Image is Participation

Who do you say that this is?


Notice that I did not ask whom this icon depicts. I asked who it *is.* And you answered correctly, right?

You can’t get an image that works properly as such unless the image and the thing to which it refers both participate to some extent in the same Form.

Consider a triangle, scribed on the page before you. Is it a triangle, at all? Is it the *least bit* triangular? If so, this can only be because it *truly* re-presents the Form of the Triangle. But as presenting that Form, it is a very instance of that Form. The Form of the Triangle is really, concretely present in the triangle on the page, albeit imperfectly.

Thus if an icon makes a part of the form of Christ present, then Christ is really present, at least in part. As with any sacrament, the signification operates by being itself participant in the thing signified.

Remembrance, then, is just such an imaginative re-presentation; in any memorial, the form of the substantial being we remember must be somehow present in our own, informing and shaping us, or else the phantasm we apprehend could not function for us as a memory. In that case, the phenomenon could not work to bring anything definite to mind; it could not generate a noumenon. We can remember only reals; and we can remember them only by making them again really present in our experience, or rather by admitting them thereto.

When we see an inscription of a triangle, we do not act as if it were a squiggle, signifying nothing. On the contrary, we order ourselves in relation to the inscription precisely in terms of its triangularity.

Reverence in the presence of an icon, then – a church, a cross, a Bible, a gathering of two or three in the Name, a saint – is at least good manners; is at least prudential.

But not worship, of course. There is in the notion that Christ is somehow present in an icon no tincture of idolatry. It should hardly be controversial to say that the Logos of the world, who expresses himself in every creature, and is therefore in all of them more or less immanent, is present also in an intentionally devised image of his perfect worldly instantiation. He is, of course. Nevertheless it is a foolish error to worship a creaturely image, rather than the One whose presence it indicates; for this is to confuse the term with its terminus. In like fashion, one does not take the measure of an actual triangle as straightforward demonstration of the eternal truths of trigonometry, but rather only as the manifestation thereof; nor does one try to journey from Phoenix to Flagstaff by walking across a map of Arizona.

Consider then that every man and woman you see is created in and by the Image of the Father; each is an icon.

16 thoughts on “Image is Participation

  1. Consider then that every man and woman you see is created in and by the Image of the Father; each is an icon.

    The Creation is a Temple dedicated to God, and the Image of God created to be placed/housed in that Temple is the Eidolon.

      • Fixed it, but then reflected that both Creation in general and our little mansion therein are equally Temples, the latter a synecdoche and icon of the former, as the Temple in Jerusalem is a synecdoche and icon of our cosmos.

        So I fixed it back. Hope you don’t mind.

  2. How is the Blessed Sacrament present on the altar different from a pictorial icon or statue as regards worship? (This is not a trick question. I’m sincerely curious to hear your answer.)

    • The Blessed Sacrament isn’t just an icon. I mean, it is that, but it is more. It’s him. Not just a partial participation in his Form, but the man himself, all of him: body, blood, soul and divinity, as the formula goes.

      By way of an extremely weak analogy, it is as if you had a triangle on a piece of paper, and then it metamorphosed into Triangularity itself. It would still be an icon of Triangularity, but it would also be the Archetype of Triangularity.

    • It is interesting that the Iconoclastic emperors who stripped the temples of the holy images during the controversy of the 7th-9th centuries settled on the Sacrament as the only acceptable representation of Christ allowable in the temple. The iconodules responded correctly, as does Kristor, that the Holy Mysteries were not a representation, but res in se

      Reformation iconoclasm wasted no time making the same mistake.

      • Viewed more charitably, the “mistake” was in taking the Bible as the supreme source of truth and Christian practice.

        In Exodus, God goes into exquisite detail on how He is to be worshipped by His priests, how they are to be dressed, what the Tabernacle should be made of, how it is to be outfitted, what sacrifices are to be made by whom and how, etc. (Exodus 25-30). In contrast, the New Testament does not tell us those details. Instead, it tells us to pray; to praise and honor and thank Him; to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; and to proclaim the Gospel. Furthermore, Jesus commanded us to observe the Lord’s Supper in remembrance of Him. Removing that would make the practice un-Christian, so it is no wonder that both the emperors and the Reformers kept it.

        In contrast, nowhere in the New Testament are we told to use images.

        The use of images is not necessarily wrong, but neither is it required.

  3. I would like to think that I understand the arguments made here. This seems to be the only way to justify the use of icons and the like in view of Exodus 20:4–6 and Deuteronomy 5:8–10, commonly referred to (outside of Catholic and Lutheran practice) as the Second Commandment.

    Yet I cannot help but wonder if reverence shown towards icons, crucifixes, stoles,* rings,* and other manmade objects does not, at some times, by some people, cross over into idolatry. Yes, I understand that it’s not supposed to, that, as you put it, the term is not the terminus. But we are a wicked and fallen race, prone to all forms of sin, including idolatry. Is not the point of the Second Commandment to keep us away from the temptation and practice of this sin?

    I still can’t reconcile the aniconism that I understand from the Bible with the use of icons, etc. Perhaps I don’t understand the arguments that well after all.

    *I am referring to the practice of kissing these items (priest’s stole, bishop’s ring). I assume that what I have seen in the movies is based on actual practice.

    • The Israelites were forbidden to worship statues. But they, too, had their manufactured icons and images: the Tabernacle, the Temple, and the staff of Aaron that was sequestered therein. They had the menorah and the shewbread. The walls of the Temple were adorned with murals of the created order, depicting birds, beasts, and the flora of the Garden; its piers were “trees” (as in all ancient temples (and as in cathedrals and chapels everywhere) a relic of the sacred old groves of yore). Likewise also the Veil and the High Priestly vestments were both woven to represent the material creation.

      The argument of the iconodules is that the Incarnation consecrates creaturity, so that from the moment of the Annunciation it is no longer *ipso facto* misleading to erect a trophy of our LORD’s victory that takes the outward form of some creature or other.

      It is certainly true that icons can be misappropriated. Beethoven can be murdered; should we therefore never perform his works?

      • All your examples are good, but they were either ordained by God (the Tabernacle, etc.) or depictions of His creation (birds, beasts, etc.). None of them are representations of God, which is what I understand the Second Commandment forbids. I also understand it to forbid addition to, or subtraction from, the ways that God has ordained that we shall worship Him.

        Perhaps this is one of those unbridgeable Protestant/Catholic gaps that it is better not to try to hash out. Perhaps it’s best to say that I understand your argument, but that I do not agree with it.

        Thank you for your excellent posts and comments, Kristor. I always learn from them, both from what you write, and from what you prompt me to read as I ponder your words.

      • And thank you, William, for your thoughtful and insightful participation here.

        I’m no great student of the Decalogue (much less am I obedient thereto, unfortunately!), but the thing that always worried me about the Second Commandment was its proscription of images of anything in the heavens, the earth, or the sea. This seemed at odds with the fact that the Temple was richly adorned with images of creatures. Clearly, the Hebrews did not interpret the Commandment as proscribing the mere production of images of creatures, or of their use in religious contexts. It was their worship that was proscribed.

        The notion that the Commandment proscribes images of God has never made sense to me, either. It has always seemed plain to me, on the contrary, that it forbids the manufacture and worship of images of *creatures.* The Commandment does not mention images of God.

      • I have been cogitating on this, and finally have something in the way of a response.

        Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
        Exodus 20:4–6

        I take this to mean the following: Neither are we to make images from our imaginations, nor are we to depict things we have seen, to use either type for worship.

        So drawing or carving or otherwise making imaginary things or beings, and drawing or carving or otherwise making real things is fine, as long as we do not worship them; and worship is not to be done with anything man has created (see Acts 17:29: Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device.).

        Since no one knows what Jesus looks like, an icon is the product of our imaginations. We are not to worship things we have made, so icons, being something we have made, are proscribed from worship.

        This then raises the issue: is it OK to make an image of Jesus but not worship it? Paul’s preaching at the Areopagus suggests it is not.

        I thought I had this worked out better, but I’m afraid it’s still sketchy. I realize there are holes in this, but I think it will have to do for now.

  4. “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”

    –René Magritte

    Magritte and Michael Foucault remind us that neither words nor the visible can be reduced to each other’s terms.

    The problem is neither wholly abstract nor a mere parlor trick. People will die for a flag, knowing full well, at least on reflection, that the flag is not the country, merely a symbol of it.

    The fictional Robert Langdon is a professor of Religious Symbology at Harvard University.

  5. Oh my goodness, an extremely horrible pun just occured to me:

    Why can’t Protestants use computers?

    ‘Cause they don’t have icons! 😛

    (jkjk, just some good-natured, friendly ribbing)


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