Things That Make You Go, Hhmmm…

“The absurdity of the whole situation is clear: the Seventh Ecumenical Council forbids the adoration of icons, and the Council of Frankfurt is indignant because it decrees such adoration. But what is most absurd is that the legates of the same Pope Hadrian I, who had signed the decisions of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, also signed the decisions of the Council of Frankfurt.”

Leonid Ouspensky, The Theology of the Icon, Vol. 1, 143.


  1. John,

    I agree, but what is interesting is that the Roman legates signed both. What ratification if any of both was there? I know Rome held off on confirming 2nd nicea for some time, much to Theodore the Studite’s displeasure.

  2. I believe the Franks had their eye on acquiring the title of “Roman Emperor”, and to do that they had to discredit the acknowledged holder of that title, the emperor residing in Constantinople. They had a few shots at this endeavour. The icon controversy failed, but they seem to have had a success in the filioque which they were instrumental in promoting.

  3. Chris,

    Welcome. There are a number of reasons. Icons are not intended to depict the natural world or the world in its fallen state, but the ideal world. This is why martyrs are depicted with the instruments of their death, for in their death, they were perfected. “Byzantine” style are therefore more idealistic, rather than naturalistic. Another reason is a hedge against idolatry. Few if any statues are present in Orthodox churches. Some are present on the Kuvuklion, which represents the Ark of the Cov as well as the Tomb of Christ, but these are of angels on the top of it. Another reason is because Icons portray the ideal world they are meant to draw the person into the heavenly life.

    In the other direction, there are limitations on how Christ can be portrayed. For example, it is not permitted to portray Christ as a Lamb. The reason for this was that some of the iconoclasts distinguished between the resurrection of the body and that of the flesh. They affirmed the former but tended to deny the latter. Consequently Christ as the Lamb and other symbols either as Christ or some other figure implied that matter was “worthless” and “lifeless” and therefore not capable of bearing God.

  4. If anything, Byzantine-style iconography looks to me even MORE ‘robust’ than, say, da Vinci’s Last Supper, or Michelangelo’s portrait of God creating Adam in the Sistine Chapel.

  5. It is not so much a question of ‘robust’ as a preference for a non-naturalistic representation. I am not even certain what robust might mean; there certainly can be something extremely powerful in traditional icongraphy. The critique of ‘western influences’ in some Orthodox iconography hinges precisely on the issue of naturalism. If the icon is to be an image of the invisible, of spiritual and transfigured reality, it needs to use techniques that express this ‘otherworldly’ quality.

  6. Chris,

    “Disdain” is probably too passionate. Some Orthodox Churches display more western type icons, particularly in Moscow. For explanations of why your other questions are answered in the affirmative:

    “We do not have to be experts in art to tell at a glance that the art of the icon is radically different from any other art form. It has neither the realism of classical Greek and Roman art nor the mystical feeling for the “Great All,” which is so characteristic of Chinese art. It is neither concrete nor abstract. It is neither western nor eastern. In fact, it is both at once. The Byzantine art form which is expressed in an icon seeks to portray the Invisible made visible. The abstract of the East and the concrete of the West meet in the Person of Jesus Christ, God made flesh.

    An icon seeks to make visible the borderline between heaven and earth. Its subject matter may be “in” this world but not “of” this world. Thus the picture becomes a sort of window into heaven. For this reason a true icon always has a rather flat appearance. There is no depth to the picture, and that is just what disturbs us about it at first glance. The picture seems primitive. A closer study reveals, however, that the picture is often exceedingly complex. The flatness, for example, is sometimes achieved by drawing perspective in reverse. The artist expects us not to look at his picture, but through it.”


    more on reverse perspective at

  7. Greetings.

    Do the Orthodox generally disdain more “robust” images of Christ, et al.? That is to ask: Do the Orthodox prefer, for theological reasons, the flattened, “unrealistic” iconography over against western-style paintings and even sculpture in the context of worship?

  8. Charlie,
    Why would you feel the need to affirm that Christ is one person in the context of a discussion about icons? If Christ’s personal presence in an icon entails a second person, then it would be a person other than Christ. To say Christ is personally present is to assume it is the presence of the same one person. Or maybe I missed your point?

  9. Charlie,

    I am a Western Christian of Jewish background, so I have an inbred bias against usage of pictures in worship.

    I cannot help but think that perhaps your Jewish background inculcated ‘an inbred bias against’ the Incarnation, not images per se — Christ being the ‘stumbling block’ to the Jews. As Fr Patrick and others before him have said, the justification for images is the Incarnation. This is not to say that you do not theoretically believe in the Incarnation — you obviously do, as stated above. But the Jewish ‘baggage’ seems still be operative in your thinking, thus nullifying the implications (e.g. the sacraments and icons) of the Incarnation.

  10. Fr. Patrick: Thanks for your response. For the record, our Lord is one Person, incarnate in human flesh “God was manifest in the flesh” as Saint Paul writes “I Timothy 3:16”. It seems that the icon is “Sacramentalized”; “the person is present, but not the essence.” I am a Western Christian of Jewish background, so I have an inbred bias against usage of pictures in worship. Thank you for the recommendation of St Theodore the Studite. There is a definite difference of paradigm here. Charlie

  11. Charlie,

    The theology of the icon is that reverence or veneration of the icon is such an act to the person represented in the icon, as if they were actually present. The icon is an image of the person, who is understood to be present as person but not as essence in the icon. To insult an icon of Christ is to insult Christ Himself as a person. The icon material though is not Christ in essence but rather a piece of wood, or other material, with paint.

    Your comment needs clarifying whether you mean person or nature. I think you really mean the latter but speak in the language of the former, which implies that you are not making the distinction between person and nature that is essential to understand the icon. The lack of this distinction is why people reject icons thinking them as idols that are Christ or a Saint in nature. Read St Theodore the Studite to get a better understanding of this.

  12. Charlie,
    How can this one reformer, of which you speak, tell us what we are thinking when we venerate an icon? How can he know whether or not WE make the distinction and then decree that the distinction makes no difference in our minds?

    For example; if a soldier renders a salute to the flag…. how is it that he can make the distinction between patriotic respect and worship of an object (the flag)…. yet some reformer doesn’t allow the possibility that we can make the very same such distinctions when it comes to personal religious devotion?

  13. Perry Robinson,

    Perhaps it was a matter of translation. Fr. Romanides saw it as part of a certain Frankish plan to alienate the West from the East Romans:

    “…there is strong evidence that the cause of the Filioque controversy is to be found in the Frankish decision to provoke the condemnation of the East Romans as heretics so that the latter might become exclusively “Greeks” and, therefore, a different nation from the West Romans under Frankish rule. The pretext of the Filioque controversy was the Frankish acceptance of Augustine as the key to understanding the theology of the First and Second Ecumenical Synods. That this distinction between cause and pretext is correct seems adequately clear in the policy manifested at the Synod of Frankfurt in 794 which condemned both sides of the iconoclastic controversy so that the East Romans would end up as heretics no matter who prevailed.”

  14. To all: There seems to be a danger here of losing the fine distinction. One of the Reformers conjectured that this was a distinction without a difference. It should be clear that an Icon of Christ or His Mother (the Theotokos) are not the Persons pictured.

  15. ioannis,

    I believe the Franks suffered from a mistranslation that conflated veneration with adoration. Conceptually they tended to confuse the two which didn’t help matters.

  16. The Council of Frankfurt decreed against the veneration (not adoration) of icons claiming that icons were only to be used as decoration or as a means for teaching the illiterate. The papal legates were forced to sign the decrees.

  17. Hello Perry Robinson and all,

    I would like to thank you all for your comments and responses about the issue I raised in one of the previous posts and thank also Tap for his support 🙂 (although we disagree on the IC doctrine). I really thought about them but I still can not agree that the Orthodox Church’s position holds that Christ was bearing the moral consequences of the original sin. I was meant to give some more detailed answers (although delayed) but I saw that we can not comment anymore on it and perhaps there is no point in doing it after all that time that passed. Maybe we will have the chance in the future to talk about it again.

    I know that it is my fault that I did not respond earlier but I really needed to take my time and think more about the whole issue. I apologise for leaving the questions and the arguments unanswered.

    PS: Sorry for posting this irrelevant comment here but I wanted somehow to make it known to all those who took part in the discussion that I read all the comments and pondered over them.

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