This episode is titled Icons.
Those with a rough outline of history know we’re coming up on that moment when the Eastern and Western branches of the Church split. The break wasn’t some incidental accident that happened without a lot of preparation. Things had been going sour for a long time. One of the contributing factors was the Iconoclast Controversy that split the Byzantine church in the 8th and 9th Cs.
While the Western Church went through monumental changes during the Middle Ages, the Eastern Church centered at Constantinople pretty much managed a holding pattern. It was the preservation of what they considered orthodoxy that moved Eastern Christians to view the Western Church as making dangerous and sometimes even heretical alterations to the Faith. The Eastern Church thought itself to now be alone in carrying the Faith of the Ecumenical Councils into the future. And for that reason, Constantinople backed away from its long-stated recognition that the Church at Rome was pre-eminent in Church affairs.
Another factor contributing to the eventual sundering of East from West was the musical chairs played for the Western Emperor while in the East, the Emperor was far more stable. Remember that while the Western Roman Empire was effectively dead by the late 5th Century, the Eastern Empire continued to identify itself as Roman for another thousand years, though historians now refer to it as the Byzantine Empire. At Constantinople, the Emperor was still the Roman Emperor, and like Constantine, the de-facto head of the Church. He was deemed by the Eastern Church as “the living image of Christ.”
But that was about to experience a major re-model in the brueha between the iconoclasts and iconodules; terms we’ll define a bit later.
The most significant controversy to trouble the Byzantine church during the European Middle Ages was over the use of religious images known as icons. That’s the way many modern historians regard what’s called the Iconoclast Controversy – as a debate over the use of icons. But as usual, the issue went deeper. It arose over the question of what it meant when we say something is “holy”.
The Church was divided over the question of what things were sufficiently sacred as to deserve worship. Priests were set apart by ordination; meaning they’d been consecrated to holy work. Church buildings were set apart by dedication; they were sacred. The martyrs were set apart by their deeds; that’s why they were called “saints” meaning set-apart ones. And if martyrs were saints by virtue of giving their lives in death, what about the monks who gave their lives à yet still lived? Weren’t they worthy of the same kind of honor?
If all these people, places and things were holy, were they then worthy of special veneration?
The holiness of the saints was endorsed and demonstrated by miracles, not just attributed to them while they lived, but also reported in connection with their tombs, relics; even images representing them. By the beginning of the 7th C, many cities had a local saint whose icons were revered as having special powers of intercession and protection. Notable examples were Saint Demetrius of Thessalonica, the Christ-icon of Edessa, and the miracle-working icon of Mary of Constantinople.
From the 6th C, both Church and government encouraged religious devotion to monks and icons. Most Christians failed to distinguish between the object or person and the spiritual reality they stood for. They fell into, what many regarded as the dreaded sin of idolatry. But before we rush to judgment, let’s take a little time to understand how they slipped into something Scripture clearly bans.
The use of images as help to religious devotion had strong precedent. In pagan Rome, the image of the Emperor was revered as if the Emperor himself were present. Even images of lesser imperial officials were occasionally used as stand-ins for those they represented. After emperors became Christians, the imperial image on coins, in court-houses, and in the most prominent places in the major cities continued to be an object of veneration and devotion. Constantine and his successors erected large statues of themselves, the remains of which are on display today. It was Justinian I who broke with tradition and instead erected a huge icon of Christ over the main gate of the palace at Constantinople. During the following century icons of Christ and Mary came to replace the imperial icon in many settings. Eventually under Justinian II in the early 8th C, the icon of Christ began to appear on coins.
While the use of images as accouterments to facilitate worship was generally accepted, there were those who considered such practice contrary to the Bible’s clear prohibition of idolatry. They weren’t against religious art per se; only it’s elevation into what they considered the realm of worship.
The debate over icons was really a kind of doctrinal epilogue to the Christological controversies of an earlier time. à
What was proper in depicting Christ and other Biblical persons?
Can Jesus even be represented, or is the attempt to a violation of His divinity?
Does making an image of Jesus enforce his humanity at the expense of his deity?
And when does art, used in the service of worship, to enhance or facilitate it, interfere with worship because the object or image becomes the focal point?
Though these questions may seem distant to those who hail from a modern Evangelical background, they may be able to get in touch with the challenge the Eastern Church of the 8th and 9th Cs faced by remembering back a little way to when some notable worship leaders raised concern about the modern worship scene with its fostering an environment of overblown emotionalism. Some phrased it as the “Worship of worship,” rather than God. Musical productions and concerts became events people turned out by the thousands for as they sought a spiritual thrill, a worship-high. One well-known composer of modern worship wrote a song that aimed to expose this trend called “The Heart of Worship.”
Though the medium was different, in some ways, the recent worship of worship concern was similar to the concern of the Byzantine iconoclasts. In the ancient Eastern Church, the medium was the art of images. The more recent controversy centered on the art of music.
By the 7th C, the most significant form of Eastern devotion was the cult of holy icons. While I could give a more technical definition or description of icons, let me keep it simple and say they were highly-stylized paintings made on wood. The images were of Jesus, Mary, saints, and angels. While there were primitive images used by Christians all the way back in the 1st C, we’d have to say Christian art began in earnest in the 3rd C. It was used either decoratively or depicted scenes from the Bible as a way to instruct illiterate believers.
As mentioned, since the people of the Eastern Empire were already accustomed to showing deference to portraits of the Emperor, it wasn’t much of a stretch to apply this to pictures of what were considered holy people. Since imperial portraits were often set off by draperies, people prostrated before them, burned incense and lit candles beside them, and carried them in solemn processions, it seemed inevitable that icons of the saints would receive the same treatment. The first Christian images known to have been surrounded by such veneration occurred in the 5th C. The practice became widely popular in the 6th and 7th. The reserve church leaders like Epiphanius and Augustine had shown toward the use of images at the end of the 4th C disappeared.
It’s important to realize that when it comes to icons and their use, there were really two tracks. One track was the way theologians justified or condemned them. The second track was that of the common people who had little interest in the fine points of theology involved in their use. The iconoclasts framed the issue from Track 2. They were skeptical of the illiterate masses being able to make a distinction between simply using an icon as a means to worship of what the image represented, and actual worship of the image itself. What seemed to prove their point was when some of these icons and religious relics were attributed with special powers to effect healing and work wonders.
Pro-icon Church leaders maintained a misunderstanding of icons ought not prohibit their use. That would err into mere pragmatism.
Emperor Leo III launched an attack on the use of icons in the first half of the 8th C. He was motivated by a concern the Church was engaging in the forbidden practice of idolatry, the very thing that had coast ancient Israel so much trouble. Perhaps the Eastern Empire’s humiliating losses over the previous century, as well as a terrible earthquake early in Leo’s reign, were evidence of divine judgment. If so, Leo was concerned the Empire would awaken to their peril, repent and amend their ways.
Of course, Leo didn’t come up with this on his own or out of the blue. There were many among the clergy and common people who questioned the use of icons as objects of religious devotion. But now with the Emperor’s backing, this group of Iconoclasts, as they were called, became more vocal. Antagonism toward the use of icons grew, especially along the eastern frontier that bordered Muslims lands. Muslims had long called Christians idolaters for their use of religious images. Leo grew up in that region and had served as governor of western Asia Minor among several iconoclast bishops.
The word iconoclast means a breaker or destroyer of icons because eventually, that’s what the Iconoclasts will do; smash, break and burn the icons.
After successfully repulsing the Muslim armies in their 2nd attack on Constantinople in 717, Emperor Leo III openly declared his opposition to icons for the 1st time. He ordered the icon of Christ over the Imperial Gate to be replaced with a cross. In spite of wide-spread rioting, in 730 Leo called for the removal and destruction of all religious icons in public places and churches. The iconodules, as supporters of icons were called, were persecuted.
In Rome, Pope Gregory III condemned the destruction of icons. The Emperor retaliated by removing Sicily, southern Italy and the entire western part of the Balkans and Greece from Rome’s ecclesiastical oversight, placing them under the Patriarchate of Constantinople. It was this, as much as anything, that moved the Pope to seek the support and protection of the Franks.
Leo’s son Constantine V not only continued his father’s iconoclastic policy, he furthered it. He convened a council in 754 at the imperial palace at Hiereia, a suburb of Constantinople. The iconoclasts regarded it as the 7th Ecumenical Council, though it was only the Patriarchate of Constantinople that attended.
Both iconoclasts and iconodules agreed that the divine in Jesus Christ could not be represented in pictures, but Jesus had 2 natures. The iconoclasts argued that to represent the human nature was to lapse into the dreaded Nestorianism but to represent both natures was to go against their distinction, which was the error of Monophysitism, and made an image of deity.
The iconodules replied that not to represent Jesus Christ was Monophysitism.
Note how these arguments illustrate the practice of debating new issues in terms of already condemned errors.
Against pictures of Mary and the saints, the iconoclasts reasoned that one cannot depict their virtues, so pictures were at best a vanity unworthy of the memory of the person represented. “Surely,” they said, “Mary and the saints would not WANT such images made!”
Other arguments by the iconoclasts were that the only true image of Jesus Christ is the Eucharist.
Supporters of icons used arguments that were most effectively articulated by John of Damascus, an Arab Christian who wrote in Greek. John was a monk at the monastery of St. Saba in Palestine where he became a priest and devoted himself to study of the Scripture and literary work. Being outside the realm of Byzantine control, he was safe from retaliation by the Emperor and iconoclastic officials.
John of Damascus was the most systematic and comprehensive theologian in the Greek church since Origen. His most important work is the Fountain of Knowledge, part three of which, titled On the Orthodox Faith, gives an excellent summary of the teaching of the Greek Fathers on the principal Christian doctrines. He also produced homilies, hymns, and a commentary on the NT letters of Paul. John of Damascus’s Three Apologies against Those Who Attack the Divine Images took a fourfold approach to the issue.
1st he said, it’s simultaneously impossible and impious to picture God, Who is pure spirit. Jesus Christ, Mary, saints, and angels on the other hand, who’ve appeared to human beings may be depicted. The Bible forbids idols alone.
2nd, it’s permissible to make images. The Old Testament prohibition of images was not absolute, for some images were commanded to be made; take for instance the cherubim over the mercy seat and other adornments of the temple. John said that we’re not under the strictures of the Old Covenant now. In fact, the incarnation of God IN Christ prompts us to make the invisible, visible. John set the incarnation at the center of his defense of icons, elevating the debate from a question only of practices of piety to a matter of theological orthodoxy. Since human beings are created with body and soul, the physical senses are important in human knowledge of the divine. There are images everywhere— human beings are images of God. The tradition of the Church allows images, and this suffices even without Scriptural warrant, he argued.
3rd, it’s lawful to venerate icons and images because matter isn’t evil. There are different kinds of worship: true worship belongs to God alone, but honor may be given to others.
4th, there are advantages to images and their veneration. They teach and recall divine gifts, nourish piety, and become channels of grace.
John of Damascus is regarded by the Orthodox Church as the last of the great teachers of the early church, men universally referred to as the “Church Fathers.”
Despite his arguments, Iconoclast emperors drove iconodules from positions of power and began vigorous persecution. Many works of art in church buildings from before the 8th C were destroyed. Constantine V took strong measures against monks, the chief spokesmen for images, secularizing their property and forcing them to marry nuns. Many of them fled to the West.
The Popes watched all of this with interest and came in on the side of the iconodules. Some of the best formulations of the independence of the Church, arguing that the emperor was not a teacher of the church, were made in their letters.
In the end, the iconoclasts sealed their defeat by refusing to give to pictures of Jesus the reverence they gave pictures of the Emperor. The reaction against iconoclasm finally set in after Constantine V.
Constantine V’s son and successor, Leo IV, was not an energetic iconoclast as his father and grandfather. His widow Irene, regent for their son Constantine VI, overturned the dynasty’s iconoclastic policy. At her bidding the Council of Nicaea in 787 and condemned the Iconoclasts, affirming the theological position taken by John of Damascus.
They found, “The venerable and holy images, as well in painting and mosaic as of other fit materials . . . should be given due salutation and honorable reverence, not indeed that true worship of faith that pertains alone to the divine nature”
But that wasn’t the end of iconoclasm. An Iconoclast block developed in the professional military as a reaction to a series of military disasters, diplomatic humiliations, and economic problems the Empire experienced in the quarter-century after the 787 Nicaean Council. They interpreted all these set-backs as the judgment of God for the Empire’s return to idolatry.
Finally, Emperor Leo V decided that Iconoclasm should again become the official policy of his government. A synod of church leaders in 815 reaffirmed the position taken by the anti-icon synod of 754—except that they no longer regarded the icons as idols.
With Leo V’s death, active persecution of the pro-icon party declined for 17 years before bursting out again in 837 under the leadership of Patriarch John Grammaticus. Under his influence, Emperor Theophilus decreed exile or capital punishment for all who openly supported the use of icons.
Theodora, the widow of Theophilus and regent for their son Michael III, decided he ought to abandon the iconoclastic policy to retain the widest support for his rule. A synod early in 843 condemned all iconoclasts, deposed the iconoclastic Patriarch John Grammaticus, and confirmed the decrees of the 7th Council.
In today’s Eastern Orthodox churches, paintings and mosaics frequently fill spaces on ceilings and walls. A screen or low partition called the iconostasis stretches across the front of the church, between the congregation and the altar area, for the purpose of displaying all the special icons pertaining to the liturgy and holy days.