Is Orthodoxy against statues?

Sokolac Virgin, Sokolica Orthodox monastery, Kosovo

Sokolac Virgin, Sokolica Orthodox monastery, Kosovo

The Orthodox Church has a long held Tradition of iconographic relief sculpture, but contains very little in the form of fully 3 dimensional statues. These statues are nonetheless common place in Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches, and this is the reason many modern Orthodox argue against their use. But are statues necessarily wrong, or is it an art form that, just like flat or relief icons, can lead us through itself to the prototype?

While I am not advocating for the addition of statues into the Orthodox Tradition, there are currently no Orthodox canons, neither ecumenical nor local, that prohibit the use of statues for liturgical use in Orthodox Churches. The closest we get to this is the definition of the 7th Ecumenical Council:

“We define the rule with all accuracy and diligence, in a manner not unlike that befitting the shape of the precious and vivifying Cross, that the venerable and holy icons, painted or mosaic, or made of any other suitable material, be placed in the holy churches of God upon sacred vessels and vestments, walls and panels, houses and streets, both of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ, and of our spotless Lady the holy Mother of God, and also of the precious Angels, and of all Saints. For the more frequently and oftener they are continually seen in pictorial representation, the more those beholding are reminded and led to visualize anew the memory of the originals which they represent…”

– 7th Ecumenical Council, Act 7, the definition, The Rudder p. 413-414

While this canon does not mention statues at all, it is clear the canon favours 2 dimensional iconography whether “painted or mosaic, or made of any other suitable material”. This would also allow for relief iconography (like that below) on account of its longstanding and uncontested use within Orthodoxy.  But, on the other hand, this is not the same with statues.

There is a complete historical silence on statuary in Churches by both supporters and rejectors of icons at the time of the 7th Ecumenical Council, despite the fact this was quite common in the political sphere at the time. There is also complete silence about statues in the accusation of heresy between East and West at the time of the schism, despite statues becoming introduced into Western Churches at the time. Could this silence be interpreted to mean statues are seen the same way as icons? If we are truly honest with ourselves, interpreting this silence is merely speculation.

We do, however, find a clear statement by St Nicodemus the Hagiorite  (d. 1809 AD) on statues in his commentary on the definition of the 7th Ecumenical Council:

“An idol is one thing, a statue is another thing, and an icon (or picture) is a different thing. For an idol differs from an icon in that the icon is a likeness of a true thing and its original, whereas the idol is an image of a false and inexistent thing, and is not the likeness of an original, according to Origen and Theodoret — just as were the idols of the false and inexistent gods of the Greeks. We call those images which embody the whole figure statues and carved or sculptured figures in general. As for this kind of images, namely, the statues, the catholic (Orthodox) Church not only does not adore them, but she does not even manufacture them, for many reasons:

1) because in its present definition this Council says for images to be produced with paints (or colours), with mosaic, or tessellated work, and with any other suitable material (which means with gold and silver and other metals, as Theodosius the bishop of Amorion says in Act 4 of the same Council) upon the sacred utensils, and robes, including sheets and cloths; upon walls and boards, and houses and streets. It did not mention a word about construction of a statue. Rather it may be said that this definition of this Council is antagonistic to statues;

2) because neither the letters written by patriarchs in their correspondence with one another, and to emperors, nor the letters of Pope Gregory to Germanus and of Pope Adrian to the present Council, nor the speeches and orations which the bishops and monks made in connection with all the eight Acts of the present Council said anything at all about statues or sculptured figures. But also the councils held by the iconomachs, and especially that held in Blachernae in the reign of Copronymus, in writing against the holy icons, mention oil paintings and portraits, but never statues or sculptured figures, which, if they existed, could not have been passed over in silence by the iconomachs, but, on the contrary, they would have been written against with a view to imputing greater blame to the Orthodox;

3) because although the woman with an issue of blood made a bronze statue of Christ in memory of and by way of giving thanks for the miracle and the benefaction which it had conferred upon her; and she set it up in the Panead, at the feet of which there sprang up a plant, or herb, which cured various ailments; and, as some say, that statue was smashed to pieces by the Emperor Maximinus, before Constantine the Great, and the bronze was seized by him; or else Julian the Apostate seized it, and put in its place the statue of Jupiter, as an anonymous writer says. Though, I say, the woman who had an issue of blood did make this statue (which the Christians took into the Church and honoured; and people went to see it out of a yearning for the original of it, as Philostorgus the Arian historically records), yet, as a matter of fact, that work of the woman who had an issue of blood was a concession from God, who, for goodness’ sake accepted it, making allowances for the imperfect knowledge of the woman who set it up; and because that was an embodiment and mark not of the grace of the Gospel, but of the old Law, as Pope Gregory II says in writing to St. Germanus (for the old Law had the two Cherubim, which were gold statues and sculptured figures containing all the body of the angelic powers, according to ch. 38 of Exodus, which Cherubim, according to an unknown expositor, had the face of a calf, and adored the Ark of the Covenant (here called the Ark of the Testimony, and by this adoration separated the Israelites from the idolatry of the Egyptians, who used to adore the calf. For the Jews learned from this that if a calf adored the Ark, it followed that the Egyptians were wrong in adoring it as a god).

Not only the old Law, but also the custom of the Greeks fostered the erection of statues and sculptured figures, as St. Germanus writes in a letter to Thomas of Claudiopolis which is to be found in Act 4 of the present Council, and which says: “It being obvious that the Saviour levelled His own grace to condescension with the faith of the woman, and showed what has been made evident to us above, namely, that it is not that what is performed is in general the object, but that it is the aim of the one performing it that is being reduced to experience…” And again: “We do not say this, so that we may find an excuse for exercising the art of making bronze pillars, but merely in order to make it plain that the Lord did not discard the national custom at this point, but, instead, availed Himself of it to exhibit therein for a considerable length of time the wonder-working and miracle-working efficiency of His own benevolence; on which account it is not devout to disparage the custom of a somewhat more pious nature which has prevailed among us.”

You see here three things as plainly as day, to wit: 1) that the erection of the statue of Christ was moral, and that the Lord accepted it as a matter of compromise with the times; 2) that statues ought not to be manufactured; and 3) that it is more pious and more decent for the venerable images to be depicted, not by means of statues, but by means of colours in paintings. For the same saint said above by way of anticipation that in historically recording the facts concerning the statues, he historically recounts the fact that the icons of the Apostles Peter and Paul, painted in colours, were still extant… Canon LXXXII of the 6th, moreover, says that we ought to prefer the grace of the Gospel to the legal form, and ought to set up the human character, or figure, of Christ in icons instead of the olden lamb even in oil paintings.

So that from all that has been said it is proved that the Westerners are acting contrary to the definition of this holy and Ecumenical Seventh Council, and contrary to the tradition of the Church in making statues and sculptured figures and plaster of paris replicas, and setting them up in their churches. We said herein above those representations which embody the whole of that which they represent are called statues and sculptured work and plaster of paris figures in general, whereas those representations which do not embody the whole of the person or other object which they are intended to represent, but at most merely exhibit them in relief, projecting, that is to say, here and there above the level and surface of the background, are not called statues or sculptured work or plaster of paris figures or any such name, but, instead, they are called holy icons (or, if they are not holy, simply pictures). Such are those which are to be found engraved or stamped or otherwise delineated upon the sacred vessels, on divine Gospels, and other holy books, on precious crosses, of silver and gold, according to Dositheus (p. 656 of the Dodecabiblus); to the same class are assigned also images cast in wax and more or less in relief, that is to say, projecting at various points above and receding at other points below the plane surface of the image, concerning which divine Chrysostom (in his Discourse wherein he argues that one and the same Lawgiver is the author of both the Old and the New Testament; and in Discourse 307 on the vesture of priests, the origin of which is to be found in the Gospel of the kingdom of Christ) says the following:

“I myself have loved the images cast in wax as a matter of piety. For I beheld an angel in an image driving back hordes of barbarians. I saw barbarian troops being trodden underfoot, and the words of David coming true, wherein he says: ‘Lord, in thy city Thou wilt do their image havoc’ (p. 852 of the second volume of the Conciliar Records, in Act 6 of the 7th C.; and p. 647 of the sixth vol. of Chrysostom). Oecumenius, too, accepts and approves this kind of image which is cast in wax in the manner above described (in his commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews). Hence, in writing to Symeon the bishop of Bostra, Anastasius the Patriarch of Antioch says: “though, as a matter of fact, an image is nothing else than a piece of wood and colours mixed and mingled with wax” (p. 845 of the second volume of the Conciliar Records). In the same class with these images are placed also the images which are carved in wooden crosses (crucifixes) and medallions. They, too, likewise are wrought in relief and project above the plane of the level surface, and do not compromise the whole body of the person or thing represented.

The reason and cause why statues are not adored or venerated (aside from the legal observation and custom noted herein above) seem to me to be the fact that when they are handled and it is noticed that the whole body and all the members of the person or thing represented are contained in them and that they not only reveal the whole surface of it in three dimensions, but can even be felt in space, instead of merely appearing as such to the eye alone, they no longer appear to be, nor have they any longer any right to be called, icons or pictures, but, on the contrary, they are sheer replications of the originals. Some persons, though, assert or opine that the reason why the Church rejected or did away with statues was in order to avoid entirely any likeness to idols. For the idols were statues of massive sculpture, capable of being felt on all sides with the hand and fingers.”

– St Nicodemus the Hagiorite, The Rudder, p. 414-415

St Nicodemus argues that while statues are not immoral, they cannot perform their intended role as well as flat representations or relief architecture. He does not mention any canons which ban the practice, but he correctly mentions that the Orthodox Church has steered away from their use in liturgical worship. He acknowledges Eusebius’s reference to a bronze sculpture of Christ made by the woman healed of an issue of blood and placed in the basilica of Paneas where it was venerated. But he considers this liturgical use of a statue as “a concession from God, who, for goodness’ sake accepted it, making allowances for the imperfect knowledge of the woman who set it up”

St Nicodemus summarises his arguments at the end into 3 points:

  1. that the erection of the statue of Christ was moral, and that the Lord accepted it as a matter of compromise with the times
  2. that statues ought not to be manufactured
  3. that it is more pious and more decent for the venerable images to be depicted, not by means of statues, but by means of colours in paintings.

It seems to me the arguments used by St Nicodemus do not rely on accusation of theological error, but more so with the practical difficulties of making a statue operate like a Traditional icon.

St John of Damascus, on the other hand, appeared to be far more optimistic about the use of statues in his homilies “Against those who decry holy images”. He argued that God ordained or permitted the making of icons that pointed symbolically toward salvation by the incarnate Word and used statues as his examples such as the bronze serpent, the ark of the covenant, the cherubim and the bones of the Saints (see Homily 1, 2 and 3 of “Against those who decry holy images”). St John clearly did not distinguish statues as different to flat or relief icons. So what are the concerns of Orthodox Christians against statues today?

Modern Arguments against Statuary

Below are some modern arguments I have heard against the use of statues in Orthodox Churches:

  1. A statue, being 3 dimensional, can be approached from many directions meaning it is more likely to be treated as an object in its own right (it is too close to its prototype in terms of appearance), rather than an icon pointing to its prototype. It thus bears more of a likeness to an idol than an icon.
  2. The purpose of a statue is to view it from multiple angles, even from behind, meaning it does not possess an invitation to a relationship to the observer. Flat or relief iconography can only be viewed from one direction meaning it always invites a relationship to the observer.
  3. A statue operates much like an object from this world (ie it can be detected by the eyes and to touch). It is also very difficult to use statues to depict something beyond this world. Flat iconography, on the other hand, is a dimension removed from anything from this world, and so it feels like a “window into heaven” viewing the next world in a way that transcends this world (ie it can only be detected by the eyes, but cannot be touched).
  4. The aim of a statue is often to conjure up and focus specific emotions while flat or relief iconography principally tends away from the manipulation of emotions. E.g. The statue “The Deposition of Christ” (below) is mean to cause one to feel intense agony, pain and sadness. On the other hand Orthodox icons express the transfigured reality of the subject in a manner that generates transforming dispassion (ἀπάθεια), and the transfiguring of the one who prays with it.
  5. Unlike flat painting or relief carving which need to be hung or painted on walls, sculptures can very easily become detached from their architectural setting. This in turn can detach them from the larger liturgical atmosphere of the Church and set them apart to become the centrepiece as stand-alone art objects.
  6. The practical difficulty of venerating sculptures – where do we venerate them? The knee, the foot, the plaque on the bottom? Also how do we venerate them? by kissing or touching?
The Deposition of Christ statue

The Deposition of Christ statue

Can non-Orthodox Christian statuary be corrected?

Are there ways that statues could be used in non-Orthodox Churches that would be acceptable to Orthodoxy? I have suggestions that might make this possible:

  1. The statues would need to be placed against a wall, in a corner or within a niche. This would answer points 1, 2 and 5 above. The classic example of this is the Sokolac Virgin icon in the picture above which is already displayed and venerated in Orthodoxy.
  2. The statue could be placed behind a glass pane to retain the aspect of being a “window into heaven”.
  3. Roman Catholic statues are often designed to accentuate certain body parts in order to conjure up emotions and highlight the importance of the event depicted (e.g. a statue of the last supper would accentuate the forearms and hands while enlarging the bread). Statues should alternatively be designed to accentuate the features to display the transfigured reality of the subject in a manner that generates transforming dispassion – ie figures as elongated, eyes large and shadowed, eyebrows arched, noses long and straight, mouths closed, hands gracefully stylized.  The forehead (seat of the intellect) and the collar bone (gateway to the heart) are emphasised just like byzantine painted iconography. This would significantly change the intent of the statue and become closer to Orthodoxy.
  4. Statues can be designed as to be easily venerated, while unfortunately Roman Catholic and Anglican statuary are often walled off or placed on a pillar making it unable to be accessed for veneration.


Orthodoxy’s modern day objection to statuary remains in the field of practicality and spiritual experience rather then any strict theological principles or canon law. There are ways that these difficulties can possibly be overcome, but I believe these methods to be unworkable in an Orthodox setting, but could be achievable albeit highly unlikely in the non-Orthodox setting.


3 thoughts on “Is Orthodoxy against statues?

  1. Have you read all the Acts of the Seventh Council? You say they were silent on this question, when that is not the case.

    The opening words of your quote of Nicodemus are almost exactly the words of St Stephen of Bostra, as quoted by Pope Adrian in his letter to the emperor, as read in session II.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Palinodius I have read them, but perhaps you could point me to something I may have missed? would you be able to cite the passage referring to statues?

      I have found repeated references to “idols” (είδωλο) but cannot find any reference to statues (άγαλμα) or sculptures (γλυπτική) so far…


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