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Roman Empire (Byzantine Era) (330 - 1453)
St John of Damascus : John’s enduring influence is evident today in the rich sights and sounds of Christian liturgy.
St John of Damascus

St John Damascene (676-749) was a monk in Syria under early Islamic domination. His clear reasoning persuaded the Christian rulers of the Byzantine Empire to abolish their ban on religious art in churches. His Feast Day is December 4th.

MANSUR Bin Sargun was a Christian in the Syrian court of the Roman Emperor Heraclius the Great. After the Muslims captured Syria in 634, Mansur’s son Sarjun served the new Caliph in the same capacity.

Sarjun liberated a Sicilian slave named Cosmas, and engaged him to tutor his son John, together with an orphan (also named Cosmas) whom Sarjun had adopted. In the Roman way, they studied Christian and secular subjects from music to astronomy and mathematics, as well as virtues such as prayer and humility. But John decided against the civil service, and both he and Cosmas became monks.

Together, they had an astonishing impact on worldwide Christianity. They compiled hymns and established principles of chanting that can still be heard today. And after the Romans misread Scripture and labelled all religious art as ‘idolatry’, John’s reasoned arguments forced a climb-down.* Every generation of Christians since has John to thank, for those beautiful, mysterious icons, windows on another world.

* Icons were banned throughout the Romans Empire in 730, and restored at the Council of Nicaea in 787; the ban was revived in 815 and abolished in 843. The restoration of the icons is commemorated on the first Sunday of Lent each year, as ‘The Triumph of Orthodoxy’. See our post The Restoration of the Icons.

Painting an Icon

A 10-minute video to baroque-style music, showing the painting of an icon in time-lapse. By Theodore Papadopoulos (

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Picture: Via Wikimedia Commons. Licence: Public domain. View original
An eleventh century icon showing St John Damascene (left) and his adopted brother Cosmas, working on the ordering of Byzantine chant in the eight tones we know today. Without St John, such images would be forbidden to Christians.

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