‘Why do you bend your body, held captive before silly statues and earthly pictures? God made you upright’: Claudius of Turin’s iconoclasm

Claudius of Turin was one of those 9th-century Catholic bishops who stood behind Byzantine iconoclasts and attempted to introduce their ideas into the Western Church. In his ‘Apologeticum’, Claudius condemns two sets of ideas: the cult of images and pilgrimage to Rome (perhaps any pilgrimage, as Claudius’ ideas reach out to any form of sanctification through proximity to a physical object or location, from statues and icons to churches and holy cities). Claudius is aware of the theological distinction between the physical object of veneration and the meaning or transcendent reality behind it which ought to be honoured exclusively, such as the saint whose resemblance the image carries. He brings Scripture to bear on his iconoclasm. He assumes a spiritual perspective of worship and devotion, which brought him in contradiction with a Church which was exploring new ways to integrate physicality into its structures, such as architecture, liturgical embellishment, ecclesiastical property, etc. Quite remarkable is his criticism of reverence before anything or anyone but God, which is considered to be blasphemous not only on account of the object thus venerated, adored or worshiped, but also of its positional incongruity, as man has been endowed with a verticality which is abolished in the act of false worship. And Claudius is careful to note that only God himself is to be honoured and worshipped and nothing else, not even the work of his hands. Claudius, therefore, cuts himself off from a theology of derivative veneration, which is also denounced in his attitude to the cross as an object of cultic devotion, as becomes clear in the text below.

His views were ultimately dismissed by the Church which, both East and West, witnessed the triumph of iconography, while at the same time a strengthening of its theology.

The English translation below is by Thomas Head of the Latin text edited in Migne’s Patrologia Latina (Claudius of Turin, Apologeticum atque rescriptum Claudii episcopi adversus Theutmirum abbatem, 105:459-64). The highlights belong to me and reflect my understanding of the importance and relevance of Claudius’ ideas to some Christian ideals today.

I have received from some boorish bearer your letter with the appended treatise, filled as they are with babbling and foolishness. In the treatise you say that you are troubled by that which Rumor is saying about me from Italy throughout Gaul to the borders of Spain, implying that I am preaching some new sect against the rule of the Catholic faith. The charge is in all ways most false. It is not surprising that those members of the devil, who proclaimed our Head to be both a seducer and demonic, say such things about me. For I am not the one who is teaching a sect, I who hold the unity of the faith and proclaim its truth. In as much as I have been able, I have checked, restrained, fought, and subdued the sects, schisms, superstitions, and heresies; in so far as I am still able, I will not cease relying fully on God’s help. It came to pass that, after I was compelled to undertake the burden of the pastoral office I came to the city of Turin in Italy, sent by Louis, that pious prince and son of the Lord’s holy Catholic church. I found all the churches filled with sordid images, which are anathematized and contrary to true teaching. Since everyone was honoring them, I undertook their destruction singlehandedly. Then everyone opened their mouths to curse me and, had the Lord not helped me, they would have swallowed me alive. . .

Those against whom we have undertaken the defense of God’s church say, “We do not think that there anything divine is inherent in the image which we adore. We adore it with such veneration only for the honor of him whose likeness it is.” We respond to them that, if the images of the saints are now venerated by those who renounced the cult of the devil, they have not renounced their idols, but only changed their names. For if you inscribe on a wall or if you paint images of Peter and Paul, of Jove and Saturn, or even of Mercury, these images are not gods, nor are they apostles, they are not even men, although that word has been transformed for this purpose. The error, both then and now, always remains the same. Surely if men are to be adored, it is the living rather than the dead who should be so adored. In the living there is God’s likeness, not the likeness of cattle, or what is worse, of rocks or wood, which are deprived of life, sense, and reason. From this reasoning it ought to be concluded that, if the works of the hand of God are not to be adored or honored, still less are the works of human hands to be so adored or worshipped, or even given honor for the sake of those whose likenesses they are said to be. If the image which one adores is not God, still less should it be venerated for the honor of the saints, who do not in the least arrogate to themselves divine honors. . .

Why do you make yourself humble and bow down before false images? Why do you bend your body, held captive before silly statues and earthly pictures? God made you upright. While other animals are prone and face toward the earth, you have a sublime status and are erect, facing heaven and the face of God. Look upwards, turn your eyes upwards, seek God in heavenly things, so that you are able to avoid that which is below. Raise up your doubtful heart to heavenly heigts. Why do you hurl yourself into the lap of death with that lifeless image which you honor? Why do you tumble into the ruin of the devil both through it and with it? Preserve that sublime status to which you were born. Persevere in the manner in which you were made by God.

Those who belong to the false religion and to superstition say, “In order to recall our savior we honor, venerate, and adore a painted cross made in his honor. Nothing pleases them about our savior except that which also pleased the impious, that is the disgrace of his passion and his mockery of death. They believe that which impious men, both Jews and pagans who even doubt his resurrection, also believe. They have not learned to think about him in any manner other than believing and holding him in their hearts as twisted, dead, and always contorted in his passion. They neither hear nor understand what the apostle said, “We have known Christ according to the flesh, but now we know him so no longer.” (2 Corinthians 5:16)

The answer to them is that, if they wish to adore all wood made into the shape of a cross, since Christ hung from a cross, then the same thing ought to be done for the memory of many other things which Christ did in the flesh. For he only hung from the cross for six hours, but he was in the womb of the virgin for nine lunar moths and eleven more days, which is the same thing as two hundred and seventy-six solar days, that is nine months and six added days. Therefore let virgin girls be adored, since a virgin bore Christ. Let mangers be adored, since he was lain in a manger just after having been born. Let old linen be adored, since, when he was born, he was wrapped in such old linens. Let boats be adored since he frequently sailed on boats, and taught the crowds from a little boat, and slept on a boat, and commanded the winds from a boat, and it was to the right side of a boat that he ordered them to place the nets, when that great, prophetic, catch of fish was made. . . Finally let lances be adored, since one of the soldiers at the cross opened his side with a lance, and from that wound flowed blood and water, the sacraments by which the church is formed. These things are all jokes and should be laughed at rather then written down. But we are forced to propose foolish things against fools, and to hurl stony blows against stony hearts, rather than arrows of words and opinions. “Return you transgressors to the heart” (Isaiah 46:8). You have departed from truth, seek vanity, and are made vain. You crucify again the son of God and hold him up to be displayed. Thus you have made the souls of the lowly partners of the devils. Alienating them through the impious sacrilege of statues, you have caused them to be rejected by their creator and thrown into perpetual damnation.

For God commanded one thing, and they do another. God commanded them to carry the cross, not to adore it. They wish to adore it rather than to carry it in either a spiritual or a corporal sense. To honor God in this manner is to depart from him, for he said, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24) Unless someone forsakes himself, he does not approach the one who is above him, nor is he able to comprehend that which is beyond him if he does not know how to make sacrifice.

When you say, as you surely do, that I prohibit men from going to Rome for the sake of penance, you speak falsely. I neither approve nor disapprove that action, since I know that it neither hinders anyone nor is useful for them, it neither profits anyone nor obstructs them. If you think that to go to Rome is to seek penance, then I first ask you why you have lost so many souls in such a short time, souls whom you have retained in your monastery or whom, for the sake of penance, you have received into your monastery and not sent to Rome and even made them serve you. You say that you have a group of one hundred and forty monks, all of whom have come to you for the sake of penance. They turned themselves over to your monastery and you have not permitted one of them to go to Rome. If these things are so-if, as you say, to go to Rome is to seek penance-what will you do about this opinion spoken by the Lord,”He that shall scandalize one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged around his neck and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6) There is no greater scandal that to prohibit a man from taking that path by which he is able to travel to eternal joys.

We know, according to the Evangelist, that the words of the Lord savior were not understood, when he spoke to Peter, “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church and I will give you the keys of heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19) Because of these words spoken by the Lord, the race of ignorant men, having disregarded the understanding of all spiritual things, wish to go to Rome in order to acquire eternal life. He who understands the keys of the kingdom of heaven as given above does not require that the intercession of the blessed Peter be limited to one locale. If we subtly consider the proper meaning of the words of the Lord, it was not said by him, “Whatever you loose in heaven will be loosed on earth, and whatever you bind in heaven will be held bound on earth.” From this it is known that the ministry is granted to the overseers of the church only as long as they are on pilgrimage in the mortal body. When they pay the debt of death, those who succeed them in their place obtain the same judicial power, as it is written, “Instead of your fathers, sons are born to you; you will make them princes over all the earth.” (Psalms 45:16; 44:17 in the Vulgate) . . . Hear this, you who are fools among the people and you who were once silly and sought the intercession of the apostle by going to Rome . . .

[You object] against me that the apostolic lord is upset with me-you also say that you are displeased with me. You said this of Paschal, bishop of the Roman church, who has since left this present life. A man is said to be apostolic who is guardian of the apostle or who exercises the office of an apostle. Surely a man should not be called apostolic who simply sits on the apostolic throne, but who carries out the office. The Lord said about those who hold a place, but do not carry out the office, “The scribes and the Pharisees have sitten on the chair of Moses. All things therefore whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do; but according to their works do not. For they say, and do not.” (Matthew 23:2-3)

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