Feb 15, 2002

Art and Liturgy – The Question of Images

Online Edition – Vol. VII, No. 10: February 2002

Art and Liturgy – The Question of Images

by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

Following is the first part of "The Question of Images", a chapter from Cardinal Ratzinger’s Spirit of the Liturgy, on the meaning of Christian art and its relationship with worship. It surveys the origin of images used for worship from Old Testament times through the first millennium of the Church. This selection, slightly edited here, is reprinted with the permission of Ignatius Press. This important work, by the Catholic Church’s chief official on Catholic doctrine, was reviewed for Adoremus Bulletin by Father Paul Scalia ("The Scandal of the Liturgy", Dec.2000/Jan 2001). See also Jesuit Father James Schall’s column on the book.

Other excerpt from this book on the Adoremus site are:
"The Theology of Kneeling", from the November 2002 AB.
"Music and Liturgy" from the November 2001 AB.
"The Altar and the Direction of Liturgical Prayer", from the May 2000 AB.
and Part II of "The Question of Images" (AB March 2002), Chapter I of Part Three of The Spirit of the Liturgy, which surveys the development of art from the Gothic period to the present.

Part I

"The centering of all history in Christ is both the liturgical transmission of that history and the expression of a new experience of time, in which past, present, and future make contact."

In the first commandment of the Decalogue, which underscores the uniqueness of the God to whom alone adoration is due, we read this admonition: "You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth" (Ex 20:4; cf. Deut 5:8).

There is a notable exception to this prohibition of images at the very center of the Old Testament, one that concerns the most sacred of places, the gold covering of the Ark of the Covenant, which was regarded as the place of expiation. "There I will meet with you", says God to Moses, "I will speak with you of all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel" (Ex 25:22).

With regard to the fashioning of the covering, Moses receives the following instructions: "And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat…. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above…. [T]heir faces [shall be turned] one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be" (Ex 25:18-20). The mysterious beings that cover and protect the place of divine revelation can be represented, precisely to conceal the mystery of the presence of God Himself.

Saint Paul saw the crucified Christ as the true and living "place of expiation", of whom the "mercy seat" the kapporeth lost during the Exile was but a foreshadowing. In Him God has now, so to speak, lifted the veil from His face. The Eastern Church’s icon of the Resurrection of Christ takes up this link between the Ark of the Covenant and the Paschal Mystery of Christ when it shows Christ standing on cross-shaped slabs, which symbolize the grave but also suggest a reference to the kapporeth of the Old Covenant. Christ is flanked by the cherubim and approached by the women who came to the tomb to anoint Him.

The fundamental image of the Old Testament is retained, but it is reshaped in the light of the Resurrection and given a new center: the God who no longer completely conceals Himself but now shows Himself in the form of the Son.

This transformation of the narrative of the Ark of the Covenant into an image of the Resurrection reveals the very heart of the development from the Old Testament to New. However, if we are to understand it correctly in its totality, we must follow the main lines of the development a little more closely.

The prohibition of images in Islam and in Judaism since about the third or fourth century A.D. has been interpreted in a radical way, so that only non-figurative, geometrical designs are permitted in the ornamentation of the sanctuary. However, in the Judaism at the time of Jesus and well into the third century, a much more generous interpretation of the image-question developed. Paradoxically, in the images of salvation we see exactly the same continuity between synagogue and church that we [see in] liturgical space.

As a result of archaeological discoveries, we now know that the ancient synagogues were richly decorated with representations of scenes from the Bible. They were by no means regarded as mere images of past events, as a kind of pictorial history lesson, but as a narrative (haggadah), which, while calling something to mind, makes it present. The feasts are a participation in God’s action in time, and the images themselves, as remembrance in visible form, are involved in the liturgical re-presentation.

Christian images, as we find them in the catacombs, simply take up and develop the canon of images already established by the synagogue, while giving it a new modality of presence.

The individual events are now ordered toward the Christian sacraments and to Christ himself. Noah’s ark and the crossing of the Red Sea now point to Baptism. The sacrifice of Isaac and the meal of the three angels with Abraham speak of Christ’s Sacrifice and the Eucharist. Shining through the rescue of the three young men from the fiery furnace and of Daniel from the lion’s den, we see Christ’s Resurrection and our own.

Still more than in the synagogue, the point of the images is not to tell a story about something in the past, but to incorporate the events of history into the sacrament. In past history Christ with His sacraments is on His way through the ages. We are taken into the events. The events themselves transcend the passing of time and become present in our midst through the sacramental action of the Church.

The centering of all history in Christ is both the liturgical transmission of that history and the expression of a new experience of time, in which past, present, and future make contact, because they have been inserted into the presence of the risen Lord. As we have seen already and now find confirmed anew, liturgical presence contains eschatological hope within it. All sacred images are, without exception, in a certain sense images of the Resurrection, history read in the light of the Resurrection, and for that very reason they are images of hope, giving us the assurance of the world to come, of the final coming of Christ. However inferior the first images of the Christian tradition may often be in their artistic qualities, an extraordinary spiritual process has taken place in them, though one that is in close and deep unity with the iconography of the synagogue.

The Resurrection sheds a new light on history. It is seen as a path of hope, into which the images draw us. Thus the images of the early Church have a thoroughly sacramental significance. They have the character of mysteries, going far beyond the didactic function of telling the stories of the Bible.

None of the early images attempts to give us anything like a portrait of Christ. Instead, Christ is shown in His significance, in "allegorical" images for example, as the true philosopher instructing us in the art of living and dying. He appears as the great teacher, but above all in the form of the shepherd.

The reason why this image, which is derived from Sacred Scripture, became so precious to early Christianity is that the shepherd was regarded as an allegory of the Logos. The Logos, through whom all things were made, who bears within Himself, so to speak, the archetypes of all existing things, is the guardian of creation. In the Incarnation he takes the lost sheep, human nature, humanity as a whole, onto His shoulders and carries it home. The image of the shepherd thus sums up the whole of salvation history: God’s entry into history, the Incarnation, the pursuit of the lost sheep and the homeward path into the Church of the Jews and Gentiles.

One development of far-reaching importance in the history of the images of faith was the emergence for the first time of a so-called acheiropoietos, an image that has not been made by human hands and portrays the very face of Christ. Two of these images appeared in the East at about the same time in the middle of the sixth century.

The first of these was the so-called camulianium, the imprint of the image of Christ on a woman’s gown. The second was the mandylion, as it was called later, which was brought from Edessa in Syria to Constantinople and is thought by many scholars today to be identical with the Shroud of Turin.

In each case, as with the Turin Shroud, it must have been a question of a truly mysterious image, which no human artistry was capable of producing. In some inexplicable way, it appeared imprinted upon cloth and claimed to show the true face of Christ, the crucified and risen Lord.

The first appearance of this image must have provoked immense fascination. Now at last could the true face of the Lord, hitherto hidden, be seen and thus the promise be fulfilled: "He who has seen me has seen the Father" (Jn 14:9). The sight of the God-Man and, through Him, of God Himself seemed to have been opened up; the Greek longing for the vision of the Eternal seemed to be fulfilled.

Thus the icon inevitably assumed in its form the status of a sacrament. It was regarded as bestowing a communion no less than that of the Eucharist. People began to think that there was virtually a kind of real presence of the Person imaged in the image. The image in this case, the image not made by human hands, was an image in the full sense, a participation in the reality concerned, the refulgence and thus the presence of the One who gives Himself in the image.

It is not hard to see why the images modeled on the acheiropoietos became the center of the whole canon of iconography, which meanwhile had made progress and was understood better in its wider implications.

Clearly, though, there was a danger lurking here: a false sacramentalizing of the image, which seemed to lead beyond the sacraments and their hiddenness into a direct vision of the divine presence. And so it is also clear that this new development was bound to lead to violent counter-movements, to that radical rejection of the image that we call "iconoclasm", the destruction of images.

Iconoclasm derived its passion in part from truly religious motives, from the undeniable dangers of a kind of adoration of the image, but also from a cluster of political factors. It was important for the Byzantine emperors not to give any unnecessary provocation to Muslims and Jews. The suppression of images could be beneficial to the unity of the Empire and to relations with the Empire’s Muslim neighbors. And so the thesis was proposed that Christ must not be represented in an image. Only the sign of the Cross (without a corpus) could be, as it were, His seal. Cross or image that was the choice.

In the course of this struggle the true theology of icons matured and bequeathed us a message that has a profound relevance to us today in the iconographic crisis of the West.

The icon of Christ is the icon of the risen Lord. That truth, with all its implications, now dawned on the Christian mind. There is no portrait of the risen Lord. At first the disciples do not recognize Him. They have to be led toward a new kind of seeing, in which their eyes are gradually opened from within to the point where they recognize him afresh and cry out: "It is the Lord!" Perhaps the most telling episode of all is that of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Their hearts are transformed, so that, through the outward events of Scripture, they can discern its inward center, from which everything comes and which everything tends: the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. They then detain their mysterious companion and give him their hospitality, and at the breaking of bread they experience in reverse fashion what happened to Adam and Eve when they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: their eyes are opened. Now they no longer see just the externals but the reality that is not apparent to their senses yet shines through their senses: it is the Lord, now alive in a new way.

In the icon it is not the facial features that count (though icons essentially adhere to the appearance of the acheiropoietos). No, what matters is the new kind of seeing. The icon is supposed to originate from an opening up of the inner senses, from a facilitation of sight that gets beyond the surface of the empirical and perceives Christ, as the later theology of icons puts it, in the light of Tabor. It thus leads the man who contemplates it to the point where, through the interior vision that the icon embodies, he beholds in the sensible that which, though above the sensible, has entered into the sphere of the senses. As Evdokimov says so beautifully, the icon requires a "fast from the eyes". Icon painters, he says, must learn how to fast with their eyes and prepare themselves by a long path of prayerful asceticism. This is what marks the transition from art to sacred art (p. 188). The icon comes from prayer and leads to prayer. It delivers a man from that closure of the senses that perceives only the externals, the material surface of things, and is blind to the transparency of the spirit, the transparency of the Logos. At the most fundamental level, what we are dealing with here is nothing other than the transcendence of faith.

The whole problem of knowledge in the modern world is present. If an interior opening-up does not occur in man that enables him to see more than what can be measured and weighed, to perceive the reflection of divine glory in creation, then God remains excluded from our field of vision. The icon, rightly understood, leads us away from false questions about portraits, portraits comprehensible at the level of the senses, and thus enables us to discern the face of Christ and, in Him, of the Father.

Thus in the icon we find the same spiritual orientations that we discovered when emphasizing the eastward direction of the liturgy. The icon is intended to draw us onto an inner path, the eastward path, toward the Christ who is to return. Its dynamism is identical with the dynamism of the liturgy as a whole. Its Christology is trinitarian. It is the Holy Spirit who makes us capable of seeing, he whose work is always to move us toward Christ. "We have drunk deeply of the Spirit", says Saint Athanasius, "and we drink Christ" (Evdokimov, p. 204). This seeing, which teaches us to see Christ, not "according to the flesh", but according to the Spirit (cf. 2 Cor 5:16), grants us also a glimpse of the Father Himself.

Only when we have understood this interior orientation of the icon can we rightly understand why the Second Council of Nicaea and all the following councils concerned with icons regard it as a confession of faith in the Incarnation and iconoclasm as a denial of the Incarnation, as the summation of all heresies. The Incarnation means, in the first place, that the invisible God enters into the visible world, so that we, who are bound to matter, can know Him. In this sense, the way to the Incarnation was already being prepared in all that God said and did in history for man’s salvation. But this descent of God is intended to draw us into a movement of ascent. The Incarnation is aimed at man’s transformation through the Cross and to the new corporeality of the Resurrection. God seeks us where we are, not so that we stay there, but so that we may come to be where He is, so that we may get beyond ourselves. That is why to reduce the visible appearance of Christ to a "historical Jesus", belonging to the past, misses the point of His visible appearance, misses the point of the Incarnation.

The senses are not to be discarded, but they should be expanded to their widest capacity. We see Christ rightly only when we say with Thomas: "My Lord and my God!"

We have just established that the icon has a trinitarian scope, and now we must come to terms with its ontological proportions. The Son could only become incarnate as man because man was already planned in advance in relation to Him, as the image of Him who is in Himself the image of God. As Evdokimov again says so strikingly, the light of the first day and the light of the eighth day meet in the icon. Present already in creation is the light that will shine with its full brightness on the eighth day in the Resurrection of the Lord and in the new world, the light that enables us to see the splendor of God. The Incarnation is rightly understood only when it is seen within the broad context of creation, history, and the new world. Only then does it become clear that the senses belong to faith, that the new seeing does not abolish them, but leads them to their original purpose.

Iconoclasm rests ultimately on a one-sided apophatic theology, which recognizes only the Wholly Other-ness of the God beyond all images and words, a theology that in the final analysis regards revelation as the inadequate human reflection of what is eternally imperceptible.

But if this is the case, faith collapses. Our current form of sensibility, which can no longer apprehend the transparency of the spirit in the senses, almost inevitably brings with it a flight into a purely "negative" (apophatic) theology. God is beyond all thought, and therefore all propositions about Him and every kind of image of God are in equal proportions valid and invalid. What seems like the highest humility toward God turns into pride, allowing God no word and permitting him no real entry into history. On the one hand, matter is absolutized and thought of as completely impervious to God, as mere matter, and thus deprived of its dignity.

But, as Evdokimov says, there is also an apophatic Yes, not just an apophatic No, the denial of all likeness. Following Gregory Palamas, he emphasizes that in His essence God is radically transcendent, but in His existence He can be, and wants to be, represented as the Living One. God is the Wholly Other, but He is powerful enough to be able to show Himself. And He has so fashioned His creature that it is capable of "seeing" Him and loving Him.

With these reflections we once again make contact with our own times and therefore also the development of liturgy, art, and faith in the Western world.

Is this theology of the icon, as developed in the East, true? Is it valid for us? Or is it just a peculiarity of the Christian East? Let us start with the historical facts.

In early Christian art, right up to the end of the Romanesque period, in other words up to the threshold of the thirteenth century, there is no essential difference between East and West with regard to the question of images. True, if we think of Saint Augustine or Saint Gregory the Great, the West emphasized, almost exclusively, the pedagogical function of the image. The so-called Libri Carolini, as well as the synods of Frankfurt (794) and Paris (824), came out against the poorly understood Seventh Ecumenical Council, Nicaea II, which canonized the defeat of iconoclasm and the rooting of the icon in the Incarnation. By contrast, the western synods insist on the purely educative role of the images: "Christ", they said, "did not save us by paintings" (cf. Evdokimov, p 167).

But the themes and fundamental orientation of iconography remained the same, even though now, in the Romanesque style, plastic art emerges, something that never had a foothold in the East. It is always the risen Christ, even on the Cross, to whom the community looks as the true Oriens [East]. And art is always characterized by the unity of creation, Christology, and eschatology: the first day is on its way toward the eighth, which in turn takes up the first.

Art is still ordered to the mystery that becomes present in the liturgy. The figures of the angels in Romanesque art are essentially no different from those in Byzantine painting. They show that we are joining with the cherubim and seraphim, with all the heavenly powers, in praise of the Lamb.

In the liturgy the curtain between heaven and earth is torn open, and we are taken up into a liturgy that spans the whole cosmos.

To be continued…

The second part of "The Question of Images", Chapter I of Part Three of The Spirit of the Liturgy, surveys the development of art from the Gothic period to the present.

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Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI served as Pope from 2005 until his resignation in 2013.