Early Christian Quotes About Icons

This post is mostly just quotes, with a little bit of analysis. For a more in-depth analysis of whether the Eastern Orthodox Church is following the apostolic faith by venerating icons, see this post.

The Eastern Orthodox Church believes that the practice of venerating icons (iconodulia) has always been part of the Christian faith. This article quotes from a wide range of early church fathers to show that the consensus of the early fathers was that iconodulia is foreign to Christianity.

I’m limiting these quotes to church leaders who wrote before the ecumenical councils (if you want to know more about the beliefs of later Christians like John Chrysostom, see this article). I’ll first list the quotations that are against Christian iconodulia. Then I’ll offer all the quotes from this era that I know of which are used to support icons.

Of course, these are all in the context of the pagan practices of praying to images or the dead, not specifically about Christian practices (of course, that’s simply because Christians didn’t do that). But I think you can clearly see that these fathers knew nothing of Christian icons, and that they make statements that show that they would have been opposed to icons, had they known about them.

Matter Cannot Represent Anything Sacred

One reason that the early church fathers gave against pagan idols is that matter cannot represent anything sacred. Yet if they had used sacred icons to represent Christ, the God of the universe, or the holy saints, they couldn’t have used that argument.

Clement of Alexandria

But images, being motionless, inert, and senseless, are bound, nailed, glued,—are melted, filed, sawed, polished, carved. The senseless earth is dishonoured by the makers of images, who change it by their art from its proper nature, and induce men to worship it; and the makers of gods worship not gods and demons, but in my view earth and art, which go to make up images. For, in sooth, the image is only dead matter shaped by the craftsman’s hand. But we have no sensible image of sensible matter, but an image that is perceived by the mind alone,—God, who alone is truly God. (Exhortation to the Heathen 4 ANF)

[W]hat is made is similar and the same to that of which it is made, as that which is made of ivory is ivory, and that which is made of gold golden. Now the images and temples constructed by mechanics are made of inert matter; so that they too are inert, and material, and profane . . . Works of art cannot then be sacred and divine. (Stromata 7.5 ANF)

Moses ages before enacted expressly, that neither a graven, nor molten, nor moulded, nor painted likeness should be made; so that we may not cleave to things of sense, but pass to intellectual objects: for familiarity with the sight disparages the reverence of what is divine; and to worship that which is immaterial by matter, is to dishonour it by sense. (Stromata 5.5 ANF)

Lactantius

What madness is it, then, either to form those objects which they themselves may afterwards fear, or to fear the things which they have formed? . . . You fear them doubtless on this account, because you think that they are in heaven; for if they are gods, the case cannot be otherwise. Why, then, do you not raise your eyes to heaven, and, invoking their names, offer sacrifices in the open air? Why do you look to walls, and wood, and stone, rather than to the place where you believe them to be? (The Divine Institutes 2.2 ANF)

[I]t is an inexpiable crime to desert the living in order that you may serve memorials of the dead, who can neither give life nor light to any one, for they are themselves without it: and that there is no other God but one, to whose judgment and power every soul is subject. [T]he sacred images themselves, to which most senseless men do service, are destitute of all perception, since they are earth. But who cannot understand that it is unlawful for an upright animal to bend itself that it may adore the earth? which is placed beneath our feet for this purpose, that it may be trodden upon, and not adored by us, who have been raised from it, and have received an elevated position beyond the other living creatures, that we may not turn ourselves again downward, nor cast this heavenly countenance to the earth, but may direct our eyes [upward] to that quarter to which the condition of their nature has directed, and that we may adore and worship nothing except the single deity of our only Creator and Father, who made man of an erect figure, that we may know that we are called forth to high and heavenly things. . . . But if it appears that these religious rites are vain in so many ways as I have shown, it is manifest that those who either make prayers to the dead, or venerate the earth, or make over their souls to unclean spirits, do not act as becomes men, and that they will suffer punishment for their impiety and guilt, who, rebelling against God, the Father of the human race, have undertaken inexpiable rites, and violated every sacred law. . . . Wherefore it is undoubted that there is no religion wherever there is an image. For if religion consists of divine things, and there is nothing divine except in heavenly things; it follows that images are without religion, because there can be nothing heavenly in that which is made from the earth. (The Divine Institutes 2.18-2.19 ANF)

Athenagorus

Because the multitude, who cannot distinguish between matter and God, or see how great is the interval which lies between them, pray to idols made of matter, are we therefore, who do distinguish and separate the uncreated and the created, that which is and that which is not, that which is apprehended by the understanding and that which is perceived by the senses, and who give the fitting name to each of them,—are we to come and worship images? (Plea for the Christians 15 ANF)

Melito of Sardis

There are, however, persons who say: It is for the honour of God that we make the image: in order, that is, that we may worship the God who is concealed from our view. But they are unaware that God is in every country, and in every place . . . Because the wood has been sculptured, hast thou not the insight to perceive that it is still wood, or that the stone is still stone? (Fragment 1 http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/melito.html)

Arnobius

But do not seek to point out to us pictures instead of gods in your temples, and the images which you set up, for you too know, but are unwilling and refuse to admit, that these are formed of most worthless clay, and are childish figures made by mechanics. (Against the Heathen 3.3 ANF)

For if you are assured that the gods exist whom you suppose, and that they live in the highest regions of heaven, what cause, what reason, is there that those images should be fashioned by you, when you have true beings to whom you may pour forth prayers, and from whom you may ask help in trying circumstances? . . . We worship the gods, you say, by means of images. What then? Without these, do the gods not know that they are worshipped, and will they not think that any honour is shown to them by you? . . . And what greater wrong, disgrace, hardship, can be inflicted than to acknowledge one god, and yet make supplication to something else—to hope for help from a deity, and pray to an image without feeling? (Against the Heathen 6.8-6.9 ANF)

Do you not see, finally, that swallows full of filth, flying within the very domes of the temples, toss themselves about, and bedaub now the very faces, now the mouths of the deities, the beard, eyes, noses, and all the other parts on which their excrements fall? Blush, then, even though it is late, and accept true methods and views from dumb creatures, and let these teach you that there is nothing divine in images, into which they do not fear or scruple to cast unclean things in obedience to the laws of their being, and led by their unerring instincts. (Against the Heathen 6.16)

Only the Pagans and Heretics Used Images

The early church fathers say that the use of images of Christ and of humans is a heretical and pagan practice.

Irenaeus

[The Carpocratian heretics] 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, . . . They have also other modes of honouring these images, after the same manner of the Gentiles. (Against Heresies 1.25.6 ANF)

Hippolytus

And [the Carpocratian heretics] make counterfeit images of Christ, alleging that these were in existence at the time (during which our Lord was on earth, and that they were fashioned) by Pilate. (The Refutation of All Heresies 7.20 ANF)

If a man is a sculptor or painter, he must be charged not to make idols; if he does not desist he must be rejected. (Apostolic Tradition 16)

Methodius

And those artificers who, to the destruction of men, make images in human form, not perceiving and knowing their own Maker, are blamed by the Word, which says, in the Book of Wisdom, a book full of all virtue, “his heart is ashes, his hope is more vile than earth, and his life of less value than clay; forasmuch as he knew not his Maker, and Him that inspired into him an active soul, and breathed in a living spirit;” (Banquet of the Ten Virgins 2.7 ANF)

Arnobius

Was it for this He sent souls, that, being made unmindful of the truth, and forgetful of what God was, they should make supplication to images which cannot move . . . ? (Against the Heathen 2.39 ANF)

For you are here in the habit of fastening upon us a very serious charge of impiety because we do not rear temples for the ceremonies of worship, do not set up statues and images of any god, do not build altars, do not offer the blood of creatures slain in sacrifices, incense, nor sacrificial meal, and finally, do not bring wine flowing in libations from sacred bowls; which, indeed, we neglect to build and do, not as though we cherish impious and wicked dispositions, or have conceived any madly desperate feeling of contempt for the gods, but because we think and believe that they—if only they are true gods, and are called by this exalted name—either scorn such honours, if they give way to scorn, or endure them with anger, if they are roused by feelings of rage. (Against the Heathen 6.1 ANF)

Clement of Alexandria

But it is clear to every one that piety, which teaches to worship and honour, is the highest and oldest cause; and the law itself exhibits justice, and teaches wisdom, by abstinence from sensible images (Stromata 2.18 ANF)

Christians Accused of Not Using Images

The early church fathers were constantly defending themselves against pagans who thought they were a cult or even atheistic because they didn’t have images. This, of course, showed that they didn’t use images, since if they did, they could simply have said, “Yes, we venerate images, too. Just not pagan images.”

Minucius Felix

But do you think that we conceal what we worship, if we have not temples and altars? And yet what image of God shall I make, since . . . man himself is the image of God? (The Octavius 32 ANF)

Origen

[W]e, on the other hand, deem those to be “uninstructed” who are not ashamed to address (supplications) to inanimate objects, and to call upon those for health that have no strength, and to ask the dead for life, and to entreat the helpless for assistance. And although some may say that these objects are not gods, but only imitations and symbols of real divinities, nevertheless these very individuals, in imagining that the hands of low mechanics can frame imitations of divinity, are “uninstructed, and servile, and ignorant;” for we assert that the lowest among us have been set free from this ignorance and want of knowledge, while the most intelligent can understand and grasp the divine hope. (Against Celsus 6.14 ANF)

“[Celsus says that Christians] cannot tolerate temples, altars, or images. In this they are like the Scythians, the nomadic tribes of Libya, the Seres who worship no god, and some other of the most barbarous and impious nations in the world. . . .” To this our answer is, that if [these groups] cannot bear the sight of temples, altars, and images, it does not follow because we cannot suffer them any more than they, that the grounds on which we object to them are the same as theirs. . . . [These groups] agree in this with the Christians and Jews, but they are actuated by very different principles. For none of these former abhor altars and images on the ground that they are afraid of degrading the worship of God, and reducing it to the worship of material things wrought by the hands of men. . . . [Christians] not only avoid temples, altars, and images, but are ready to suffer death when it is necessary, rather than debase by any such impiety the conception which they have of the Most High God. . . . [I]t is not possible at the same time to know God and to address prayers to images. (Against Celsus 7.62-7.65 ANF)

It is not therefore true that we object to building altars, statues, and temples, because we have agreed to make this the badge of a secret and forbidden society; but we do so, because we have learnt from Jesus Christ the true way of serving God, and we shrink from whatever, under a pretence of piety, leads to utter impiety those who abandon the way marked out for us by Jesus Christ. (Against Celsus 8.20 ANF)

I am aware that some of Origen’s ideas were condemned after his death. However, he was not considered heretical in his day, and there is no reason to assume that what he said was unrepresentative of the early church. Besides, objecting to Origen’s doctrinal credibility would miss the point of these quotations. The point is that the pagans knew that Christians didn’t have icons, and that Origen felt the need to defend this Christian practice.

Tertullian

In a word, if we refuse our homage to statues and frigid images, the very counterpart of their dead originals, . . . does it not merit praise instead of penalty, that we have rejected what we have come to see is error? (Apology 12 ANF)

We know that the names of the dead are nothing, as are their images (De Spectaculis 10 ANF)

It’s true that Tertullian became a Montanist later in his life. However, that doesn’t take the force away from these quotations, because he doesn’t argue against Christians here, but against the pagans. In other words, he doesn’t see the falsity of iconodulia as a means of establishing the truth of his view of Christianity; to him Christians just don’t do it.

Christians Did Use Religious Art, Just Not Icons

Sometimes the Orthodox argue that all early Christians who refused icons were radicals who also refused any kind of art. I have heard that that is true of Tertullian (although I’m not familiar with any such quotes from him), but I’m not aware of any evidence that suggests that the rest of these fathers also thought art was wrong. Here are a few quotes that show that at least one pre-Nicene father condemned icons without condemning other religious art.

Clement of Alexandria

But it is with a different kind of spell that art deludes you, . . . it leads you to pay religious honour and worship to images and pictures. The picture is like. Well and good! Let art receive its meed of praise, but let it not deceive man by passing itself off for truth. (Exhortation to the Heathen 4 ANF)

And 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 (The Instructor 3.11)

Pro-Icon Quotes From Before Nicaea

I’m not aware of any pro-icon quotes from the early church fathers. Only during the era of the councils did Christians begin arguing for the veneration of icons.

However, here is one quote that John of Damascus thought was pro-iconodulia. The following is the only pre-Nicene quote from John of Damascus’s three treatises on icons:

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. (Methodius, Discourse on the Resurrection 2 ANF)

This is hardly a pro-iconodulia quote, since there is no claim that people are venerating images in a recognizably Eastern Orthodox sense. In fact, Methodius describes images as being made to God’s honor and glory, not to the honor and glory of the angels that they represent.

But there are a number of other serious issues with the use of this quotation as support for iconodulia. 1) Most importantly, John seems to have misunderstood the intent, as I’ll show. 2) Even if he understood it correctly, the quote isn’t clearly about icons specifically, just angelic images. 3) There is question whether it comes from a genuine work. 4) In another quote (quoted above), Methodius made a clearer statement against icons. 5) In view of these issues, it’s also interesting that John uses this as his final quote, as though it’s either the strongest or weakest quote he could find. Since it clearly isn’t the strongest one that he quotes, this placement suggests that John himself might not have been fully confident about it.

John of Damascus’s quotation from Methodius is the only witness to that particular statement, since that writing either was lost or was not genuine. However, a similar fragment from Methodius has been found which casts light on the context of the quotation I cited.

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. (On the History of Jonah 2 ANF)

Methodius uses very similar language, and in fact, the sentence in bold could easily be the same sentence as is the first sentence quoted by John. Yet this quotation is clearly about the created beings, not about artificial images. The resemblance is sufficient to conclude that the first quotation was also about created beings.

Eusebius wrote,

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.

Note that veneration of icons is not mentioned; there is only a tradition that some paintings of the sort existed. Also, Eusebius makes special notice of this fact, speculating that the cause is a pre-Christian habit, suggesting that it was surprising for such images to exist within Christianity.

Conclusion

I conclude that the consensus of the fathers is that iconodulia is not a Christian practice. The Eastern Orthodox Church has changed one of the apostolic traditions.

However, maybe I’m missing something. I welcome feedback in the comments section. Are there other pre-Nicene quotes that are pro-iconodulia? And is it possible for iconodulia to be an apostolic tradition, and yet not practiced for the three hundred years after they established the church?

My next post will dig more deeply into the question of whether the Eastern Orthodox Church has changed with regard to icons.


Note: “ANF” in the footnotes indicates the Ante-Nicene Fathers set, by Schaff, Roberts, Donaldson, and Coxe. From a digital copy scanned from a printing in 2001 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Numbers in references are chapter numbers as found in the ANF set.

2 thoughts on “Early Christian Quotes About Icons”

  1. Christopher Good

    I don’t think iconodulia is an apostolic tradition, and thus I don’t support it for the present. But it’s difficult to nail down an obviously wrong aspect of it. Many of the quotations here refer to the _worship_ of images, which is something pagans do but not something the Orthodox churches do. I’m also curious about what seems to be a Platonic or proto-Gnostic attitude of disregard for materiality in many of these quotes.

    1. Great to see your pushback. In this case, I’m not arguing that iconodulia is wrong; merely that it is foreign to the apostolic faith. If I am correct in that argument, then it would seem that the EOC has changed the faith, if not by allowing iconodulia, at least by requiring iconodulia! If I were to argue that it’s wrong (which I may do someday), I would probably start from the Old Testament theology of images, especially where writers deride idolaters for thinking their idolatry accomplishes anything. The question is whether moving from worship to veneration makes it possible for images to stand in for persons, and I see no reason why that would be the case. Note that the OT theology of images contrasts with the OT theology of instruments, where Temple furniture such as the ark are actually holy to the Lord. Similar is the early Christian theology of communion and baptism, in which the physical does indeed partake in the spiritual. When the correct distinctions are made, I think we’ll find that concerns of possible Gnosticism will be addressed.

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