The Edict of Milan
The Edict of Milan (313CE) had a profound impact on virtually every aspect of the Christian church. After this edict, Byzantine art emerged as the first Christian style. Its purpose was didactic, to teach the people through pictures. Pope Gregory the Great is credited with saying: “Painting can do for the illiterate what writing does for those who can read”.22 This edict also had an impact on the icon. Prior to Constantine, the art of the church was hidden. After 313CE, it was possible that the art of the church could become public.
18 Ouspensky, 1992, p. 30.
19 Carnegie S. Calian. Icon And Pulpit: The Protestant-Orthodox Encounter. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1968), p. 129.
20 Ouspensky, 1992, p. 31.
21 Baggley, 1988, p. 7.
22 E. H. Gombrich. The Story of Art. (London: Phaidon Press Limited, 1995), p. 135.
Prior to Constantine, religious art was meaningful to those who understood the faith but not to the new convert. After Constantine, there were many converts. The art of the church had to change to be more accessible to the new, unknowledgeable believers.23 The role of image in both communication of truth and in expression of worship became increasingly significant. Many of the theologians of the time concluded that painted images had even greater power than words.24 As a result, the use of image in the church was encouraged and flourished.
Image as Equal to Word
The Orthodox understanding of icon confers a basic authoritative equality of image and word. “The word is an image, therefore the image is the word. Images are on the same level as the word.”25 Zibawi suggests that “…the icon is the expression of the good news, on a par with the written Gospels.”26 The technical aspects of the icon were under the control of the iconographer but not the content. This reemphasizes the idea that content is the Gospel. Structure and style, which are at the discretion of men, are technical.
“In the eyes of the Church, therefore, the icon is not art illustrating Holy Scripture; it is a language that corresponds to it and is equivalent to it, corresponding not to the letter of Scripture or the book itself as an object, but the evangelical kerygma, that is, to the content of the Scripture itself…”27
23 (Ouspensky/ Lossky, 1983, p. 29)
24 for example, John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, Cyril of Alexandria (Ouspensky, 1992, p. 81ff)
25 (Ouspensky/ Lossky, 1983, p. 30)
26 (Zibawi, 1993, p. 11)
27 (Ouspensky, 1992, p. 139)
This creates the possibility of the role of icons as preacher. In fact, Limouris suggests that icons play a role as important as the preaching of the word.28 They allow humans to partake in the divine reality of God. They function as windows to the eternal. This is consistent with the Orthodox understanding that the bible is a verbal icon of Christ and should be venerated in the same way.29
28 (Limouris, 1990, p. ix)
29 Timothy Ware. The Orthodox Church. (Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1964), p. 209.
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