St. John Damascene: The Doctor of Christian Art
December 4th is the feast of St. John Damascene, Patristic Father and Doctor of the Church. St. John Damascene is the illustrious champion of sacred images.
Saint John Damascene (also known as St. John of Damascus) was born In Damascus, Syria around 676 AD into a rich family and spent the early years of his adult life serving as the official representative of the Christian community to the Muslim Caliph. He later abandoned this political task to join the monastery of St. Sabas near Jerusalem where he became a priest and ultimately a bishop. St. John was such a great orator that he was known as Chrysorrhoas (“golden-stream”).
St. John Damascene is known as the last of the Greek Fathers of the Church. He was a strong defender of the use of images (icons) in Christian worship against the iconoclasts and is famous for his treatise Exposition of the Orthodox Faith that sums up the doctrinal heritage of the earlier Greek Fathers. In this great synthesis, we find a systematic treatment of the central Christian doctrines, especially the Trinity, Creation, and the Incarnation. St. John Damascene’s treatment of the sacraments is also extensive, and his emphasis on the real bodily presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is very strong. Notable, too, in his teaching is a fully developed doctrine of the Blessed Virgin Mary including her perpetual virginity, her freedom from sin throughout the whole of her life, and her bodily assumption into heaven.
St. John Damascene’s influence on later theology was considerable indeed. In the Latin Middle Ages, he was known to Peter Lombard and St. Thomas Aquinas. All throughout the Middle Ages his works were known and widely used by Eastern Christian Theologians, especially the Slavs. He died some time between 754 and 787 AD and was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XIII in 1890. His eloquent defense of images has deservedly procured him the title of “The Doctor of Christian Art.”
Saint John Damascene Quotes
“Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God.”
(Defide orth. 3,24:PG 94,1089C)
“We proclaim Him [God] also by our senses on all sides, and we sanctify the noblest sense, which is that of sight. The image is a memorial, just what words are to a listening ear. What a book is to those who can read, that an image is to those who cannot read. The image speaks to the sight as words to the ear; it brings us understanding. Hence, God ordered the Ark to be made of imperishable wood, and to be gilded outside and in, and the tablets to be put into it, and the staff and the golden urn containing the manna, for a remembrance of the past and a type of the future. Who can say these were not images and far sounding heralds?” (Apologia Against Those Who Decry Holy Images)
“The saints must be honored as friends of Christ and children and heirs of God, as John the theologian and evangelist says: ‘But as many as received him, he gave them the power to be made the sons of God….’ Let us carefully observe the manner of life of all the apostles, martyrs, ascetics and just men who announced the coming of the Lord. And let us emulate their faith, charity, hope, zeal, life, patience under suffering, and perseverance unto death, so that we may also share their crowns of glory” (Exposition of the Orthodox Faith).
This video contains a beautiful prayer written by St. John Damascene: