between the 4th and the 15th centuries. Philokalia means love of beauty – and the writings within it help believers acquire what is called “the prayer of the heart”. In this way of praying the rational mind, suffused by the beauty of God, becomes enfolded in the loving heart – which dwells in and with God. Like an icon, the teachings and prayers in the Philokalia contain the spiritual beauty that can connect the human and the divine.
Not every Orthodox Christian studies the Philokalia; for centuries most believers could not read. But all venerate icons, the art that is at the heart of every Orthodox Church. Icons are sometimes called ‘windows to Eternity’ – their luminous beauty (many are painted on a ground of gold) intends to lead the beholder beyond the surface of the image to divine love, unconfined by mundane space and time. The beauty of the icon can connect heaven and earth.
The beauty of icons was nearly eradicated in the 8th and 9th centuries, for some Byzantine Emperors thought their military setbacks against invading Muslims arose from breaking the second commandment, which prohibits the making of images. So icons were abolished, but those who loved them protested mightily, articulating a theology of beauty, or what I would call “spiritual materialism.” John of Damascus’s ideas are at the heart of that theology. In the 8th century he wrote in defense of the beauty of the icons he loved, when he says ‘I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter Who became matter for my sake, Who willed to take His abode in matter; Who worked out my salvation through matter. Never will I cease honoring the matter, which wrought my salvation!’
That matter in which God takes his abode can be replete with what
Israelite praise singers called the beauty of holiness – stronger than an army – or the Byzantine bureaucracy. Icons were officially abolished, but many Byzantines loved and needed their beauty. Two clever Empresses, Irene and Theodora, managed to subvert their husbands’ anti-aesthetic policies; Theodora finally managed to call a council that made the veneration of icons central to Orthodox faith.
In Byzantine aesthetics Beauty literally dwells in and with the Wisdom and Peace of God. Constantinople was famous for two glorious churches, the Hagia Irene, the Church of Holy Peace and the Hagia Sophia, the Church of Holy Wisdom. By the 10th century these churches gleamed with golden mosaics, icons famed for their beauty, and choirs that sang like angels. In the Orthodox liturgy the choir sings, “We mystically represent the cherubim.”