Today (December 4) is the Feast Day of Saint John of Damascus. Also the Great Martyr Barbara. But John of Damascus is one of my personal heroes, so I’m going to write about him today. I’ll be quoting some from his book, On the Divine Images: Three Apologies Against Those Who Attack the Divine Images.
First I should introduce Saint John: (and I've included a few icons of him) he lived in the 8th century, in Damascus, Syria. He excelled in school, especially in music and theology. So well, in fact, he became counselor to the caliph.
The Emperor Leo the Armenian was an iconoclast—one who fought against the holy icons. John wrote letters explaining the place of the icons, and against the emperor. He was so effective that the emperor had someone copy his handwriting and send a letter as though from John to the Byzantine emperor, offering to overthrow the caliph. When the caliph found out, he had John thrown in prison and his right hand cut off. John placed his own hand in front of an icon of the Mother of God and prayed to her for healing. She miraculously put his hand back on his arm. When the caliph saw the miracle, he repented and freed John, who had a replica of his hand made of silver and fastened it to the icon in gratitude. The icon is known as the Mother of God “of Three Hands.”
You can read a longer version of his life here. He went on to write beautiful poems and hymns for the Orthodox Church, and also his treatises on the holy images and their place in the worship of the Church.
I love that St. John’s feast day is during the Nativity Fast… while we are preparing to celebrate the Incarnation, because the Incarnation is the reason that icons can be made and used in our worship. As St. John says:
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.... It is obvious that when you contemplate God becoming man, then you may depict Him clothed in human form. When the invisible One becomes visible to flesh, you may then draw His likeness….Depict His wonderful condescension, His birth from the Virgin, His baptism in the Jordan, His transfiguration on Tabor, His sufferings which have freed us from passion, His death, His miracles which are signs of His divine nature, sine through divine power He worked them in the flesh. Show His saving cross, the tomb, the resurrection, the ascension into the heavens.
We don’t worship these images. We venerate them… showing homage to the ones they represent. As he says:
I make an image of the God whom I see. 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…. Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable.
I was a writer before I became an iconographer. I think I was drawn to iconography, in fact, because it is truly writing the life of the saint (or of Christ or the Mother of God, etc.) with paint. Again, from On the Divine Images:
We use all our senses to produce worthy images of Him, and we sanctify the noblest of all the senses, which is that of sight. For just as words edify the ear, so also the image stimulates the eye. What the book is to the literate, the image is to the illiterate. Just as words speak to the ear, so the image speaks to the sight; it brings understanding.
And one more:
Suppose I have few books, or little leisure for reading, but walk into the spiritual hospital—that is to say, a church—with my soul choking from the prickles of thorny thoughts, and thus afflicted I see before me the brilliance of the icon. I am refreshed as if in a verdant meadow, and thus my soul is led to glorify God. I marvel at the martyr’s endurance, at the crown he won, and inflamed with burning zeal I fall down to worship God through His martyr, and so receive salvation.
And so receive salvation. Through icons. Maybe Dostoyevsky was on to something when he said “Beauty will save the world.” Maybe icons will save the world. Painting them is certainly a big part of my salvation. I'm making progress, by the way... on the ones I had abandoned. Some details on the Mother of God's face and hand... but none of the face of Christ yet. Maybe the Feast Day of St. John of Damascus, champion of the Holy Images, would be a good time to paint icons....