For those who consider icons of God the Father verboten

Source: The Icon of the Divine Heart of God the Father: Apologia and Canon – Chapter 3 – Critical Review

As previously shown, icons of God the Father were originally depicted based on the prophetic theophanies of Daniel (7:9-15), Ezekiel (1:26-28, 8:1-5), Isaiah (6:1-5), and Moses (Ex 24:9-11, Nb 12:6-8). Such icons were both symbolic as well as Biblical and traditional, according to (St) Pavel Florensky’s (1996) typology of icons. God the Father was also commonly depicted according to the various manifestations of His divine energies (energeia) to Elijah (1 Kgs 19:9-13), Ezekiel (10:1-5), and Moses (Dt 5:25-27, Ex 3:2-6, 19:9-25, 24:16-18).

The practice of depicting the Father on venerable icons was legitimate in the early universal Church, both through its common use by the people (laypersons and iconographers alike) and its accepted use by the ecclesiastical hierarchy. However, after the two iconoclastic persecutions of the seventh and eighth centuries, persecutions derived from the rationalistic conflation of images with idols (Bingham, 1995; Fortescue, 1910; Ouspensky, 1992), and the last Ecumenical Council of the undivided, universal Church (Nicaea II; Second Council of Nicaea, 787/1969; The Seventh General Council, 787/2007), strong differences emerged both among members of the hierarchy and the people themselves, in relation to depicting God the Father iconographically. Such differences persist to this day.

Specifically, insofar as both the Quinisext Council (Council in Trullo, 692/1969) and Nicaea II (Second Council of Nicaea, 787/1969, The Seventh General Council, 787/2007) were concerned, neither of them either implicitly or explicitly forbade depictions of God the Father, in terms of His energies (energeia) rather than His essence (ousia; Basil the Great, P.G., XXXII; P.G., XXIX; P.G., LXXV; Dionysus the Aeropagite, P.G., III; Gregory of Nyssa, P.G., XLIV; Gregory Palamas, 69, P.G. CL; P.G. CL; Lossky, 1944/1997; Symeon the New Theologian, Hom. LXXIX). In fact, in Quinisext no mention was made of icons of the Father, whereas in Nicaea II it was decreed that holy images should indeed be widespread, to arouse affection, remembrance, and proskynesis for their prototypes in the people (Second Council of Nicaea, 787/1969, The Seventh General Council, 787/2007). Icons per se were defined as signs pointing toward the divine hypostases, not the divine essence. Hence, despite the attempts of certain authors (e.g., Bingham, 1995; Ouspensky, 1992) to forcefully and speculatively interpret otherwise the proceedings of the said Councils, and especially given that Nicaea II was the last Ecumenical Council of the undivided Church, it should be noted that the decrees of Nicaea II both were and remain binding on both the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church; irrespective of personal-religious bias. The decrees of any Councils held after Nicaea II perforce cannot contradict those of Nicaea II itself in order to be considered valid, irrespective of the apostolic Church they may emanate from (i.e., Roman Catholic or Orthodox). Furthermore, since after Nicaea II the Great Schism occurred, the full subsistence of universality as understood in the early undivided Church persisted in the Roman Catholic Church, precisely because of its unbroken Petrine succession (Paul VI, 1964).

As shall be manifested, no impediments exist within the Roman Catholic Church to both depicting and worshipping God the Father on venerable icons, in terms of His energeia and proskynesis respectively. In fact, the precedent for such icons of the Father has already been established in 2004, through the enshrinement of the very first revealed (Florensky, 1996) icon of God the Father (Ravasio, 1932/1994) in the Roman Catholic Church, with the blessing of John Paul II (Armata Bianca of Our Lady, 2007-2008; D’Ascanio, 2002): specifically, in the ‘Jubilee’ Pro-Cathedral of God the Merciful Father in Zaporozhye, Ukraine (ibid.; Padewski, 1998; Roman Catholic Church of God the Merciful Father, 2011). It will similarly be manifested that no true impediments exist in the Orthodox Church itself, about depicting God the Father on venerable icons, despite persistent claims to the contrary. Thus, for the sake of greater clarity and fairness all around, the decrees of both the Council of Trent (1545-1563/1848) and the three Councils of Moscow (Acts of the Council of Moscow of 1666-1667, 1893; Anatolius, 1945; Bodianskii, 1858; Council of Moscow, 1551; The Great Council of Moscow, 1666-1667) shall be closely examined forthwith, to determine the validity of said decrees in relation to both Nicaea II and the writings of the Church Fathers, with regard to depicting God the Father on venerable icons.

The Council of Trent and Nicaea II

The Ecumenical Council of Trent (1545-1563/1848) was held by the Roman Catholic Church, to formally define the doctrines of the universal Church after the Great Schism (Fortescue, 1912). As previously stated, in Trent (1545-1563/1848) the Council members decreed that, “due honor and veneration are to be given them [sacred images], not that any divinity or virtue is believed to be in them . . . but because the honour which is shown them is referred to the prototypes which those images represent” (pp. 234-235).
Meanwhile, in the Second Council of Nicaea (Nicaea II; Second Council of Nicaea, 787/1969; The Seventh General Council, 787/2007) – that is, the last Ecumenical Council, both of and recognized by the undivided universal Church – the Council members decreed that, first, venerating icons was legitimate. Second, they declared that, “Holy images . . . be set forth in all the holy Churches of God . . . on walls and on doors, in houses and by the highways . . . For, in proportion as these are continually seen in images and pictures, so are the minds of the beholders aroused to the remembrance of and affection for their prototypes.” Third, latreia was to be reserved for God alone, whereas proskynesis could be paid to any sign representing its prototype, “For he who worships an image worships in it the person of him who is represented thereby.” Fourth, the depictions written on holy icons were, “not like the original with respect to essence, but with respect to hypostasis.”

Thus, the decree of Trent (1545-1563/1848) fully confirmed the decrees of Nicaea II (Second Council of Nicaea, 787/1969; The Seventh General Council, 787/2007), in relation to both the veneration of sacred icons and depicting God the Father iconographically; for in Nicaea II no proscriptions were ever made in the latter regard, and such lack of proscription was implicitly accepted in Trent. The decree of Trent additionally confirmed both the Nicaea II definition of icons as signs representing their prototypes, toward which proskynesis should be paid, and that icons per se are neither sacraments nor sacramentals; despite being able to serve as the latter, after being blessed by a member of the clergy.

The Stoglav Council and Nicaea II

The Stoglav Council of Moscow (1551) was the first of the three Councils of Moscow held by the Orthodox Church after the Great Schism (Fortescue, 1912), to parallel the Ecumenical Council of Trent (1545-1563/1848) of the Roman Catholic Church. As previously stated, in Stoglav, the Council members and Metropolitan-iconographer Makarii decreed that icons must adhere to established models when depicting God (Council of Moscow, 1551). They specified Rublev’s Holy Trinity icon as an example of excellence and quoted St John of Damascus as saying, ”Do not represent the divinity . . . because the Godhead is simple and indivisible, inaccessible to the eye” (in Bingham, 1995, p. 133; Ouspensky, 1992, Vol. 2, p. 294), to manifest their intent.

Meanwhile, in Nicaea II (Second Council of Nicaea, 787/1969; The Seventh General Council, 787/2007), the Council members had decreed that latreia was reserved for God alone, whereas proskynesis could be paid to any sign representing its prototype. Depictions on holy icons were decreed to be, “not like the original with respect to essence, but with respect to hypostasis.” Hence, although the decrees of Stoglav (Council of Moscow, 1551) and Nicaea II (Second Council of Nicaea, 787/1969; The Seventh General Council, 787/2007) appear on the surface to be conflicting, a factor strongly exploited by some iconographers and theologians, in an attempt to elevate neo-Patristic views above all others (sola patristica; Kalaitzidis, 2008), the decree of Stoglav is, in fact, in perfect conformity with Nicaea II, in terms of depicting God the Father iconographically.

Specifically, both Stoglav (Council of Moscow, 1551) and Nicaea II (Second Council of Nicaea, 787/1969; The Seventh General Council, 787/2007), as well as Trent (1545-1563/1848), banned all depictions of the divinity of God on sacred icons: that is, all these Councils banned depicting God the Father in terms of His ousia (Gregory Palamas, 69, P.G. CL; P.G. CL; Lossky, 1944/1997). Stoglav (Council of Moscow, 1551) explicitly banned it by attempting to quote St John of Damascus, whereas Nicaea II (Second Council of Nicaea, 787/1969; The Seventh General Council, 787/2007) implicitly banned it by defining iconographic depictions as representations not of the divine ousia. However, neither Stoglav nor Nicaea II, or Trent, banned depicting God the Father in terms of His energeia (Gregory Palamas, 69, P.G. CL; P.G. CL; Lossky, 1944/1997).

Similarly neither did St John of Damascus (c. 730, 726-730/1898), although he has often been interpreted as having done so by some clergy, iconographers and theologians; precisely due to the above quotation. First, St John never said the above-referenced words in his writings: he was literally misquoted in Stoglav. Second, a close, contextual reading of his work on images and holy icons shows that St John simply did not consider the issue of depicting the Father in terms of His energeia, because he was focused primarily on (a) Christology rather than Patriology, and (b) the divine nature rather than the divine energies.

Summarily but specifically, when addressing the physical impossibility of depicting God the Father due to His formlessness, invisibility and inability to be circumscribed, St John (c. 730, 726-730/1898) emphasized the following quotations from Scripture:

1. “You have not seen His likeness” (Dt 4:15);
2. “Being, therefore, the offspring of God, we must not suppose the divinity to be like unto gold, or silver, or stone, the graving of art, the device of man” (Acts 17:29);

3. “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him” (Jn 1:18); and

4. “No one shall ever see My face and live, saith the Lord” (Ex 33:20).

From all of the above it is clear that St John of Damascus (c. 730, 726-730/1898) was referring to the divine essence of God the Father (ousia), when he referred to prohibition, and not to His divine energies (energeia), for (a) he referred specifically to St Paul’s mention of the divinity for context, and (b) both the earlier Church Fathers and later saints had defined the visions of Daniel (7:9-15), Ezekiel (1:26-28, 8:1-5), Isaiah (6:1-5) and Moses (Ex 24:9-11, Nb 12:6-8) as theophanic (Athanasius the Great, VEP 35; Augustine of Hippo, 400-412, 401-415; Cyril of Alexandria, PG 70; Gregory Palamas, EPE 9; Hippolytus of Rome, PG 10; John Chrysostom, PG 57, EPE 8; Nicodemus the Hagiorite, 1864; Symeon of Thessalonica, Interpretation of the Sacred Symbol, p. 412). These visions had already been symbolically depicted on scriptural icons, in the early universal Church (Bingham, 1995; Florensky, 1996; Ouspensky, 1992).

In fact, if the said visions had been manifestations of the Father’s ousia rather than energia, neither Daniel nor Ezekiel, Isaiah or Moses would have lived to tell their tales for, ”No one shall ever see My face and live, saith the Lord” (Ex 33:20), as St John himself quoted. Meanwhile, in quoting the evangelist John with regard to the phrase, “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him” (Jn 1:18), St John of Damascus (c. 730, 726-730/1898) omitted to use the more explicit phrase by the evangelist Matthew, “No one knows the Son except the Father, just as no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him” (Mt 11:27). Although, according to St John Chrysostom, the last phrase again refers to the divine energeia and not the divine ousia (Lossky, 2003). Additionally, St John of Damascus (c. 730, 726-730/1898) directly referred to the nature of God when speaking about the Father, while concurrently and repeatedly addressing the issue of latreia: that is, the absolute worship reserved for God alone, which was specifically decreed in Nicaea II (Second Council of Nicaea, 787/1969; The Seventh General Council, 787/2007). Thus, throughout his work on sacred images and holy icons, St John of Damascus (c. 730, 726-730/1898) was, in fact, speaking about the issue of depicting the Father in terms of His divinity (i.e., His ousia) and not in terms of His energies (i.e., His energeia).

Meanwhile, in Stoglav (Council of Moscow, 1551) having adopted Rublev’s Trinity as an exemplar for future iconographic work, the Council provided as a baseline what can be considered to be a vicariously revealed (Florensky, 1996) icon in which God the Father is depicted, for contrary to widespread belief among the laity and professionals alike, Rublev did not simply replicate the Trinity icon already in existence, together with its standard Trinitarian interpretation (Bunge, 2007). Under the instruction of St Nikon of Radonezh, Rublev specifically proceeded to break with tradition and depicted the three, non-interchangeable, divine hypostases and their uniqueness as Persons in the icon, in honor of St Nikon’s spiritual father St Sergii, patron saint of Russia. In fact, the martyr, monk-iconographer Florensky himself regarded St Sergii as the true author of Rublev’s Trinity (Bunge, 2007; Florensky, 1996), having declared that because the latter existed, “therefore, God exists” (p. 68). Thus concretizing, through his words, the decree of Nicaea II (Second Council of Nicaea, 787/1969; The Seventh General Council, 787/2007) insofar as, “In proportion as these are continually seen in images and pictures, so are the minds of the beholders aroused to the remembrance of and affection for their prototypes” – the worship of proskynesis and not latreia. According to Pachomii the Serb, St Sergii had several theophanic visions throughout his lifetime (Bunge, 2007), having lived in full communion with the Holy Trinity (hence the Divine Light; Lossky, 1944/1997) in the same way that mankind will be dwelling in and with Them, during the era of the eighth day: that is, the eschatological era of peace (Rv 20:1-3) that is the era of theosis (Lossky, 1994/1997, 2003; Russell, 2006; Williams, 1999).

The Council of Moscow and Nicaea II

The Council of Moscow of 1553-1554 (Anatolius, 1945; Bingham, 1995; Ouspensky, 1992) was the second of the three Councils held by the Orthodox Church, after the Great Schism (Fortescue, 1912). As previously outlined, in the Council of Moscow (Anatolius, 1945; Bingham, 1995; Ouspensky, 1992) the members, once again led by St Makarii, explicitly decreed that icons of God the Father could indeed be depicted, either independently or as part of the Holy Trinity. They specified that such icons would be fully in keeping with tradition, particularly Athonite tradition, and added that, “The painters do not represent the Godhead invisible according to His essence, but they portray and represent according to the prophetic visions and the ancient Greek models.” The Council also condemned all attempts to regard icons of God the Father as ‘Latinized heresies,’ regardless of the origin of such attempts and whether the Father was depicted alone or as part of the Trinity.

Insofar as Nicaea II (Second Council of Nicaea, 787/1969; The Seventh General Council, 787/2007) was concerned, the decrees of the Council of Moscow of 1553-1554 (Anatolius, 1945; Bingham, 1995; Ouspensky, 1992) are in perfect conformity with Nicaea II, in relation to depicting God the Father on sacred icons. Moreover, the decrees of the Council of Moscow of 1553-1554 are similarly in keeping with those of both Stoglav (Council of Moscow, 1551) and Trent (1545-1563/1848), together with the work of St John of Damascus (c. 730, 726-730/1898), as previously discussed. The said conformity clearly exists, in fact, despite the strong, repeated attempts of some clergy, iconographers and theologians to interpret the proceedings of this particular Council (Anatolius, 1945; Bingham, 1995; Ouspensky, 1992) in a revisionist manner, due to their Neo-Patristic leanings in terms of sola patristica (Kalaitzidis, 2008).

The Pan-Orthodox Council of Moscow and Nicaea II

The Pan-Orthodox (Great) Council of Moscow (1666-1667; Acts of the Council of Moscow of 1666-1667, 1893) was the third of the successive three Councils held by the Orthodox Church, after the Great Schism (Fortescue, 1912). As previously stated, in the Great Council (1666-1667; Acts of the Council of Moscow of 1666-1667, 1893) the Council members explicitly decreed that, “from now on the image of the Lord Sabaoth will no longer be painted according to senseless and unsuitable imaginings, for no one has ever seen the Lord Sabaoth (that is, God the Father) in the flesh . . . To paint on icons the Lord Sabaoth with a white beard holding the only-begotten Son in His lap with a dove between them is absurd and improper, for no one has ever seen the Father in His divinity . . . This is why the Lord Sabaoth, who is the Godhead, and the engendering before all ages of the only-begotten Son of the Father must only be perceived through our mind. By no means is it proper to paint such images: it is impossible.”

In formulating their decree, the members of the Great Council (1666-1667; Acts of the Council of Moscow of 1666-1667, 1893) referenced the following quotations from Scripture:

1. “No one knows the Father except the Son” (Mt 11:27);

2. “What likeness will you find for God or what form to resemble His?” (Is 40:18); and

3. “We ought not to believe that the Godhead is the same as gold, silver, or stone shaped by human art and thought” (Acts 17:29).

Together with the words of St John of Damascus (c. 730), “Who can make an imitation of God the invisible, the incorporeal, the indescribable, and unimaginable? To make an image of the Divinity is the height of folly and impiety.”

The Great Council (1666-1667; Acts of the Council of Moscow of 1666-1667, 1893) added that, “They paint the Lord Sabaoth breathing from His mouth, and that breath reaches the womb of the Most Holy Mother of God. But who has seen this, or which passage from Holy Scripture bears witness to it? Where is this taken from? Such a practice and others like it are clearly adopted and borrowed from people whose understanding is vain, or rather whose mind is deranged or absent . . . we decree that henceforth such mistaken painting cease, for it comes from unsound knowledge. It is only in the Apocalypse of St John that the Father can be painted with white hair, for lack of any other possibility, because of the visions contained in it.”

Meanwhile, in Nicaea II (Second Council of Nicaea, 787/1969; The Seventh General Council, 787/2007), the Council members had decreed that, “Holy images . . . be set forth in all the holy Churches of God . . . on walls and on doors, in houses and by the highways . . . For, in proportion as these are continually seen in images and pictures, so are the minds of the beholders aroused to the remembrance of and affection for their prototypes.” They confirmed that latreia was reserved for God alone, whereas proskynesis could be paid to any sign, “For he who worships an image worships in it the person of him who is represented thereby.” Nicaea II had also defined icons as, “not like the original with respect to essence, but with respect to hypostasis.” Moreover, Nicaea II had condemned those who would refute the visions of Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah and Moses as theophanic; declaring that, “Eternal be the memory of those who know and accept and believe the visions of the prophets as the Divinity Himself shaped and impressed them . . . Anathema to those who do not accept the visions of the prophets and who reject the iconographies which have been seen by them, even before the Incarnation of the Word.”

Thus in its decree, the Great Council of Moscow (1666-1667; Acts of the Council of Moscow of 1666-1667, 1893), in effect, ruptured with tradition and:

1. Nicaea II (Second Council of Nicaea, 787/1969; The Seventh General Council, 787/2007);

2. Trent (1545-1563/1848);

3. Stoglav (Council of Moscow, 1551); as well as

4. The Council of Moscow of 1553-1554 (Anatolius, 1945; Bingham, 1995; Ouspensky, 1992), in relation to depicting God the Father on sacred icons. Despite referencing most of the same quotations used in both Stoglav and the second Council (i.e., 1553-1554).

Specifically, the Great Council of Moscow (1666-1667; Acts of the Council of Moscow of 1666-1667, 1893) returned to the issue of the divinity – the nature – of God the Father, and the related impossibility of circumscribing Him in His essence. However, the said Council once again:

1. Erroneously conflated the Divine ousia with the Divine energeia (Gregory Palamas, 69, P.G. CL; P.G. CL; Lossky, 1944/1997), as already discussed in the section on Stoglav. It also violated Nicaea II in multiple ways by:

2. Declaring that, “The Lord Sabaoth . . . must only be perceived through our mind.” Nicaea II had clarified once and for all that, “In proportion as these are continually seen in images and pictures, so are the minds of the beholders aroused to the remembrance of and affection for their prototypes” (Second Council of Nicaea, 787/1969; The Seventh General Council, 787/2007). A stance that has, in reality, been retained to this day in the universal (i.e., Catholic) Church, ensuring a true hermeneutic of continuity; with both John Paul II (1999) and Benedict XVI (2000) respectively addressing the issues of false rigidity in sacred art, and the false sacramentalization of icons (Bobrinskoi; 1987);

3. Failing to regard icons as, “Not like the original with respect to essence” (Second Council of Nicaea, 787/1969; The Seventh General Council, 787/2007). A fact confirmed by Theodore the Studite (1981) in his work on holy icons.

4. Refuting the visions of Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Moses as theophanic. Visions that had already been declared as such not only by Nicaea II, but also by multiple Church Fathers and saints (Athanasius the Great, VEP 35; Augustine of Hippo, 400-412, 401-415; Cyril of Alexandria, PG 70; Gregory Palamas, EPE 9; Hippolytus of Rome, PG 10; John Chrysostom, PG 57, EPE 8; Nicodemus the Hagiorite, 1864; Symeon of Thessalonica, Interpretation of the Sacred Symbol, p. 412).

Moreover, the Great Council (1666-1667; Acts of the Council of Moscow of 1666-1667, 1893) notably contradicted its decree in its very own documents, again conflating ousia with energeia in the process, by first declaring that God the Father could never be depicted, then declaring that He could be depicted – and this, with a white beard – based on the Revelation to the Apostle John. An indirect, but explicit, admission by the Great Council itself of both the validity and liceity of depicting God the Father on sacred icons, if ever one existed, in terms of His energeia and hypostasis; since the term “Father” refers precisely to the hypostasis of the Almighty and not His divinity.

Given all of the above, it is clear that the Pan-Orthodox (Great) Council of Moscow (1666-1667; Acts of the Council of Moscow of 1666-1667, 1893) was an invalid council, at least in regard to the issue of depicting God the Father iconographically because, first, no decrees issued subsequent to Nicaea II (Second Council of Nicaea, 787/1969; The Seventh General Council, 787/2007) can be considered valid when they violate the decrees of the latter, regardless of the vocal and persistent protestations of some clergy, iconographers and theologians; for Nicaea II is binding on both the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, since it was the last Ecumenical Council of the undivided, universal Church. In fact, Moss (2002) stated that decrees, “cannot be accepted as expressing the Tradition of the Church if they contradict the Seventh Ecumenical Council as well as the constant practice of the Church since Roman times” (p. 4).

Second, given that Trent (1545-1563/1848), Stoglav (Council of Moscow, 1551), and the Council of Moscow held in 1553-1554 (Anatolius, 1945; Bingham, 1995; Ouspensky, 1992) are, both in theory and in practice, in conformity with Nicaea II as previously discussed, the Great Council of Moscow (1666-1667; Acts of the Council of Moscow of 1666-1667, 1893), in both essence and fact, also violated these Councils; not to mention the declarations of the Church Fathers and saints themselves.

Third, the Great Council (1666-1667; Acts of the Council of Moscow of 1666-1667, 1893) itself never declared icons and paintings of God the Father to be specifically a heresy. Fourth, sacred paintings of the Father abound in the cathedrals of the Kremlin (Ouspensky, 1992), a place which is considered to be the very heart of Russian Orthodoxy. Fifth and last, the Great Council of Moscow (1666-1667; Acts of the Council of Moscow of 1666-1667, 1893) has long been considered by many, including Orthodox clergy and laity alike, to be a Robber Council; since the underlying, but primary, aim of its convocation was to strip the Russian Orthodox Church of her patrimony.

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2 thoughts on “For those who consider icons of God the Father verboten

  1. “The practice of depicting the Father on venerable icons was legitimate in the early universal Church, both through its common use by the people (laypersons and iconographers alike) and its accepted use by the ecclesiastical hierarchy.”

    I have frequently heard the opposite stated. Where can I see examples of such icons?

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  2. There exists a history of c. 600 years of depicting God the Almighty Father in icons and frescoes in Russian Orthodoxy, even though many theologians and iconographers who (implicitly) ascribe to sola patristica (even though they deny this) continue attempting to ‘revise’ the reason/s why the Father was depicted. It is a perfect example of iconoclasm although the aforementioned would take serious issue with such a statement. Great examples of God the Father in traditional iconography can be found in the cathedrals of the Kremlin, for starters, but there are more. By the 19th century, countless icons of the Father were in existence and they can be found in all Eastern Orthodox countries, in churches, monasteries and for personal devotion in people’s houses.

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