A Little Treatise on Mary
by St. John Damascene


ST. JOHN DAMASCENESt. John Damascene,
Patristic Father and
One of the Thirty-three Doctors
of the Church:
Doctor of Christian Art
and Doctor of the Assumption
c. 676-749

Feast Day: March 27 [Trad.]
December 4 [New]

  Whenever we look at traditional Catholic art we can thank St. John Damascene. We can thank him again when we look at the Crucifixes on our walls, or when in church we see the stained-glass windows, the paintings on the walls, the statues in their niches. All these have nourished Catholic our devotion.

St. John Damascene is the outstanding champion of sacred images. As such he is also the champion of that article in the Creed which says, "I believe in the Communion of Saints."

We often recite the Creed without thinking about each article: the precious summary of truths takes only a few moments to recite. Yet every article in it has been defended sometimes not just by verbal apologetics
-----by pens dipped in ink-----but by swords that dripped blood.  Men will always defend what they hold to be most precious.

Doctor of Christian Art

The Eastern Roman Emperor Leo III, the Isaurian [717-741], violently attacked a particular part of Catholic teaching on the Communion of Saints. In 726 A.D. he forbade all his subjects to keep any images, or icons, as the Greeks called them. He ordered the icons in the churches to be destroyed. A few years later, he threatened Pope Gregory II: "I will send an army to break your idols and to take you prisoner." Leo's son, Constantine V [741-775], continued the persecution. The monks were the strongest defenders of icons; many were Martyred and many monasteries were burned down. The large church of the Blessed Mother in Constantinople was stripped of its icons and repainted. People said it then looked like a bird cage or a fruit shop.

The periods of image-breaking or "iconoclasm" lasted 116 years, until the great triumphal procession when icons were carried through the streets of Constantinople on February 19, the First Sunday of Lent in 842 A.D.

Early in the controversy, about 729 A.D., St. John Damascene [St. John of Damascus] wrote three apologias defending the use of images. In these, he gave such a classical expression of the truths involved that nobody has ever had to improve upon it. He has supplied all the arguments from reason, from the past history of the Church, and from Sacred Scripture. If we wish to explain the use of statues, medals and holy pictures to ourselves or others, we need look no further.

St. John entered the conflict, not to win an argument, but to safeguard the truth. "Conquest is not my object," he said. "I raise a hand which is fighting for the truth
-----a willing hand under Divine guidance."
He felt strongly the implied charge by the image-breakers that the Church could have been wrong in the past to allow the use of images.

It is supreme error to think that the Church does not know God as He is, that she degenerates into idolatry, for if she declines from perfection in but one aspect, it is as an enduring mark on a beautiful face, destroying by its unsightliness the beauty of the whole. A small thing is not small when it leads to something great, nor indeed is it a thing of no matter to give up the ancient tradition of the Church held by our forefathers, whose conduct we should observe and whose faith we should imitate.

St. John Damascene said that the repeated commands given to the Jews not to make an image referred to the making of an image of the invisible God, lest they sink into idolartry, which they were prone to. Besides until Christ, God was invisible in His Person. But, says St. John, "We have passed the stage of infancy and reached the perfection of manhood. We receive our habit of mind from God and know what may be imaged and what may not."

"Especially since the invisible God took on flesh," says St. John, "we may make images of Christ, Who was visible, and picture Him in all His activities, His birth, Baptism, transfigura tion, His sufferings and Resurrection." St. John also asks the pointed question why God, Who forbids the making of images to adore, would also command the making of the Ark of the Covenant and the cherubim above the Ark if His previous prohibition were to be absolute. Many times St. John insists that we pay an altogether particular honor to God alone, called latria.

St. John Damascene ably demonstrates why it is good to have images:

"We proclaim Him [God] also by our senses on all sides, and we sanctify the noblest sense, which is that of sight. The image is a memorial, just what words are to a listening ear. What a book is to those who can read, that an image is to those who cannot read. The image speaks to the sight as words to the ear; it brings us understanding. Hence, God ordered the Ark to be made of imperishable wood, and to be gilded outside and in, and the tablets to be put into it, and the staff and the golden urn containing the manna, for a remembrance of the past and a type of the future. Who can say these were not images and far sounding heralds?" [1, 17]

Therefore, St. John Damascene sums up, "You see that the law and everything it ordained and all our own worship consist in the consecration of what is made by hands, leading us through matter to the invisible God." [2, 23]

Acts 6 and 7 of the seventh General Council [Nicaea II of 787
-----Source #3, p. 60] name St. John Damascene, along with St. Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople, and St. George of Cyprus as worthy of eternal memory for their defense of sacred images. The same three men had been singled out by the Council of the Iconoclasts held in 753 in the Palace of the Hieria near Constantinople, and anathematized. Constantine V further ordered St. John to be publicly cursed or anathematized once a year. It is not without good cause that St. John Damascene is called the "Doctor of Christian Art."

A river flows through Damascus which the ancients called Chrysorrhoas, or the golden-flowing. This epithet has also been given to St. John Damascene, "who is called Chrysorrhoas because of the golden and shining grace of the Spirit which flowed in both his words and his manner of life."

Not too much can be said with certainty regarding the details of St. John Damascene's life. He was born in Damascus of a good Christian family. His father, Sergius, was a tax collector for the Mohammedan Caliph of Damascus. St. John was also known by the surname of Mansur, after his grandfather, who had held a more important job under the Caliph. St. John Damascene succeeded his father as tax collector, but retired, perhaps before 715 A.D., to the Monastery of St. Sabbas, south of Jerusalem as one goes toward the Dead Sea. He was ordained a priest by John V, Patriarch of Jerusalem, before 726. His sermons on the Assumption of Our Lady indicate that he was called upon to preach for special occasions. "Suffer me now to revert again to her praises. This is in obedience to your orders, most excellent pastors, so dear to God." [Sermon 2].

But St. John was primarily the monk, praying, leading an ascetical life, studying and writing. The traditional date for his birth is 676 A.D. He died sometime between 743 and 753; the most accepted date is December 4, 749. He was buried at the Monastery of St. Sabbas, where his empty tomb can be seen today. His relics were transferred to Constantinople, very likely by the time of the 14th century.

The original Life of St. John Damascene by John V, Patriarch of Jerusalem, tells about the cutting off of his hand. By forging a letter, the Emperor Leo III convinced the Caliph that St. John was plotting against him. Leo was smarting under the Damascene's strong defense of images. The Caliph, believing the Emperor, had St. John's hand cut off as a punishment. But St. John prayed to the Blessed Virgin, reminding her, "This hand often wrote hymns and canticles in praise of thee, and many times offered the Sacred Body and Blood of thy Son in thy honor for the salvation of all sinners." He continued his prayer all night. Then Mary appeared to him and said, "Be comforted, my son, in the Lord. He can restore thy hand Who has made the whole man from nothing." Then she took the hand from where it had been hung in the monastery, and in a moment it was restored to his arm.

In Eastern Christendom, St. John of Damascus has the stature which St. Thomas Aquinas enjoys in the West. He has summed up for them philosophy, doctrine and morals. His original work on morals is not extant, but it has come down to us in two shortened sections known as the Sacred Parallels. These are a collection of sayings for guidance in moral and ascetic living, taken from Scripture and the Fathers.
His work known as the Fount of Knowledge [also called Fount of Wisdom] is, however, a truly original synthesis of philosophy and dogma. It is St. John's greatest work. Its latest English translator says: "The Fount of Knowledge not only contains much that is original and a fresh viewpoint on many things, but is in itself something new. It is the first real Summa Theologica." [Frederick Chase, Jr., Vol. 37 in Fathers of the Church series, p. xxvi].

The third and most important part of the Fount is known as the Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith in100 chapters. It was translated into Latin at the request of Pope Eugene III. Its powerful influence on the West can be surmised from the large number of Latin manuscript copies still in existence. Peter the Lombard used it and may have owed much to it, and St. Thomas Aquinas quotes from it.

St. John Damascene is especially clear in writing about the Incarnation, and the greatest of those who wrote about Christ in later ages owe him a considerable debt. St. John's words are precise and clear.

 "Christ was in all things and above all things, and at the same time He was existing in the womb of the Holy Mother of God, but He was there by the operation of the Incarnation. And so He was made flesh and took from her the first fruits of our clay, a body animated by a rational and intellectual soul, so that the very Person of God the Word was accounted to the flesh . . . And so we confess that even after the Incarnation He is the one Son of God, and we confess that the same is the Son of Man, one Christ, one Lord, the Only-begotten Son and Word of God, Jesus our Lord. And we venerate His two begettings
-----one from the Father before the ages and surpassing cause and reason and time and nature, and one in latter times for our own sake, after our own manner, and surpassing us." [Book 3, ch.7]

  St. John on why God creates a man He knows will be lost:

"Being comes first, and afterwards, being good or evil. However, had God kept from being made those who through His goodness were to have existence but who by their own choice were to become evil, then evil would have prevailed over the goodness of God. Thus, all things which God makes He makes good, but each one becomes good or evil by his own choice." [Book 4, ch. 21]

The Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith ends with a chapter on the resurrection of the body. St. John asks those who say this resurrection from the dust is impossible to consider how the body is formed in the first place from a little drop of seed that grows in the womb.

"And so, with our souls again united to our bodies, which will have become incorrupt and put off corruption, we shall rise again and stand before the terrible judgment seat of Christ. And the devil and his demons, and his man, which is to say, the Antichrist, and the impious and sinners will be given over to the everlasting fire . . . And those who have done good will shine like the sun together with the Angels unto eternal life with our Lord Jesus Christ, ever seeing Him and being seen, enjoying the unending bliss which is from Him, and praising Him, together with the Father and the Holy Ghost, unto the endless ages of ages. Amen.

[Source #1, pp. 233-239]

Sources Used:

1. The 33 Doctors of the Church, Fr. Christopher Rengers, OFM Cap.,
TAN Books, 2000: with Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat, 1993;
2. Mary and the Fathers of the Church, Luigi Gambero, Ignatius Press, 1999;
3. The Catholic Fact Book, John Deedy, Thomas More Press, 1986;
4. All Posters. Com for a Variation of the Madonna Poster Image: Item No. 250658;
5. Saints Kit:
Loyola University Press, 1994, Card 172: St. John Damascene.


-----------------------------------------------THE BEAUTY OF MARY