The two roots onto which Western Christendom was grafted proposed very different notions about depicting the gods. The Greeks famously made images of Athena and Zeus, always depicting them as man writ large, and were untroubled by this glaring anthropomorphism. Hebrew tradition, on the other hand, said nothing about making or worshiping images of God. It did, however, specifically forbid the making and worshiping of images of any creature on the earth, in the sky, or in the sea. (We can only presume that the images of the cherubim, which God commanded to be made, were not worshiped.) About making images of God and worshiping them, the Old Testament is silent, presumably because any attempt to depict God was bound to be inauthentic and would degenerate into idolatry. There was a kind of framed space in the Hebrew imagination that must remain empty. God’s actions might be known, but men could not see His face and live.
Then an event promised by Isaiah occurred in the little town of Bethlehem. God was with us. A portrait had been painted within the empty frame. Suddenly, we knew the face of God. We beheld the glory of Christ, the glory “as of the only begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.” Show us the Father, Philip asked, and His reply was, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Jesus Christ is, in Saint Paul’s words, “The image of the invisible God.” Dante wrote that, in the midst of the Three, he saw One who has our form.
Gnosticism, Christian Science, Islam, Freemasonry, philosophical idealism, some Protestant sects (to varying degrees), and the religion represented by the metaphysics shelf at Barnes & Noble are all spiritual religions. Christianity, however, is not a spiritual religion: It is an incarnational mystery. When Saint Paul spoke of the Holy Spirit, he was speaking not of some intellectually vaporous principle but of an order of glory more real than the hardest diamond in Creation.
Today, Anglo-Saxons, American or British, tend to read Scripture and tradition with the eyes of iconoclasts because our respective histories were formed by iconoclasts who quite naturally encouraged such a reading; the Church, however, was rich with images as soon as She had walls on which to paint them. Some of the images in the catacombs antedate Constantine, and the earliest surviving Christian image was made when a prince of the Constantinian house still ruled in the imperial city. (I refer to the image of Christ enthroned among the Apostles in the New Jerusalem, the four living animals hovering on the cerulean sky, depicted in the great mosaic in Santa Pudenziana at the foot of the Esquiline Hill, which, arguably, can be dated to the 390’s.) After that, there was a rich outpouring of images, evident now especially in Rome, the city that best maintains continuity with the fourth century. Most Christian images were iconic renderings of texts of Scripture, especially from Saint John’s Apocalypse. The Church desired that Her children be given images because God had become man and because we are creatures of imagination, immersed in the very flesh and the very history that Christ came to redeem.
In the penumbra of the apparent triumph of the Crescent, Christian image-making rested on the fact that the Word of God, having taken human flesh, became man: not that God revealed Himself to be man, or that Jesus represented the divine in human life (a distinctly modern proposition), but that God took man-kind to Himself as man—one Person, perfectly possessing both a divine and a human nature.
The Incarnation changed human history. Until the 16th century, time would be noted anno salutis humanae, “the year of the salvation of the human race.” The Roman Empire was the greatest effort mankind could make, but it was ultimately futile, possessing the sadness that belongs to an order thought to be permanent and victorious but which, in reality, is always collapsing. Suddenly, across this chaos, there was joy in the world, as though Creation had been transposed into another, happier key. At the center of this happiness was the presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the face of Christ on the apse.
Naturally, such a doctrine would be resisted as “a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.” The Jews had become convinced that the empty frame at the top of Creation could never be filled with the face of God; to insist otherwise derogated God’s transcendent glory. That Jesus made Himself the Son of God was an outrage deserving death. For philosophic Greeks, the God of the philosophers and the gods of religion could hardly become a Jewish prophet and teacher. The divine idea might be represented by an image, but that image was not the original. For the Platonic and Gnostic side of Greek thought, the eternal God could not take on flesh, since, by definition, the realm of fleshliness was the realm of change and shadows.
The history of the Church is the history of an heroic defense of the Incarnation, beginning at Nicea (325), where the Arian idea that Jesus was merely like the father was defeated by the great word homoousion—“of one substance” with the Father. The same anti-incarnational idea was present in Nestorius, who was convinced that God could not be born of a woman; and it was evident in its purest form in the great iconoclastic controversy of the eighth and ninth centuries, brought on, in part, by the advent of Islam. In 686, Calif Yazid ordered that all crosses in Egypt be destroyed and that church doors bear the following inscription: “Mohamet is the great apostle of God, but Jesus also is the apostle of God. But truly God is not begotten and does not beget.” This rejection of the Trinity and the Incarnation is the foundation of the Muslim hatred of images.
The question then arises: How could the last of the anti-incarnational heresies almost take Eastern Christendom by storm? While the Eastern army did admire the monotheistic fervor of its Muslim enemies and the internecine quarrels between Monophysites and Catholics did weaken the empire, I propose that the true cause of the temporary triumph of iconoclasm was the secularization of the Church. When Christian nerve fails, the Church is secularized, and the denial of the Incarnation and the associated rejection of images follows. The rulers of this world, unless they are pious children of the Church, hate the Incarnation, its precision, its particularity, and its power—as well as all the refracted doctrines that surround and confirm it: the Real Presence, images, relics. Some Christian doctrines seem less important than others, but the denial of any amounts to the denial of all. We might think that the scriptural practice of the use of second-class relics—for example, taking handkerchiefs that had been in the possession of the Apostles and using them as a means to restore health (Acts 19:12)—is unimportant. But the principle that it enshrines—that holiness is mediately incarnate in the world and in things—if denied, brings down the entire house of Christian dogma. Similarly, the lawful and salutary use of images is not as important as the fact of the Incarnation; but to deny the lawfulness and, indeed, the necessity of images is to deny the Incarnation.
There have been three great outbreaks of iconoclasm in the Mediterranean world and its dependencies—in the eighth, 16th, and 20th centuries. Each was a cluster of ideas and events in which the destruction of images of Christ and the saints was accompanied by the secularization of the Catholic Faith; its subordination to the prince, the civil authority, or the culture; the suppression of the Mass (on at least two occasions); and, always, the abandonment of traditional liturgical order and space. The first iconoclasm involved the persecution of a pope and the deaths of monks, faithful, and a patriarch on behalf of an imperial religious policy inspired, at least in part, by a desire to make the state religion less odious to Jews and Muslims. Images were whitewashed and plastered over, and the central axis, which connects Baptism at the church door with the altar of God, was suppressed; that pattern was subordinated beneath the great dome that represents a religion not of pilgrimage, path, and history but of mere presence. The second iconoclasm saw the subordination of the Church to the English monarch and the German nobility; the suppression of the Mass; the rejection of the Real Presence by a spiritual religion of commercial virtue; and the destruction of altars, windows, and statues. The third iconoclasm, still at work today, is a half-conscious attempt at subordinating the Catholic Faith to the popular culture, which involves the destruction of the liturgical path in favor of surreal and “challenging” spatial arrangements born of an art hatched outside the Church. It replaces the Faith of the Church with a faux humanitarian religion of banal affect and traditional images with vulgar banners and an iconography of Christ-as-ascending-ghost that betrays its Gnostic origins.
There is one thing new about the current iconoclasm. The older iconoclasm dwelt on the impossibility of the Incarnation; the modern iconoclasm dwells on the scandal of particularity. In the older iconoclasm, nothing in the created order could be divine; in the new iconoclasm, born of the marriage between the Hegelian Weltgeist and idealism, everything and everyone is divine. If you are a Catholic, you are the one present in the tabernacle—a thesis certain to issue in profound atheism, since we all know better. This new iconoclasm is the theology of Calif Yazid in different garb; everything is divine, everything is spiritual, and God is nowhere to be found. In the Christian account, God chose one man of faith from distant Haran; one troublesome people, who were great because God loved them; one woman who would say, “Be it done unto me according to thy word.” God became man at one time and in one place; the God-Man chose one apostle to shepherd the Church; and Christ chose to be present personally in one rite. He chose to save through water and specific words, not through ideas; He left a moral regime in which one thought may damn and one sorrow save.
There is good news. History suggests that the despair of iconoclasm, when Christian civilization attacks its images and despises the Incarnation, may be a prelude to better days. The first iconoclasm was followed by the conversion of the North, the triumph of Orthodoxy in the East, and the apotheosis of Catholic thought that linked Anselm to Aquinas. The second was followed by the Council of Trent and the martyrdoms that made Roman Catholicism a missionary faith, triumphant from the Spanish New World to Oceana. Like the earlier ones, the present iconoclasm is sponsored within the Church on behalf of the culture. Like the others, it is militant, virulent, dominant in a failed ecclesiastical bureaucracy, and opposed only by Rome. Its victims are not monks, popes, and patriarchs but little children. There is no despair, no self-hatred greater than that which attacks not only the crucifix and the Sacred Heart but the image of man in a little child. Like its two predecessors, however, this third iconoclasm may presage a gathering together of the indefeasible strength of the Incarnation to renew once more the face of the earth.