Iconography and Idolatry, Part 1

holy friday, good friday OrthodoxWhen walking into an Orthodox Church for the first time, an inquirer may be surprised to see the walls covered with images (Greek “ikon”).  Perhaps even more shocking would be the sight of Orthodox Christians kissing and reverencing the icons in various ways.

Is not the second of the Ten Commandments iconoclastic?

You shall not make for yourself a carved image—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. (Exodus 20:4-5)

The answer to that question is no.  Neither God nor the commandments of the Torah [1] are iconoclastic when understood properly.  After all, God created the first icon, and it was of Himself:

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image [ikon], according to Our likeness…” (Genesis 1:26)

The word “icon” simply means “image,” so in the Greek Septuagint (Old Testament), God made “ikon” when He made man. [2]

The Old Testament Context

We must also understand the context in which the Torah was written.  God, through Moses, was rescuing the descendants of Abraham from Egyptian slavery.  The Israelites had been pretty thoroughly indoctrinated in paganism during their time in Egypt.  God had to break them of this habit rather forcefully because their inclination toward idolatry was strong.  They were like gunpowder, ready to ignite in idol worship at the slightest spark.

We see evidence of that in Exodus when Moses had disappeared on the mountain for a while.  They come to Aaron saying,

“Come, make us gods that shall go before us; as for this Moses…we do not know what has become of him.” (32:1)

Aaron obeys, and receiving gold from the people, fashions a golden calf and the people proclaim:

“This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!” (32:4)

Notice how the calf is a replacement for the true God?  It is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that they worship as delivering them from Egypt, but rather a calf.  They forget the invisible God behind all of the signs and wonders they had seen, and they attribute everything good to a golden calf, which sounds strange to our modern ears, but was probably quite normal in that culture.

As one continues reading through the Old Testament, he will see time after time that Israel abandons the true God and turns to idolatry.  In fact, one could make a plausible argument that the Old Testament shows a nation that fairly consistently worshiped idols and on occasional turned as a whole to the true God.  Only a remnant was ever faithful.

Given their tendencies, God forbids the making of images because he knows that the Israelites will end up worshiping them.

If I had a friend who would lose control of himself and begin worshiping any image or statue of an animal that he brought into his home, then I would never give him any images.  Why?  Not because creation or images are inherently bad, after all, God made creation and called it “very good” [3] and “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” [4] Rather, I would try to prevent his idolatrous use of images due to his own weakness.  It was the same with Israel.

God Is Not an Iconoclast

As I mentioned above, God made the first icon when He made man.  In the Torah, He commands the creation of images of both things on earth and things in heaven.  The entire Jewish temple was made as a replica, or image, of the heavenly temple. [5]  The whole structure was therefore an icon.  Within the temple were various carvings including hundreds of carved pomegranates, curtains woven “with artistic designs of cherubim,” sculpted branches with “almonds on each branch, with its ornamental knobs and lilies.” [6] In the holy of holies was the ark of the covenant.  Atop the ark was the mercy seat, and on either side were the winged Cherubim made of gold. [7] All of these things are carved images and icons, yet they were commanded by God to be created.

It is obvious then that neither God nor Moses were iconoclasts; they simply had to be careful regarding Israel’s propensity toward idolatry.

Ancient Jewish Icon

Additionally, at least a hundred years before and after Christ, Jewish synagogues were filled with images portraying scenes from the Old Testament, [8] which reveals the artistic roots of Christian iconography.  In other words, during the earliest times when Christians began depicting scenes from the Gospel, they were simply carrying over established Jewish practices.

Conclusion

In summary, there is a middle road which is the truth.  On the far right is iconoclasm, which seeks to destroy both beauty and creation; on the far left is idolatry, which seeks to pervert creation.  Neither extreme is of God.

St. John of Damascus states, “The truth, pursuing a middle way, denies all these absurdities.” [9]   While iconoclasts use scripture to justify their position, they do so without understanding or the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit.  As St. John again says, “It is good to search the scriptures.  But take care to do it with discretion.”  [10]

Our God is a cosmic artist and does not despise art or images, but is a creator of both.

In part two, I will attempt to explain why we Christians also venerate icons.


End notes

Since I used both the Hebrew Tanakh and the Greek Septuagint when looking up my sources, please note that I have appropriately labeled them as MSS and LXX below. 

Ancient Jewish icons were taken from CUNY Academic Commons and digitally enhanced by me.  Images of the ark and the golden calf are from Wikimedia Commons.

[1] Torah means “instruction” and it is first five books of the Tanakh, or Jewish scriptures; the Tanakh is what Christians refer to as the Old Testament.  The Torah is also sometimes called the Law.

[2] The first section of the Greek text for Genesis 1:26 reads: καὶ εἶπεν ὁ Θεός· ποιήσωμεν ἄνθρωπον κατ᾿ εἰκόνα ἡμετέραν καὶ καθ᾿ ὁμοίωσιν…

[3] Genesis 1:31 [MSS]

[4] Psalm 23:1 [LXX]

[5] Hebrews 9:23-24 and Exodus 25:8-9 [LXX], also Three Treatises on the Divine Images, St. John of Damascus, SVS Press, pg. 90.

[6] 1st Kings 7 [MSS], cf. Exodus 28:33 [MSS], and 25:31-34 [LXX]

[7] Exodus 25:18-20 [LXX]

[8] See the articles Iconographic Elements and Jewish Identity and Iconography in Ancient House Churches

[9] Three Treatises on the Divine Images, SVS Press, pg. 81.

[10] ibid, pg. 83

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Jeremiah

Growing up in non-denominational churches, I became weary of many practices in the church. I decided it was time to find a church that enabled me to grow in my faith and talents, but that was also theologically deep. I was drawn to the Eastern Orthodox Church for several reasons. Check out my blog which details my journey into this ancient faith.

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