I already discussed the defense of icon veneration in my post on a writing by St. Gregory Palamas, who succinctly summarized the arguments of icon defenders against iconoclasts. I just wished to add a few more thoughts on this topic taken from two of the true victors against the iconoclasts: St. Theodore the Studite, with his Refutation of the Iconoclasts, and St. John of Damascus, with his Apology Against Those Who Attack the Divine Images.
One of the very common arguments make against icon veneration is that through it we "worship the creature rather than the Creator," "bestowing on objects of stone or wood the name that ought not to be shared," "appealing for health to a thing that is weak, praying for life to a thing that is dead" (cf. Rom 1:25, Wis 14:21, 13:18). Iconoclasts accuse us of praying to idols made with our own hands, praying to the material itself, believing the icon itself to be a god. That is not the way of the faithful, though. St. Theodore explains it well:
"So whether in an image, or in the Gospel, or in the cross, or in any other consecrated object, God is evidently worshipped 'in spirit and in truth,' as the materials are exalted by the raising of the mind toward God. The mind does not remain with the materials, because it does not trust in them: that is the error of the idolators. Through the materials, rather, the mind ascends toward the prototypes: this is the faith of the orthodox" (1.13).
We use icons to lead our minds to Heaven: through veneration of an icon, we venerate him or her of whom the icon is an image. Hear St. Theodore again, as he once again refutes the iconoclasts on this point:
"It is not the essence of the image which we venerate, but the form of the prototype which is stamped upon it, since the essence of the image is not venerable. Neither is it the material which is venerated, but the prototype is venerated together with the form and not the essence of the image. But if the image is venerated, it has one veneration with the prototype, just as they have the same likeness. Therefore, when we venerate the image, we do not introduce another kind of veneration different from the veneration of the prototype" (3.C.2).
The material the icon is made of is not what we venerate. Obviously, if we were venerating mere gold, wood, and paint for their own sakes, we would be idolaters. But we do not venerate the material: we venerate that which the material portrays, the person who is portrayed there (i.e. the "prototype"). Through venerating an icon of Christ, we venerate Christ: through venerating an icon of the Theotokos, we venerate the Theotokos. We do not venerate the icon of such: we venerate the prototype of the image through the medium of the icon.
[Allow me to digress for just a moment. I have been using the term "venerate," because it is the most general term to use when discussing icons. However, it has a specific use here. When the Church Fathers were defending the cult of the saints (by "cult" I mean veneration, not a religious group like Jim Jones' People's Temple), they created a distinction that is still in use today. Those attacking the cult of the saints claim we worship the saints. However, that is not true. The term "worship" (in Greek, λατρεια, latreia; in Latin, latria) is used specifically for the honor due to God; the term "veneration" (in Greek, δoυλeια, douleia; in Latin, dulia) is used for the honor we give to the saints. (Then there is also ὑπερδουλεια, hyperdouleia (in Latin, hyperdulia), which is the highest form of dulia, reserved for Mary alone, and προτοδουλεια, protodouleia (in Latin, protodulia), "first veneration," which is a proposed (though not accepted commonly) form of dulia specifically for St. Joseph, considered "the first among saints" (as compared to Mary, who is "higher than the saints").) In this post, since I am discussing veneration of icons of both Christ and the saints, I use the term "veneration" in general to connote both latria and dulia (along with hyperdulia as well).]
St. John of Damascus supports this idea, writing, "I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take His abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter. Never will I cease honoring the matter which wrought my salvation!" (1.16). This idea, of worshipping "the matter which wrought my salvation," can be used in many discussions, such as discussing veneration of the cross (foreshadowed in the verse, "Blessed is the wood by which righteousness comes" (Wis 14:7)). As a side note, the defenders of icons often questioned iconoclasts as to why they denied veneration of icons, yet allowed veneration of the cross.
Another issue with the iconoclasts was how God can be portrayed in an image. After all, God is imageless: "Then the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire; you hear the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice" (Dt 4:12). How then, can a God with "no form" be portrayed in an image? St. John agrees with their logic, at least in part: "For if it is impossible to make a representation of a spirit, how much more impossible is it to depict the God who gives life to the spirit?" (1.4). However, Christian revelation offers an answer.
Christ was not an imageless being, an imageless God. God the Son became incarnate: "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (Jn 1:14). The word used in the Greek is σάρξ, which literally means "flesh," relating to the "carnal" part of human nature. God the Son literally took on a human body, and a human body has a form; thus, we can make an image of Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate. As St. Theodore wrote, "No one could say Christ is imageless, if indeed He has a body with its characteristic form" (3.D.2). St. John defends icons of Christ powerfully in this passage:
"Therefore I boldly draw an image of the invisible God, not as invisible, but as having become visible for our sakes by partaking of flesh and blood. I do not draw an image of the immortal Godhead, but I paint the image of God who became visible in the flesh" (1.4).
In conclusion, I addressed two major issues in relation to the veneration of icons, that is, whether the material of icons is venerated (thus becoming idolatry), and how an image can be made of the imageless God. The answer is that it is he or she whose image is on the icon that is venerated (i.e. the "prototype" of the image), and Jesus Christ, God the Son, can be venerated in an image because He took on a human body, thus giving us an image. I hope these discussions have helped you understand more the reasons behind the tradition of Christian sacred art, particularly iconography. I will end with one final quote on icons from St. John of Damascus:
"The icon is a hymn of triumph, a manifestation, a memorial inscribed for those who have fought and conquered, humbling the demons and putting them to flight" (2.11).
I hope this post was helpful. God Bless!
St. Theodore the Studite, pray for us!
St. John of Damascus, pray for us!
Nota Bene: The quotes are taken from St. Vladimir's Seminary Press' Popular Patristics Series, On the Holy Icons by St. Theodore the Studite and Three Treatises on the Divine Images by St. John of Damascus. In the beginning of the post, I mentioned the names of the works themselves, and all references are to those works, as included in these volumes.