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St John of Damascus

 

 Also called Saint John Damascene, he was born in or around 675 ad in Damascus and was a monk and theologian within the Greek and Latin churches making him an eminent intermediary between Greek and medieval Latin culture.

  Among Eastern Christians, St. John is best known for his defense of Christian sacred art, particularly in the form of icons. While the churches of Rome and Constantinople were still united during St. John's life, the Byzantine Emperor Leo III broke radically from the ancient tradition of the church, claiming that the veneration of Christian icons was a form of idolatry.

  John grew up under Muslim rule in Damascus asthe son of Christian parents. His education in theology prepared him well to defend the tradition of sacred iconography against the heresy of the “iconoclasts,” so-called because they would enter churches and destroy the images therein. During the 720s, the upstart theologian began publicly opposing the emperor's command against sacred images in a series of writings. The heart of his argument was twofold: first, that Christians did not actually worship images, but rather, through them they worshiped God, and honored the memory of the saints. Second, he asserted that by taking an incarnate physical form, Christ had given warrant to the Church's depiction of him in images.

  By 730, Saint John’s protection of Christian art had made him a permanent enemy of the emperor, who had a letter forged in John's name offering to betray the Muslim government of Damascus. The ruling caliph of the city, taken in by the forgery, is said to have cut off John's hand. The saint's sole surviving biography tells that the Virgin Mary acted to restore it, miraculously. John eventually managed to convince the Muslim ruler of his innocence, before making the decision to become a monk and later a priest.

  The emperor and his followers condemned John's advocacy of Christian iconography but the Roman church always regarded him as an example of apostolic tradition. St. John’s other notable achievements include the “Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” a work in which he catalogued the earlier Greek Fathers' thinking about theological truths in light of philosophy. The work served as a profound influence on St. Thomas Aquinas and subsequent scholastic theologians. St. John's sermons on the Virgin Mary's bodily assumption into heaven were regarded as definitive for centuries after his death.  The saint also contributed as an author and editor, to some of the liturgical hymns and poetry that Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholics still use in their celebrations of the liturgy. His feast day is December 4th, which commemorates the day of his death near Jerusalem.  The following quote is very interesting.  It makes a point which was not, to me, obvious until I read it.  Christian art is more than a decorative feature or a simple act of praise.

“Show me the icons that you venerate, that I may be able to understand your faith.” - Saint John of Damascus


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