John of Damascus, Polymath and Iconophile

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John of Damascus, or John Damascene (+749), is considered the last of the Church Fathers, that golden age, lasting for about eight or so centuries, which is our primary witness to the great Tradition handed on from Christ, by way of the Apostles, all that Church lives and believes, including the Liturgy, the sacraments, prayer, moral teaching, all the intricacies and consistencies of our great Faith, even the canon of Scripture…for as Augustine says, But I would not believe in the Gospel, had not the authority of the Catholic Church already moved me.

In other words, contra the later Luther, sola Scriptura non vera est.

John was a polymath – as were so many of the Fathers – who wrote on Scripture, music, mathematics, law and philosophy. He worked as a civil servant for the Caliph in Damascus, then, as now, quite firmly in Muslim hands, conquered as part of the Islamic drive for world-wide hegemony and submission. Like all Christians, John was a dhimmi, but valued for his learning and competence; he had no great love of Islam, and was one of the first to write a systematic treatise against the Qur’an, calling the founder of Islam a ‘false prophet’ and a veritable ‘Antichrist’. I wonder how he got away with it, and good thing he lived centuries before the U.N. makes ‘blaspheming’ Muhammad against global law, if there be such a thing, and take that how you will.

After his time in public service, John felt called ‘higher’, and was consecrated a monk at Mar Saba monastery near Jerusalem, which had been founded in 484 by Sabas the Sanctified, a hermit who ended up founding several monasteries, a great foe of the heresy of monphysitism, that Christ had only one nature, divine, which ‘swallowed up’ the human nature, thus voiding the reality of the Incarnation. Christ only seemed to be human. The fourth Council at Chalcedon in 451 had proclaimed dogmatically and for all time that Christ assumed a true human nature into His divine Person, but heresies do linger.

On that note, three centuries later, in the fractious mid-700’s, Saint John from the same monastery would be battling another heresy, this time iconoclasm, that any images of Christ, His mother or the saints was, well, idolatrous and heretical, and hence must be ‘smashed’, broken to pieces, cast to oblivion, chucked into swamps, even if they be, as they often were, the most beautiful and ancient works of art…hmm, sounds sort of au courant. We have had iconoclastic outbursts recurring in the post-‘Reformation’ era, and again post-Vatican II (in line with the hermeneutic of rupture), and, yes, again with the resurgence of radical Islam. The scarring influence of this heresy is enough to make one weep over what has been lost in our liturgical and archaeological landscape – and our musical one as well. Iconoclasm may have had its roots in Islamic influence on the Byzantine court – for Muhammad’s heresy is inherently iconoclastic – and the emperor, Leo III the Isaurian, was all for it, in ways that are otherwise difficult to explain, for he considered himself a Christian, and a zealous one at that; then again, so did Oliver Cromwell, and, we may presume, the ‘liturgical experts’ in the heady seventies, when just about everything they could get their hands on was levelled. There were many martyrs in Leo’s persecution, as there are today, in different ways.

John’s masterful treatises on not just the value, but the necessity of images for the true and proper worship of God are amongst the finest in our Tradition, and for which he is perhaps best known, being declared in 1890 one of the 36 Doctors of the Church by Pope Leo XIII. His writings were quoted almost verbatim at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787, which condemned iconoclasm in no uncertain terms, forever teaching that images are good for the soul, a true ‘media’ from God the Father, through Christ, His true and original Image, to us. By looking at Christ, and His saints, we see who we are truly meant to be.

I will leave you with words of John Damascene quoted in the Catechism, fitting for the beginning of Advent, wherein we await the very Incarnation of the Almighty:

Previously God, who has neither a body nor a face, absolutely could not be represented by an image. But now that he has made himself visible in the flesh and has lived with men, I can make an image of what I have seen of God…and contemplate the glory of the Lord, his face unveiled.

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