John of Damascus Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)
0111205953-John_of_Damascus.jpg John of Damascus (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: During the Iconoclastic Controversy of the eighth century, John wrote a series of theological tracts defending the use of images in Christian worship, thus establishing the theological position of Eastern Orthodoxy.

Early Life

John of Damascus, or John Damascene, was born in the city with which he is identified at a time when Syria was under the rule of the caliphs. His family name was Mansur, meaning “victory.” John’s father was Sergius Mansur, a wealthy Christian who served at the court of the Umayyad caliph ʿAbd al-Malik. Because of the practice of toleration by the Umayyad Dynasty, it was not unusual for Christians to serve the caliphs. When Sergius was elevated to the rank of prime minister, he was troubled at the thought that his son, John, would adopt Arab ways. He placed him under the instruction of the Sicilian monk Cosmas, who had been brought to Damascus as a slave.

It was customary for the Arabs to go on plundering excursions along the Mediterranean coasts and to return with a number of prisoners, whom they made slaves. Among a group of prisoners brought back from the coast of Sicily was the monk Cosmas. Cosmas was an ordained priest and a teacher. He knew grammar and logic, as much arithmetic as Pythagoras and as much geometry as Euclid. He had also studied music, poetry, and astronomy.

The usual practice was to sell such prisoners to farmers, who would work them in the fields until they dropped dead. There existed laws against introducing slaves into the houses of official families. John’s father managed, however, to buy Cosmas for a great price from al-Malik and took him into his home; from that point onward the learned monk became John’s tutor and master. Thus John acquired a formidable knowledge of theology, rhetoric, natural history, music, and astronomy. He learned from Cosmas much of the world and of spiritual theory.

John became deeply religious and, like his father, was given to good works. Upon his father’s death, however, Caliph ʿAbd al-Malik appointed John to the high position of chief secretary. In an Oriental court, only the position of councillor of state was higher. In time, John enjoyed the powers once possessed by his father. While serving in the Oriental court, John continued to practice the Christian virtues of charity and humility. He was obsessed by the thought of offering up all of his wealth to the poor and then following his teacher and master, Cosmas, into a monastery. It is clear that the humble Cosmas exerted more influence over John than did the mighty caliph. Cosmas had retired to the monastery of St. Sabas in Palestine when he had completed John’s education. John remained at his position in the caliph’s court until approximately 730, when he, too, entered the monastery of St. Sabas. Yet already before he left the secular world, John had begun the great work of his life, the refutation of iconoclasm (the opposition to religious imagery).

Life’s Work

Iconoclasm was the latest in a series of challenges—beginning with Arianism—that the Eastern church had had to face. The Iconoclastic Controversy began with Byzantine Emperor Leo III and continued through the reign of his successor, Constantine V. It was a conflict over images and the particular significance attached to them. In the Eastern (or Greek) church, the practice of venerating icons was widespread by the seventh century. The opponents of this practice maintained that Christianity, as a purely spiritual religion, must proscribe the cult of icons. This opposition was strong in the Byzantine Empire, so long the cradle of religious ferment. There were considerable remnants of Monophysitism, and the Paulicians, a sect hostile to any ecclesiastical cult, were gaining ground.

Defenders of the practice of venerating icons attributed Leo’s hostility to images to Jewish and Muslim influences. Mosaic teaching requires strict repudiation of image worship, but it was contact with the Muslim world that had intensified the distrust of icons. Muslims have an abhorrence of any pictorial representation of the human countenance. They teach that “images are an abomination of the works of Satan.”

In 726, the Greek islands of Thera and Therasia were shaken by a marine volcanic eruption. At the request of iconoclastic bishops of Asia Minor, Leo III responded to this natural disaster by issuing a decree declaring that the eruption was the result of God’s wrath on the idolatry of the Greeks; therefore, all paintings, mosaics, and statues representing Christ and His saints had to be destroyed. Another decree ordered the destruction of the great statue of Christ over the bronze gate of the palace in Constantinople. A riot ensued when imperial officers tore down this statue. The emperor then ordered the execution of those who had tried to protect the statue; the victims were the first martyrs of the Iconoclastic Controversy.

In order to strengthen his position, Leo attempted to win over the pope and the patriarch of Constantinople. His proposals were decisively rejected by the aged Patriarch Germanus, and his correspondence with Pope Gregory II only produced negative results. After these two authorities, the emperor’s principal opponent was John of Damascus.

As images, paintings, and statues were being destroyed, John wrote to the emperor. He argued that figures of the cherubim and seraphim adorned the ark of the covenant. Further, citing the Scriptures, John wrote that Solomon was ordered to adorn the walls of the Temple with living figures, flowers, and fruit. He concluded that it was fitting that Christians should adorn their churches. John’s letter was reasoned and scholarly, replete with quotations from the Bible.

Leo was determined that the images be removed. He believed that Christianity needed purifying and that this could only come about...

(The entire section is 2425 words.)