherd guiding the sheep. As every Christian would know, this was a metaphor for Christ the Chief Shepherd and to the Church leaders whom He would appoint later on. But the beauty of this archeological discovery does not end with the Church. The Jewish Synagogue also is of great importance because it confirms how the Jews understood the use of images. Interestingly, the Jews were not against images at all, but used them willingly. Here’s how one of the walls of the synagogues looks like covered from top to bottom with images. Some Orthodox churches today have similar top to bottom icons across the nave of the Church. This image depicts the anointing of the faithful King David. The man who has a heart after God’s own heart. This one is a representation of Moses at the burning bush where God appeared to him to rescue His people out of Egypt. Unfortunately, Christians often deal with the Bible as if it is a book that came down from heaven without a contextual background. We too often forget, that before Scripture was written, Christianity was lived. Christ was incarnate at a specific time and in a specific place. He lived a perfect life, taught and did so much that St. John said that all the books in the world could not contain his deeds. Christianity is a life that Christ gave to the Apostles and was passed on from one generation to the next. And this life has certain circumstances that lead to certain decisions. Here is a perfect example that clearly portrays a small portion of that life. Images were not frowned upon in the early centuries AD. Neither were they worshipped. In other words, it is not my personal reading of Exodus 20, or a 16th century reading, that should dictate Christianity, but how Christianity was lived in the first century and how this life is perfectly compatible with Scripture. But make no mistake, Scripture has an extremely high value in the Orthodox Church. It is our go-to. It is our daily spiritual food. Scripture is the transformative word of God. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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