Thursday, May 18, 2017
Orthodoxy, Icons, Eusebius, and Visual Art in Early Christianity
I’m reading Robert Letham’s Through Western Eyes: Eastern Orthodoxy: A Reformed Perspective (Mentor, 2007). In an interesting chapter on icons, Letham notes, “The Orthodox claim that the first icons date from the lifetime of Jesus” (p. 145). He adds that to support their use of icons the Orthodox appeal to intriguing references in Eusbeius’s Ecclesiastical History to visual representations of Jesus and the apostles which existed in his day and which Eusebius claims went back to the earliest days of Christianity.
In EH 7.18 Eusebius claims that in Caesarea Philippi the woman with the issue of blood who had been healed by Jesus erected a stone memorial to this event in front of her home. It included “a brazen figure in relief of a woman, bending on her knee and stretching forth her hands like a suppliant.” Opposite to this was “an upright figure of a man, clothed in comely fashion in a double cloak and stretching out his hand to the woman.” He adds, “This statue, they said, bore the likeness of Jesus. And it was in existence even to our own day, so that we saw it with our own eyes when we stayed in the city.” Eusebius observes that one should not be surprised that grateful pagans “should have made these objects, since we saw the likenesses of his apostles also, of Paul and Peter, and indeed of Christ himself, preserved in pictures painted in colours.”
What do we make of this description? Does it justify the use of icons? No. More likely it shows how quickly corruption had entered into “Christian” practice. It does not reflect Christianity of the first century but the fourth century. In EH 7.19 Eusebius adds that “the throne of James” was also preserved and revered by men of his day. We see already the rise of relics and religious objects, usurping the simplicity of Biblical spirituality. Already, we see movement away from the written word and the mind to the visual and emotional. Letham notes, “there is no evidence in the Bible that pictures of saints were expected to be located in the place where the church worshipped, still less was this required. This is a development additional to Scripture” (p. 157).