Icons, images – of Christ, the Mother of God and the saints – came to be used widely in Christianity, not just as pictures on panels or walls (frescoes), but on sacred vessels, garments, banners and even more intimate objects such as boxes and rings. They are objects of devotion, rather than works of art (though many of them are works of art of superlative quality); they are there to accompany our prayer, to mediate to us the presence of those to whom we pray; they are not there for aesthetic contemplation (though many of them are worthy of that). Unlike symbols, they work more directly through likeness; it is through likeness that they recall the people whom they depict, though the concept of likeness appropriate to icons has evolved to fulfil the purpose of mediating a prayerful presence, rather than a photographic likeness. Their justification is manifold – and unlike other aspects of Christian worship and practice explicit, as a result of the century-long iconoclast controversy from the eighth to the ninth century in the Byzantine Empire.
There is the justification I have already referred to, asserted most clearly by St John Damascene, that images or icons are fundamental to the kind of understanding available to human beings who are twofold in nature, both bodily and spiritual. Both icons and sacraments make sense only to beings with this twofold nature, for they are concerned with holding together the two realms that converge in the human. The most fundamental justification, however, is the Incarnation itself: if God appeared in a human form, then it must be possible to depict him in a human form.
A corollary of that is what I have already referred to as ‘Christian materialism’: matter is God’s creation; it is not to be despised; it is precious; it is capable of disclosing to us the creative power of the God who created it. It is only because we are material beings that we can participate in God in the Eucharist, a privilege denied to purely spiritual beings such as angels. On that basis, John Damascene even argued that we could be regarded as higher beings than the angels, since we are capable of participating in God more richly than they are. . . .
The importance of John Damascene’s emphasis on the image becomes clear when we consider the alternatives: either a conceptual theology that is concerned with rational constructs – God as the central part of some philosophical understanding of the universe – or an agnosticism in which we lose any confidence in understanding at all. In contrast, a theology based on images can recognize the fundamental mystery that enshrouds the Godhead, the mystery that God is; it can embrace a fundamental apophaticism, and yet have some way of gesturing towards this ultimate mystery. It is as if the recognition of the place of images enables us to recognize, too, the fundamental place of apophaticism – denial of concepts – in our understanding of God, for images are playful and partial; they engage us, they do not give us ideas over which we have some kind of rational control. The great living Greek philosopher and theologian, Christos Yannaras, once put it like this: “The apophatic attitude leads Christian theology to use the language of poetry and images for the interpretation of dogmas much more than the language of conventional logic and schematic concepts.”