Friday, July 29, 2011

St. Gregory Palamas on the Graven Images

"You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God" (Ex 20:4-5a).

God's forbidding of graven images is a part of the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) that I do not hear mentioned often among Catholics. Since the Decalogue does not have a strict division in the Scriptures themselves, there are multiple ways to divide them. The division commonly used by the Orthodox and most Protestants lists "I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before Me" and "You shall not make for yourself a graven image" as two separate commandments, while combining "You shall not covet your neighbor's goods" and "You shall not covet your neighbor's wife" into one commandment. The division commonly used by Catholics and many Lutherans, however, combines the first pair into one, while separating the second pair.

I have heard this text used sometimes to decry Catholics' extensive use of sacred art and statuary and the Eastern Church's (both Orthodox and Eastern Catholic) use of icons, especially the veneration thereof. However, the history of Christian sacred art shows that a lack of holy images has not been the prevailing idea (despite the iconoclasm of the 8th century, the Beeldenstorm/Bildersturm of the 16th century, and, to a lesser extent, the decrease in sacred art in churches post-Vatican II). The point of this post is to share an explanation of this text that also leads to a positive light on sacred art.

St. Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) is an Orthodox saint who is also recognized as a saint and venerated among Eastern Catholics. Though his Triads are probably his most famous work, a few of his other works are included in Volume Four of the Philokalia. One of these is entitled A New Testament Decalogue, a moral primer that expounds on the Decalogue (the Orthodox/Protestant division) while expanding on it with New Testament ideas. His discussion of the second commandment, "You shall not make for yourself a graven image," leads to a summary of the idea of sacred art, particularly icons (or ikons, the more precisely-transliterated form of the word).

St. Gregory begins by adding a clarifying addendum to the commandment: "in such a way that you worship these things and glorify them as gods." All things in heaven, on earth, and in the sea, are creations of the one God: they are not gods themselves. This is the common way this commandment has been interpreted: it is not a command against all art. Rather, this commandment is a command against idolatry, as the line following it attests: "For I the Lord your God am a jealous God" (Ex 20:5a).

The following discussion is what I see to be the real fruit of St. Gregory's work: he turns this negative commandment into a positive one, writing:

"Out of love for Him you should make, therefore, an ikon of Him who became man for our sakes, and through His ikon you should bring Him to mind and worship Him."

The fact that the Son of God took on flesh for our sakes is one of the key arguments for the creation of icons. Deuteronomy 4, in its explanation of this commandment, begins with the argument that images are prohibited because "you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb" (Dt 4:15); since God did take on form in Christ, this argument is not valid for arguing against icons of Christ. As St. John Damascene wrote:

"In olden days, God who was without body or physical form, was not depicted at all. But now, since God has appeared in the flesh and has interacted with man, I am able to depict the visible aspect of God."

One iconoclast argument is that Christians worship icons as if they are gods, but that is not the case. The following two quotes, from St. John Damascene and the Second Council of Nicea, respectively, show this:

"I do not worship matter, I only worship the Creator of matter, him who for my sake became matter himself, and took it upon himself to dwell in matter, and who by means of matter brought about my salvation."

"He who venerates the icon, therefore, venerates in it the person of the one so depicted."

I've gotten somewhat off-topic, so let's return to St. Gregory Palamas. After stating how one should make an icon of Christ, he encourages making icons of saints and venerating them "not as gods...but because of the attachment, inner affection, and sense of surpassing honour that you feel for the saints." He claims that even Moses did not refrain from doing this, for he describes the cherubim Moses made for the Holy of Holies (cf. Ex 25:18-20) as icons. St. Gregory then, in his own way, states the principle quoted from the Second Council of Nicea earlier in the post:

"You must not, then, deify the ikons of Christ and of the saints, but through them you should venerate Him who originally created us in His own image, and who subsequently consented in His ineffable compassion to assume the human image and to be circumscribed by it."

St. Gregory goes on to state that one should venerate representations of the Cross, "Christ's great sign and trophy of victory over the devil and all his hostile hosts":

"So glorify the cross now, so that you may boldly look upon it [at the Last Judgment] and be glorified with it."

He once again encourages veneration of icons of the saints, and also of shrines and relics, "for God's grace is not sundered from these things." Among all this, St. Gregory declares a worthy preamble to icon veneration as well: making the sign of the cross upon ourselves. This is the custom of Eastern Catholics, who, when they come before icons, make a deep reverent bow and cross themselves before kissing them (the typical method of icon veneration). At the end, St. Gregory puts forth a final reason for venerating icons, shrines, and relics of saints, similar to the one mentioned above for the cross:

"By doing this and by glorifying those who glorified too will be glorified together with them by God, and with David you will chant: 'I have held Thy friends in high honour, O Lord' (Ps 139:17 LXX)."

To summarize all this (which I realize may not be the most coherent): St. Gregory Palamas states the commandment against graven images is really a statement against glorifying these images as gods. Instead, he encourages the creation of images (icons) that will be venerated in order to draw our intellects closer to God, through veneration of Him, His saints, and His cross. In this way we will glorify and worship the Lord, be glorified with His saints, and be glorified with His cross.

I hope this post is helpful, and once again, I apologize for the lack of great organization found in it. God bless!

St. Gregory Palamas, pray for us!

Nota Bene: St. Gregory Palamas' quotes are taken from A New Testament Decalogue, found in Volume IV of the Philokalia, translated by G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware. Quotes from St. John Damascene and the Second Council of Nicea are from Part Two, Chapter Two of Cardinal Christoph Schönborn's God's Human Face: The Christ-Icon, translated by Lothar Krauth.

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