Cover image for Imago Dei : the Byzantine apologia for icons
Imago Dei : the Byzantine apologia for icons
Pelikan, Jaroslav, 1923-2006.
Publication Information:
Washington, D.C. : National Gallery of Art ; [Princeton] : Princeton University Press, 1990.
Physical Description:
196 pages : illustrations, ; 27 cm.
Format :


Call Number
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BR238 .P44 1990 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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In 726 the Byzantine emperor, Leo III, issued an edict that all religious images in the empire were to be destroyed, a directive that was later endorsed by a synod of the Church in 753 under his son, Constantine V. If the policy of Iconoclasm had succeeded, the entire history of Christian art--and of the Christian church, at least in the East--would have been altered.

Iconoclasm was defeated--by Byzantine politics, by popular revolts, by monastic piety, and, most fundamentally of all, by theology, just as it had been theology that the opponents of images had used to justify their actions. Analyzing an intriguing chapter in the history of ideas, the renowned scholar Jaroslav Pelikan shows how a faith that began by attacking the worship of images ended first in permitting and then in commanding it.

Pelikan charts the theological defense of icons during the Iconoclastic controversies of the eighth and ninth centuries, whose high point came in A.D. 787, when the Second Council of Nicaea restored the cult of images in the church. He demonstrates how the dogmas of the Trinity and the Incarnation eventually provided the basic rationale for images: because the invisible God had become human and therefore personally visible in Jesus Christ, it became permissible to make images of that Image. And because not only the human nature of Christ, but that of his Mother had been transformed by the Incarnation, she, too, could be "iconized," together with all the other saints and angels.

The iconographic "text" of the book is provided by one of the very few surviving icons from the period before Iconoclasm, the Egyptian tapestry Icon of the Virgin now in the Cleveland Museum of Art. Other icons serve to illustrate the theological argument, just as the theological argument serves to explain the icons.

Reviews 2

Library Journal Review

Here is a book for specialists and advanced students on the eighth-century Byzantine theological controversy over the role of icons--or images--in the Christian religion. Pelikan, a distinguished historian of religion at Yale, gives a detailed review of this complex issue, using as a focus one of the few pre-Iconoclastic images to survive, a textile in the Cleveland Museum of Art. The discussion is detailed and, dealing with now-obscure theological sources and ideas, requires close attention. For advanced collections in religion and medieval art only.-- Jack Perry Brown, Ryerson & Burnham Libs., Art Inst. of Chicago (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Lectures given at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, by a distinguished church historian from Yale and published as part of the Princeton "Bollingen Series." Pelikan sees his effort as concerned not so much with the history of images as with the history of ideas about images and their legitimacy. He cites John of Damascus to demonstrate the inseparability of the image (eikon) from the idea (ennoia). Pelikan uses as iconographic "text" for his study the only pre-iconoclastic icon known to be in North America from the Cleveland Museum of Art--a tapestry icon of the Virgin. In 726 the Emperor Leo III ordered all religious images destroyed, an order confirmed in 753 by his son Constantine V. After an intense physical and ideological struggle, icons were restored by the Second Council of Nicaea in 787. Though part of the conflict was political, it was not merely political but cultural and theological, and the iconoclastic controversy became the first thorough debate in the history of the Christian Church about the nature and function of religious art and the possibility of a Christian aesthetics, as Pelikan clearly shows. Pelikan concludes with John of Damascus's six links in the great chain of images, which serve as a summary from the Creator Logos to creatures as images and to the images as icons. Not for the uninitiated, Imago Dei demands knowledge of Byzantine art, history, and theology, but it will take its place among the recent select books that persuasively and clearly demonstrate the dynamic genius of Byzantium. -J. E. Rexine, Colgate University