Saint of the Day – 4 December – St John Damascene (675-749) Father & Doctor of the Church – Priest, Monk, Theologian, Writer, Defender of Iconography, Poet, a Polymath whose fields of interest and contribution included law, theology, philosophy, music, Marian devotee. Also known as Doctor of Christian Art, Jean Damascene, Johannes Damascenus, John Chrysorrhoas (“golden-stream”), John of Damascus. Born in c 675 at Damascus, Syria and died in 749 of natural causes. Patronages: pharmacists, icon artists, theology students.
Eastern Orthodox Christians and Eastern Catholics, whose tradition has been particularly shaped by his insights, celebrate the saint’s feast on the same day as the Roman Catholic Church. Among Eastern Christians, St John (676-749) is best known for his defence 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, charging that the veneration of Christian icons was a form of idolatry.
Saint John was born in the late 7th century and is the most remarkable of the Greek writers of the 8th century. His father was a civil authority who was Christian amid the Saracens of Damascus, whose caliph made him his minister. This enlightened man found in the public square one day, amid a group of sad Christian captives, a priest of Italian origin who had been condemned to slavery, he ransomed him and assigned him to his young son to be his tutor. Young John made extraordinary progress in grammar, dialectic, mathematics, music, poetry, astronomy but above all in theology, the discipline imparting knowledge of God. John became famous for his encyclopedic knowledge and theological method, later a source of inspiration to Saint Thomas Aquinas.
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 worshipped God, and honoured 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, the young public official’s persistent defence of Christian artwork 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 states 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.
Although a number of imperially-convened synods condemned John’s advocacy of Christian iconography, the Roman church always regarded his position as a defence of apostolic tradition. Years after the priest and monk died, the Seventh Ecumenical Council vindicated his orthodoxy and ensured the permanent place of holy images in both Eastern and Western Christian piety.
St John Damascene’s other notable achievements include the “Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” a work in which he systematised the earlier Greek Fathers’ thinking about theological truths in light of philosophy. The work exerted a profound influence on St Thomas Aquinas and subsequent scholastic theologians. Centuries later, St John’s sermons on the Virgin Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven were cited in Pope Pius XII’s dogmatic definition on the subject.
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.
“Show me the icons that you venerate, that I may be able to understand your faith.” – Saint John of Damascus.