Some reflections on iconography and pornography based on conversations in the USA with an iconographer, Anne, and two parish priests, Fr Peter and Fr Paul, all from different parts of the country.
The one-hundredth canon of the Council in Trullo in 692 states:
“Let thine eyes behold the thing which is right,” orders Wisdom, “and keep thine heart with all care.” For the bodily senses easily bring their own impressions into the soul. Therefore we order that henceforth there shall in no way be made pictures, whether they are in paintings or in what way so ever, which attract the eye and corrupt the mind, and incite it to the enkindling of base pleasures. And if any one shall attempt to do this he is to be cut off.”
St John of Damascus suggests that the tempter-demon would value as nothing successfully tempting a monk to fall into the sin of fornication if he could instead prevent the monk from venerating the icon of Christ and the Theotokos. The Definition of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787) says that we value “iconographic representations… for being of an equal benefit to us as the gospel narrative.” Every year at the beginning of Lent, the Orthodox Church celebrates the ‘Triumph of Orthodoxy’, by which we mean the restoration of icons to the Church.
Why does the tradition of the Church place such a high importance on the image? What does this teach us about pornographic imagery, and can iconography find a role in combating it?
Icons as sanctifying
St John of Damascus clearly saw the periods of iconoclasm in the Church as a temporary victory for the devil, saying, “Away with you, envious devil, for you are envious of us, when we see the likeness of our Master and are sanctified by him…” It was clear to him that iconography was far more than decoration in the churches, more even than an aid to prayer or a reminder to us of heavenly things; in some sense the icons can actually sanctify us.
Pornography in modern experience
There can be no doubt that in particular the technological development of the Internet has led to a massive increase in the use of pornography since the mid-1990s. With most of the early online business successes being in the porn industry, pornography has also been a driver of technological advancement online. Already by 2004 there were between 23 and 60 million unique visitors to pornography websites each day. Moreover, 51 percent of all videos on peer-to-peer (P2P) networks are pornographic, 73 percent of all image searches on P2P network Kazaa are for pornography, and in one survey, 37 percent of Christian Pastors in the US identified internet pornography as a current struggle.
The average child nowadays is eleven years old at their first exposure to pornography, with 90 percent of eight to sixteen year-olds having viewed online porn, and 80 percent of 15-17 year-olds having had multiple exposures to hard-core (meaning violent, group or bestial) online porn. Beyond the Internet, 70 percent of in-room movie revenues in hotels are from pornographic films, as are 25-30 percent of all pay-per-view revenues. All-in-all, pornography in the US alone is estimated to be a more than $12 billion industry.
[Note: these figures date from when this article was originally written, in 2008.]
Despite the prevailing wind of tolerance for pornography in western societies, notable not only in permissive attitudes towards the use of internet pornography, but also in the degree to which public space has been infiltrated by pornographic images in advertising and media, very little study has been done on the effect of pornography on us since its use became so widespread. This is partly because a 1979-80 study (before the Internet) so effectively demonstrated the ill-effects of pornography (mild pornography by today’s standards) that similar studies have not been permitted for ethical reasons.
Both Fr Peter and Fr Paul affirm that in their pastoral experience, pornography has become a very widespread issue. Fr Peter expresses his continuing astonishment at how much this is so, and says that he has come almost to expect that among males of a certain age-range, it will be an issue. While Fr Peter has never had it raised by a female person in confession, Fr Paul said that it is also a problem for some women. He also explained that there is a subset within society that lives deeply in a pornographic world, as in one case he knows where a ‘bi-sexual’ couple had constant hard-core pornography playing throughout their house and whose social life revolved exclusively around others in the same totally sexualised culture.
Fr Peter particularly identified the problem of the constant temptation to pornography the Internet provides, highlighting both the ease in overcoming filters (even when he has himself helped in installing them and keeping the password) and the frequency with which teens have “free reign over the computer”. Fr Paul highlighted some of the negative effects of pornography on the person viewing it, that it interferes with home, work and social life, and particularly with marriage. He also notes that clergy are not exempt either from the problem or its ill effects.
Contrast between iconography and pornography
If imagery in icons can in some way sanctify us and imagery in pornography can negatively affect our lives and our relationships, what is the relationship between iconography and pornography? There was a clear sense in all three interviewees that there is a very direct opposition between iconography and pornography.
Fr Peter suggests that it is clear to people that the two could not co-exist, so, for example, an icon attached to the computer screen could be a preventative measure for one tempted to view pornography online, or an icon on the television set to prompt the question, “is what I’m watching consonant with the faith?” He has in the past been told by a family that they felt they had to keep their icons in a different room from the television, which he thought really ought to have suggested to them that there is a problem.
While “icons have to do with communion with… the divine”, Fr Peter thinks that in its refusal or inability to invoke communion, pornography is the opposite. Fr Paul described iconography with the analogy of ‘windows’ (or ‘doors’ ) into heaven and a channel of divine life, contrasting this with pornography, a “tool to manipulate, disrespect and un-sanctify God’s creation and our part in his creation”. Anne went on to describe from the artists point of view, the virtue of using the “gift of visual art, of painting, to enhance our worship of God” as opposed to using the “same gift of visual art to enhance our worship of idols – in this case the idol of the physical body and sexuality”, where it becomes a vice.
Fr John Breck, in his book The Sacred Gift of Life, describes pornography as ‘demonic iconography’, as instead of feeding the mind and soul with heavenly food as iconography does, it “infests the mind with corrupt images that produce corruption in the depths of the soul.”
Having established the contrast between these two very different forms and uses of image, in part II I will explore how from a tendency towards iconoclasm established in the Reformation we moved towards a very image-dependent modern western culture, and consider the relationship between image and communion.