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E05373: Hypatius, bishop of Ephesus, in a letter to a fellow bishop defends the use of icons of Christ and the saints for the sake of teaching the uneducated, even if that means a certain compromise on the scriptural prohibition against images. Written in Greek at Ephesus, in the early 6th c..

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posted on 2018-04-25, 00:00 authored by Bryan
Hypatius of Ephesus, Miscellaneous Questions (Fragment) (CPG 6806)

Book 1, chapter 5. Letter to Ioulianos, bishop of Adramyttion, On images in the holy churches.

[…] Ἀλλὰ τούτων οὕτως ἐχόντων φῆς· Προσκυνητὰς ἐπὶ τῶν ἱερῶν ἐῶμεν γραφάς, ἐπὶ ξύλου δὲ καὶ λίθου πολλάκις οἱ τὰ τῆς γλυφῆς ἀπαγορεύοντες οὐδὲ τοῦτο ἀπλημμελὲς ἐῶμεν, ἀλλ’ ἐπὶ θύραις.

Ἀλλ’ὦ θεία καὶ ἱερὰ κεφαλή, τῆν θείαν μὲν, ἥτις ποτέ ἐστιν, οὐσίαν οὐδενὶ τῶν ὄντων ὁμοίαν ἢ ταύτην ἢ ἴσην ὁμολογοῦμεν ἢ ἀναγράφομεν· τὴν ἄρρητον δὲ καὶ ἀπερίληπτον εἰς ἡμᾶς τοῦ θεοῦ φιλανθρωπίαν καὶ τὰς ἱερὰς τῶν ἁγίων εἰκόνας ἐν γράμμασιν μὲν ἡμεῖς ἱεροῖς ἀνευφημεῖσθαι διατυποῦμεν, οὐδεμιᾷ πλάσει τὸ ἐφ’ἡμῖν ἢ γραφῇ καθάπαξ ἡδόμενοι. συγχωροῦμεν δὲ τοῖς ἀπλουστέροις ἀτελεστέροις αὐτοῖς ὑπάρχουσιν ὑπὲρ συμφυοῦς αὐτῶν ἀναγωγῆς καὶ ὄψει τῇ αὐτῆς συμμέτρῳ τὰ τοιαῦτα ἐν εἰσαγωγῆς τρόπῳ μανθάνειν, καὶ αὐτὰς πολλάκις καὶ ἐν πολλοῖς τὰς θείας παλαιάς τε καὶ νέας διατάξεις εὑρόντες τοῖς ἀσθενέσι τὰς ψυχὰς ὑπὲρ σωτηρίας αὐτῶν συγκατακλινομένας. […]

Hypatius cites various scriptural passages opposing the use of images, and encouraging the destruction of idols.

‘[…] Now, although these things are so, you say: We allow the veneration of drawings at the sanctuaries, and more often than not we, who are supposed to oppose the works of sculpture in wood or stone, do not fail to overlook even that, but let it be in open display.

Now, my dear and reverend friend, we neither define nor describe the divine essence, whatever it may be, as similar or identical or equal to any of the beings. As for the ineffable and incomprehensible charity of God towards us humans [= the life of Christ] and the hallowed figures of the saints, we ordain that they be celebrated by sacred engravings, even though, for our part, we take no pleasure whatsoever in sculpture or painting. We allow, however, the simpler people who are less accomplished in these matters to be educated in them in an introductory manner, according to their natural level of understanding, and by the sense of sight which is suited to that level. [We do so], especially as we find that several times and in several occasions divine commandments, both old and new, were compromised for the sake of the weaker in soul and for their salvation.’

He quotes scriptural examples where images are permitted as a concession for the simple. The decoration of churches serves the purpose of helping people grasp the glory of heaven, it is not because God needs gold or silver. True worship is spiritual, but the less educated need to be helped by the more advanced.

Text: Diekamp 1938. Translation: Efthymios Rizos.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Saints, unnamed : S00518

Type of Evidence

Literary - Letters Literary - Theological works


  • Greek

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Asia Minor

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc


Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Ephesus Nicomedia Νικομήδεια Nikomēdeia Izmit Πραίνετος Prainetos Nicomedia

Cult activities - Rejection, Condemnation, Scepticism

Rejection of the cult of images

Cult activities - Use of Images

  • Commissioning/producing an image

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Ecclesiastics - bishops

Cult Activities - Cult Related Objects

Precious material objects Precious cloths


Hypatius was one of the most important bishops of the Eastern Church under Justinian. He was archbishop of Ephesus between 531 and 538, and one of Justinian’s closest advisors. Very few fragments survive of his work.


This passage comes from the only surviving fragment of Hypatius’ corpus of Miscellaneous Questions (Συμμικτὰ ζητήματα). It contains the answer of the author to one of his suffragans, the bishop of Adramyttium, Ioulianos, who expressed his dismay at the violation of scriptural prohibitions against images by their use in churches. According to Ioulianos, the laxity was such that even sculpture, which the church was supposed to oppose most strongly, was tolerated. Hypatius' answer is one of the most important apologies of the use of icons from the period preceding Byzantine Iconoclasm. Interestingly, this text seems to have escaped the notice of the Iconophiles, even though Hypatius' arguments were essentially in line with their thinking. One might blame the obscurity of his vocabulary and convoluted syntax or, perhaps more importantly, the fact that he treats icons as a concession provided for the education of the simple, rather than a necessity required by orthodoxy. Hypatius makes a distinction between the essence of the godhead and the human nature of the incarnate God (Christ) and the saints. The godhead cannot be perceived and therefore is neither discussed nor described at all by the Church. By contrast, the stories about the life of Christ and the saints are described in sacred texts, and their stories are recounted and celebrated in the Church. Images are used in order to make these stories accessible to those who are less capable of understanding them in an abstract manner. For Hypatius, the narrative and description of subjects from human life is legitimate, whether in word or image (the two are understood as different media serving the same purpose). Images are unnecessary for the educated, but, as Hypatius argues, they are a helping hand for the less advanced, which the educated should not deny them. For Hypatius, the scriptural prohibitions concern the depiction of the divine essence only. Christian icons never attempt to depict the godhead, so they indirectly serve as a confession of the human inability to grasp the nature of God. Besides, Scripture itself provides examples of the use of art for the sake of the less educated. Strictly speaking, Hypatius does not fully answer the query of his correspondent. Ioulianos' main concern was veneration, because, for him, the public display of images in church encouraged their veneration. For Hypatius, however, images are just a form of decoration with symbolic value, no different from the other precious art objects and vessels used in the church. At the same time they are a means of teaching, no different from the sacred texts which they illustrate. Hypatius bypasses the pitfall of veneration in silence, perhaps because he regards the whole matter as harmless.


Text: Diekamp, F., Analecta Patristica. Texte und Abhandlungen zur griechischen Patristik (Orientalia Christiana Analecta 117; Rome, 1938), 127-129. Translation: Alexander, P.J., "Hypatios of Ephesus: A Note on Image Worship in the Sixth Century," Harvard Theological Review 45 (1952), 177–184 (English translation and commentary). Further reading: Gero, S., "Hypatius of Ephesus on the cult of images," in: J. Neusner (ed.), Christianity, Judaism, and Other Greco-Roman Cults: Studies for Morton Smith at Sixty, vol. 2 (Leiden: Brill, 1975), 208–216.

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    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity



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