Did Saints Like John Chrysostom Venerate Icons? How Did It Arise?

This article is the fifth (and last) in a series in which I evaluate the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox practice of iconodulia—veneration of images. In previous articles, I looked at the evidence predating 313, when Constantine began to favor Christianity. This article will discuss the evidence that comes after.

Here are the posts in this series:

  1. My first post introduces and summarizes the issues around the veneration of icons. It deals with some high-level objections and brings all the different evidence together.
  2. My second post deals with the archaeological evidence for early Christian art. Because the evidence from art is more ambiguous, I demonstrate only the more modest claim that evidence from archaeology does not suggest that before 313, the veneration of images was a common Christian practice.
  3. My third post discusses Scripture and theology and whether they can be used in support of the veneration of images (as opposed to the worship of idols). I conclude that Scripture seems to be against the practice, though it doesn’t explicitly mention it.
  4. My fourth post digs deeply into the pre-Constantinian evidence—the church fathers before 313. It shows very clearly that the consensus of the pre-Constantinian church is against the veneration of images.
  5. My fifth post discusses evidence after 313 to see how the veneration of images could have arisen. I look into the writings of John Chrysostom and others of Orthodoxy’s favorite saints, and show that they did not practice iconodulia. I also sketch out how the veneration of images could have slowly crept into the church, without drawing much comment.

Objectives

My previous articles showed that before 313, the veneration of images was not a legitimate Christian practice. In fact, for that period of time, the evidence is so strong and so consistent that we don’t know of anyone who belonged to the Christian church who venerated images.

I have two objectives for this article:

  1. Provide evidence that some of the most foundational and beloved saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church did not venerate icons, and that the practice did not enjoy unquestioned credibility for about a hundred years following 313.
  2. Offer a tentative analysis of the historical data that will suggest how and when the veneration of images became a Christian practice.

Evaluating John Chrysostom (c. 347–407)

Originally, when I began studying into the early church’s view of images, I posted my findings in an online forum. At that point, I had simply used pre-Constantinian sources to show that before 313, the veneration of images was not a legitimate Christian practice. However, one response I received was that it didn’t matter what those writers thought, because they weren’t as important as church leaders which the Eastern Orthodox appreciated more highly, like John Chrysostom.

Of course, this was a red herring, because I wasn’t basing my conclusion on what the most respected individuals thought—I was pointing out that all the sources we have, before 313, consistently show that Christians didn’t venerate images during that time period. If John Chrysostom, coming later, had venerated images, that would only have shown that there had been a change between their time and his.

But since I respect John Chrysostom, I thought I’d evaluate his writings to see whether he believed in iconodulia. Since I did the most digging into John Chrysostom, I’ll include an entire section on him, before moving to the other writers. What I found, of course, was that my interlocutor’s objection failed. John Chrysostom didn’t venerate images.

The Highest Image He Could Think of Was Secular

In a few cases, John uses the example of an image as something that has honor. However, conspicuously, he always refers to the image of a secular ruler. If iconodulia were practiced, the images of Christ and the saints would have much more honor in the church than would the images of the secular king!

As Christ came into the Church, and she was made of him, and he united with her in a spiritual intercourse . . . Marriage is a type of the presence of Christ, and art thou drunken at it? Tell me; if thou sawest an image of the king, wouldest thou dishonor it? By no means. (Homilies on Colossians, Col 4:12–13)

But thou that art a believing woman, . . . Learn that thou hast been joined unto Christ, and refrain from this unseemliness [makeup]. . . . Let us not therefore be curious in making ourselves unseemly. For neither is any one of God’s works imperfect, nor doth it need to be set right by thee. For not even if to an image of the emperor, after it was set up, any one were to seek to add his own work, would the attempt be safe, but he will incur extreme danger. Well then, man works and thou addest not; but doth God work, and dost thou amend it? (Homily on Matthew 9:9)

For tell me, if any one were to revile his rulers, if he were to insult those in power, whom does he injure? Himself, or them? Clearly himself. Then he who insults a ruler insults not him, but himself—and he that insults a Christian does he not through him insult Christ? By no means, thou sayest. What sayest thou? He that casts a stone at the images of the king (Emperor), at whom does he cast a stone? is it not at himself? Then does he who casts a stone at the image of an earthly king, cast a stone at himself, and does not he who insults the image of God (for man is the image of God) injure himself? (Homilies on First Thessalonians, 1 Thes 5:12-13)

The last quotation also suggests that John didn’t believe that actions done to an image were done to the subject of the image; he doesn’t consider images to stand in for their referent.

Images Are a Pagan Practice

Whenever John speaks of the veneration of images, such as bowing to them, he uses non-Christians for his examples. If Christians venerated images, he would likely have used examples that were nearer home.

For a dreadful, a dreadful thing is the love of money, . . . therefore hath Paul called it “idolatry”: . . . [A]s the Greek carefully tends his graven image, so thou entrusteth thy gold to doors and bars; providing a chest instead of a shrine, and laying it up in silver vessels. But thou dost not bow down to it as he to the image? Yet thou showest all kind of attention to it. (Homilies on the Gospel of Saint John, John 11:49–50)

For tell me what have you to say to the Greek, if you plunder, and be covetous? will you say, Forsake idolatry, acknowledge God, and draw not near to gold and silver? . . . Now do not tell me, that you do not worship an image of gold, but make this clear to me, that you do not do those things which gold bids you. . . . If then you do not grave images as did they, yet do you with great eagerness bow under the very same passions (Homily on Rom 2:17-18)

“But,” saith one, “this ought to take place without the decay of our bodies; they should continue entire.” And what would this have advantaged either the living or the departed? . . . Thirdly, the bodies would have been excessively loved; and most men would have become more carnal and gross; and if even now some cleave to men’s tombs and coffins, after that themselves have perished, what would they not have done, if they had even their image preserved? . . . Seventhly, many of them that lose their relations would have left their cities, and have dwelt in the tombs, and have become frantic, conversing continually with their own dead. For if even now men form to themselves images, since they cannot keep the body (for neither is it possible, but whether they will or no it glides and hurries from them), and are rivetted to the planks of wood; what monstrous thing would they not then have devised? (Homily on Matthew 10:23)

Adoration of Images Seems Foolish to Him

John tells how he thinks idolatry came to be—from the veneration of images of the dead. He calls this impulse “weakness of soul,” “senseless custom,” and “extravagance.”

We will examine, if you please, whence idolatry took its rise. A certain wise man tells us, that a certain rich man afflicted with untimely mourning for his son, and having no consolation for his sorrow, consoled his passion in this way: having made a lifeless image of the dead, and constantly gazing at it, he seemed through the image to have his departed one still; . . . treating the image with reverence in order to do him honor, carried on the custom into idolatry. So then it took its rise from weakness of soul, from a senseless custom, from extravagance. (Homilies on Ephesians, Eph 5:5–6)

Did John Chrysostom Support Iconodulia?

Even though these quotes show that iconodulia was not a practice during John Chrysostom’s day, I have heard it argued that John supported iconodulia. Let’s examine the quotes put forward for this claim:

The kings erect victorious statues in honor of the military leaders who have won the victory; also the chiefs put up victorious images and pillars in honor of the drivers and wrestlers, and force the substance with an inscription, as if by mouth, to announce victory. Others express praises to the victors in books and letters, wishing to show that in praises they themselves are stronger than those who are praised. Speakers and painters, carvers and sculptors, peoples and rulers, cities and villages, are surprised at the winners; but no one drew an image in honor of one who fled and did not fight. (Conversation on Psalm 3)

This just shows that John knew that people honor others by making images of them—not surprising that he’d know that! But this isn’t about venerating images, nor does John endorse it; he merely describes it.

And it became so frequent that this name [of St. Meletios] echoed around from every direction everywhere both in side streets and in the marketplace and in fields and on highways. But you didn’t experience so much just at the name, but even at the depiction of his body. At least, what you did with names, this you practiced, too, in the case of that man’s image. For truly, many carved that holy image on finger rings and on seals and on cups and on bedroom walls and all over the place so that one didn’t just hear that holy name, but also saw the depiction of his body all over the place and had a double consolation for his loss. (Homily in Praise of Saint Meletios)

This does seem to indicate rudimentary beginnings of iconodulia. So far, nothing is said of 1) veneration through bowing or kissing, 2) praying to a saint through an image, or 3) considering the image to stand in for the saint, except as a consolation for grief. However, there is a seemingly innocent desire for adulation of Meletius.

But most importantly, notice that Chrysostom describes the story as though it is a unique or surprising occurrence. It’s as though he doesn’t have a category for the veneration of saints; he describes the people’s actions as though it needed describing, not as though it was a good example of a practice he already knew and appreciated. Little did he know that this was only the beginning. What his parishioners were doing then would in time be blown out of all proportion and would finally be made mandatory for all Christians to practice.

So, did John Chrysostom venerate icons?

Thus I conclude that John Chrysostom did not practice iconodulia. The practice was only beginning to appear in his day. The veneration of icons was not a practice that the favorite saint of the Eastern Orthodox was familiar with.

Evaluating Other Saints

In this section, I’ll evaluate sources from some of the most prominent Constantinian /post-Constantinian fathers viewed images. Their writings will also give us valuable historical data on what other Christians were doing during their lives.

Since my focus is on showing what happened before 313, not after, I haven’t taken the time to hunt down every possible quotation that could bear on this issue, as I did in my last article. However, I believe there are enough quotations to see the themes that exist in this era, and I doubt that further study will yield very different results. I could be wrong, of course, so I welcome correction.

Of course, these writers aren’t evidence for what the pre-conciliar church believed, but they wrote not long after 313. If they weren’t familiar with Christian iconodulia, that serves to push the influx of iconodulia still later.

I’m including Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory Nazianzen, and John Chrysostom because of their revered status among the Eastern Orthodox. Those who love these prolific and zealous Christians should be concerned to find that iconodulia had not yet become standard in their day. I include Eusebius, Epiphanius, and Augustine especially for their historical merits.

Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260/265–339)

It’s widely agreed that Eusebius of Caesarea, the great early Christian historian, believed the veneration of images to be wrong. So that hardly needs to be proved. However, because of Eusebius’s prominence, his life and writings show what others believed about iconodulia as well.

The most instructive quotation from Eusebius is his letter to Constantia, the sister of Constantine. She had requested an icon of Christ, and Eusebius replies that this was not a Christian practice. This quote is important for several reasons:

  1. It shows us what the consistent practice of the church was at that time.
  2. It gives insight into what genre of image Christian iconodulia drew from.
  3. It shows what type of person was interested in Christian images.
  4. It is used as evidence that Christians were venerating images.

Here is the relevant text:

You also wrote me concerning some supposed image of Christ, which image you wished me to send you. Now what kind of thing is this that you call the image of Christ? I do not know what impelled you to request that an image of Our Saviour should be delineated. [. . .] How can one paint an image of so wondrous and unattainable a form—if the term ‘form’ is at all applicable to the divine and spiritual essence—unless, like the unbelieving pagans, one is to represent things that bear no possible resemblance to anything. . . ? For they, too, make such idols when they wish to mould the likeness of what they consider to be a god or, as they might say, one of the heroes or anything else of the kind, yet are unable even to approach a resemblance, and so delineate and represent some strange human shapes. Surely, even you will agree that such practices are not lawful for us.

But if you mean to ask of me the image, not of His form transformed into that of God, but that of the mortal flesh before its transformation, can it be that you have forgotten that passage in which God lays down the law that no likeness should be made either of what is in heaven or what is in the earth beneath? Have you ever heard anything of the kind either yourself in church or from another person? Are not such things banished and excluded from churches all over the world, and is it not common knowledge that such practices are not permitted to us alone?

Once— I do not know how—a woman brought me in her hands a picture of two men in the guise of philosophers and let fall the statement that they were Paul and the Saviour—I have no means of saying where she had had this from or learned such a thing. With the view that neither she nor others might be given offence, I took it away from her and kept it in my house, as I thought it improper that such things ever be exhibited to others, lest we appear, like idol worshippers, to carry our God around in an image. [. . .] It is said that Simon the sorcerer is worshipped by godless heretics painted in lifeless material. I have also seen myself the man who bears the name of madness57 [painted] on an image and escorted by Manichees. To us, however, such things are forbidden. [. . .]

(From this site. Ellipses marked [. . .] are my own, as is bold.)

As you can see, Eusebius is very adamant, not only that he believes iconodulia to be wrong, but that no church in the world allowed that practice. Of course, this could be an exaggeration, but since he was so influential and well-connected, he can be expected to be pretty nearly correct.

Second, Eusebius mentions that once he confiscated an image with two men who were supposedly Paul and Christ. Why does he say that they were “in the guise of philosophers”? Here’s where archaeology can help us. It turns out that a common practice among pagans was to venerate images of pagan philosophers, as I discussed in my post on archaeology and also address in a later section. Since Paul and Christ were wise men, someone decided to do the same for them. Eusebius compares these to the images that Gnostics made of the teachers who had originated their schools of thought. In other words, the earliest veneration of images drew from the cult of pagan philosophers.1Irenaeus mentions this as well:

[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, 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 honouring these images, after the same manner of the Gentiles.

(Against Heresies 1.25.6 ANF)

Third, the people who had (or were asking for) images that could be venerated were lay people. As women, they wouldn’t have been presbyters or bishops. Thus, their actions don’t provide evidence for the position of the church. In fact, Constantia was used to affluence, pomp, power, and pagan customs. If she is typical of those who wanted to venerate images, it doesn’t speak well for the practice.

Now, let’s address the final point, which is whether this quotation can be used as evidence for iconodulia or not. Craig Truglia writes, “The fact that a Christian empress requested an icon is additional evidence that icons were not some fringe, lower-class thing, but something that was mainstream enough to be part of high society.”2From this site.

Of course, as we’ve seen from the full text, the evidence shows that one individual wanted to venerate images and another individual owned an image that was intended to be venerated—and the whole Christian church taught that they were wrong. Eusebius states plainly that iconodulia is universally rejected by Christian churches. The text is so clear that it’s hard for me to see how anyone would use it in an argument that iconodulia was common.

But let me reply to this argument. A lot of weight is put on two aspects of the text:

  1. Eusebius confiscated images from someone. This suggests that there was actually iconodulia happening. However, notice that the text doesn’t mention that anyone was venerating these images. Furthermore, Eusebius says that this was “once,” suggesting that it was an isolated incident.
  2. Constantia was a prominent person, and therefore this practice must have been common, not just by lower classes, but by prominent Christians. But note that there’s no evidence that she was practicing Christian iconodulia already; only that she wants to begin. Furthermore, consider whether it’s likely that an empress would be the model of Christianity—rich, used to pomp and power, used to pagan customs? So how is a letter written to a woman who was no kind of model Christian, telling her she is mistaken that Christians use icons, an evidence that Christians used icons?

It’s possible that this letter is not an authentic work of Eusebius, in which case it certainly cannot help the cause of iconodulia. However, since my focus is from before 313, it wouldn’t harm my argument. It could be inauthentic because it it is first quoted at the Council of Hieria, the “iconoclastic” council. Also, Stephen Bigham suggests that it poses a contradiction to Eusebius’s not being bothered by images in other texts. However, this doesn’t have to be a contradiction, since he is speaking in context of images in the vein of philosopher-cult images (venerated images) in this case, while in other cases he is discussing more general images. Furthermore, the other cases are mainly history, which is descriptive, while this is written in a pastoral context, so it is prescriptive. We cannot pretend that these distinctions do not exist in order to create a contradiction.

Athanasius (c. 296/298–373)

The following quotation from Athanasius is used in support of iconodulia. What is not quoted in the original article is included in italics, so that you can see the difference that it makes when you look deeper into the context.

And on hearing the attributes of the Father spoken of a Son, we shall thereby see the Father in the Son; . . . For he who in this sense understands that the Son and the Father are one, knows that He is in the Father and the Father in the Son; for the Godhead of the Son is the Father’s, and it is in the Son; and whoever enters into this, is convinced that ‘He that has seen the Son, has seen the Father.’ for in the Son is contemplated the Father’s Godhead. And we may perceive this at once from the illustration of the Emperor’s image. For in the image is the shape and form of the Emperor, and in the Emperor is that shape which is in the image. For the likeness of the Emperor in the image is exact; so that a person who looks at the image, sees in it the Emperor; and he again who sees the Emperor, recognises that it is he who is in the image. And from the likeness not differing, to one who after the image wished to view the Emperor, the image might say, ‘I and the Emperor are one; for I am in him, and he in me; and what you see in me, that you behold in him, and what you have seen in him, that you hold in me.’ Accordingly he who worships the image, in it worships the Emperor also; for the image is his form and appearance. (Discourse Against the Arians, 3.5)

  1. Not about icons. Athanasius is talking about the likeness of Jesus to the Father, not of icons.
  2. Some historical evidence against iconodulia. The example that occurs to Athanasius to use is a secular one (an image of an emperor). If icons of Christ and the saints were in use, it would seem likely that he would have used an icon as an example. That would have been more holy and therefore a better example of an image that demands respect. Besides, if icons were in use, they would have been nearer to the lay person’s experience than a secular image (they would see and kiss icons at least weekly).

The devising of idols was the beginning of fornication, and the invention of them, the corruption of life. . . . For a father afflicted with untimely mourning when he has made an image of his child soon taken away, now honoured him as a god which was then a dead man, and delivered to those that were under him ceremonies and sacrifices. Thus in process of time an ungodly custom grown strong was kept as a law. And graven images were worshipped by the commands of kings. Whom men could not honour in presence because they dwelt afar off, they took the counterfeit of his visage from afar, and made an express image of the king whom they honoured, to the end that by this their forwardness they might flatter him that was absent as if he were present. Also the singular diligence of the artificer did help to set forward the ignorant to more superstition: for he, perhaps, willing to please one in authority, forced all his skill to make the resemblance of the best fashion: and so the multitude, allured by the grace of the work, took him now for a god, which a little before was but honoured as a man (Against the Heathen, 1.11)

Here Athanasius quotes from the Wisdom of Solomon to condemn veneration of images of humans. Wisdom argues that veneration of images is a direct path to idolatry and calls icons of kings “graven images” even at the stage where the kings were not yet considered gods. It’s hard to see how he would have venerated saints if he thought this to be the case.

But it were better, if need to admire these things, to ascribe it to the art of the skilled workman, and not to honour productions in preference to their producer. For it is not the material that has adorned the art, but the art that has adorned and deified the material. Much juster were it, then, for them to worship the artist than his productions (Against the Heathen, 1.13)

Here Athanasius argues that an artist is more to be honored than the images that he creates. Could he have said this if he believed that bowing to, kissing, and praying through icons was a legitimate Christian practice? Somehow I can’t imagine Athanasius stopping in at the workshop of an icon-painter to bow to, kiss, and pray to that man with even more devotion than the Eastern Orthodox show to icons.

Basil of Caesarea (330–379)

These quotations from Basil is used in support of iconodulia. What is not quoted in the original article is included in italics, so that you can see the difference that it makes when you look deeper into the context.

Come then, let us bring them [the martyrs’] into prominence by remembering them, let us present to those who are here the common benefit deriving from them, demonstrating to everyone, as if it were in writing, the acts of the [martyrs’] prowess. When often both historians and painters express manly deeds of war, the one embellishing them with words, the other engraving them onto tablets, they both arouse many too to bravery. The facts which the historical account presents by being listened to, the painting silently portrays by imitation. In this very way let us too remind those present of [the Forty Martyrs’] virtue, and as it were by bringing their deeds to their gaze, let us motivate them to imitate those who are nobler and closer to them with respect to their course of life. . . . 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? (Homily on the Forty Martyrs, 2)

  1. Probably not about Christian images. This translation uses a lot of complex phrasing, so it’s not always easy to see what Basil means. I don’t think it’s likely that he is talking about actual images of the martyrs. That’s because he uses language that indicates that writing and art are analogies to the kind of honor that Basil encourages his hearers to bestow on the martyrs: he says “as if it were in writing” and “as it were by bringing their deeds to their gaze.” But I could be wrong here.
  2. Not about veneration of icons. No indication is given that the images (if any) of the martyrs were bowed to or kissed or prayed through. The martyrs themselves are said to be remembered and applauded. Nothing is said of what to do with their images.
  3. Some historical evidence against iconodulia. The example that occurs to Basil to use is a secular one (a painting of warriors in battle). If icons of Christ and the saints were in use, it would seem likely that he would have used an icon as an example. That would have been more holy and therefore a better example of an image that demands respect. Besides, if icons were in use, they would have been nearer to the lay person’s experience than a secular image (they would see and kiss icons weekly).

For the lawless mock the temple, mock the neighbor, mock the one created in the image of the Creator, and through the image “reproach” ascends to the Creator. For just as the one who desecrates the royal image is judged on an equal footing with the one who sinned against the king himself, so, obviously, the one who desecrates the one created in the image is guilty of sin. (Commentary on Isaiah, 13.3)

  1. Not about icons. This is so obviously about mankind, created in the image of God, not about icons.
  2. Some historical evidence against iconodulia. The example that occurs to Basil to use is a secular one (a royal image of a king). If icons of Christ and the saints were in use, it would seem likely that he would have used an icon as an example. That would have been more holy and therefore a better example of an image that demands respect. Besides, if icons were in use, they would have been nearer to the lay person’s experience than a secular image (they would see and kiss icons weekly).

For the Son is in the Father and the Father in the Son; since such as is the latter, such is the former, and such as is the former, such is the latter; and herein is the Unity. So that according to the distinction of Persons, both are one and one, and according to the community of Nature, one. How, then, if one and one, are there not two Gods? Because we speak of a king, and of the king’s image, and not of two kings. The majesty is not cloven in two, nor the glory divided. The sovereignty and authority over us is one, and so the doxology ascribed by us is not plural but one; because the honor paid to the image passes on to the prototype. Now what in the one case the image is by reason of imitation, that in the other case the Son is by nature; and as in works of art the likeness is dependent on the form, so in the case of the divine and uncompounded nature the union consists in the communion of the Godhead. One, moreover, is the Holy Spirit, and we speak of Him singly, conjoined as He is to the one Father through the one Son, and through Himself completing the adorable and blessed Trinity. (On the Holy Spirit, 18.45)

  1. Not about icons. Basil is speaking about the oneness of the Trinity, not about icons.
  2. Some historical evidence against iconodulia. The example that occurs to Basil to use is a secular one (an image of a king). If icons of Christ and the saints were in use, it would seem likely that he would have used an icon as an example. That would have been more holy and therefore a better example of an image that demands respect. Besides, if icons were in use, they would have been nearer to the lay person’s experience than a secular image (they would see and kiss icons weekly).

Gregory Nazianzen (c. 329–390)

This first quotation from Athanasius is used in support of iconodulia.

Hadst thou no respect for the victims slain for Christ’s sake? Didst thou not fear those mighty champions, that John, that Peter, Paul, James, Stephen, Luke, Andrew, and Thecla? And those who after them, and before them, faced danger in the cause of Truth, and who confronted the fire, the sword, the wild beasts, the tyrants, with joy, and evils either present or threatening, as though they were in the bodies of others, or rather as if released from the body! And what for? That they might not betray the Truth, even as far as a word goes; those to whom belong the great honours and festivals; those by whom devils are cast out and diseases healed; to whom belong manifestations of future events, and to whom belong prophecies; whose very bodies possess equal power with their holy souls, whether touched or worshippedof whom even the drops of the blood and little relics [symbols] of their passion, produce equal effect with their bodies! (Against Julian the Apostate, 69)

Of course, this is not about images, but about relics. Around this time, the cult of martyrs was arising. In a later section, I’ll suggest that the cult of martyrs and relics was a step on the way to the veneration of images.

For every rational nature longs for God and for the First Cause, but is unable to grasp Him, for the reasons I have mentioned. Faint therefore with the desire, and as it were restive and impatient of the disability, it tries a second course, either to look at visible things, and out of some of them to make a god…(a poor contrivance, for in what respect and to what extent can that which is seen be higher and more godlike than that which sees, that this should worship that?) or else through the beauty and order of visible things to attain to that which is above sight; but not to suffer the loss of God through the magnificence of visible things. From this cause some have made a god of the Sun, others of the Moon, [. . .] And there are those who worship pictures and images, at first indeed of their own ancestors—at least, this is the case with the more affectionate and sensual—and honour the departed with memorials; and afterwards even those of strangers are worshipped by men of a later generation separated from them by a long interval; through ignorance of the First Nature, and following the traditional honour as lawful and necessary; for usage when confirmed by time was held to be Law. And I think that some who were courtiers of arbitrary power and extolled bodily strength and admired beauty, made a god in time out of him whom they honoured, perhaps getting hold of some fable to help on their imposture. (Second Theological Oration 13-14)

In the vein of Athanasius and the Wisdom of Solomon, Gregory argues that the veneration of the dead is what has lead to idolatry. It’s hard to see how he would have venerated saints if he thought this to be the case.

Do not judge your judges, you who need healing; and do not make nice distinctions about the rank of those who shall cleanse you, or be critical about your spiritual fathers. One may be higher or lower than another, but all are higher than you. Look at it this way. One may be golden, another iron, but both are rings and have engraved on them the same royal image; and thus when they impress the wax, what difference is there between the seal of the one and that of the other? None. Detect the material in the wax, if you are so very clever. Tell me which is the impression of the iron ring, and which of the golden. And how do they come to be one? The difference is in the material and not in the seal. (Oration on Holy Baptism 26)

When Gregory goes to discuss a valuable image, he uses the example of sealing rings with a royal image. If he had venerated images, he could have easily used examples that were more relevant to Christianity, such as icons made using different media. However, since the example of a sealing ring fits his point so well, I wouldn’t put as much weight on this one if we had other textual evidence that Gregory believed the veneration of images to be a legitimate Christian practice. However, as far as I can tell, from a search of his writings, such evidence doesn’t exist.

Epiphanius of Salamis (c. 310/320–403)

Epiphanius is also generally considered to have been against the veneration of images. In fact, he is so anti-iconodulia that some Eastern Orthodox have tried to rehabilitate his reputation.

Though Christians had decorative and instructive images in churches before Epiphanius’s day, he is one of the first sources to mention icon-like images—portrait-style artworks—in Christian contexts.

The most famous quotation from Epiphanius is the following:

When we entered the village called Anautha, we saw there a burning lamp. We inquired about this and learned that there was a church in that place. We went in to pray and found a colored door curtain hanging in front of the door. On the door curtain, there was something idolatrous in the form of a man. They [the parishioners] said that it was perhaps a representation of Christ or of one of the saints; I don’t remember. Knowing that such things are detestable in a church, I tore the door curtain down and suggested that it be used as a  burial cloth for a poor person, but the parishioners, who have  been complaining, said that I should have replaced the door curtain out of my own pocket before tearing it down. So, I promised to send a new door curtain to replace the first one, but I waited a while because I needed to search for one. I waited until a curtain was sent to me from Cyprus. Having now found it, I sent it on.3Stephen Bigham, Epiphanius of Salamis: Doctor of Iconoclasm? Deconstruction of a Myth

Here is another letter by Epiphanius, probably written around 394:

[Nicephorus of Constantinople quotes the Letter to Theodosius and comments on it:] (First of all, Epiphanius confessed that laughter and mockery spread throughout the assembly be- cause of his vain blabbering, and then he added …) I have often advised those who are reputed to be wise — bishops, doctors, and concelebrants — to take down those things. Not everyone paid attention to me, actually only a few.

Who has ever heard of this? Who among the ancient fathers has painted an image of Christ in a church or placed it in his own house? Who among the ancient bishops has painted Christ on door curtains, dishonoring him in this way? And who has ever painted on door curtains or on walls Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and the other prophets and patriarchs, or Peter, Andrew, James, John, Paul, or the other apostles? Who has ever dishonored them this way and exposed them to public ridicule?4Stephen Bigham, Epiphanius of Salamis: Doctor of Iconoclasm? Deconstruction of a Myth

The reason we have this letter is that it was quoted by Nicephorus of Constantinople. From the way he sets the stage for it, you can see that emotions ran high in debates during the Iconoclastic controversy, and that opponents treated each other in very unfair and un-Christian ways.

These two quotations are important for these reasons:

  1. They show that the veneration of icons did not arise without any backlash. Ephiphanius very strongly fought against icons.
  2. They show that it was possible even in Epiphanius’s day to remember a time when there were no icon-like images.
  3. They don’t mention any type of iconodulia; only having icon-like images. Given how concerned Epiphanius is with just the images, one would think he’d have mentioned veneration if it were taking place.
  4. These quotes are used to argue that iconodulia was a widespread practice in his day.

The first three points require little commentary. The last one needs a response. Note that Epiphanius says that he “often” spoke to bishops and theologians about this, but that “Not everyone paid attention to me, actually only a few.” Does this mean that most church leaders were venerating images? I suggest no, for these reasons:

  1. What we have evidence of is the existence of icon-like images, not their actual veneration.
  2. He comes off as fairly polemical, so he was likely exaggerating for effect.
  3. Just because church leaders didn’t listen doesn’t mean that they themselves had images or were venerating them. It could just as well indicate that they just didn’t want to go to the work of stemming the tide—something that we would expect given the incentive for less-than-zealous individuals to become church leaders.

In any case, note that Theodosius was the emperor who made Christianity mandatory in the Roman Empire. As my previously linked article shows, we would expect the huge amounts of those who were made Christians of necessity rather than from conscience to gravitate toward pagan practices.

Augustine (354–430)

Augustine, who wrote after 313, wrote that the Manicheans shouldn’t criticize the Christians even though some of them disobeyed Christianity by “worshipping tombs and pictures.” According to Eusebius, the Manicheans venerated images of their founder, Mani.

Do not summon against me professors of the Christian name, who neither know nor give evidence of the power of their profession. Do not hunt up the numbers of ignorant people, who even in the true religion are superstitious, or are so given up to evil passions as to forget what they have promised to God. I know that there are many worshippers of tombs and pictures. . . . Nor is it surprising that among so many multitudes you should find some by condemning whose life you may deceive the unwary and seduce them from Catholic safety (On the Morals of the Catholic Church 34:75)

According to Augustine, those who are venerating images are ignorant lay people. The veneration of images seems never have been quite as extreme in the West, and apparently even in Augustine’s day, it was roundly condemned by church leaders, even though there were “superstitious” people who venerated images.

A Historical Sketch

I don’t claim to be a historian—I’m an exegete. My analysis of history should be taken with a grain of salt, because my training is in the fields of literature and philosophy, not history. However, after having done exegesis on many early Christian primary sources, and reading up on the current scholarship in the area of early Christian images, enough themes have begun to emerge that I feel fairly confident in the conclusions I suggest below. But since I could be missing something, I’m very willing to be corrected by those who have a better grasp on the history than I do.

The Historical Context

Given background historical data, it’s very easy to see how the veneration of images would have developed from no veneration of images at all. Let’s first discuss the historical context of the early centuries of Christianity.

During the first centuries AD, a common practice among pagans was the veneration of the images of philosophers.5Katherine Marsengill, “Panel Paintings and Early Christian Icons,” Robin M. Jensen & Mark D. Ellison, editors, The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, p. 200–1 Katherine Marsengill notes,

More often than not, these “portraits” conformed to an expected and idealized type, usually an older bearded man with a high forehead or balding, while still maintaining certain traits or relying upon inscriptions to identify them. . . .

One of the reasons for the popularity of philosopher cults was philosophy’s gradual elision with theurgy and mysticism in the first few centuries CE. This led to greater veneration of ancient philosophers, who were attributed god-like qualities. It also produced new spiritual exemplars and purported miracle workers who became regarded as holy men. Portraits were an important part of this phenomenon.6Ibid, 201.

Interestingly, Eusebius, quoted above, discusses a portrait of Christ, as well as portraits of Gnostic leaders, made in this style. Thus, the veneration of portraits of holy men was actually present and common in the pagan context of Christianity.

When Christianity became state-supported, it became important for Christian churches to be beautiful and lavishly decorated, since pagan temples were. Christians had never been unilaterally against religious images, so it was only surprising, not shocking, when portraits of Christ and the saints began to appear in churches starting in the 300s. In my article on archaeology and Christian art, I cited multiple scholars who commented on the changes in and the proliferation of Christian art when Constantine turned a benevolent eye toward Christianity.

Of course, the existence of public sacred images was a big difference between paganism and Christianity. As pagans were converted to Christianity out of necessity or at least convenience, rather than out of conviction, they would have felt the lack of images, which would have fueled this phenomenon. It would also have pushed toward the veneration of images.

Finally, the emperor had always been honored by his image on coins and in public places. Now that Christians and the emperor were on the same team, images were a way for them to honor the emperor as well, thus bringing the idea of royal and even sacred images even more into their consciousness.

At this same time, a cult of martyrs was arising. In the 300s, Christians and the state began to honor martyrs “through the building of monumental shrines and pilgrimage sites. The earliest reliquaries are from this period.”7Erik Thunø, “Reliquaries and the Cult of Relics in Late Antiquity,” Robin M. Jensen & Mark D. Ellison, editors, The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, p. 150 This veneration of martyrs was aided in the West by Pope Damasus (366–384):

Damasus’ celebration of the martyrs in this fashion [with epigrams] created nothing less than a milestone in the cult of martyrs in Rome and the Christian world in general. Certainly by the time Damasus was elected to the Holy See, a series of large funerary basilicas placed on top of or adjacent to the martyrs’ graves . . . had already been constructed a few decades earlier and begun to change the city’s suburban landscape. Yet, the sheer range and number of martyrs made known and promoted by the fourth-century bishop was unprecedented.8Ibid., 154

Jeffrey Spier writes,

“The growing importance of the apostles and other saints in popular belief is reflected in images of the fourth century. The veneration of these saints and martyrs led to the search for their physical remains, or relics, which, though the intercession of these deceased holy men and women, were thought to have miraculous powers of healing. By the late fourth century, relics were distributed widely throughout the empire, often in elaborate ceremonies, and preserved in finely decorated reliquaries deposited in local churches. Artists produced portraits of local saints and martyrs, most notably in Rome, where images of saints such as Agnes, Laurentius, and martyred bishops of Rome appeared”9Jeffrey Spier, “The Earliest Christian Art: From Personal Salvation to Imperial Power,” Jeffrey Spier, Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art, 13

In this century, the demand for the relics of martyrs became such that those in cities without martyrs (sometimes illegally) transported their bodies to their own cities. For example, Constantine II (356–357) gave Constantinople the claim to being the city of Andrew by moving his body there from Greece.10Thunø, “Reliquaries,” 152

Gregory of Nyssa wrote favorably of the relics of martyrs as follows:

Those who behold them embrace, as it were, the living body in full flower: they bring eye, mouth, ear, all the senses into play, and then, shedding tears of reverence and passion, they address to the martyr their prayers of intercession as though he were present.11Ibid., 152

Since martyrs were meritorious for holding to the Christian faith even until death, and since John saw them crying out to the Lord from under the altar in Revelation (Rev 6:9–11), martyrs were expected to be near God and have special influence with him.

What We Would Expect

Given these historically documented developments, it would be very unsurprising for the veneration of images to arise.

We would expect that, when the relics of martyrs are used in intercession of the martyrs, and when churches were full of lavish portraits of Christ and the saints, and when the pagans around them or in recent memory had been venerating images, that Christians would slowly but surely give up their stance against the veneration of images. They would first have “holy” or “sacred” images, and in time some would begin to address prayers to them.

There would no longer be nearly as much reason to argue against portraits of Christ and the saints or their veneration, if they crept in and were incrementally worked into the worldviews of Christians. Yet we would expect at least some controversy before the stance of Christians entirely changed.

This is, in fact, what the evidence shows occurred.

What the Evidence Shows

From the evidence that Eusebius gives us, writing right at the pivotal time when Christianity began to receive state support, we can see that iconodulia was wanting to happen. Naïve Christians, and those who converted to Christianity out of convenience (like Constantia), wished to honor Christ and the saints with images.

Later, Athanasius, Basil, and John Chrysostom show that Christians were becoming more comfortable with the idea of honor passing through an image to its referent. Though earlier Christians didn’t accept this concept, they accepted it—to a point. These writers didn’t apply it to religious images, but to royal images, like that of the emperor. Since they only ever use secular images as examples of this, it seems that they did not think of Christian images in this way. Instead, it seems that the friendliness of the church and the state was leading them to accept secular practices of this type.

The Eastern Orthodox are probably right to point to these quotes as being significant in attesting to a mindset that could be compatible with iconodulia. However, I suggest that they are significant in that they show a development in the theology of the church from the pre-Constantinian era to the early conciliar era.

Over time, a proto-iconodulia seems to have begun to develop, starting with lay people. Chrysostom and Augustine describe lay Christians as honoring the dead through pictures. Even by Augustine’s day, this seemed to be seen as wrong in the West. In time, they begin, it seems, to venerate the images rather than merely creating the images to honor the dead and to help them present.

One Eastern Orthodox writer objects to the idea that veneration of images was a change, saying that “there would’ve been a palpable outcry of opposition at the very onset of their introduction”12From this site. Of course, this is under the assumption that their church was always conservative (which I’ve argued against), or that the practice was introduced in full form rather than following on the seeds of change, sowed long before the veneration of images became commonplace. In the last section, I showed that the practice didn’t need to arise suddenly.

However, there was in fact a “palpable outcry”—the well-known Epiphanius and the few who listened to him. In the West, the evidence from Augustine suggests that they didn’t yet fully accept sacred images and their veneration there yet, even in the 400s. It’s hardly surprising that there was no more significant outcry, since the shift in thinking happened slowly and incrementally.

Finally, the two strands of thought coexisted, but grew more and more intolerant of each other as the usage of images grew. By the time of the iconoclastic controversy, the struggle descended into violence, political machinations, deception, and many other un-Christlike actions.

After the Fourth Century

I’ve been focusing on the pre-Constantinian era and the century following it, since my goal is to follow the faith that was believed by all before any changes were made. From my research, I can’t tell when the actual veneration of icons became common among church leaders, as opposed to the simple owning of sacred images and the divergent practices among the laity.

Gavin Ortlund argues that the scholarly consensus is that the veneration of icons (as opposed to the introduction of sacred images) began in force somewhere in the sixth or seventh century:

Not only does the veneration of icons not go back to the first century, the only question is whether it originated in the sixth or the seventh century. (11:56)

I look forward to his upcoming book, which will give the issue a more detailed treatment. I can’t speak to this issue myself. But whether Ortlund or the scholarly consensus is correct or not, there can be no question that the practice did not exist before Constantine, and that the seeds of it developed over the years following his first sponsorship of Christianity.

Conclusion

I conclude that the evidence seems to show a gradual development of the use of sacred images, beginning in the 300s and finally culminating in the veneration of icons. Even after 313, the veneration of icons was by no means entirely accepted for a hundred years or more thereafter.

I leave you with this question—If the veneration of images had really been practiced with church sanction before 313, why would the hundred years following look so much like a time when it was creeping in through the laity into common Christian practice?


Works Cited

The works linked above or easily available online are mostly not included here.

Stephen Bigham, Epiphanius of Salamis: Doctor of Iconoclasm? Deconstruction of a Myth, accessed from https://www.academia.edu/35759372/EPIPHANIUS_OF_SALAMIS_Doctor_of_Iconoclasm.

Katherine Marsengill, “Panel Paintings and Early Christian Icons,” Robin M. Jensen & Mark D. Ellison, editors, The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, London and New York, 2018.

Jeffrey Spier, “The Earliest Christian Art: From Personal Salvation to Imperial Power,” Jeffrey Spier, Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, in association with the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, 2007.

Jeffrey Spier, Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, in association with the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, 2007.

Erik Thunø, “Reliquaries and the Cult of Relics in Late Antiquity,” Robin M. Jensen & Mark D. Ellison, editors, The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, London and New York, 2018.

  • 1
    Irenaeus mentions this as well:

    [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, 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 honouring these images, after the same manner of the Gentiles.

    (Against Heresies 1.25.6 ANF)
  • 2
    From this site.
  • 3
    Stephen Bigham, Epiphanius of Salamis: Doctor of Iconoclasm? Deconstruction of a Myth
  • 4
    Stephen Bigham, Epiphanius of Salamis: Doctor of Iconoclasm? Deconstruction of a Myth
  • 5
    Katherine Marsengill, “Panel Paintings and Early Christian Icons,” Robin M. Jensen & Mark D. Ellison, editors, The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, p. 200–1
  • 6
    Ibid, 201.
  • 7
    Erik Thunø, “Reliquaries and the Cult of Relics in Late Antiquity,” Robin M. Jensen & Mark D. Ellison, editors, The Routledge Handbook of Early Christian Art, p. 150
  • 8
    Ibid., 154
  • 9
    Jeffrey Spier, “The Earliest Christian Art: From Personal Salvation to Imperial Power,” Jeffrey Spier, Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art, 13
  • 10
    Thunø, “Reliquaries,” 152
  • 11
    Ibid., 152
  • 12
    From this site.

2 thoughts on “Did Saints Like John Chrysostom Venerate Icons? How Did It Arise?”

  1. Lynn,
    If John Chrysostom says in his comments on Psalm 3 that images are created to honour the person doesn’t that mean that Christians who make images are honouring those people. Honouring is just a synonym for venerating.

    1. True. But there are different kinds of honor and veneration. What’s important to ask is
      – Did they honor the person by means of giving honor to their images?
      – Did they honor the images by bowing to them, kissing them, or praying to the person through them?
      That’s the specific kind of honor/veneration in question here.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *