We are living in the age of the image. Recent decades have seen an overwhelming proliferation of screens, digital representations, and media which saturate our daily lives. This omnipresent media environment frames and shapes our perception of the world.
In his book Simulacra and Simulation, the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard sees in this digital era of the image—which was still in its incipient television stage when he was writing in 1981—an epochal-metaphysical shift. For Baudrillard the ubiquity of 'simulation' obliterates the Real leaving only the simulacrum. The map is all, the territory is gone. Once upon a time the medium carried the message, then the medium became the message, and finally the medium destroyed any message leaving only itself: a web of images and appearances, symbols and signifiers with no referent.
In this postmodern account of our reality, Baudrillard looks for an ally in the iconoclasts of Byzantium.1 Citing them explicitly he posits that they feared icons would "substitute for the pure and intelligible Idea of God" and might thereby "efface God from the consciousness of man" or open a path for the idea that God never existed. This is far removed from the actual arguments and concerns of the iconoclasts, of course. His further claim that the iconoclasts "predicted" our late modern condition with its omnipresence of simulacra having "destroyed God"—referring to our media-saturated cultural consciousness and the decline of Christianity in the West—is also odd considering that the Church persisted another millennium or so after triumphing over iconoclasm without any resultant cultural atheism. Making his a rather fantastical account of historical causality.
What the iconoclasts actually feared was that God had commanded no graven images of the uncreated, invisible God be made or worshiped, and that iconodules were doing just that in their production and veneration of images of Christ, his Mother, and the Saints. In the Church's answer to this—from iconodules and champions of orthodoxy like St. John of Damascus and St. Theodore the Studite—the iconoclasts are handily refuted but so is Baudrillard. St. John the Damascene writes:
I venture to draw an image of the invisible God, not as invisible, but as having become visible for our sakes through flesh and blood. I do not draw an image of the immortal Godhead. I paint the visible flesh of God, for it is impossible to represent a spirit, how much more God who gives breath to the spirit.2
God in his essence may not be depicted because he is beyond depiction: ineffable, eternal, uncircumscribable. But Christ, the incarnate Word and Son of God, may be depicted precisely because of the mystery and genuine reality of the Incarnation: the uncircumscribed God becomes circumscribed in the womb of the Virgin.
As I write this it's March 25th, the feast of the Annunciation. This feast commemorates the event of the Archangel Gabriel's announcement to the Theotokos that she had been chosen to bear the Christ child. As she gives her consent "be it to me according to thy word", Christ the Logos and Son of God, second person of the Holy Trinity, is conceived in her spotless womb.
In Baudrillard's account we move from a symbolic order where images and signs reflect reality, then conceal reality, and finally obliterate reality leaving only themselves behind. In the account of the Church (and therefore truthfully) false images (idols) desecrate reality, true images (icons) depict and present reality, and the Incarnation and the Eucharist result in the boundary between image and reality being obliterated. Christ isn't an image of God, but "the Image (εικόν) of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15). Similarly, the Eucharist doesn't represent the divine body of the Lord, but is his very Body and Blood.
The Old Testament period after the Fall was a period of symbols and signs. God speaks in fire, in whirlwind, in the cloud. He gives the Law, makes covenants, and sends prophets. He parts the sea and sends manna from heaven. The Annunciation is the culmination and closing of this period, as everything that the prophets spoke and all the images and signs are fulfilled in the Incarnation of the Son in the womb of the Virgin. It is here that the barrier between image and reality, between medium and message, between signifier and signified is overcome in the flesh of the God-man.
In the icon of the feast the Theotokos is holding a spindle of red wool which she uses to knit the Temple veil. In Scripture, Christ's flesh is associated with the veil, which was torn, opening a kind of portal between the celestial realm and the heavenly (Heb. 10:20; Matt. 27:51). Accordingly, the Annunciation icon is traditionally found in a church building on the Royal Doors which is the place that is the connecting point between the sanctuary (heaven) and the nave (earth). It's also the place where Christ's true Body and Blood, having been consecrated by the priests on the altar, comes out from the sanctuary to the people. Christ takes the flesh of the Theotokos and is knit together in her womb, which occurs while she knits the temple curtain symbolizing his flesh.
Clearly symbolism remains active in the Church, but it serves a different purpose. In the Old Testament dispensation, the symbols and images were pointers and signs to a reality that was to come: the Messiah. In the era of the Church the symbols point to a reality that is present. And the reality they point to is God having become man to open a way to direct communion with genuine Reality, beyond mere symbols and images, but not without them.
Furthermore, symbols themselves tend to get short shrift in our conception of them. The Greek word σύμβολος (symbolos) has a counterpart in the word διάβολος (diabolos) or devil. Whereas symbol in English tends to mean representation, one thing standing for another, an aspect of the Greek connotation is the bringing together of two realities (think sym- as in symbiosis or symphony). Which is a more sacramental notion, as God becomes man and bread and wine become the flesh and blood of Christ. In the opposite way, διάβολος signifies the splitting apart of two realities, typically man from God. The devil's goal is to disintegrate, to disperse, to destroy the relationship of symbol and reality and the communion between the created and the Uncreated. Even the devil is not so presumptuous or deluded, though, as to think he can obliterate the Real, however much he may desire it. No amount of 'simulation' can accomplish this, as he is well aware. Reality can be effaced and denied, forgotten and ignored, even simulated—but not destroyed. The devil's work is the creation of false symbols, false images which have no correspondence to the Real and seduce man into communion with their non-being: idols.
The idols of the mind are among the most tantalizing for inheritors of the perversely rationalistic tradition of the West. St. James says that knowing God exists and is One is not that impressive; even the demons know that—and tremble. In this sense much of postmodern thought is not merely subhuman, it could even be categorized as sub-demonic.3 It is one thing to fight man and aim to disrupt his communion with the Real (as demons do), and another to declare the Real annihilated altogether.
A pervasive cultural infatuation with the immanent plane and the play of images that takes place there, distracting and consuming us, amounts to a suppression of human nature, not the revelation of some ontological truth. It is certainly within human capacity to degrade icons into idols or contort content into simulacra. This is beyond dispute. But the perfidious sophistry which would presume to inscribe this personal, societal, or epochal failure into being itself must be rejected as falsehood.
Baudrillard is correct that the era of symbols has come to an end. Not because the reality they point to has been destroyed by the images themselves—those "murderers of the real" in his words—but because they have been fulfilled in the genuine reality of the incarnate God. In Christ, the Image of God and God are one. The insidious simulations of demons and philosophers are rendered impotent before this great Truth.
Today is the crown of our salvation and the manifestation of the mystery that is from all eternity. The Son of God becomes Son of the Virgin, and Gabriel announces the good tidings of grace, Therefore let us also join him and cry aloud to the Theotokos: Hail, thou who art full of grace: the Lord is with thee!4
Jean Baudrillard, Simulation & Simulacra: The Divine Irreference of Images. ↩
St. John of Damascus, On the Holy Icons. ↩
Speculative aside: can man stoop even lower than devils? Given his spiritual upward mobility, so to speak, which can culminate in deification (and which is not the case with angels), it seems plausible that his lower bound could exceed that of fallen angels. ↩
Troparion for the feast of the Annunciation. ↩