Blog Template Theology of the Body: Worship with Graven Images?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Worship with Graven Images?

In the late sixteenth century, Roman Catholic Dutch artists responded to their Protestant context with an increasing emphasis on Marian imagery in their work. One particular artist, Gerrit van Honthorst, was fond of depicting Old Testament types of Mary in the Solomonic Temple, looking seriously aggrieved by the pagan idol worship that was creeping in under King Solomon. What is the message behind these pieces?

We get a Marian emphasis in the first place because a sine qua non of Christian doctrine is that God has united Himself fully to humanity in the man Jesus of Nazareth, Mary’s son. The total unity of a fully divine nature and a fully human nature in Jesus Christ was affirmed at the Council of Ephesus in 431- this is the same Council at which the popular designation of Mary as Theotokos, Mother of God, was officially dogmatized. In other words, because the two natures (divine and human) are inseparable in Jesus, Mary is properly to be recognized as “Mother of God” in as much as she is the mother of the Man.

The Church’s contemporaneous anathamatizations of the proposals of Nestorius and Theodore of Mopsuestia highlight further the Catholic teaching: whereas the designated heretics proposed that the divine nature “indwelt” or “inhabited” the man Jesus (as God had inhabited the Temple), the Catholics upheld that Jesus was the union of God and man in one Person. Thus, any sense of Jesus as the Temple of God, in whom God merely “dwells” (an heretical idea) is refuted nicely by the image of Mary as the Temple of God. The latter is an orthodox idea because it differentiates between the ontological union of God and man in Christ, which dwelt in Mary’s womb; whereas the Catholics wanted to emphasize the union of two natures in Christ, heretics wanted to emphasize a mere coalesence or “indwelling” between the divine and human in Christ. Thus, you find Mary compared to the Temple or the Ark of the Covenant because it is true to say that God Incarnate, “dwelt” in her- in her womb, to be precise. On the other hand, it is not correct to say that God “dwelt” in Jesus, since Christians believe that God “is” Jesus.

These depictions had very specific and political connotations. Art historicans have suggested that “the depiction of Solomon worshipping false gods may have been intended as a criticism of their Protestant counterparts on the part of royal Catholic patrons.” Here, bear in mind that it would have been (then as now) the Prots who were critiquing the Catholics for their apparent “idol worship” in the veneration of images of the saints, adoration of the consecrated Host, visual depictions of God in Christ, etc; the Protestant accusation against the Catholics is precisely one of idolatry. The Catholics would have responded that their iconography and related practices related directly to the orthodox affirmation of the Incarnation, which had been defined in the seventh century by Theodore of Studios (On the Holy Icons). Theodore insisted, against the iconoclasts of his own time, that in light of the Christian belief in the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures in the person of Christ, it is right to depict that Person for Christian worship because such iconographic depiction 1) honors the fact of the true Incarnation of God, in His corporeal existence with us in Christ and 2) assists the understanding and piety of the illiterate, who would not have had access to the textual Gospel account of the Person of Christ.

In sum, the debate over the propriety of icons in Christian worship went right to the heart of the Christian faith in terms of whether the (depictable) Incarnation of God was going to be radically affirmed- or not. It is really interesting that Honthorst, as a self-identifying devout Catholic, could very well have been aware of the Protestant iconoclastic sentiments of his own day- I’m thinking particularly of a Prot Reformer named Andreas Karlstadt (1486-1541), On the Removal of Images. In this treatise, Karlstadt explicitly states that the Protestant Church must do away with the apparent “idolatry” of graven images because the flesh of Christ is of no real assistance to Christian redemption (on the contrary, the early Church Fathers had urged that humanity is only saved by the union of God to human flesh in Christ, since “whatever He has not assumed cannot be redeemed” (Gregory Nazianzen).

So the implicit Catholic “critique” could be read as inviting the viewer to consider (in the charged religiopolitical context of the time) that though the Prots might rail against Catholics for their apparent idol worship, it is the Prots who have done much worse by effectively undermining the doctrine of the Incarnation in their disapproval of icons. Honthorst’s emphasis on the Marian image may highlight the nature of the controversy by inviting the viewer to recall that it is the Mother of Christ who most fully understands that God Himself has become incarnate in her womb for the salvation of the world, and that this belief is not to be compromised by the Protestant’s heretical iconoclast propositions.