Saint Methodius of Olympus in a preserved fragment defends the making of images of angels in his day in God’s honor. But is the following passage authentic in Discourse on the Resurrection?

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 himselfThe images of God’s angels, which are fashioned of gold, the principalities and powers, we make to His honour and glory. (Part 2)

Not according to Lynn Martin. He brings forth evidence that similar language is found in a fragment on the prophet Jonah, which he feels is evidence that the Damascene (or whomever he was copying) had altered the following passage to be pro-iconodule:

As, then, Jonah spent three days and as many nights in the whale’s belly, and was delivered up sound again, so shall we all, who have passed through the three stages of our present life on earth—I mean the beginning, the middle, and the end, of which all this present time consists—rise again. For there are altogether three intervals of time, the past, the future, and the present. And for this reason the Lord spent so many days in the earth symbolically, thereby teaching clearly that when the forementioned intervals of time have been fulfilled, then shall come our resurrection, which is the beginning of the future age, and the end of this. For in that age there is neither past nor future, but only the present. Moreover, Jonah having spent three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, was not destroyed by his flesh being dissolved, as is the case with that natural decomposition which takes place in the belly, in the case of those meats which enter into it, on account of the greater heat in the liquids, that it might be shown that these bodies of ours may remain undestroyed. For consider that God had images of Himself made as of gold, that is of a purer spiritual substance, as the angels; and others of clay or brass, as ourselves. He united the soul which was made in the image of God to that which was earthy. As, then, we must here honour all the images of a king, on account of the form which is in them, so also it is incredible that we who are the images of God should be altogether destroyed as being without honour. Whence also the Word descended into our world, and was incarnate of our body, in order that, having fashioned it to a more divine image, He might raise it incorrupt, although it had been dissolved by time. And, indeed, when we trace out the dispensation which was figuratively set forth by the prophet, we shall find the whole discourse visibly extending to this.

Martin infers the following and concludes the passage is pro-aniconist:

  1. Angels are images of God made by him as though they were of gold.
  2. Humans are images of God made by him as though they were of clay or brass.
  3. Just like people honor a king’s image, God’s image deserves honor—but it’s because they are images of God, regardless of the material they’re made out of.
  4. It’s unbelievable that even “clay” images of God would die entirely—that would be dishonoring to God, because even though they are made of a less pure substance, they’re still images of God.
  5. Therefore, the Word (Jesus) became a “clay” image, so that he could resurrect it as imperishable.

From the preceding he concludes that “the golden images being discussed are an analogy for angels themselves who are pure spirit” and so it is not “speaking about [literal] images of angels.” He asserts that, therefore, the two alleged fragments contradict and one must therefore be a forgery (of course, the pro-iconodule one).

Answering the Objection. It is ironic that the “forefather” of aniconist scholars, Hugo Koch, interpreted the fragment of Damascene as both authentic and proof of aniconism; but that someone 100 years later, perhaps not aware of his logic, feels compelled to argue that the passage is transparently pro-images and therefore must be a fabrication. Being that the objection was made, and is interesting in its own right, I will treat it seriously.

First, the Discourse on the Resurrection, elsewhere makes a very similar reference to art:

For it is impossible for an image under the hands of the original artist to be lost, even if it be melted down again, for it may be restored; but it is possible for blemishes and injuries to be put off, for they melt away and cannot be restored; because in every work of art the best craftsman looks not for blemish or failure, but for symmetry and correctness in his work. Now God’s plan seems to me to have been the same as that which prevails among ourselves. For seeing man, His fairest work, corrupted by envious treachery, He could not endure, with His love for man to leave him in such a condition, lest he should be for ever faulty, and bear the blame to eternity; but dissolved him again into his original materials, in order that, by remodelling, all the blemishes in him might waste, away and disappear. For the melting down of the statue in the former case corresponds to the death and dissolution of the body in the latter, and the remoulding of the material in the former, to the resurrection after death in the latter. (Part 1, Par 6)

Surely, the passage does not directly bear on the issue at hand (historical iconodulia). Nevertheless, it is an undoubting approval of art itself. In fact, it compares the melting down of art so that it can be improved to what God is doing with man–allowing us to die, so we may be resurrected in glorified bodies. The logic is very similar to that found in the passage about Jonah.

Now consider the passage the Damascene reputes to be authentic. It is possible, though by no means compelling in itself, that the images of angels were made from melted down idols or previous Roman Emperors which were intended to be worshiped. The parallel between the passages would be that the former use did not honor God, but the latter use obviously does. The implication of how the former images were used (to honor the Emperor) makes sense if in their reconstituted form, a different image was honored. So, while the didatic application of the passage in Part 1 is more closely approximated to the passage in reference to Jonah as compared to the iconodulic passage in Part 2, it appears to be thematically connected if the recycling of images was something well known.

The preceding is not some sort of pie-in-the-sky theory buttressed by compelling literary parallelism. Consider the following from a contemporary writer, Euebius of Caesarea writing about Constantinople:

Being filled, too, with Divine wisdom, he determined to purge the city which was to be distinguished by his own name from idolatry of every kind, that henceforth no statues might be worshipped there in the temples of those falsely reputed to be gods, nor any altars defiled by the pollution of blood: that there might be no sacrifices consumed by fire, no demon festivals, nor any of the other ceremonies usually observed by the superstitious. On the other hand one might see the fountains in the midst of the market place graced with figures representing the good Shepherd, well known to those who study the sacred oracles, and that of Daniel also with the lions, forged in brass, and resplendent with plates of gold. Indeed, so large a measure of Divine love possessed the emperor’s soul, that in the principal apartment of the imperial palace itself, on a vast tablet displayed in the center of its gold-covered paneled ceiling, he caused the symbol of our Saviour’s Passion to be fixed, composed of a variety of precious stones richly inwrought with gold. This symbol he seemed to have intended to be as it were the safeguard of the empire itself. Having thus embellished the city which bore his name, he next distinguished the capital of Bithynia by the erection of a stately and magnificent church. (Eusbeius, Life of Constantine, Book 3, Chap 48-50)

As one can see, the former city of Byzantium had “statues…there in the temples of…gods” which, after Constantine’s purge, were transformed into images of Christ (in the likely obscured representation of “the good Shepherd”), the Prophet “Daniel also with the lions” (perhaps a not so subtle dig at the lion statuary common at contemporary synagogues, these lions being types of the Lion of Judah the Jews did not recognize), and an image of the cross which apparently was considered to have apotropaic power for the good of the empire. While the preceding does not prove any of these images were venerated, that is not the point of the passage. Rather, it shows that Christians “purge” pagan art when they were able to recycle and reconstitute it–precisely the sort of scheme Methodius employs in Part I of Discourse. For what it is worth, the fact that Bithynia’s church’s embellishment is mentioned in the same sentence as that of Constantinople’s implies that similar work was likely done in the churches (though unlikely statuary specifically). Portraiture likely was made, typical of other churches such as Dura-Europos and the shrine at Mamre (Eusebius’ Demonstration of the Christian Faith, Book 5, Chap 9 describes a portrait at Mamre of two angels and Christ).

Now let’s revisit the fragment concerning Jonah. A straight-forward explanation is as follows:

God and angels are compared to gold (at least in translation, I’d be curious if in the Greek the angels are compared to bronze). Man is compared to clay. One must note, this is identical to the material Methodius invokes in Damascene’s fragment which is used for the king and must be honored. The clay in Discourse passage is honored not because of its intrinsic worth, but because of whom it represents. Similarly, in the Jonah passage, the clay/mankind is honored because mankind is made in gold/the King’s image. Methodius uses this to moralize that if the king’s image is honored, then why wouldn’t we honor our fellow man given his iconographic representation of God? To buttress this, Christ’s incarnation literally bestowed the reality of glory to human nature after the resurrection. This is the purpose of the passage.

The emphasis in this passage is similar to Discourse Part I, so it is surely authentic. However, there is not even a faint implication in the passage about Jonah that art is disallowed. There certainly is a silence on the veneration of any man-made images, but that would be expected being that the passage really is not about art. This is different in Discourse Part I where an “artist” is specifically cited and his example used to demonstrate the resurrection. One may expect in Discourse, presuming the same idea was returned to again (which it evidently was in Damascene’s fragment), that the work of the “artist” specifically would bear more mention. Personally, I suspect that “discourse” was originally a set of sermons, which explains the picking of tangible examples that were likely brought to the audience’s attention.

Conclusion. While Martin proposes an interesting question as to whether there were corruptions in the fragments ascribed to Methodius, his question appears to be polemical in its basis. There is little textual basis for his exegesis which demands that the fragments “prove” that one or the other is false. More likely, they verify that Methodius mused similarly on the topic of the resurrection in different venues (or perhaps the same one, if all the fragments belong to the same set of homilies). In any event, Christ Himself gave similar sermons on mounts and plains. The logic behind the passage, that being the dignity of materials and its repurposing, fits the historical context of Lycia where Methodius was from. The region was considerably Christian in his time, so the recycling of pagan imagery surely occurred.

Additionally, it explains the otherwise cryptic evaluation Methodius gives for making images of angels in God’s honor–a detail a forgery would have not retained, as it would only confuse the reader. The most likely explanation is that the passage is authentic and it is speaking to the practice of repurposing/recycling pagan art into the images of angels, something the intended audience was probably well aware of. This was done in God’s honor, as the repurposing of art for Christian use is ultimately for the sake of Christ. As for why angels were made, and not other images, one can only make educated guesses. Perhaps there was a local scrupulosity of depicting God specifically and the intent was to follow Scriptural norms (the creation of Cherubic images). One can only speculate.