|Assyrian Church of the East icon|
Bibliotéque Nationale, Paris
The concept that the Church of the East does not have icons in her tradition is a myth. The Assyrian Church does not currently make large use of icons, but they are indeed present in her tradition. The evidence for the use of icons is plentiful, continues well into the fortheenth century, and is found in core documents, canonical writings and liturgical texts. Furthermore, throughout my research I have found no mention of any supression of icons. In this post I’ll provide several examples of the way icons have been written about by the Assyrian Fathers. At a later date I will provide additional information on the topic, as there is much more material to cover than can be enumerated in a single posting.
The letter came to Abgar the king, and he received it with great joy. When they related to him the wonders that were performed by Jesus in the land of Judea, he admired and was amazed by the might of God. Since he was not worthy of seeing these things…he found skilled painters and ordered them…to depict the fact of our Lord and bring the depiction…to him. The painters were not able to depict the Lord’s human appearance. When our Lord realized, thought the understanding of His divinity, the love of Abgar for Him and as He saw the painters who endeavored to find the image to depict Him as He was, but failed, He took a cloth and imprinted on it His face…The cloth was placed in the Church of Edessa, where it still remains as a source of all kinds of help.” (A. Harrak, “The Acts of Mar Mari the Apostle”, Writings from the Greco-Roman World II (Atlanta, 2005) found in Die Welt der Gotterbilder, ed. B Groneberd & H Spieckermann, pg 327Now the Abgar account is not easily verified by history, but is a matter of faith especially for Syriac and Armenian Christians. It forms a vital part of the identity of the Assyrian Church. It is where Assyrian Christians trace their spiritual roots to as much as St Peter for Rome or St Mark for Alexandria.
“And now they put all of the sacred vessels, with which they serve the holy mysteries: the paten and chalice and fans; the icon on high, and the aer and veils and stoles; and the vestments of the altar: except the cross and Gospel-Book.(ܛܟܼܣܐ ܕܟܗ̈ܢܐ ܕܥܕܬܐ ܕܡܕܢܚܐ܆ܡܫܠ̱ܝܐܝܬܼ ܐܝܟ ܛܘܟܣܐ ܕܕܝܪܐ ܥܠܝܬܐ، ܩܫ܊ ܝܘܣܦ ܕܒܝܬ ܩܠܝܬܐ، ܡܘܨܠ. 1928. ܦܬ 399”) (Priest Service Book of the Church of the East, Ed. J. Kelaita (Mosul, 1928), pg 399-400).
“Of the Sanctuary. Glory…Thine church, O Savior, bears a heavenly treasury and riches in the mysteries and types that thou hast bestowed upon her and in which she takes refuge and hope: the Great Book of Thine Proclamation, the worshiped wood of Thine cross, the beautiful icon of Thine humanity; these great mysteries of her salvation. ܟܬܒܐ ܕܩܕܡ ܘܕܒܬܐ ܘܕܚܘܕܪܐ ܘܕܟܫܟܘܠ ܘܕܓܙܐ ܘܩܠܐ ܕܥܘܕܖ̈ܢܐ ܥܡ ܟܬܒܐ ܕܡܙܡܘܪܐ. (ܡܪܝ ܬܐܘܡܐ ܕܪܡܘ. ܬܪܝܫܘܪ، 1962 ܬܫܡܒ. )
My hope is that when my fellow Assyrians communicate about their faith with my fellow Orthodox Christians, the rejection of icons might not be a point of separation. Indeed, it is not only Orthodox Christians who can learn about the Syriac heritage of the Church by encountering the Church of the East, but Assyrians who can learn about forgotten bits of their own history by encountering the challenge of learning about and describing their Church to the Orthodox.