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St. John of Damascus and the Church’s Defense of Holy Icons

In the early part of the eighth century, a controversy arose in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire over the use of icons, both in public worship and in private devotion. This was a major break with Church teachings and liturgy, as sacred art had been used since the first Christian missionaries came to this area. Nevertheless, a school of theologians now claimed that the Old Testament gave a clear prohibition against images depicting God (Exodus 20:4/Deuteronomy 5:8), and those who used icons were committing idolatry. This school came to be known as the “Iconoclasts”, who quickly gained acceptance with civil officials. In 717 AD, the Eastern Roman Emperor Leo III issued an edict removing icons and sacred art from churches and banned their veneration. Soon cathedrals, churches, monasteries, and homes were looted and stripped of icons. This heresy led to great religious, social, and political turmoil in the eastern areas of the Church. When Pope Gregory II called for an end of the heresy, Emperor Leo III responded, “I will send an army to break your idols and take you prisoner”. 

Of all the voices raised in defense of icons and the Church’s use of sacred art to venerate the saints, no voice was as powerful as Saint John of Damascus. This Syrian monk and priest used his background as theologian and a composer of liturgical music to write three separate theological works in defense of icons. His first apologia in 729 AD, “Apologetic Treaties against those who Decrying the Holy Images” attacked the iconoclasts based on the truth of Catholic doctrine found in scripture, liturgy, and the Church Fathers. He taught that sacred art was more than just paint or sculpture; icons and art were a window to the divine, a call to prayer and reflection, and a clear expression of the doctrines of our faith (ie., the Incarnation, the life of Christ, the communion of saints, and devotion to the Mother of God).  

His theological works were embraced by the faithful, and led to the conversion of many iconoclasts. Inspired by this monk’s writings, the pope called for a council of bishops to give a definitive teaching on sacred art. Sadly, John of Damascus died shortly before the start of the Second Council of Nicea (787 AD), but the council’s dogmatic teachings were taken almost word for word from his writings. The writings of St. John of Damasus, even today give insight to the role of sacred art in the life of the Church :    

“In former times, God who is without form or body could never be depicted. But now when God is seen in the flesh conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake”.  

“Especially since the invisible God took flesh, we may make images of Christ, who was visible, and picture Him in all His activities, His birth, baptism, transfiguration, His sufferings and resurrection”. 

“In regards to icons, a small thing is not small when it leads to something great; indeed it is no matter to give up an ancient tradition of the Church held by our forefathers, whose conduct we should observe and whose faith we should imitate”. 

“If a pagan asks you to show him your faith, take him into the Church, and place him before the icons”. 

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