Friday, June 09, 2006

Are Western Christians Iconodules? Part I

Since I am on the topic of iconography, let me propose an hypothesis regarding one aspect of the iconographical differences between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.

The Latin Bishops of the 8th century did not finally reject the canons of the Second Council of Nicea. The Roman church at the time of the Reformation reiterated its condemnation of iconoclasm. And yet, the use of images in public and private worship never became in the West what it became in the East. Its seems then that the tem 'iconodule' is more approprately given to Orthodox Eastern spirituality than to Roman Catholic spirituality. Perhaps the latter communion can best be described as not, on the one hand, icononclastic and yet, on the other hand, not iconodulic.

It is difficult to imagine the Orthodox liturgy without icons, whereas the Roman rite was never dependent upon sacred images. In fact, the medieval Cistercian sanctuary was as imageless as a Calvinist chapel.


Joseph said...

I find it interesting that St. Augustine of Canterbury sent by the bishop of Rome, St. Gregory the Great, processed with icon and cross into the presence of the Anglo-Saxon king Ethelbert.

Thomas said...

joe - My understanding is that prior to the 11th c. Western religious imagery was a mixture of Germanic forms and Byzantine iconography.

It is also interesting that St. Gregory is traditionally associated with the pedagogical rationale for the use of sacred images. He is the one Calvin refutes in the Institutes. It would have done the West good, in my opinion, to have had a better grasp of the Byzantine theology of the icon. But in the early medieval period the West was in a missionary stance virtually all throughout Europe. Idol worship was a constant threat in the West up until the high medieval period. The caution and pragmatism it showed toward sacred images in understandable in light of this context. One scholar suggests that the extravagance and neo-paganism of Renaissance art would not have happened had Western iconology early on adopted the depth of Eastern iconology which resulted in the codification of a very balanced style.

Whatever the truth of it, I favor the Eastern aesthetic.