Veneration, Worship, and Iconography
By Fr. Mark Perkins
Editor’s Note: In this series, Fr. Mark Perkins responds to Fr. Ben Jefferies’ essay “All That Is Not True About Nicea II,” his latest salvo in our ongoing discussion of the invocation of the saints. Having grounded iconography in the theology of the Incarnation in Part 1, Fr. Mark here argues for iconographic veneration of our Lord. Read Part 3 here. Part 4 here, Part 5 here, and Part 6 here.
I previously argued that iconography affirms and extends the Incarnation, that an icon of our Lord mysteriously portrays God in Christ, and that the iconodules were right about not simply the propriety but the Christological necessity of iconography. I will explain and qualify that last and most polemical claim in future essays; here I want to unpack further implications of the first two claims. Specifically I intend to summarize the classical position on iconographic devotion and veneration versus worship.
Once again I am not directly responding to Fr. Ben Jefferies’ essay “All That Is Not True About Nicea II” but am instead continuing to lay theological groundwork for doing so in future installments — and once again I expect Fr. Jefferies will agree with much of what follows.
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Last time I asked, “When the disciples looked at Jesus, what were they seeing? When they worshipped at his feet, what were they worshipping?” The answer, drawing upon the hypostatic union and the patristic notion of the “communication of idioms,” is that, “in seeing the man Jesus, the disciples saw God.” As St. John of Damascus comments, “Just as I am afraid of touching red-hot iron, not because of the nature of iron, but because of the fire that is united with it, so I venerate your flesh, not because of the nature of flesh, but because of the divinity hypostatically united to it” (58).
And if, as I argued, the icon is an affirmation and extension of the Incarnation, then should we worship icons? In order to answer that question, we need to delve a bit deeper into just what an icon is.
Icons honor the portrayability — and therefore the real humanity — of Jesus. Just as any picture of a human being portrays not merely a soulless body but rather the body-soul unity which every living person comprises, so too an image of Jesus reflects that hypostatic unity which is Jesus Christ. Icons are portraits — not merely reproductions of Christ’s visible appearance but rather intentional portrayals which seek to reveal something of his whole person. Moreover, they are particular kinds of portraits, portraits that present us with Christ’s transfigured, glorified state. Icons depicting events from Christ’s terrestrial life are not only memories of his historical existence, as are all portraits, but are also prophetic revealings of his present and eternal glorified state (Bulgakov 73, 76, 111; Ouspensky 36).
Icons function as windows or mirrors into eternity — insights into heavenly reality (Constas, Art 25; Constas, “Meaning”). In an icon we behold the face of Jesus “as in a glass,” and this contemplation of “the glory our Lord” helps transform us “into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18; obviously this verse is not explicitly talking about icons, but I will argue in further essays that iconographic devotion is an excellent application of the principles of 2 Cor. 3). Precisely because they are windows or mirrors — that is, not Christ himself but rather a mediated image of him — icons are not worshipped. As Bulgakov helpfully suggests, in the Eucharist we have the Real, Substantial Presence of Jesus Christ but not his image, whereas an icon portrays his image — but the icon itself does not contain or communicate his Real Presence (85-87).
Nevertheless, as a kind of “spirit-bearing matter,” icons merit veneration — but not worship (Constas, “Meaning”). St. John of Damascus defines the difference thusly:
“Veneration (bowing down) is a symbol of submission and honor. And we know different forms of this. The first is a form of worship, which we offer to God, alone by nature worthy of veneration. Then there is the veneration offered, on account of God who is naturally venerated, to his friends and servants, as Jesus [Joshua] the son of Nave and Daniel venerated the angel [Jos. 5:14; Dan. 8:17]; or to the places of God, as David said, ‘Let us venerate in the place, where his feet stood’ [Ps. 132:7]; or to things sacred to Him, as Israel venerated the tabernacle and the temple in Jerusalem standing in a circle around it, and then from everywhere bowing in veneration towards it, as they still do now, or to those rulers who had been ordained by Him, as Jacob venerated Esau, made by God the elder-born brother, or Pharaoh, appointed by God his ruler, and his brothers venerated Joseph [Gen 42:6]. And I know that such veneration is offered to others as a mark of honor, as Abraham venerated the sons of Emmor [Acts 7:16, conflating Gen 23:7 and 33:19-20]” (27-28; cf. 24-25).
Protestants sometimes describe this distinction — between veneration, which is given to icons and to the saints, and worship, which is due to God alone — as an artificial distinction which papers over the idolatry or idolatrous tendencies of the cult of the saints. But, as St. John of Damascus so clearly demonstrates above, the distinction proceeds from Scripture itself. Angels accept veneration from Daniel and Joshua — but they recoil from St. John the Divine’s impulse to fall “down to worship before the feet of the angel” in Revelation (22:8-9).
We venerate icons of Christ; we do not worship. And even this veneration is qualified, because the honor we give to the icon is ultimately not directed to the image as such but rather to “the prototype,” Christ himself. As St. John of Damascus asserts, following St. Basil — and as the fathers of Nicea II affirmed — “the honor offered to the image passes to the archetype” (42, cf. 35). We understand this relation between image and prototype instinctively whenever a young child kisses a picture of her grandmother. No one thinks the child is expressing an inordinate affection for the photographic arts. No grandmother would be upset that her grandchild has come to love a picture of her. Everyone recognizes that the child’s love for the image is nothing more and nothing less than her love for her grandmother.
The problem for our particular debate — which, as you may by this time no longer recall, started with the Litany of the Saints, and in particular with Fr. Jefferies’ objections to the traditional petition to the saints to pray for us (“ora pro nobis”) — is that icons depict not only our Lord but also his saints. Thus, even if one accepts everything written above about the Incarnation, icons, and prototypes, one may wonder about icons of saints. In my next installment, then, I consider how the Incarnation helps us understand the role of the saints in iconography and in devotion.
Fr. Mark Perkins is Curate at St. Alban's Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida and Executive Editor of Earth & Altar.