Why use icons for worship
Like a picture of a loved one, you cherish it because it holds the essence of who is depicted, not for the paper that it is made out of. When an icon of a God is created, that same essence is cherished and worshiped. It is not the material of the icon that is venerated, but the essence that emanates from the icon that evokes the Gods that is worshiped and praised. It is by invoking this presence that the icon makes it easier to concentrate and focus on the divine.
The providence of the Gods reaches everywhere and needs only some congruity for its reception. All congruity comes about by representation and likeness; which is why temples are made in the image of heaven and icons are made in the likeness of the divine.
Iamblichus on creating icons
Iamblichus displayed disapproval of eidôlopoiêtikê technê, the art of image making, a production method where the sculptor is not trying to make a statue of a God but is trying to make a God. Iamblichus warns of this production method, writing that “One must apprehend the nature of this miracle-mongering and under no circumstances perform it or believe in it!”
Such images are created by humans, not the Gods, made from matter, not Intelligible substances. Such matter, although ostensibly holding divine tokens, isn’t put together in such a way as to invoke a deity, instead containing a mish-mash of the tokens of different deities or Forms, rendering their efficacy void. Simply sculpting a statute to look like a particular God, Daimon, Angel, etc., though a beginning, isn’t enough.
Such an image is a mere reflection, an eidolon, and there is little purpose in revering an eidolon or mistaking it for true divinity. Eidolon rely on matter and, in the words of the divine Iamblichus, “What good, then would arise as springing up from matter and things material?”
Iamblichus overall condemns the art of image making, writing “that the image-maker does not use the astral revolutions or the powers inherent in them, or the powers found naturally around them, nor is he at all able to control them; rather he operates with those emanating last from nature in the visible (realm) about the extreme part of the universe, and does so purely by technical skill, and not by theurgic skill.”
However, this doesn’t mean that Iamblichus was an iconoclast against the use of icons. By including the correct symbols and tokens, whether sculpted into the statue or included as pharmaka (amulets and/or talismans inside the statue) and through purifications, fumigations, and invocations, the reflection becomes a true image, an eikon (icon), of the divine, fully invested with its reason-principles. Iamblichus approved of this art, called hê telestikê technê, the or the telestic art. This is when someone is trying to make a statue of a God, as opposed to making a God. While the technical art of image making is merely the creation of an inanimate idol, the telestic theurgist crafts something with an ability to capture the essence of what is depicted by the idol. Just as the skilled painter captures the divine Form of his or her subject, sculpted cult statues can contain the eikon of a higher reality, becoming its visible representation. This, in turn, becomes a kind of demiurgy; for just as the Demiurge creates the universe as an agalma (image/statue) for the everlasting Gods, the theurgist creates an ensouled statue for a particular God or Goddess. While image makers attempt to create a God by forming their statue at the correct astrological moment, the telestic priest creates a statue that is animated through the use of symbola (divine symbols), synthemata (divine images), and hieratic rituals (theurgy); all while also knowing how to link the symbola (divine symbols), both together and to their divine causes, in order to compose a pure image which preserves the analogy with divine creation. In short, while an eidolon is a reflection of an image, an eikon is an image of the divine.
There is, of course, a difference between the Forms represented in paintings and regular artwork and the images of the Gods or any other entity with its source above the Intellective Realm. This is because the Forms are Intellective (Noeric); however, the essence (ousia) of the Gods is Intelligible and thus utterly ineffable. The Gods, though at the top of the chain of Being, are still beyond even the reaches of the soul’s imaginative mirror.
Why then, one may ask, are the icons of the Gods anthropomorphic? This question can be asked about the images of any spiritual entity, none of which are naturally defined by a humanoid appearance. The answer is found in Plato’s Timaeus, which states living beings are the most beautiful things as they have a soul, and human bodies are created by the Encosmic Gods to be like their own; that is, consisting of spheres; thus the closest embodied thing to the Gods is the human form. However, not all statues are in human form. There is some suggestion in Iamblichus’ Pythagorean material, and his lost On Divine Statues, of an egg, spherical or dodecahedron-shaped agalma connected to the World Soul. The World Soul also plays a role in the consecration of statues and their preparation to receive the divine influx of purifying light.
One can create an eikon by following these steps.
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