St. Photius on Different Depictions of Christ in Different Cultures

In question 210 of his Amphilochia (PG 101:947-952), St. Photius takes on an objection from those opposed to icons:

Those who are most audacious and wicked among the iconoclasts, and who consider vain curiosity to be wisdom, ask what is the true image of Christ, whether it is that which the Romans draw, or that which the Indians, or the Greeks, or the Egyptians portray, since these do not agree among themselves in likeness … [Later on Photius repeats the objection:] They say that, seeing as the Greeks endeavor to have Christ similar to themselves, the Romans instead to themselves, the Indians to their own figure, and the Ethiopians to theirs … it is not apparent from these things who might be taken for the true Christ.

St. Photius gives six objections that can be used against this argument.

What is first to be said to them is: from that very assortment of images whence you propose to indicate a conflict, you unwillingly admit that, throughout the world wherever Christianity exists, the existence and cult of images is to be had. Thus in that which they desired to destroy, they confirm even more the images, and they are caught enmeshed by their own reasoning.

The second, third, and fourth objections are pretty similar. Essentially, Photius argues that this reasoning could equally be applied to the differences in the gospels and liturgies between different cultures, which would lead to the absurd result that these are not legitimate either. Furthermore, it even applies to the crosses which the iconoclasts set up, some of which have a title, others not. In the fifth objection he argues (I admittedly found it difficult to follow) that anyone who attacks an image necessarily is targeting the one depicted in the image. In the final thing which St. Photius adds, he writes:

The dissimilitude which is observed among images does not void the nature and truth of the image. For the thing depicted is not expressed only by the figure of the body and the form of the colors, but also by its disposition, its harmonious action, its emphasis of passions, its dedication in holy places, by the explanation of its inscriptions, and in other more prominent symbols which should not at all (or at least for the most part) be absent in the images of the faithful. Through these things, no less than if everything were present, we are lead to the memory and honor of the thing depicted, which is the purpose of iconography.

St. Photius’s list of the components of an image which give it meaning has its own interest (note that he remarks that the location of an image is part of what gives it its meaning). But what I find most remarkable about this is, first, the topic, which is still discussed today (e.g., whenever someone asks why Jesus is often depicted as white), and, second, St. Photius’s response. It is not triumphalist, i.e., dismissing the Indian, Egyptian, or Ethiopian depiction of Christ as erroneous. Indeed, he acknowledges that each culture depicts Christ in its own way. But he remarks that this is no less astonishing than each culture having gospels in its own tongue and modes of expression, or its own liturgies; for these things, each suited to a different culture, express their truths no less than if they were only expressed according to one way.

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St. Photius on the Baptism of the Apostles

I have recently renewed my study of Latin from last summer and I am very pleased that this time I have been able to make progress understanding the Latin in Migne (though not without difficulty). It is early days still, but here is a taste of St. Photius’s Amphilochia, which is a work dedicated to answering numerous questions about the Scripture (and the faith and philosophy more generally). It is full of very interesting remarks. Here is one question, about the baptism of the apostles (PG 101:719).

Question 124: When were the apostles baptized, and by whom?

We see that the apostles received the baptism of John before Christ’s passion. And the Savior did not bring out another baptism before his passion, so that He might not render the office of John void, or give an occasion of talk to the Jews opposed to him, because this would have put the baptism of John in disrepute. But whatever was lacking in it, He supplied, not baptizing in water, but in the Spirit. For so He himself says: “Before many days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5), indeed not before ten. Ten days is given for this work, so that the faith of the apostles might be proved. For it is by a quiescent grace, and not by what was promised appearing, that their faith is exercised, and their hope given an opportunity (to show), faith and not doubt of those things to be obtained. To be baptized in the Holy Spirit is the same thing as to receive the Holy Spirit. Therefore in the Spirit and in water the apostles were baptized before Christ’s suffering, and this washing yielded to them remission of sins, however not union with the Holy Spirit. Our Lord teaches that John baptized (all) the apostles when He tells Peter, who was denying that he should be washed: “He who has been bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet” (John 13:10). By this word it appears that not only Peter but also the other apostles, whose feet He also washed, were purified by the baptism of John. The Savior therefore did not abrogate the baptism of repentance which was administered by John for the remission of sins, but completed it with an added gift of the Holy Spirit.