They [the Carpocratians] also possess images, some of them painted, and others formed from different kinds of material; while they maintain that a likeness of Christ was made by Pilate at that time when Jesus lived among them [Note: One should consider parallels with the story of King Abgar of Edom-cal]. They crown these images, and set them up along with the images of the philosophers of the world; that is to say with the images of Pythagoras, and Plato, and Aristotle, and the rest. They also have other modes of honoring these images, after the same manner of the Gentiles. (Against the Heretics, 1.25.6)By "same manner of the Gentiles" Irenaeus is referring to venerating the deity or divine figure through the image. The point is, and it's huge, pagans were not so stupid to literally think their god was made out of wood or stone. When Jews, Christians, and even pagan philosophers, insulted the practice of idols, they were going beyond some simple minded critique. It was not so much that they really thought pagans thought that their god was a piece of wood, but that men could, with their own hands, create a space for gods to reside, using their own imagination to make a god that looks like created and corporeal stuff. There's a two fold sin and error: 1) man inventing the terms of agreement with the gods; 2) gods residing in images that look like dumb and deaf created things. While YAH indwelt the Temple in Jerusalem, His space was not an image, but an empty throne surrounded by the angelic host and symbols of creation. When the God of Israel revealed His face, it was on His own terms and it was the face of a living man: Jesus the Christ. Before that we get glimpses of temporary visions, brief interactions, and heavily symbolic and figural appearance.
And that's the kicker because there's a HUGE difference between Christian art and iconography. If Orthodox apologists don't understand it, that's either because they're ignorant or deceitful. There's major conceptual difference between what a piece of art is, what it's supposed to do, and how one treats it. To point out that Christians had art in the catacombs or decorating their churches (c.f. 3rd century Dura Europos church and synagogue) is totally irrelevant to this argument. Gregory the Great, 6th century(!) bishop of Rome, defends the utility of art as visual Scripture, a retelling of scenes for the unlettered. That's *NOT* the same as claiming that the image gives you a portal from type to prototype and that you can travel through this portal with one's venerative actions. That's precisely what Gregory the Great was saying was not happening in trying to restrain the zealous bishop Serenus. Gregory says this:
For pictorial representation is made use of in churches for this reason; that such as are ignorant of letters may at least read by looking at the walls what they cannot read in books. Your fraternity therefore should have both preserved the images and prohibited the people from adoration of them, so that persons ignorant of letters may have something so that they may gather knowledge of the story and the people might not sin through adoration of a picture. (Gregory the Great to Serenus Epistle 9.105)
Ok, the Damascene says that we do not venerate created matter but the Creator who made all matter. That's obscurantism. Yes, I'm sure some of these congregants believed that wall-pictures had some potency to effect reality. Well, that sounds pretty par for the course in folk Orthodoxy. Whose restraining these people? But I'm really bending backwards on this one because no one can tell me what Gregory thinks these people are doing. Is it that they are really worshiping gems, paint, and mosaic tile? Gregory and Serenus think these people are even dumber than pagans? Unlikely!
To the contrary, the same arguments Damascene used were being deployed before Gregory ever wrote Serenus. Augustine was quite aware that critiques that Christians had used against pagans were being turned against them and these new practices. He even offers the counter-example from said Christians that "'We' they say, 'don't adore images, but what is signified by the image'". Augustine's response was that it'd still be wiser to pray directly to the saint, not through an object (Sermon 198.17).
Iconodulia is, and has been, about far more than pictures. It's about what these icons are doing. And for iconic theology it's that these types access a more substantial reality that abides through the presentation. It's metaphysical, not didactic or intellectual. That's why icons are, many times, portraits. It's why figurative and symbolic art is generally absent. The distinction within art is absolutely fundamental to this debate because art is not just art. Christians defense of using art came with several caveats about how this is, precisely, not what pagans use idols for. There's nothing like later iconic practice for centuries, not until well established pagan customs regarding portraiture and veneration became normative within the Christian Empire.
It's easy to pretend like the Copts and the Syrians don't exist, but while both of them have near-opposite appraisals of Ephesus (431) neither possessed anything like Byzantine iconodulia. In contrast, they used symbolic art to draw their minds to the work of Christ, usually displaying plain crosses (compare with 4th century bishop Cyril of Jerusalem's explanation of symbolic uses of the cross).
The problem is best laid out by Margaret Robin Jensen's Face to Face: Portraits of the Divine in Early Christianity (2005) in her summary of the early church's relation to portrait art:
In summary, the problem of portraits was at least twofold: they were likely to be misused-set up and covered with garlands, scented with smoking incense, illumined with votive candles, and offered worship or prayer like [not the same, but 'like'--cal] the idols of the polytheists--and they were false and imitative copies of something that was absolutely beyond their ability to represent. [...] The usefulness of art was in the realms of the symbolic and didactic, where it referred directly to the intellectual and cognitive realm of ideas and arguments, stories and lessons. And visual representations of stories and lessons are unlikely to attract offerings of flowers, incense, or even prayers. (28)I'm seriously open to revision, but the argument has to be along the lines of history and Scripture. If you say, "Look at the Temple!" or "Look Christ was Incarnate!" that is worthless: clearly the Apostles did not draw the same conclusions, nor did Christians for centuries. The only ones who came to these conclusions were syncretists: pagans who added Christ to their pantheon (as the emperor Alexander Severus was believed to have done). If you're going to bind people under this stricture, as Nicaea II, you can't call it the faith of the Apostles or the Fathers (well, you'd keep Damascene).
I'm being polemical, but again, I'm just trying to understand how an Orthodox person justifies this from the criteria of Tradition (capital t) and the consensu patri. Please respond if you're Orthodox or are an iconodule, and pass along if you're not.
Addendum: I realize that my above list is primarily composed of western Latin speaking Christians. So I can imagine an idiotic reply: "Aha! Evil Latin Christianity messed up again!" Well, Epiphanius has to be explained away. Also I left out quoting Origen, who in his Against Celsus, rejects even wall art. Given that Origen was the "teacher of the saints", leaving a demonstrable impact on figures ranging from the Capadoccians to teachers like Didymus and monks like Antony the Great, there would have to be positive evidence from these figures that they reject Origen's conclusions. There's some evidence Basil has stated toleration for wall art in churches, but, again, that's still multiple steps from iconodulia. Where there's no evidence a silent and invisible tradition has to be cooked up. If you're going to believe that, you might as well believe that St. Peter was a pope, tiara and all, with a council of cardinals and reigning over the Romagna.