Remembering in Communion the Holy Fathers of The Seventh Ecumenical Council: On the Relationship of Image and Person in the Redemptive Work of Sacred Space

by John Lickwar

Most feast days celebrated in the Orthodox Church focus on the remembrance of Jesus Christ, the Mother of God, or other saintly persons. Celebrated as well are other feast days remembering specific miracle working icons of Christ or the Theotokos. The Holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, known for generating the theological defense for restoring icons to Church life, also constitutes a glorious feast celebrated by the Church. This council whose official date is AD 787 was the second held in the city of Nicaea, and is sometimes referred to as Nicaea II.

This council is famous for sanctioning the use of icons in our churches and homes. What we don’t always remember are the fierce philosophical and theological debates on the legitimate use of icons spanning over more than a century. The first Iconoclasm or destruction of icons lasted from AD 726 through 787, and the second, from AD 814-843. The names of the two opposing groups involved, the ‘iconodules,’ those who supported icons, and the ‘iconoclasts,’ those who destroyed icons, were not part of the original debate in Byzantium, but were names applied by later historians. Eight sessions comprised this council attended by three hundred and fifty bishops. It was a time filled with an unprecedented destruction of icons, accompanied by violent persecution of those who venerate them.

“In 754 the emperor (Constantine Copronymus) held a council in Constantinople at which 338 bishops signed an iconoclastic horos. After the council fierce persecutions were unleashed, particularly on monasticism, which, unlike the episcopate, firmly upheld the veneration of icons. Many monks became confessors and martyrs.”1

In spite of devastating persecution, with the joint affirmation that “it seems good to us and to the Holy Spirit,” the participating bishops, monastics, and political leaders at the Council of Nicaea II moved to affirm the Orthodox belief rendered by icons. God reveals himself to us in his Son, Jesus Christ in the material of flesh. Their Horos, or Definition, from the Nicaea II Council, evolved around the recitation of The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed confessing “We believe….

“Christ our Lord, who hath bestowed upon us the light of the knowledge of himself, and hath redeemed us from the darkness of idolatrous madness, having espoused to himself the Holy Catholic Church without spot or defect, promised that he would so preserve her: and gave his word to this effect to his holy disciples when he said: ‘Lo! I am with you always, even unto the end of the world,’ which promise he made, not only to them, but to us also who should believe in his name through their word.”

“We confess that our Lady, St. Mary, is properly and truly the Mother of God, because she was the Mother after the flesh of One Person of the Holy Trinity, to wit, Christ our God, as the Council of Ephesus has already defined…”

“With the Fathers of this synod we confess that he who was incarnate of the immaculate Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary has two natures, recognizing him as perfect God and perfect man, as also the Council of Chalcedon hath promulgated….”

“We affirm that in Christ there be two wills and two operations according to the reality of each nature, as also the Sixth Synod, held at Constantinople…”2

The first liturgical celebration to restore the veneration of icons happened on March 11, 843 in Hagia Sophia. From then to the present, the first Sunday of the Great Fast, the Triumph of Orthodoxy, remains a defense of the entire spiritual life of the Church.3

“Iconoclasm was connected with the overall increase of laxity in the Church, the dechurching of all aspects of its life. Its internal life was forcibly disrupted by the intrusion of secular authorities, churches were flooded with worldly images, the divine services were distorted by worldly music and poetry. Therefore, in defending icons, the church not only defended the very basis of Christian faith, namely the incarnation, but also the very sense of its existence. It fought against its own dissolution into the world.”4

The Church therefore dedicated itself to the restoration of icons, not only as an essential victory over the heresy of idolatry, but primarily as confirmation of the Orthodox faith and life. The celebrated victory of the icon is to reveal, though in a different way from the Cross of Christ and the Four Gospels, that Jesus Christ is both the living God and man, Savior and incarnate Son of God. One way to help us embrace the unanimity connecting the triad of the Icon, the Cross of Christ and the Gospel begins with us receiving God as “He who is.”  What does this mean? Dr. Christos Yannaras, an Orthodox theologian of the Church in Greece, explains:

“The divine Name (He Who Is) is not a noun which would classify God among beings, nor an adjective which would attribute a characteristic feature. It is a verb, it is the echo on the lips of people of the Word by which God defines himself as existent, as the only pre-eminent existent.

God defines himself as existent from within the limits of a relationship with his people; the revelation of his Name as existent is a covenant relationship with Israel. For the Israelites God is not obliged by his Essence to exist; his existence is not a logical necessity. He is existent because he is faithful to his covenant relationship with his people; his existence is confirmed by faithfulness to a relationship, that is, by the personal immediacy of his revelation and his interventions in the history of Israel.”5

The completion of God’s intervention among his people is finished in the Cross of Christ. The Gospels bear testimony of it in the written word, and the icon images it artistically. And Horos of Nicaea II, approves of the icon’s special artistry, offering a foundational point of reference toward a theory of art for the icon.

“To make our confession short, we keep unchanged all the ecclesiastical traditions handed down to us, whether in writing or verbally, one of which is the making of pictorial representations, agreeable to the history of the preaching of the Gospel, a tradition useful in many respects, but especially in this, that so the incarnation of the Word of God is shown forth as real and not merely phantastic, for these have mutual indications and without doubt have also mutual significations.”

“We…define with all certitude and accuracy that just as the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross, so also the venerable and holy images, as well in, painting and mosaic as of other fit materials, should be set forth in the holy churches of God, and on the sacred vessels, and on the vestments, and on hangings and in pictures both in houses and by the wayside, to wit, the figure of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady, the Mother of God, of the honourable Angels, of all Saints and of all pious people. For by so much more frequently as they are seen in artistic representation, by so much more readily are men lifted up to the memory of their prototypes, and to a longing after them…”6

The Cross, Gospel and icon are different material forms whose common content unites us in a Spirit-bearing relationship. By them we are informed in a manner beyond reason and understanding. For us to experience the Cross of Christ we must take up our own cross;  to experience the Gospel we must therefore receive its word by reading it and living it; and to experience the icon we must therefore see ourselves through it as in a mirror.  Dr. Yannaras describes such experience in part happening through our ‘natural energies.’

“There is no other way for us to know the personal otherness of man, than by the manifestation of natural energies. The natural energies permit us to know the otherness of the person by sharing in the way or in the how of their manifestation. The way or the how the word of Kavafi differs from the word of Sepheris, (the love of our father from the affection of our mother,) is something that cannot be designated objectively, except with conditional expressions and comparative images.”7

The icon of the crucifixion is one example of conditional expression and comparative image. St. Philaret of Moscow connects to the experience of Godly love saying;

“The love of the Father is crucifying. The love of the Son is crucified. The love of the Holy Spirit is the triumphant power of the Cross. For God so loved the World!”8

(Mural by John Lickwar in 2018. This is one mural from an entire iconographic plan dedicated to the theme of Holy Wisdom. The connection of this theme with the name, Christ the Savior, was suggested by Archbishop Nathaniel of the Romanian Episcopate of the Orthodox Church in America. The iconographic plan was then determined by Orthodox theologian, Dionisii Denisov. The final sketches were produced by iconographer Aleksej Kozlov, and actual painting by John Lickwar. This private chapel’s interior will near completion in late 2020.)

This same icon also takes us past deaths finality into an eschatological perception of life and death, heaven and hell. Honored in this icon through veneration are Christ’s outstretched arms. Crucified, he embraces mankind and the world with salvation as he that reigns over the living and the dead, from one end of the earth to the other.

“...and to these should be given due salutation and honourable reverence (aspasmon kai timhtikhn proskunh - sin ), not indeed that true worship of faith (latreian >) which pertains alone to the divine nature; but to these, as to the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross and to the Book of the Gospels and to the other holy objects…For the honour which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres in it the subject represented…”

“Those, therefore, who dare to think or teach otherwise, or as wicked heretics to spurn the traditions of the Church and to invent some novelty, or else to reject some of those things which the Church hath received (e.g., the Book of the Gospels, or the image of the cross, or the pictorial icons, or the holy reliques of a martyr), or evilly and sharply to devise anything subversive of the lawful traditions of the Catholic Church or to turn to common uses the sacred vessels or the venerable monasteries, if they be Bishops or Clerics, we command that they be deposed; if religious or laics, that they be cut off from communion.”9

The veneration of an icon passing onto the person, its prototype, speaks of its sharing in the sacramentality of liturgy.  Hence, our relationship with icons is not one of idolatry, as the icon actually condemns idolatry.10 Our relationship with the icon draws us back into the Orthodox liturgy, the fountain from which we all drink of life, and all material creation derives by grace its authentic being in becoming partakers of the divine nature, glorifying God. As an integral co-expression of liturgy, the icon’s spatial function is communion.

“It is precisely the liturgy which gave an inner spiritual coherence and theological meaning to the various forms of art…as distinct from the secularized culture of modernity- viewed spirit and matter, beauty and wisdom, heaven and earth, as united in the resurrected and defied humanity of Jesus Christ, and manifested not only in Him as a historical person, but also in the Saints, in the sacramental nature of the Church and in the entire creation, restored to its original purpose of reflecting the eternal Wisdom of God. The emerging forms of Christian art re-present this spiritual and theological world view.”1

Another liturgical celebration takes place in the month of October, when in AD 842, the second period of iconoclasm ended and is dedicated to remembering The Holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. The October celebration recalls the corpus of theological literature by which individual church fathers rendered the icon to be a co-contribution to Orthodox doctrine’s definitive formulation. Writers St. John of Damascus and St. Theodore the Studite produced the most eloquent and lasting defense for the icon, along with others. Neither however, produced no new ideas. Rather, they took the decisions of previous ecumenical councils, specifically those related to God, the Holy Trinity, and the Incarnation of Christ, and addressed the vexing questions stemming from God’s incarnation as it relates to the created material world, the person and Christian artistic expression.

“...our Lord God hath of his good pleasure called us together…with all diligence, making a thorough examination and analysis, and following the trend of the truth, we diminish nought, we add nought, but we preserve unchanged all things which pertain to the Catholic Church, and following the Six Ecumenical Synods, especially that which met in this illustrious metropolis of Nice, as also that which was afterwards gathered together in the God-protected Royal City.”12

An already existing and specific Byzantine artfulness and language was baptized in the church fathers defense for the icon ‘following the trend of the truth’ to say, “the honor paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres the person in it.”13 Surely this confession crosses the boundaries of objectivity over to Christ God’s spirit-born presence, as spirit bearing in the creation of icons and the Church’s other artful expressions. Surely the Horos of the second council of Nicaea lays the foundation for the evolution and innovation of the icon as spirit bearing revealing the wonders of God in the flesh, in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ throughout time. It is only in this context that we can refer to the Canon of Iconography as being living and on-going in perfection, and the Icon as a Divine Mystery or Icon as Sacrament. 

(Fresco by Victor and Alexey Dovnar, “Icon Painting Workshop Ikonique,” It is on the ceiling in a private prayer room in Lacarno Switzerland, created in 2017.)

Early frescoes, mosaics and biblical illuminations of the creation narrative reveal the Mystery of the pre-incarnate Christ, the divine artificer, or first iconographer creating from matter living things and man in his own image. He is shown either with a compass in hand, “For he hath made the world so sure that it shall not be moved”, or he is seen sitting playing a harp out of which flows the melodic harmony of God’s creation in order and beauty.14 The idea of the melodic harmony of creation is entirely another topic for a different presentation.

Artisanship in the pre-Christian culture of Byzantium, in the Roman Empire, already had applied terms of language common to understanding art and the person which the church fathers recast into understanding the Church’s visual arts and her defense.

“...from its beginnings, Christian imagery found expression entirely, almost uniquely, in the general language of the visual arts and with the techniques of imagery commonly practiced within the Roman Empire.”15

The two most significant linguistic terms applied interchangeably to Christian iconography as well as to Christ’s incarnation are ‘nature’ and ‘hypostasis’. Hypostasis is the Greek word for person, existence, and identify. The phrase ‘hypostatic union’ means Jesus Christ is one person, or one hypostasis, with two natures, human and divine, mysteriously brought together without confusion. It is much easier to understand then it sounds, but the concept is theologically profound. At least four times, the New Testament identifies this hypostatic union referring to the mystery uniting the two natures in Jesus Christ. One example is in the prologue of the Evangelist John’s Gospel:

“and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten Son from the Father…”16

Another memorable example we find is in St. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews 1:3 where Jesus is said to be

“...the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person…”17

In Byzantine language, the artistic function of line was to give figures and objects hypostasis. Line not only aligned figures and objects spatially within the art work but also expressed an energy which related outwardly with whom and what lines shaped from living reality. In other words line gave images participation in the reality they revealed and equally engaged the on looker in the same.

“To begin with, we should note that in Byzantine painting line has particular features. This is borne out of the fact that, to the impartial observer, an icon has a certain style. There can be no doubt that the tradition possesses a uniqueness that derives from the particular nature of line.

It is not so much the treatment of color (the way in which it is applied) that sets apart the Byzantine tradition from any other. It is a line that gives hypostasis to Byzantine art, ie, that distinguishes it from any other tradition…Line has distinctive qualities and, what is more, this uniqueness is palpable.

Byzantine civilization is based, on the one hand, on the distinction between nature and hypostasis and, on the other, on the pursuit of communion as participation in the energies, rather than the nature, of the other person or thing.”18

Towards the climax of the Byzantine Empire, another outstanding Theologian, St. Gregory Palamas though not one of the fathers of the seventh council, transforms the language of Byzantium to describe the distinction between the essence and energies of God, just as those earlier church fathers clarified the distinction of nature from hypostasis. One of Orthodoxy’s basic formulas concerning how (we) human nature participate in the life of God is through his divine energies. Line in art is also a capable vehicle of such energy.

“The manner in which line enables the forms of phenomena, things, or people represented in an icon to acquire a specific existence, or hypostasis, which serves both their intercommunion and the relationship of work to the beholder, is what may be called the role of line.”

“For the idea that governs Byzantine (and patristic) thought is that of communion, which presupposes the voluntary meeting of hypostases, or persons, in a relationship of love. In this way form must also have inner and external movement in order that it might express and reflect this vision of life…Because in Byzantine art, all form is movement, everything is energy. Yet this energy is not blind or unrestrained; it is carefully controlled, and it has a specific aim and point of reference. Its purpose is to bring into communion the figure in the icon and the viewer.”19

The greatest misunderstanding which still plagues us has to do with a current faulty perception of icons. Museum experts, art critics, and even some of our brightest Orthodox theologians today make this terrible miscalculation. Natural perception incorrectly identified icons as two dimensional flat works of art. This is incorrect and nothing could be farther from the truth! If it were so, then icons would remain passive and abstract, merely museum worthy works of antiquity.

“In Byzantine culture a work of art is not a passive and abstract object that stands opposite the spectator in its own time and space. To the contrary: it is something active that moves toward the viewer, from whom a response is required in order to meet the icon and what is depicted therein. This movement -this energy- which in the end becomes rhythm, is the fundamental characteristic of Byzantine art. And the instrument for its realization is none other than line.”20

As no writer wishes the truth of their work to be forgotten, so we celebrate the memory of these Holy Fathers in a festal liturgy. And we should not remember them apart from today’s iconographers, hagiographers, and zographos,21 who adhere to their foundational teachings, wishing to tradition us in the correct knowledge of the Church’s particular artistic craft and supporting theology. To do so means what? It means we agree not only intellectually with their written witness, but strive ourselves to be living icons by grace, in communion with the Spirit-bearing persons that icons reveal. It is in this spatial relationship of icons to us that we can rejoice and be liberated toward our true self as God’s image and likeness.

1 Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, Orthodox Christianity: The History and Canonical Structure of the Orthodox Church, vol I, SVS Press, 2011, p 54, 55.
2 Cited in the Internet History Sourcebooks Project, Internet Medieval SourceBook, Decree of the Seventh Council of Nicea, 787, Fordham University, The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church, trans H. R. Percival, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, ed. P. Schaff and H. Wace, (repr. Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1955), XIV, pp 549-551
3 Alfeyev, Orthodox Christianity, vol I, p 57.
4 Cited in Alfeyev, Orthodox Christianity: The History and Canonical Structure of the Orthodox Church, vol I, p 57, The Theology of the Icon in the Orthodox Church (Paris, 1989), p 102.
5 Christos Yannaras, Elements of Faith, Chapter 5, “God as Trinity” (T&T Clark: Edinburgh, 1991), p 42.
6 Cited in the Internet History Sourcebook Project, Decree of the Seventh Council of Nicea, 787, p 551.
7 Yannaras, Elements of Faith, Chapter 5, “God as Trinity”, p 44.
8 Cited in the online source,, Translation by Nun Cornelia (Rees). Another translation is in the 1992, No.2 issue of Orthodox Life.
9 Cited in the Internet History Sourcebook Project, Decree of the Seventh Council of Nicea, 787, p 551.
10 There are two primary resources dealing with the defense of icons. One is Three Treatises on the Divine Images, by St. John of Damascus. The other is On the Holy Icons, by St. Theodore the Studite. Both books are published by SVS Press, NY.
11 Protopresbyter John Meyendorff, Imperial Unity and Christian Divisions, 1989, SVS Press, p.76.
12 Cited in the Internet History Sourcebook Project, Decree of the Seventh Council of Nicea, 787, p 550.
13 The Seventh Council’s main decree formulated by St. John of Damascus from his Three Treatises on the Divine Images.
14 Hieratikon, Great Vespers, (PS.92), St. Tikhon’s Monastery Press, MMXIV, p. 15.
15 Andre Grabar, Christian Iconography. A Study of its Origins. The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, 1968, Introduction, p. XLIX.
16 The Gospel of St. John, The Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, RSV, 1955, pp. 1284,1285.
17 St. Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews, The Orthodox Study Bible, SAAOT, 2008, p. 1653.
18 George Kordis, Icon As Communion: The Ideals and Compositional Principles of Icon Painting, 2010, Holy Cross Orthodox Press, Brookline, MA, p. 6
19 Ibid, pp. 6 and 7.
20 Ibid, p. 7.
21 Zographos is a Greek name meaning painter.