The iconoclastic controversy of the eighth century is one of the most important events of Church history, being that it not only directly addresses the use of sacred images, but more importantly it addressed the incarnation of Christ. In other words, the Council was primarily Christological in nature. The event brought a waxing and waning of infighting concerning the use of sacred images to a head in the Church. Metropolitan Hilarion illustrates the importance of the Council, “The entire Christological dispute, in fact, reaches its climax with this council, which gave the icon its final ‘cosmic’ meaning… In this way the justification of icon veneration brought to a close the dogmatic dialectic of the age of the universal councils.” The event also provides an excellent platform to discuss the Old Testament prohibition of the use of graven images, and how this Biblical text is to be understood in its proper Christian context. Deuteronomy 5:8-9 and Exodus 20:4, are the proof texts often used by heretics claiming that the Catholic Church is guilty of idolatry. The text of Deuteronomy claims, “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, and you shall not bow down and worship them.” And the Second Commandment given to Moses in Exodus says, "Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath" How do we reconcile this prohibition with the doctrine of the sacred image of the Catholic Church?
It must be noted that the prohibition is obviously not a prohibition on all images since in Exodus 25:1-22 God actually commands the Jews to make images of the cherubim on the Ark. The cherubim commanded to be depicted by God seem to directly go against the text prohibiting graven images. Likewise in Exodus 26 we see the cherubim embroidered on the linens in the tabernacle. Other Old Testament references such as that of Moses and the Bronze Serpent, a prefigurement of Christ, as well as the building of Solomon’s temple, a prefigurement of later church buildings, further demonstrate this point. The ban does not prohibit all images, but first and foremost it bans the idolatrous depictions of false gods, which would be used for false worship, which would be a breaking of the second commandment. Secondly it was not possible at the time for the Jews to depict the one true God Himself, since no man had ever seen God in any corporeal sense. Hence the Jews were forbidden to depict God in the heavens above. Of course this would all change, since through the coming of Christ, we are now able to see the Father. "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”(John 14:16) Saint John of Damascus, the great apologist of the sacred image, hymnographer and defender of sacred music wrote, “Of old, God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was never depicted. Now, however, when God is seen clothed in flesh, and conversing with men, I make an image of God whom I see. I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honoring that matter which works my salvation.”
It is important to understand the development of the Christian teaching of these Old Testament texts concerning the depictions of the one true God. Before Christ, God had not yet been revealed in the flesh. Once Christ took on human flesh, this obviously revealed something that had not previously been revealed to the Jews. The unique bond between Christ’s incarnation and the sacred image is most beautifully explained by two of the great Saints of the iconoclastic period, Saint Theodore the Studite and Saint John Damascene, whom I will again later quote at length. Likewise the texts of the Seventh Ecumenical Council provide us more insight into the Christian understanding of the use of sacred image. The apparent problem of reconciling the Old Testament ban lies only in misunderstanding the context of the prohibition, which ultimately depends on Christ’s incarnation, one’s ability to understand the difference between idolatrous and non-idolatrous images, and the intended use of the image. We must understand that the Christian does not worship the image, but gives veneration to the person depicted in the image, such as the Saints or the Theotokos. Worship that is given to God alone is reserved to God alone, and when for example Christ is depicted in the icon, then we are able to give that worship which is due to God, through the icon. The icon, when properly understood, is not an end within itself, but leads to the eternal reality beyond itself.
Although the history of the iconoclastic period in the East is quite complex, I will attempt to give you a simplified overview. The era between Constantine in the early 4th century and the iconoclastic period of the early 8th century is one which develops the use of the icon in large churches. Justinian and Theodora’s rule during the sixth century was a rich period for church iconography. It can be said that this period was the last time that East and West enjoyed a united empire, one which soon quickly unraveled. One example of this artistic development is the 6th century church in Ravenna, San Vitale, which contains some of the most famous icons from the pre-iconoclastic period. Thankfully this jewel of Christendom remained untouched during the period of iconoclasm. Although many influences can be cited as to the cause of the crisis, such as the rise of the Islamic heresy, the definite Jewish influence on the Byzantine Emperor, as well as political pressures, the main instigator appears to have been the Nestorian bishop, Xenaeas of Hierapolis, who’s party gained influence over the Byzantine emperor Leo III. (Nestorianism teaching that Christ is two persons, one human one divine.) Likewise as I previously mentioned, there had also been a waxing and waning of sorts between iconophiles and iconoclasts since the earliest days of the Church, and this clash was finally to come to a head under Leo’s reign. As a result of all of these influences and pressures, in 726 Leo III issued an edict which restricted the use of icons in Christian places of worship.
This restriction quickly developed into a widespread campaign to destroy these supposed idolatrous images, and the icons on the church apses and walls were covered by whitewashing. The controversy quickly became heated when the great image of Christ above the main entrance gate to Constantinople was taken down and destroyed. Orthodox Christians rightfully viewed this as an assault on Christ Himself. Just as when someone burns the US flag, the image itself is not what is being attacked, but what it represents. During this incident we see how very different the Christians of that era are to our own. A group of pious women, offended by this assault, physically tried to stop the soldier climbing up the ladder to the icon above the city gate. They arose from the crowd and made their way past the guards and ended up knocking over the ladder, which lead to the soldier’s demise. In short, these women were not going to stand for the image of their Lord being desecrated before them. The women were slain immediately on the spot by the emperor’s soldiers with the exception of the alleged ringleader, St. Theodosia, who is now honored among our Saints. She received more cruel punishments. She was dragged off through the streets, tortured, humiliated and later executed. Riots broke out in the city, and one of the great opponents to the iconoclasts Saint Germanus the patriarch of Constantinople, appealed to Pope Gregory II to condemn this outrageous action.
Pope Gregory II responded quickly to the dire situation and commanded Leo to stop meddling in the affairs of the Church. This is a problem which has always plagued the Eastern Church. Church and state never seemed to able to define their boundaries in Byzantium. Leo responded and commanded the Pope to convene a general council to address the issue of idol worship. Gregory in return chastised him, telling him that no council was needed, and that there was no heresy involved in the proper veneration of the sacred images. Of course, as with most heretics, Leo payed no heed to the Pope’s words and escalated the war upon the monasteries, which were now one of the fiercest opponents to his heretical effort. Monks were murdered, tortured, and their sacred images desecrated and destroyed. The vigilant Patriarch Germanus who opposed Leo and appealed to the Pope was eventually banished as a traitor, but he always remained firm in his orthodox stance. While things were heating up in the East, this tragedy was thankfully something the Western Church did not have to endure. Things remained relatively quiet in the West, where thankfully even those often sympathetic to the East, such as the church in Ravenna, ignored the heretical emperor’s wishes.
In 741 emperor Leo died and there was an uprising to overthrow his son Constantine V. Anastasius, the bishop who replaced Germanus saw an opportunity and now turned on the iconoclasts and sought to restore the use of sacred images to Constantinople. The uprising was short lived however when Constantine’s army marched upon the city and then had Anastasius flogged, blinded and driven into the streets, until he finally gave in to accepting the heresy. Blinding was a favorite punishment for the Byzantines, and it was actually viewed by them as a merciful punishment. Every punishment in the history books seem to read, “he was tortured, blinded and exiled.” Anastasius eventually died in 754, a crippled and broken man. Being that the Pope did not convene the council that his father had demanded, Constantine decided to call his own council. He gathered like-minded heretics from around the known world to officially condemn the use of sacred images. They held what was later known as “the robber council” and published their false anathemas against the iconophiles of the Church. Constantine V escalated the persecutions against the monastics who opposed his “council”. One head abbess was taken and tortured by having burning icons poured over her head. Constantine and his heretical clergy had nuns and monks marched into the hippodrome and humiliated, and then were forced to break their vows and marry. The priest monk, Saint Stephen the Younger took many persecuted monks into his monastery. He out-rightly rebelled against the emperor and his alleged council, and was imprisoned. Finally a group of soldiers riled up a mob of iconoclasts and he was brutally dragged through the streets of the city, clubbed, stoned and finally expired after his brains were literally beaten from his skull. The monastics certainly took a beating, and a Byzantine historian writes, “...monastic property was confiscated and monastic buildings were turned over for military use.” Despite these harsh persecutions, the iconodules did not give up.
There many were many more great martyrs who stood up to the iconoclasts such as Peter the monk who was murdered after refusing to trample on an icon. Andrew of Crete actually left his post as archbishop, set sail from Crete and came to Constantinople to personally address the emperor. He withstood Constantine V to the face, condemned his cruel actions and denounced his heresy. Constantine got so enraged that he had Saint Andrew arrested, tortured, killed and then thrown into a pit where common criminals were disposed. There is also one unexpected hero of sorts, of our story, the Empress Irene who was the wife of Leo IV the son and successor of Constantine V, and now who’s son, Constantine VI, only 9 years old was set to take the place of his father Leo IV. Being that he was of young age, his mother Irene became co-ruler. It was Empress Irene (787) who now sought to restore the use of sacred images to the East. In order to do this however she needed complete control of the government. If you know anything about the Byzantines, there was no shortage of drama, intrigue and hatched plots among their 1000 plus year existence. Irene had a problem, there were several rivals for the throne who had been waiting for her husband to die, so they could take advantage of the supposed weak empress. They certainly underestimated her tenacity. What clever device would she use to neutralize her and her son’s rivals? You guessed it, she had these rivals blinded so she would not have to worry about being interfered with. Yes, even heros have their flaws. As Irene maneuvered key loyalists in place, she was able to secure her spot as empress. Her reign however would later become a problem when her son came of age. There were probably political motives of course, but Irene proved to be an asset for the orthodox Christians in the case of the iconoclastic crisis. She used any and all means to restore the sacred image. Furthermore, she also initiated an effort to have a legitimate ecumenical council called, to counter the earlier robber council.
During this period we see the great Saints such as Saint John of Damascus,, among many other valiant men and women, continuing in the war against the iconoclasts. Due to their efforts as well as a sympathetic empress, a general council was soon called. An effort was first made to convene at Constantinople, but was thwarted by troops who were iconoclastic sympathizers. Irene underestimated the local army’s loyalty to the iconoclasts. Again the determined empress slowly disbanded the local army and replaced it with other soldiers who were loyal to her. The entire Church finally spoke in an official capacity at Nicea in 787 when a legitimate Ecumenical Council was finally convened and the heresy was vigorously condemned by a series of anathemas. The Pope had at least 2 representatives present at the Council along with over 350 bishops from the known world and the Eastern Patriarch of Constantinople.
Although the controversy subsided after the Council, a resurgence of iconoclasm began again 27 years later due to remaining sympathizers again gaining a foothold in the government. More persecutions came and the renown iconographer of the time Lazaros was brought before the high court where his hands were cauterized. This did not stop him, he also withstood them to the face and continued to paint icons with his scarred hands. Others were brought before the court and had inscriptions carved onto their foreheads identifying them falsely as heretics. A second wave of heroes arose such as Saint Ioanikios, Saint Theodore the Studite and the great patriarch Nicephorous, who stood firmly against the icon smashers. Nicephorous the archbishop, too like Germanus years before him under Leo III, was eventually banished across the Bosphorous. Likewise he never ceased to vigorously oppose the heretics. The controversy finally came to an end due to another valiant women, the empress Theodora. Due to her sympathies and influence, on the 11th of March, 843, fifty five years after the Seventh Ecumenical Council, and 116 years after the iconoclastic heresy began, a large procession of clergy and laity with icons in hand, put the iconoclastic controversy to end in the Hagia Sophia. The kontakion (Byzantine hymn) sung during this procession sums up the Church’s teaching well, "No one could describe the Word of the Father; but when He took flesh from you, O Theotokos, He accepted to be described, and restored the fallen image to its former state by uniting it to divine beauty. We confess and proclaim our salvation in word and images."
To this day the Eastern Churches proclaim this victory on the Feast of Orthodoxy on the first Sunday in Lent, where a synodicon is chanted along with the procession of icons, complete with the recitation of the anathemas proclaimed at the Seventh Ecumenical Council. The feast not only celebrates the Church’s victory against the iconoclasts, but also remembers and honors the many Saints who gave their lives, and suffered great sacrifice to defeat this horrific heresy. This feast has unfortunately been long lost to the West, if it ever existed. It cannot be overstated as to the amount of suffering our Catholic forefathers underwent during this atrocious persecution. I certainly cannot do them justice in such a short lecture. I have only mentioned the names of a few of our brothers and sisters in heaven who suffered and died so that we today can enjoy the freedom of use of the sacred image, which we unfortunately as a Catholic whole seem to hold little regard for.