Did John Chrysostom Venerate Icons? Athanasius? Basil?

In my last post, I made a strong case to show that the veneration of icons is an innovation and was not an apostolic practice. I showed that, in the pre-Nicene era, iconodulia was not considered a legitimate Christian practice. However, iconodulia didn’t immediately appear even in the era of the councils. The writings of John Chrysostom attest to this.

Of course, John Chrysostom isn’t evidence of what the pre-conciliar church believed, but he wrote not long after Nicaea, and he is a well-loved saint in the Orthodox Church. If he was not familiar with Christian iconodulia, that serves to push the influx of iconodulia still later.

I’ll look at several quotations from John’s work that show that he, too, is a witness to the lack of iconodulia in the church. Then I’ll examine some quotes which are used to claim that he was in support of iconodulia.

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 shows 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)

John Chrysostom Supported 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!

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.


Thus I conclude that John Chrysostom knew nothing of Christian 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 Orthodox was familiar with.

Some Other Favorite Saints

As a bonus, I’m including a few quotes from other writers during the early part of the era of the councils. These are quotes from well-loved saints within the Orthodox tradition, mostly quotes which are used in support of iconodulia. Do they support it? Let’s use the methods I used for John Chrysostom to see.

Note: For some of these, I have quoted longer passages than are typically quoted by the Eastern Orthodox. That’s so that you can see the context within which the quote appears. What they don’t tend to quote, I have put 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 icons. 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 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)

Notice that Athanasius condemns veneration of images of humans. He argues that veneration of images is a direct path to idolatry. He calls icons of kings “graven images” even at the stage where the kings were not yet considered gods. This is of course in context of pagan idolatry; after all, there is no evidence that Christians venerated images at all at this time. Furthermore, if the veneration of icons had been a legitimate Christian practice, the pagans could have accused Christians of condemning paganism for a practice that the Christians did too. Athanasius, had he been aware of Christian veneration of icons, would hardly have laid himself open to such a criticism from the pagans.

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 the Great

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 icons. 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 icons. 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 icons. 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).

A “Theology of Iconodulia”?

Sometimes, Orthodox apologists use these quotes to argue, not as direct evidence that the early Christians venerated icons, but as indirect evidence. These quotes, they say, show that the early Christians understood the concept that honor shown to an image is honor shown to the person depicted in the image. To them, this seems to be an evidence that Christians used icons, since they had a theology that was compatible with iconodulia.

This seems sketchy to me. Christians always knew that pagans intended their veneration of images to be veneration of the gods or people depicted in the images. They just didn’t do that themselves.

As I showed in quotes from the pre-Nicene Christians, the very earliest Christians, for nearly three centuries, did not actually believe that honor given to a sacred image passed on to the person depicted in the image. They derided that as an uneducated and superstitious idea that the pagans and heretics believed.

The quotes in this post, however, do show that later Christians, at least after Athanasius, were more comfortable with the idea of honor passing through an image. However, 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.

So I conclude that the Orthodox are probably right to point to these quotes as being significant. However, I suggest that they are significant in that they show a development in the theology of the church from the pre-Nicene era to the early conciliar era.


I assume that the proponents of iconodulia would put forward the best quotes they could find in support of their views. However, these quotes from the early conciliar era provide no evidence for the veneration of icons. These quotes actually suggest the opposite, since the highest images that these fathers can think of are secular images, and since Athanasius roundly condemns the veneration of images. Thus, we have been given no reason to believe that the favorite saints of Eastern Orthodoxy ever accepted iconodulia.

But if the pre-Nicene Christians and such saints as Athanasius, Basil, and Chrysostom knew nothing of the Christian veneration of icons, at least in the sense of bowing to them, kissing them, and praying through them. We don’t have any evidence that it was a legitimate Christian practice in their day. The first incident that even resembles iconodulia, as I quoted above, occurred at Meletius’s death in AD 381, about three and a half centuries after the founding of the church. This is after Athanasius and Basil the Great had both died.

My quotes from John Chrysostom come from Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Series I, Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Other quotes are linked from their sources.

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