It was only by slow degrees that the use of icons became established in the Church. Reacting against their pagan environment, the first Christians were anxious to stress above all the exclusively spiritual character of their worship, and they sought to avoid anything that might savour of idolatry: “God is a Spirit, and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). Early Christian art – as found, for example, in the Roman catacombs – showed a certain reluctance to portray Christ directly, and He was most often represented in symbolical form, as the Good Shepherd, as Orpheus with his lyre, or the like. With the conversion of Constantine and the progressive disappearance of paganism, the Church grew less hesitant in its employment of art, and by A.D. 400 it had become an accepted practice to represent our Lord not just through symbols but directly. At this date, however, there is as yet no evidence to suggest that the pictures in church were venerated or honoured with any outward expressions of devotion. They were not at this period objects of cult, but their purpose was decorative and instructional.
Even in this restricted form, however, the use of icons aroused protests on the part of certain fourth-century writers, in particular Eusebius of Caesarea (†339), whose objections are to be found in his letter to Constantia Augusta, the sister of Emperor Constantine. Eusebius argued that an icon must necessarily represent the “historical” image of Christ, the “form” of His humiliation; this, however, has been superseded, since Christ’s humanity has been assumed into divine glory and now exists in a state which cannot possibly be depicted in paint and colour. A painted icon of Christ, he concluded, is therefore both unnecessary and misleading. Behind this line of thought may be detected a typically Origenist tendency to undermine the full historical significance of the Incarnation. Objections to the use of icons seem also to have been made by that fierce anti-Origenist, St. Epiphanius of Salamis (c. 315-403): but there is some doubt whether the works on this subject attributed to him are in fact authentic.
The first type of icon to receive veneration was not religious but secular – the portrait of the emperor. This was regarded as an extension of the imperial presence, and the honours that were shown to the emperor in person were also rendered to his icon. Incense and candles were burnt in front of it, and as a mark of respect men bowed themselves before it to the ground, such prostration being normally described by the term proskynesis. This cult of the imperial image dates back to pagan times: with the conversion of the emperor to Christianity it was readily accepted by Christians, nor was any objection raised on the part of the ecclesiastical authorities.
If men paid such respect as this to the image of the earthly ruler, should they not show equal reverence to the image of Christ the heavenly King? It was an obvious and natural inference, but it was not an inference that was made at once. In fact, proskynesis was shown towards the relics of the saints and the Cross before it began to be shown towards the icon of Christ. Not until the period following Justinian – during the years 550-650 – did the veneration of icons in churches and private homes become widely accepted in the devotional life of eastern Christians. By the years 650-700 the first attempts were made by Christian writers to provide a doctrinal basis for this growing cult of icons and to formulate a Christian theology of art. Of particular interest is a work, surviving only in fragments, by Leontius of Neapolis (in Cyprus), rebutting Jewish criticisms.
The veneration of icons was not accepted everywhere without opposition. In the late sixth century protests were made at distant geographical extremes, in both instances outside the bounds of the Byzantine Empire – to the west in Marseilles, and to the east in Armenia. (From “Christian Theology in the East,” in A History of Christian Doctrine, edited by Hubert Cunliffe-Jones [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980], pp. 191-92)
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