Iconography in the Church of the East


During my transition from the Assyrian into the Chaldean Church, one of the subjects that came up during discussions with others was the status of icons.  This was a minor issue in that it was questioned only by members who had no knowledge of the venerable history of the Church of the East.  As was posted during these times:

“many accuse our Church to be iconoclastic … our Church had a tradition and defended the use of them, and only through oppression and suppression did we start losing them”

Historically, Church of the East bishops and theologians mentioning and defending the veneration of Icons. This apologetic material fades out about the time that the Church is heavily persecuted and survives by having fled into the refuge of the mountains.  By the 14th century, persecution, destruction of churches and the killing of our teachers had taken a toll on the Church, and thus the marginalization of icons was a pragmatic direction.  This troubled times also led to church to become nepotic, with the episcopal sees being handed down within the family.  In 1450, Mar Shimun IV Basidi would make the patriarchal see hereditary, followed by other sees.

Liturgically, there are many instances in our rites, and the existing commentaries of them, where icons are mentioned. In fact, according to the Hudra, at the altar there should be a Gospel, a Cross, and an Icon of Christ. There are other instances where they are to be used, like in the baptism rite when a godparent is not present.

Even in the new Assyrian Catechism which was prepared for the patriarch by two priests in Chicago, the following is stated:

And, according to the Takhsa, in order for the priest to celebrate the Holy Qurbana (Holy Offering) there must be these three things; namely, The Holy Gospel, the Holy Cross, and the Icon of Christ.

Unfortunately, there is a disconnect due to external circumstances, and now among many of the faithful of the Assyrian church, there is ignorance regarding their veneration, mostly due to ignorance of the church’s true teachings and the influence of Islam in the old countries and Protestant theology in the diaspora.

So there is definitely the place for icons in our Church’s history, liturgy, laws, and teachings… The fact is that historical persecution made the church not use icons, but before that devastation, there were statues in the churches in Seleucia-Ctesiphon, and icons, and paintings in gospels.  And the Chaldean Church carries on this tradition.  As Bishop Mar Sarhad Jammo stated in his pastoral letter this year:

Therefore, the Chaldean Catholic Church in its current common practice, that rejects iconoclasm, not only adheres to the orthodox doctrine, but reflects also faithfully the genuine Mesopotamian tradition.

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5 Responses to “Iconography in the Church of the East”

  1. Ian Says:

    Thank you for the interesting and informative history, Dcn Anthony.

    I think you mentioned the Hudra before but I cannot recall; as per your comment on it am I correct in thiking it is a commentary on the Liturgical Rites, or is it a spiritual work/commentary? And, similarly, what is the Takhsa?

    My prayers and warmest wishes for a blessed Lenten season to you and all your brothers and sisters.

  2. aboriente Says:

    Definitely my bad. 😦 Should have been careful with the foreign names.

    Hudra, a word meaning circle/cycle, refers to the book of hymns, prayers, readings, etc, of the church for the whole year. It is the equivalent of the Liturgy of the Hours.

    Takhsa, coming from to order or arrange, is the ordinances of the church liturgy.

  3. aboriente Says:

    My prayers for a blessed Lent to you as well. It has been too long since we have talked.

    Besides readings and such, I have set up something nice for this Lent. We are soon going to have a viewing of “Into Great Silence” at our Church. It’s a great way to encourage us along in our Lenten season. I have to warn people not to expect popcorn… the sound of it in their mouths will be louder than most of the movie. 😉

  4. Ian Says:

    No worries; thank you for the explanations. It is always good to learn.

    I saw “Into Great Silence” here; it is an amazing film. And a big 🙂 at the thought of popcorn breaking the silence.

  5. Ian Says:

    Oh — and yes: far too long since we have spoken. Hope to be able to catch up with you soon.

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