St. John of Damascus (676 – 794), a monk and priest, was a native of Damascus and was also Chief Councilor to the Caliph. As a Christian, he held an hereditary position of great importance under the Ummayid dynasty of Syria. The Caliph was the chief religious and political leader of the Islamic world.
David Levering Lewis’s book, God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 – 1215, provides an interesting insight into this transitional world in which Christianity gives way to Islam. (God’s Crucible also deals with the ways in which Islam stopped at the Pyrenees and the reconquest of Spain.) There were roles for Christians and Jews as subordinate groups.
The Sassanid dynasty of the second Persian Empire (which included Syria) had been defeated a generation earlier by the Caliphate in 651. St. John of Damascus became a key religious and Christian cultural figure at a time of great transition. St. John of Damascus is often called the last of the Greek Fathers and signals the end of the great Patristic period in theological and philosophical reflection. The little that we know about his life is fragmentary and subject to historical criticism. What we do have and know are his writings.
In the various theological controversies of the Patristic period, in both the East and the West, the political and cultural context provides a fascinating dimension for appreciating the wider meaning and importance of these seemingly abstract issues and their very real importance not only to the faith but also to the wider culture.
Despite his contributions to law, philosophy, theology, and music, St. John of Damascus is best known for his role in the Iconoclastic controversy. The Byzantine court endorsed a movement that rejected the veneration of religious images. St. John of Damascus, a high official in the Islamic Caliphate in Damascus opposed the Emperor, Leo III, and supported the Patriarch of Constantinople in support of the veneration of icons and their public display. Ironically, the making and admiration of images of either a secular or sacred nature were not tolerated by Islam. Although Islam provides a place for Jesus as a prophet and accords a special place to Mary, St. John of Damascus exhalted her status in his writings on the Assumption of Mary into heaven. At a time of the repression of Christian culture, St. John of Damascus composed hymns that became the core of the Eastern liturgy and are sung even today.
It is perhaps only fitting that St. John of Damascus has become the subject of venerated icons. The one above is an Arabic icon from the the 19th century attributed to the iconographer Ne’meh Nasr Homsi and is now in the public domain.Read More