By Fr. John Hopko
In the tenth chapter of his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul the Apostle speaks of the possibility of possessing a zeal, even for God, which is misguided. In the Church we are to be zealous, that is, enthusiastic and passionate, but in a sober and carefully thought out manner, guided by the fullness of our Orthodox Christian Faith’s Holy Tradition. Also, in being guided by Holy Tradition, we must discern carefully between that which is truly of the Tradition and that which may appear to be so, but is, in fact, ill-advised.
At the present time in the Orthodox world there is a phenomenon that may seem to be in accord with Holy Tradition, but which is actually misguided and mistaken. This phenomenon is the abundant reproduction and use of iconographic images in all sorts of ways and places that may initially seem acceptable, but which, upon deliberation, is unacceptable. It is this phenomenon that we will consider.
A strong and defining aspect of the Orthodox Christian Faith is our commitment to Iconography. The holy icons are not just an optional part of our Tradition; they are an essential element in the Church.
We know, of course, that the use of holy icons in the Church came into question during the Iconoclastic Controversy, which disturbed and distressed the Church in the Byzantine Empire during the 8th and 9th centuries. The iconoclasts (“icon-smashers”) charged that the use of icons was idolatrous and that the iconodules (those who venerated the icons) were guilty of worshiping and giving adoration to man-made images in place of God.
We know, thankfully, that the veneration of the holy icons was successfully defended in the Church, on the grounds that it was, first of all, not idolatrous; for the icon is not an idol, but a symbol. In the classic formulation of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (which convened in 787 A.D. in the city of Nicea), the honor given to the image passes on to its prototype. There is also an important distinction to be made between the reverence (dulia) that we give the saints and the fullness of worship and adoration (latria) that is reserved for God alone. The veneration of the icons is also defended on the vital doctrinal grounds that to do so is a powerful and central affirmation of the essential and foundational Christian teaching of the Incarnation. We are able to depict God in the holy icons because God became a man and took on human flesh—He became incarnate. Our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ, took on the fullness of human nature. Thus, being a human being, He is able to be depicted in the holy icons. Icons are indispensable in the Church, for they uphold and protect the essential and saving doctrine of the Incarnation.
The one hundred and twenty years of the Iconoclastic Controversy—which began in earnest with the persecutions of the defenders of the holy icons in 726 A.D. by Byzantine Emperor Leo III and ended with the triumphant and final return of the holy icons to the Church in 843 A.D. with the decisive support of Empress Theodora—was a period of bloody martyrdom for the iconodules. During the crisis, saintly martyrs were put death because they refused to disfigure or disrespect the holy icons when ordered to do so by the icon smashing authorities.
Given the central and vital role of icons in the Orthodox Church and the careful manner in which they have always been safeguarded and revered by Orthodox Christians, even to the point of martyrdom, it is sad, strange, and unsettling to witness the many ways in which we now allow the holy images to be subjected to the possibility of disfigurement and disrespect.
There are now numerous suppliers and providers who produce, for sale or free distribution, reproductions of the holy images either printed on paper or mounted on wood or cardboard. These iconographic reproductions are produced in massive quantities and disseminated widely. For example, they are being used as the opposite side of business cards or the cards that are distributed as remembrances at funerals. Sometimes, at large (often Church-sponsored) gatherings such reproductions are printed up in substantial quantities and distributed to the participants as keepsakes. Oftentimes, they are offered for sale in the catalogues of ecclesiastical supply companies or Church entities such as monasteries and seminaries seeking to sell these items in order to fund their work. Also, beyond these so-called icon prints and mounted facsimiles, it is now possible to purchase paper goods adorned with full-color iconographic reproductions in the form of stationery (including not only the writing paper, but also envelopes), note paper, as folders for weekly bulletins or parish newsletters, so-called “sticky notes”, bookmarks, and more.
Sadly, the last end of many of these images is not a place of reverence in a pious person’s home, but rather the bottom of the nearest wastepaper basket. If an iconographic image is printed on a piece of paper or card of the type that is usually discarded without much thought, how often can we suppose that even well-meaning people are making much of an effort to discern what is going on before they toss that item into the trash?
Recently, one of our major pan-Orthodox organizations sent out a bulk mailing to all their past donors. This mass mailing was certainly composed of thousands of pieces of mail. The envelope in which the mailing was sent was adorned on the outside with full color iconographic images, which were subsequently subjected to the likely deleterious effects of passing through the postal system. No doubt many of these envelopes arrived at their destinations with those holy images dirtied and disfigured; and then most of those envelopes, their primary function now fulfilled, were unceremoniously tossed in the trash, iconographic images not withstanding.
If we allow icons to be used as part of items that are perceived of as disposable (such as in and on catalogs, advertisements, flyers for various occasions, newsletters, stationery, envelopes, note paper, funeral cards, business cards, etc.) it is inevitable that they will be treated as such. No matter our efforts to educate ourselves and others about the reverence that ought to be paid to icons, the lesson that iconographic images can be treated as if of no great value—frankly, as trash—will be taught and learned if we proceed in a manner that allows for and, even, promotes such a false teaching. This process may be occurring unwittingly or unintentionally, but it is happening, nonetheless.
Another noteworthy aspect of this phenomenon is that, all too often, the particular holy image under consideration is treated in a questionable manner even before it is used. For instance, some years ago, a major Orthodox publishing house printed a large format book about iconography. On the cover, the illustration was only a portion of an icon of our Lord, Jesus Christ. In the interest of artistic effect, apparently, only the bottom left quadrant of the icon was reproduced in order to serve as the book’s cover art. The result is a dramatic and, to a degree, attractive and aesthetically pleasing representation of our Lord’s right hand held in the manner of giving a blessing. Nevertheless, the original icon is still not being reproduced in full for its true purpose. Rather, presented in this way, the partial copy on the cover of the book has now become just another example of a practice which is endemic in the Orthodox publishing world—a practice whereby images that ought to be reverenced and honored are being used merely to decorate and illustrate. No doubt, it is convenient to reproduce iconographic images as cover art and illustrations, for it is an effective way of marking a given publication as “Orthodox.” Nevertheless, should we not think about the greater ramifications of the decision to use iconography in this way?
Iconographic images can presently be found printed on coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets, air fresheners, bumper stickers, billboards, clothing, and more. One can easily obtain a t-shirt on which is emblazoned a beautiful icon of our Lord, or His Mother, or one or more of the saints. Technology has now made it possible to get hold of and use (and abuse) iconographic images in ways that just a few generations ago would not have been either imaginable or permissible.
In what seems like a pious impulse, parish churches will often now purchase affordable reproductions of icons for just about every occasion, in such numbers that it is impossible to appropriately venerate all of them on a regular basis. Thus, these items end up being stacked on shelves or stored in closets and cupboards, as if they were of little value, until the day comes when they are needed. Then, for a day or two, when the time is right, they are displayed and venerated with honor, until, sadly, the occasion passes and they are again returned to the storage spot from whence they came. These images are being treated as if they were holiday or party decorations, rather than as essential elements of Orthodox Christian worship and vital witnesses to central Christian doctrines. Isn’t this simply a mistake, a sad example of misguided and misdirected zeal?
One must wonder: What would the great confessors and defenders of the holy icons—persons such as St. John of Damascus who eloquently and at length defended the holy icons against the 8th century icon-smashers—say to us about what is being done with and to the holy icons today?
Repentance is necessary. It is time to consider carefully the holy images and our treatment of them. In the name and pursuit of Orthodox Christianity, we are, on the whole, no longer treating the holy images with a consistent level of appropriate reverence and honor. Thankfully, something can be done about this. For it is in the name of Orthodoxy, in the apparent effort to propagate knowledge and appreciation of the holy icons, that we are allowing circumstances to exist and persist whereby the holy images are being subject to disrespect and irreverent treatment. Ironically, most of this present misuse of the holy images is being carried out by those who probably know better and who, in fact, do care about the holy images. This means that those who need to hear the message that change is necessary should be ready to hear and heed that message.
We need to raise awareness of and sensitivity to this issue, especially within the Church, its parishes and institutions. We must revisit the Church’s teachings about the holy icons and seek to apply what we learn, today. We must make sure that we are limiting the use of the holy icons to circumstances wherein they might be appropriately maintained, reverenced and honored. Repentance in this regard must begin with each and every one us taking personal responsibility for the holy images and making the commitment to defend the icons with sober, rather than misguided, zeal.