Today’s saint is not well known in the popular mind, but quite significant in our Christian heritage. He’s one of those who helped shape our faith as we believe and celebrate today. Without the likes of him, our Christian understanding would be much poorer. Why is he so important?
John (c. 675-749) was a Christian scholar and holy man living in a Muslim dominated society and grew up in a family of high-level civil servants whose work was valued by the Caliph. Kathleen Jones (herself a fascinating person), in the first paragraph of her biographical sketch of him in the 2000 edition of Butler’s Lives of the Saints, sets the stage:
To be born into a Christian family in Damascus in the second half of the seventh century was to be born into religious conflict, for the powerful desert creed of Islam was gaining strength among the Arab races. John was born only five years after the death of Mohammed, and Damascus was a Muslim city. Many other beliefs circulated in the Middle East. They came from classical Greece, from Persia, from Egypt, and there was also a rich variety of Christian heresies. Even within the Church the Romano-Greek tradition in which John was educated faced fierce attack from the Iconoclasts, a Christian sect who, under the Byzantine Emperor Leo the Isaurian, burned books and smashed images, destroying cherished traditions and aids to devotion. It was against these ideological pressures that John hammered out his faith.
Iconoclasm was an ultra-conservative movement primarily in the Eastern Church in his day. Iconoclasts took the Old Testament prohibition against images to such an extreme that few examples of pre-ninth-century Byzantine icons survived the hysterical mass destruction. All the artwork in the great churches in present-day Turkey (e.g., Hagia Sophia, Holy Savior in Chora, and the cave churches in Cappadocia) all date from the tenth century or later. In fact, if you want to see pre-Iconoclast Byzantine Mosaics, you have to go to Ravenna, Italy, a Greek-influenced city in the West where the effects of Iconoclasm did not reach.
His protection from the iconoclast emperor by the Muslim caliph enabled him to write powerfully defending the veneration of icons as an important expression of our faith.
It’s worth noting that Christian iconoclasts were more violent in obliterating all traces of images in their misguided zeal. On the other hand, Muslim conquerors such as Mehmet II who conquered Constantinople in 1453 often merely plastered over the images they found offensive, enabling their restoration in the twentieth century when some of these mosques became museums.
Personal note: Sometimes he’s referred to as St. John Damascene, which I never liked because it sounds too much like a cuss word. 🙂