Léonid Alexandrovich Ouspensky (1902–1987)

“The Church teaches that the image is based on the Incarnation of the second person of the Trinity. This is not a break with nor even a contradiction of the Old Testament, as the Protestants understand it; but, on the contrary, it clearly fulfills it, for the existence of the image in the New Testament is implied by its prohibition in the Old. Even though this may appear to be strange, the sacred image for the Church proceeds precisely from the absence of the image in the Old Testament. The forerunner of the Christian image is not the pagan idol, as is sometimes thought, but the absence of direct iconography before the Incarnation, just as the forerunner of the Church is not the pagan world, but the Israel of old, the people chosen by God to witness His revelation. The prohibition of the image which appears in Exodus (20:4) and in Deuteronomy (5:12-19) is a provisional, pedagogic measure which concerns only the Old Testament, and is not a prohibition in theory. ”Moreover I gave them statutes that were not good’ (Ez. 20:25) because of their callousness,’ says St John of Damascus, explaining this prohibition by means of a biblical quotation. Indeed, the prohibition of all direct and concrete images was accompanied by the divine commandment to establish certain symbolic images, those prefigurations which were the tabernacle and everything which it contained, and the smallest details of which were, so to speak, dictated by God.”

“[The iconoclasts] limited themselves to the biblical prohibition and confused the Christian image with the idol. Comparing the Old Testament texts and the Gospel, St John [of Damascus] shows that the Christian image, far from contradicting the prohibition of the Old Testament, is, as we have said, its result and conclusion, since it arises from the very essence of Christianity.

His reasoning can be summarized as follows: in the Old Testament God manifests Himself directly to His people only by sound, by word. He does not show Himself, and remains invisible. Israel does not see any image. In Deuteronomy (4:12), we read: ‘The Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice.’ And a bit further (4:15), we read: ‘Therefore take good heed to yourselves. Since you saw no form on the day that the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire.’ The prohibition comes immediately afterwards (4:16-19).

Thus when God speaks of creatures, He forbids their representation. But when He speaks of Himself, He also forbids the making of His image, stressing the fact that He is invisible. Neither the people, nor even Moses saw any image of Him. They only heard His words. Not having seen God’s image, they could not represent it; they could only write down His divine word, which is what Moses did. And how could they represent that which is incorporeal and indescribable, that which has neither shape nor limit? But in the very insistence of the biblical texts to emphasize that Israel hears the word but does not see the image, St John of Damascus discovers a mysterious sign of the future possibility of seeing and representing God coming in the flesh. ‘What is mysteriously indicated in these passages of Scripture?’, he asks. ‘It is clearly a prohibition against representing the invisible God. But when you see Him who has no body become man for you, then you will make representations of His human aspect. When the Invisible, having clothed Himself in the flesh, becomes visible, then represent the likeness of Him who has appeared… When He who, having been the consubstantial Image of the Father, emptied Himself by taking the form of a servant [Phil 2:6-7], thus becoming bound in quantity and quality, having taken on the carnal image, then paint and make visible to everyone Him who desired to become visible. Paint His birth from the Virgin, His baptism in the Jordan, His transfiguration on Mount Tabor… Paint everything with words and with colors, in books and on boards.’

Thus the very prohibition against representing the invisible God implies the necessity of representing God once the prophecies have been fulfilled. The words of the Lord, ‘You have seen no images; hence do not create any,’ mean ‘create no images of God as long as you have not seen Him.’ An image of an invisible God is impossible, ‘for how can that which is inaccessible to the eye be represented?’ If such an image were made, it would be based on imagination and would therefore be a falsehood and a lie.”

“The iconoclasts also said that nothing in the New Testament indicates that icons should be made or venerated. ‘The custom of making icons of Christ has no foundation either in the tradition of Christ, or in that of the apostles or the Fathers,’ they maintained. ‘But, St Theodore the Studite replied, ‘nowhere did Christ order any word to be put down; and yet His image has been traced by the apostles and been preserved up to now. What is written down on paper and with ink, is put on the icon through various colors or another material.'”

Excerpts from Leonid Ouspensky’s “Theology of the Icon”, Volume 1.