Giovanni Damasceno

Publish date 06-11-2022

by Chiara Dal Corso

He is a figure to know, at the origins of iconography. Saint and Doctor of the universal Church, he was the main theologian who, on behalf of the pope of the time Gregory III, was involved in the defense of the cult of sacred images during the period of iconoclasm, in which they were opposed, prohibited and destroyed by the Byzantine emperor himself. At that time they were not yet widespread due to the prohibition of depicting images of God, present in the Old Testament.

We are between around 650 and 750. Giovanni, son of Sarjun, was born in Damascus, from a rich and influential family of Christian Arabs, from whom he inherited the knowledge and accounting skills and succeeded his father in economic responsibility of the caliphate. Subsequently, having studied theology and philosophy in Constantinople, he decides to undertake the monastic life by retiring to the monastery of San Saba, between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, where he will remain almost all his life. Here he is ordained a priest and receives the post of preacher. He was a great defender of the Christian religion, Trinitarian theology and sacred images. Numerous texts of him remain: homilies, liturgical hymns and various theological treatises that have become fundamental for the church and our faith. In particular, in the defense of sacred images (for which he writes three treatises) he bases his arguments on the Incarnation, that is, on the very fact that, in Jesus Christ, God became man, of flesh, and therefore VISIBLE. And precisely because God - whom no one had ever seen until then - took a face, a human body in Jesus, we can now represent him. Read the beautiful text of an audience with Pope Benedict XVI which speaks precisely of Saint John Damascene. He defines him as one: "among the first to distinguish, in the public and private worship of Christians, between" adoration "which can only be addressed to God, and" veneration "which can use an image to address the person who is represented . With him we quote the words of Damascene: In other times God had never been represented in an image, being incorporeal and faceless. But since now God has been seen in the flesh and lived among men, I represent what is visible in God. I do not adore matter, but the creator of matter, who became matter for me and deigned to dwell in matter and work my salvation through matter. Therefore I will not cease to venerate the matter through which salvation has come to me. (...) Isn't the wood of the cross thrice blessed material perhaps? ... And aren't ink and the most holy book of the Gospels matter? Isn't the saving altar that dispenses the bread of life for us matter? ... And, above all else, are not the flesh and blood of my Lord matter? Either you have to suppress the sacred character of all this, or you have to grant to the tradition of the Church the veneration of the images of God and that of the friends of God (…) who are inhabited by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, do not offend the matter: it is not despicable, because nothing of what God has made is despicable (Contra imaginum calumniatores, I, 16, ed. Kotter, pp. 89-90) "(General Audience, 6 May 2009).

Giovanni Damasceno is also important for the Arsenal, thanks to the icon of Mary Mother of the Young (19th century, south-western Russia - probably from the Kiev area), modeled on the Tricherousa, "of the Three Hands", which tradition links to him. In fact, it is said that with a deception of the Byzantine emperor, John was unjustly accused of treason to the Islamic caliph, who therefore would have had him mutilated by a hand and imprisoned. Spending the night in prayer in front of an icon of the Virgin, John would receive the grace of the complete healing of his hand. Strengthened in his faith and mission, in memory of the miracle, he applied a hand of silver to the icon. After his death, it would be taken to a Serbian monastery and later to the Greek monastery of Chilandari, on Mount Athos, from where several icons of the Mother of God "from the Three Hands" began to be produced.

Chiara Dal Corso
NP June / July 2022

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