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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Alexander Schmemann

4. Byzantium (22 pages)













From Schmemann's A History of the Orthodox Church
Page 2

Background of Iconoclasm.

For the Church this period opens with a new disturbance, one that has branded the names of the Isaurian emperors in its memory forever. This was iconoclasm, cause of a prolonged struggle lasting almost half a century. There has been much scholarly dispute as to its origins.
Some have seen in it the influence of the Mohammedan East, with its ban on human images, and an attempt at a certain psychological compromise with Islam; others, the first revolt against the Church of a secular culture inspired by the emperors, and a struggle for the liberation of art from the Church; while a third group has detected a new outburst of the perennial Hellenic “spiritualism,” for which the veneration of icons was a manifestation in religion of the artificial and material.

At any rate, it has been customary since the tenth century to lay all responsibility for the rise and spread of heresy at the feet of the emperors. But new research shows that the dispute over icons first arose in the Church itself, and that state authority interfered in a peremptory way only later. It has also been shown that there were sufficient grounds for the dispute.

The veneration of icons has had a long and complicated history. It, too, is the fruit of men’s gradual assimilation of the Church’s faith. The early Church did not know the icon in its modern, dogmatic significance. The beginning of Christian art — the paintings of the catacombs — is of a symbolic nature. It is not the portrayal of Christ, of the saints, or of the various events of sacred history as on an icon, but the expression of certain ideas about Christ and the Church: first and foremost, the sacramental experience of baptism and the Eucharist — that is to say, the twofold Mystery through which salvation is granted to him who believes.

In art of a signitive kind it is not the interpretation of its subjects — for how they are interpreted makes no difference to its aims — but their selection and combination that are important.
It is not so much inclined to depict divinity as it is to portray the function of divinity. The Good Shepherd of the sarcophagi and the catacombs is not only not an image, he is not even a symbol of Christ; he is the visual signification of the idea that the Saviour saves, that He has come to save us, that we are saved by Him. Daniel in the lion’s den is likewise not a portrait of even the most conventional sort, but a symbol of the fact that Daniel was saved and that we have been saved like Daniel. This art cannot be called art in the real sense of the word. It neither represents nor expresses; it signifies, and it signifies that fiery core, that living sun of faith in the “mysteries” to which the martyrs and pastors of those centuries, the newly-baptized pagans, the rite of their baptism, and the enemies of the Christian Church themselves all bear witness.[19]


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