In the debate over aniconism versus iconodulia, there appear to be two tiers of argumentation. The lower tier usually revolves around the alleged absence of religious imagery in the early Church proving aniconism versus the alleged existence of religious imagery proving iconodulia. The former is archaeologically and historically indefensible and the latter is overly presumptuous, as the mere existence of art does not delineate how it was used. For iconodulia to be a historically demonstrable Christian practice, history must bear out how the art was used–a tall order given that art does not usually come with directions!
The higher tier of the debate between scholarship and recent Orthodox apologetics* revolve around a modified set of arguments. The aniconists argue that either art did not exist (due to scrupulous applications of the second commandment or what not) or if it did, it served the purpose of decoration. The iconodules argue that the art existed for veneration’s sake and that there is no demonstrable evidence for the art being used for any other purpose.
*Roman Catholic historians and apologists have capitulated on the historicity of iconodulia and rather argue that it is epistemically justifiable as a Newmanian doctrinal development.
If one is to review the earliest evidence which explains the usage of Christian religious art, which side comes up on top? Let’s see.
Saint Irenaeus. In Against Heresies, Book 1, Chap 25, Irenaeus describes how Gnostic heretics use religious art. Leaving the in-depth worldview of these specific Gnostics and their treatment of the art to others, for our purposes I will point readers to the only comments Irenaeus makes about the Christian art’s actual usage:
They also possess images, some of them painted, and others formed from different kinds of material; while they maintain that a likeness of Christ was made by Pilate at that time when Jesus lived among them. They crown these images, and set them up along with the images of the philosophers of the world that is to say, with the images of Pythagoras, and Plato, and Aristotle, and the rest. They have also other modes of honoring these images, after the same manner of the Gentiles.
Irenaeus invokes the art’s existence in a neutral manner. He then explains that the images are “crowned” (a sort of adornment), without any explicit condemnation. Only after this he observes with criticism that these images are honored according to “other modes” which are likely pagan, sexual religious rites, hence Irenaeus’ intentional vagueness. The preceding is certainly not a positive reference to Christian religious art taken as a whole.
However, Irenaeus establishes an interesting dichotomy if we simply take him at his word. Images are crowned, with no derogatory reference made to this practice, and then “other modes of honoring these images” are performed “after the same manner of the Gentiles” (obviously meant in the pejorative, heathen sense). The crowning of images is never explicitly compared to pagan usage. Rather, it is the “other modes” that are. Granted, one can infer the former in light of the latter, but this is not what Irenaeus actually states. Further, while crowning is decorative in of itself, being that it is a honor bestowed to the image on top of having them, the practice is not merely decorative. That would be redundant. Contemporary sources second such a reading of Irenaeus.
The Acts of John. A contemporary Gnostic text in opposition to Christian imagery contains an observation relevant to the dichotomy that Irenaeus drew:
Having said this in a sportive manner he entered with him into his bed chamber and he saw there the image of an man crowned and tapers and altars set before it on which he addressed him thus: “Lycomedes, what have you to do with this image. Which of your gods is it that is painted here I see you still live like an heathen.” And Lycomedes answered him, “He alone is my God who hath rescued me and my wife from death, but if after God we may call men who have done good to us gods then thou art the god who is represented in that picture whom therefore I crown and love and reverence as having been a good guide to me in the way.” John never as yet having seen his own face said to him, “My son you are mocking me am I so superior to my Lord in form. How can you make me believe that this picture is like to me?” (Session 5, Mendham, Nicea 2, 269)
The Gnostics who penned the text, apparently of a different branch than those Irenaeus was criticizing, put the words into the mouth of Lycomedes that he venerates images via “crown[ing] and love and reverence.” While it is possible that these Gnostics were criticizing the practice of other Gnostics, this is deemed as the less likely of two possibilities given that Ireneaus does not impute the practice of crowning to the gentiles/heathen while here, the author explicitly does. The Gnostic author here is criticizing what is likely a majority Christian practice, which explains why Irenaeus did not explicitly impute crowning as a “Gentile” or heathen one. Additionally, this text also delineates that crowning was a means of “love and reverence,” not merely decorative in its intent.
The Grotto of Nazareth. As recorded by Bigham, at “the traditional site of the Annunciation, under the Byzantine chapel” (i.e. the location of the original church) a second or third century image of “M” (likely Mary), contemporary to both Irenaeus and the Acts of John, has an inscription which states that the image was “eukosmesa” or “adorned.” (Bigham, Early Christian Attitudes Toward Images, 100-102) Hence, at an archaeological site of proto-orthodox, as compared to Gnostic, pilgrimage there is a most rare occurrence: the existence of art with directions for its use. These directions verify the inferences drawn from the preceding two texts, that being, the adorning of images was seen as a valid means of veneration vis a vis the “modes of the Gentiles” or the scrupulosity of more ascetic branches of Gnosticism.
Saint Gregory of Nyssa. After the preceding sources, the next earliest source which explicitly describes how Christian art was used is from the mid-to-late fourth century. Gregory of Nyssa’s authentically ascribed In Praise of Blessed Theodore the Great Martyr records what one would expect walking into church:
God’s temple is brightly adorned with magnificence and is embellished with decorations, pictures of animals which masons have fashioned with delicate silver figures. It exhibits images of flowers made in the likeness of the martyr’s virtues, his struggles, sufferings, the various savage actions of tyrants, assaults, that fiery furnace, the athlete’s blessed consummation and the human form of Christ presiding over all these events. They are like a book skillfully interpreting by means of colors which express the martyr’s struggles and glorify the temple with resplendent beauty… These spectacles strike the senses and delight the eye by drawing us near to [the martyr’s] tomb which we believe to be both a sanctification and blessing. If anyone takes dust from the martyr’s resting place, it is a gift and a deserving treasure. Should a person have both the good fortune and permission to touch the relics, this experience is a highly valued prize and seems like a dream both to those who were cured and whose wish was fulfilled. The body appears as if it were alive and healthy: the eyes, mouth, ears as well as the other senses are a cause for pouring out tears of reverence and emotion. In this way one implores the martyr who intercedes on our behalf and is an attendant of God for imparting those favors and blessings which people seek. (12)
In the preceding, Gregory describes an icon which was apparently placed immediately in front of relics that were explicitly venerated. The fact that the icon itself invokes “tears of reverence and emotion” and “in this way one implores the martyr” so “favor and blessings” are asked for clearly explains it was venerated along with the relics. While the preceding is a different veneration practice then the adorning of an icon, its intent (veneration) is the same.
Saint Epiphanius of Salamis. In Epiphanius’ treatise later titled Against Those Who, Following an Idolatrous Practice, Make Images with the Intention of Reproducing the Likeness of Christ, the Mother of God, the Angels and the Prophets, we have indisputable evidence that iconodules venerated, but did not worship, artistic representations of God and the saints:
But you will say to me, “The fathers detested the idols of the nations, but we make images of the saints in their memory, and we prostrate ourselves in front of them in their honor.” Precisely by this reasoning, some of you have had the audacity, after having plastered a wall inside the holy house, to represent the images of Peter, John, and Paul with various colors, as I can see by the inscriptions written on each of the images which falsely bare the name [image]. The inscriptions have been written under the influence of the painter’s insanity and according to his [twisted] way of thinking. (Par 3)
When Epiphanius describes how Christian religious art was used, other Christians within his same church did not respond that it was for mere decoration. Rather, they explicitly describe it was used for veneration.
What explicit sources about how religious art was used actually say. The preceding were all the earliest explicit sources pertaining to how Christian religious art was used in the first four centuries of Church History that I am aware of. All five, not a small number, clearly describe veneration. None of the sources explicitly exclude proto-orthodox Christians from such practices. All of the sources rather imply or explicitly include proto-orthodox Christians. Not one explicit source explains that the utility of art was its decorative quality. Not one. These are the only sources which are extant that the historian must hinge his or her interpretation upon. The aniconist inference is obviously entirely unjustified by the sheer weight of numbers.
How about less explicit sources? On what neutral, historical basis would someone conclude Christian art was merely decorative being that not one source asserts this? The aniconist may reply one of two things. First, that it is more difficult to prove the absence of a practice such as veneration than the opposite, simply because doing nothing would not require any sort of historical mention. This is true, but ultimately, it is an argument from silence. While it is a possibility, such a view cannot be exacted to any objective form of analysis, making it the least of likely historical inferences.
Another argument they can make is that vaguer treatments of Christian art’s purpose, unlike the explicit historical treatments, imply aniconism. Is this really the case? Let’s exact this assumption to historical scrutiny.
Tertullian. The rabble-rousing, contrarian North African has an interesting passage where he condemns:
[T]hat” Shepherd,” will play the patron whom you depict upon your (sacramental) chalice, (depict, I say, as) himself withal a prostitutor of the Christian sacrament, (and hence) worthily both the idol of drunkenness, and the brize of adultery by which the chalice will quickly be followed, (a chalice) from which you sip nothing more readily than (the flavour of) the “ewe” of (your) second repentance! (On Modesty, Chap 10)
The passage proves that Christian images not only found their way into Christian churches at the turn of the second to third century, but that they found themselves on the very focal point of Christian worship. If one may justifiably infer the art’s purpose on the chalice, one that was ritualistically shared in a communal meal with lips touching it, was not by default for veneration. After all, people sharing a plate at dinner does not imply the plate is venerated. However, the ritualistic element and the high Eucharistic theology surrounding it does lend credibility to the idea Eucharistic utensils were not treated as mere dishes. Saint Hippolytus, who was taught by Irenaeus, in his Apostolic Tradition preserves a credible collation of oral traditions from the first century. Therein he warns:
All shall be careful so that no unbeliever tastes of the eucharist, nor a mouse or other animal, nor that any of it falls and is lost. For it is the Body of Christ. (37:1)
The Eucharist is to be treated with care. The chalice which held the Eucharist must have been treated with similar care due to the sacrament itself. Whether this care included visible veneration, or simply venerable thoughts, history is not explicit. However, probability inveighs against the art on the chalice being understood in a merely decorative sense due to both context and the legitimate interpretative decision to interpret a questionable vague source like this as consistent with the more explicit sources invoked earlier.
Clement of Alexandria. In The Instructor, Book III, Clement makes various comments. He expresses doubt that Christians ought to be adorning themselves with jewelry unless it serves a practical purpose. Practicality is key. He writes:
if it is necessary for us, while engaged in public business, or discharging other avocations in the country, and often away from our wives, to seal anything for the sake of safety, He (the Word) allows us a signet for this purpose only…let our seals be either a dove, or a fish, or a ship scudding before the wind, or a musical lyre, which Polycrates used, or a ship’s anchor, which Seleucus got engraved as a device; and if there be one fishing, he will remember the apostle, and the children drawn out of the water. For we are not to delineate the faces of idols, we who are prohibited to cleave to them; nor a sword, nor a bow, following as we do, peace; nor drinking-cups, being temperate.
Clement interestingly commands that when something objectionable (like jewelry) is needed for practical purposes, they must be fitted with a Christian image. These images explicitly serve an educational purpose (“he will remember the apostle”) and perhaps, one may infer, would be a mode of evangelism. However, such an inference is undone by the intentionally cryptic nature of the images.
What is the purpose of the obscure symbolism that brings Christian truths to one’s memory? Historians are well aware that Christian art and even words, like the beginning of the Our Father prayer, would be placed at the entrances of homes in order to serve an apotropaic purpose (akin to a talisman). It is believed that Irenaeus partook in the practice (which may explain the offense at the “other modes” of veneration the Gnostics employed) and it is uncontested early Christians adopted it throughout the world. (See also Joaquín Serrano del Pozo, “Relics, Images, and Christian Apotropaic Devices in the Roman-Persian Wars”) Clement most likely saw the art as serving this purpose which is why he demanded that the art not be lifelike or accurate, which would lend it to idolatry otherwise in his view.
The question then becomes, as there are many archaeological examples of apotropaic Christian art/words, whether apotropaic art is on the spectrum of aniconism or icondoluia. One may validly argue neither, but such art surely would not be merely decorative. However, it is worth pointing out that iconodules treat religious art as apotropaic. And so, it makes the most sense to view apotropaic art as within the iconodule spectrum, even if it falls short in conveying some specific iconodulic purposes (such as conveying a prototype for veneration purposes specifically). Consider Saint Basil the Great’s observation about “the painting” of the Forty Martyrs which brought the “deeds” of onlookers:
to their [the saints’] gaze…For not even sermons about the saints permit accommodation to the rules of economia. This is why those who applaud them take the starting-point of their applause from worldly materials. How could anything worldly provide material to make conspicuous those for whom the world is crucified? (Allen, Dehandschutter, Mayer, “Let Us Die that We May Live,” 68-69; cf Theodoret, Life of St. Symeon the Stylite, Par 11/p. 165 where images of Symeon are said to “provide thereby some protection and safety.”)
Christian art was understood to have mystical power. Hence, the idea it would be venerated by most is not an interpretive stretch, even if it is something that perhaps someone like Clement of Alexandria did not do himself. It is well known that contemporaries venerated similar cryptic objects, such as the Jewish and Samaratin practice with mezuzahs (which contains a Scripture as a talisman) and Christian practice with images of the cross.
Eusebius of Ceasarea. Eusebius in Church History, Book 7, Chap 18 recounts Christian statues which were widely acknowledged in his own day (the early fourth century) and confirms that he saw them himself. He writes whimsically:
they say that the woman with an issue of blood, who, as we learn from the sacred Gospel, received from our Saviour deliverance from her affliction, came from this place, and that her house is shown in the city, and that remarkable memorials of the kindness of the Saviour to her remain there…by the gates of her house, a brazen image of a woman kneeling, with her hands stretched out, as if she were praying. Opposite this is another upright image of a man, made of the same material, clothed decently in a double cloak, and extending his hand toward the woman. At his feet, beside the statue itself, is a certain strange plant, which climbs up to the hem of the brazen cloak, and is a remedy for all kinds of diseases. They say that this statue is an image of Jesus. It has remained to our day, so that we ourselves also saw it when we were staying in the city. Nor is it strange that those of the Gentiles who, of old, were benefited by our Saviour, should have done such things, since we have learned also that the likenesses of his apostles Paul and Peter, and of Christ himself, are preserved in paintings, the ancients being accustomed, as it is likely, according to a habit of the Gentiles, to pay this kind of honor indiscriminately to those regarded by them as deliverers.
Much of the passage’s interpretation hinges upon who “they” are. The simplest explanation is that “they” are local Christians in the city of Paneas (apparently not Nazareth, as the Gospel implies Matt 9:1, 9:20). This is because they identify the images in the historical town as that of the hemorrhaging woman and the Lord. Eusebius appears skeptical, calling the image “brazen” and interpreting her body posture “as if she were praying” as originally connoting something else. In other words, he views the statues as repurposed idols of some sort made by converted “Gentiles…of old” who “were benefited by our Saviour.” The adorning of the statues, interestingly similar to the Christian practices of adorning and crowning discussed previously, lends additional credibility that these statues were regarded as Christian images at the time of his writing.
However, there are two additional details which lend credibility that these were venerated images. The local Christians apparently viewed the plant at Christ’s feet which stretched to the bottom of the “brazen cloak” (apparently intermingled with the plant) as “a remedy for all kinds of diseases.” In modern Orthodox practice, during the Great Entrance (where the bread and wine, before its consecration is held in procession) the priest often has the bottom of his cloak kissed by the laity. In other words, the location of the healing plant obviously indicates people are bending down and venerating the location in which the hemorrhaging woman was healed by Christ–the fringes of His cloak. This is how they know the plant supposedly heals them–they would have to bend down to touch it at exactly that location. Pilgrims and locals mimicked the woman’s action, seeking healing from a type of the Christological prototype. The is the most likely explanation of what Eusebius is describing as one would struggle to devise any other rational inference to explain the significance of the location of the healing plant. (As a side note, the preceding demonstrates why it is so important that historians and apologists actually attend the religious services relating to the things they seek to interpret.)
However, there is one other detail. Eusebius observes that the making of the image itself was a payment “of honor,” an act of veneration in of itself. He ascribes the creation of images of God and the saints to a pagan “habit” of honoring their “delivers” through art. Contextually, Eusebius does not appear to be asserting that the statue of Christ in Nazareth is accorded one sort of honor and otherwise God and the saints are honored in another way. Rather, it would seem Eusebius is trying to explain (as a historian) what he understood the origin of Christian religious art to be. That would be, allegedly, Gentile converts syncretized a pagan practice and applied it to God and the saints (the latter, Eusebius had no scruples in venerating). For Eusebius, it was not the veneration of saints that was at issue, but using the medium of art to express that veneration.
Aniconists certainly seize at Eusebius’ disapproval and explanation of the origin of iconodulia. However, this proves to be a double edged sword. Accepting Eusebius, one is forced to historically conclude that iconodulia existed not only at his time, but also by his own estimation, it had existed since apostolic times. Now, the aniconist is forced to either cherry-pick what in Eusebius explanation they agree with and what to otherwise discard, or to approach the source more honestly. Simply, the source records what is entirely likely iconodulia, attests to its early origin in Christ’s figurative backyard, and expresses a measured disapproval of the quaint practice (but by no means a categorical condemnation of the practice being idolatry).
Saint Methodius of Olympus. Writing in the early fourth century in his authentically ascribed Discourse on the Resurrection, Methodius refers to the existence of images and their use:
For instance, then, the images of our kings here, even though they be not formed of the more precious materials — gold or silver — are honoured by all. For men do not, while they treat with respect those of the far more precious material, slight those of a less valuable, but honour every image in the world, even though it be of chalk or bronze. And one who speaks against either of them, is not acquitted as if he had only spoken against clay, nor condemned for having despised gold, but for having been disrespectful towards the king and lord himself. The images of God’s angels, which are fashioned of gold, the principalities and powers, we make to His honour and glory. (Part 2)
Explicitly, the making of an angelic image is in of itself described as honoring God. A decorative inference (i.e. the angels look nice and God is honored when we make nice things) is possible. In light of the preceding from Eusebius, it is also possible that the art made in honor of the one represented was likewise paid honor. The latter is the more likely interpretation if one follows Methodius’ logic.
The images of kings, even made of base materials, are “treat[ed] with respect” and “honour[ed].” Those “disrespectful” to these images are punished as it is a slight “towards the king and lord himself,” the reference likely being to a secular king. “The images of God’s angels,” intentionally compared to the images of kings, are similarly made “to His [God’s] honour and glory.” In other words, they are made for the same purpose, which implies they would receive similar “respect” and “honour.” Anyone who knows anything about Roman practices would know these honors are veneration practices.
Conclusion. Based on limited historical sources from the first four centuries of Church History which detail the purpose of religious art, the explicit evidence all points to art’s veneration. All of the more vague evidence, when scrutinized, merely seconds the explicit evidence. The strongest exception appears to be from Clement of Alexandria, who only explicitly cites the “educational” aspect of art for the Christian specifically as its cryptic nature would make it undecipherable to outsiders. Yet, the potential the art served an apotropaic function does imply that it was intended to elicit some level of veneration.
For those who reject iconodulia, one must ask, what explicit historical evidence can they cite? What one will find is that the aniconist inference is drawn from early Christian sources that condemn specifically pagan practices. The aniconists obviously ignore the sources that actually explain how Christian art was used, which are ironically the most important sources they ought to be interpreting. Iconodulia actually has the strongest, explicit historical basis while aniconism literally has none.