he Image-less Idol: How Iconoclasm leads to Idolatry

by Fr. Vasilios Avramidis 

Source:  http://lovethinkspeak.com/



This paper examines the two seemingly opposed forces of iconoclasm and idolatry, positing that the two are not as diametrically opposed as is often understood. Rather, iconoclasm and idolatry are interrelated heresies that revolve around a common axis: an improper relationship with the image, stemming from an inadequate understanding of nature of God. Rather than being polar opposites, the one often evolves into the other; idolatry leads to iconoclasm, and iconoclasm to idolatry. This paper will explore how these two forces have shaped the history of the image from the fall of Adam, through the iconoclastic controversy, the reformation, and into the contemporary era. 




I. Introduction

When considering mankind's relationship with images, all of history has been marred by a tendency towards extremes: idolatry on the one end, and iconoclasm on the other. Both extremes, iconoclasm and idolatry, find their genesis in Adam's transgression and are interrelated. In Adam's haste to "become like God, knowing good and evil[1] both idolatry and iconoclasm were introduced into human history. Adam created an idol of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, choosing its fruit and the false promise of the Serpent over the true God whom he knew. As a consequence of his actions, Adam also became an iconoclast, breaking or marring the image of God within him.

This continual slide between iconoclasm and idolatry can be seen throughout the Bible as well as the history of the Church. This pendulous relationship with the image can be seen in the account of the Bronze Serpent. In the book of Numbers, as the Israelites were wandering the desert they began to grumble against God and Moses. In response, God sent fiery serpents to strike the people and many of them died. As a result, the remaining Israelites cried out to Moses in repentance saying, "We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you."[2]


God then instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent, and place it up on a standard, so that when the people looked upon it, they would be healed. In this instance, a proper relationship to the image is evident. The Bronze Serpent is seen as a type and figure of the Crucifixion of Christ, a symbol of salvation. Those who look upon the Cross are healed from the poison of sin which causes death to the soul much in the same way that the Bronze Serpent healed the bodies of those infected by the poison of the fiery serpents. "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life."[3] This, unfortunately, is not the end of the history of the Bronze Serpent.

Seven hundred years later, in the reign of King Hezekiah, Israel developed a different relationship with the image. They no longer saw the Bronze Serpent as a symbol of God's mercy, an instrument of His healing, but looked upon it as a god. Having fallen into idolatry, King Hezekiah desired to purge the nation of Israel of its idolatrous influences. "He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it."[4] The relationship between mankind and the image had once again changed; whereas once the bronze serpent was seen as a symbol of God's salvation, it became a god in itself, being offered worship by the Israelites. This caused Hezekiah to smash the image, to commit an act of iconoclasm.

Souljournaler: Examining The Scripture LXIV: Hezekiah - Destroyer of Idols  & Champion of Yahweh

This slide between the two poles of iconoclasm and idolatry can be be seen extending throughout history, and in many ways is still being repeated in the contemporary era. This push and pull between extremes reached its apex during the iconoclastic controversy of the eastern Church during the eighth and ninth centuries. This controversy would cause the Church to formulate a doctrine on the proper nature of man's relationship to the image. At the Seventh Ecumenical Council, the Church would issue Canons that would forge a middle way for the image, one that avoids both the extremes of iconoclasm and idolatry.


II. Iron Sharpens Iron

As often happens, from controversy springs intellectual flowering. This is certainly true of the iconoclastic struggle. While writings that both support and criticize the use of icons have existed since the founding of the  Church, it wasn't until the imperial edict of AD 730 that banned the use of icons, and the persecution that followed, that the  Church sought to develop a philosophical, theological, and scriptural basis for the icon. It was in this environment of persecution, martyrdom, exile, and marginalization that an intellectual formulation of iconology, rooted in the historical and theological understanding of the nature of the Trinity, the Holy Scriptures, and their relationship to the image became debated and solidified. For the first time in history, a proper understanding of the image would be articulated, one that balanced out the two interrelated poles of iconoclasm and idolatry.

Luminaries such as St. John of Damascus, St. Theodore the Studite, and Patriarch Nicophoros among others, codified the diverse writings of the early  Church fathers and the Holy Scriptures and presented a unified argument in support of icons that made direct and effective appeal to the Incarnation and the natures of both God and Man; their argument was one steeped in the salvation history of mankind with relation to the work of God in Jesus Christ. "The defense of the icon was a defense of the Incarnation, and of the salvation of man."[5]

The iconoclasts however, were not without a cogent defense of their position. The iconoclasts argued that icons where not only in violation of the Second Commandment which prohibited the creation of images, "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth,"[6] but that icons also separated the dual natures of Christ, thus falling into the Monophysite heresy, or the Nestorian.[7] Neither heresy was theologically acceptable, and both had already been condemned by ecumenical  Church councils.

The entire iconoclastic debate encouraged a more learned approach to theology because the defenders and the accusers of icons had to examine the patristic tradition in order to fashion their arguments. In the centuries that followed, the production of hymns, poems, sermons, chronicles, and memoirs increased significantly. Since it was accepted that the icon was as significant as the word, and since the written and hymnographic literature became more sophisticated, iconography had to assert itself in a more sophisticated way.[8]

Monasteries became important centers of learning during the iconoclastic period. Since the defeat of paganism, monastics shifted their focus to more spiritual disciplines without much thought for the intellectual, however, during the era of iconoclasm all of this would change. The "monks proved to be the sturdiest defenders of icons, but they had to turn to philosophy and the study of the Fathers to construct well-thought-out intellectual arguments to refute the accusations of the iconoclasts. Education and study found a new place and purpose within monastic activities."[9]

Thus the iconoclastic controversy, much like the controversies regarding the nature of Christ which proceeded it, spurred an intellectual and philosophical fervor within the  Church as both schools of thought, iconoclast and iconodule, were forced to develop and present convincing proofs to support their understanding of the same  Church fathers, and the same Holy Scriptures. Since both schools cull their proofs from the historical sources, Holy Scripture and the early  Church fathers, it is important to begin with these in order to gain a proper understanding of the arguments.


III. The Mosaic Prohibition

In Israel's infancy, a set of laws were bequeathed to the nation and its posterity as inviolable commands. These laws were given to the nation through Moses directly by God in the form of commands. These laws, known as the Decalogue, were intended to govern Israel's relationship to God and to one another. Within these commands, there is a law that appears to prohibit the use of images, "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth."[10] It was this command that the iconoclasts would proffer as proof against the use of icons.

As early as the second century, there were  Church fathers who warned against the creation of images. St. Melito of Sardis writes:

There are, however,  persons who say: It is for the honor of God that we make the image: in order, that is, that we may worship the God who is concealed from our  view. But they are unaware that God is in every country, and in every  place, and is never absent, and that there is not anything done and He knoweth it not. Yet thou, despicable man within whom He is, and without whom He is, and above whom He is, hast nevertheless gone and bought thee wood from the carpenters, and it is carved and made into an image insulting to God. To this thou offerest sacrifice, and knowest not that the all-seeing eye seeth thee, and that the word of truth reproves thee, and says to thee: How can the unseen God be sculptured? Nay, it is the likeness of thyself that thou makest and worshippest.  Because the wood has been sculptured, hast thou not the insight to  perceive that it is still wood, or that the stone is still stone?[11]

The iconoclasts saw the Second Commandment's prohibition against images as a universal and timeless law; no images were permitted. Pagan artists who converted to Christianity and sought to join the  Church were faced with two options: either find a new profession or risk excommunication. It is not difficult to understand how the first Christians might have found themselves at odds with their pagan environment precisely because of the important role that images played in it. Coming from Palestine as they did, these first Christians must have considered the image to be a form of idolatry, and on the basis of the spiritual character of their religion, they must have also considered any representation of God in art to be a  return to paganism.[12] Was the prohibition against images in the Second Commandment, however, literally a prohibition against making any image? A wider look at the Holy Scriptures themselves does not seem to support such a wholesale injunction.

When taken in context, the prohibition against images suggests an injunction against the creation and worship of idols, not against all images. "This understanding was clear to the Israelites because even the Hebrew scriptures have references to pictorial depiction,  especially in connection with the worship of God. The Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant were signs of Gods presence, and both were decorated with cherubim."[13] This is a fact that was used extensively by the iconophiles in defense of images used in worship. They argued that the iconoclasts had too narrow of a reading of the Holy Scripture and their interpretation was flawed. Saint John of Damascus eloquently dispatched the iconoclasts' charges of idolatry, writing on the Second Commandment:

Truly this command is awesome: God, who commands Israel to make no image, or carving, or likeness of anything in heaven or on earth, Himself commands Moses to make graven images of cherubim which are living creatures. He shows a vision of the temple to Ezekiel, and it is full of images and carved likenesses of lions, men, and palm trees. Solomon knew the law, and yet made images, filling the temple with metal figures of oxen, and  palm trees, and men, but God did not reproach him on this. Now, if you wish to condemn me on this subject, you are condemning God, who ordered these things to be made, that they might be reminders for us of Himself.[14]

How is it that God can seemingly both prohibit all images and yet order their creation? Saint John of Damascus addressed this apparent contradiction in the Holy Scriptures to prove his argument; for him, there was no contradiction. God was simply prohibiting the use and creation of idols. In answer to the Mosaic prohibition against images, John of Damascus  answers using the hypothetical voice of Moses himself; "I did not say, You shall not make an image of the cherubim that stand as slaves beside the mercy seat, but 'you shall not make for yourself gods of metal," and  "you shall not make a likeness' as of God, nor shall you worship the  creation instead of the Creator'."[15] The text of the Second Commandment, according to the iconophiles, was never intended to prohibit the creation of all images, instead, the intent had always been to prohibit the worship of idols.

Saint John of Damascus would "trace the tradition of honorable reverence of the sacred object back to the Mosaic people, who venerated on all hands the tabernacle which was an image and type of heavenly things."[16] Once again, it is a proper relationship to the image that is needed, neither idolatry nor iconoclasm will suffice, for if man is made in God's image, and the creation is a reflection of His glory, then there must be some proper relationship with the image that is essential to man's understanding of his relationship with God. While it is believed that "the prohibition against images was aimed at protecting the people of Israel from the danger of idolatry, it must have had another, additional meaninga positive theological meaning which [is discovered] in the light of the New Testament. Human nature, and with it all of creation, is separated from the Creator; the image of God in man is thus mutilated. In this state of separation, the image has a broken relation with the creator; it expresses a false reality and becomes an idol."[17] This is an interesting viewpoint; the Second Commandment isn't merely a negative injunction, but a positive affirmation, and a prefiguring of a future mending of what was broken, namely the image of God in man. The image of God within man was mutilated at the time of Adam's transgression, separating God from man; this image would be made whole again in the future coming of Christ's Incarnation. It was on this point, the theology of the Incarnation, that the bulk of the iconodule's argument would rest. This is a natural interpretation of the Old Testament by the early  Church who saw most, if not all of the Old Testament, as a shadow of Christ.


IV. Early Church Attitudes towards Images

Images have been a part of the Christian  Church from its infancy; catacombs bear witness to the numerous and varied forms of art that formed an integral part of Christian life and worship. "Proto-Christian art is largely symbolic and anagogical. Christ, for example, is depicted as the good shepherd.  Christians, another example, are depicted as the three children in the fiery furnace showing endurance and salvation in the midst of persecution."[18] The art of the early Christians borrowed heavily from Egyptian and Roman pagan art, adopting symbolism and imagery to suit Christian themes. Even the style of later iconography has roots in the Fayum funerary portraits painted in Roman Egypt.

Although early Christian art displays Roman and Egyptian influence, its aesthetic gradually developed into a distinct art form; "As conversions increased among the upper classes, new aesthetic demands made themselves felt; as a result, buildings, were constructed under the patronage of this new Christian aristocracy, thus necessitating an adaptation of the Christian aesthetic vision. Throughout the whole empire, the majority of artists worked only for the glory of the new faith."[19] Over time, a distinctly Byzantine Canon of design developed, guiding the work of Christian artists with a unified vision.

While imagery may have been prevalent throughout the early Christian Church, images did not necessarily enjoy universal acceptance. "There were some hierarchs in the early Church who were outright opposed to figurative images, most notably the fourth-century Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea. He asserted that Christs humanity was deified at the Resurrection in such a way that He was impossible to depict thereafter. But because the disciples did in fact behold Him numerous times after the Resurrection, this argument, along with other iconoclastic assertions, was rejected by the Church."[20]

Bishop Eusebius was not the only voice of opposition, "motivated by a fear of idolatry, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Minuscius Felix, and Lactantius had [also] sounded an alarm; paganism and its art were still too much alive, and too threatening, for the first Christians were just beginning  to deepen their faith."[21] Not all  Church fathers, however, were opposed to images either; St. Basil the Great, and St. Gregory of Nyssa were both staunch supporters of iconography in the early  Church. St. Basil the Great (c. 330-379), in his homily on the martyrdom of Barlaam, says: "Arise now before me, you iconographers of the deeds of the saints ... Let me be overwhelmed by your icons depicting the brave acts of the martyr! Let me look at the fighter most vividly depicted in your icon ... Let also Christ, Who instituted the contest, be depicted in your icon."[22]

V. Canon 36 and the Council of Elvira

In the early part of the fourth century, circa 304-309, a local council convened at Elvira, Spain to discuss the general conduct and rapport of Christians. Among the Canons issued at Elvira, a Canon relating to images, Canon 36, was issued by the council. It read: "It  seemed good to us that images should not be in  Churches so that what is venerated and worshiped not be painted on walls."[23] Along with the few writings that seem to condemn the use of icons in the early  Church fathers, this Canon stands as a bulwark against images. "Christians with an iconophobic tendency see in this Canon a confirmation of their point of view. Iconodules, on the other hand, are somewhat embarrassed by an open interdiction of images in  Churches and try to limit the Canon's importance, scope, and meaning."[24] In order to comprehend the importance of the Canon, however, it is important not only to place it in context to the local  Church community, but also to investigate its reception by the wider  Church community.

It is important to remember when analyzing any of the  Church councils, whether they be local or ecumenical in nature, that they are always called in response to some type of problem or controversy; the council of Elvira was no different. Most of the Canons deal with issues of sexual misconduct, marriage, and the conduct of clergy; Canon 36 is the only Canon which deals with the use of images in the  Church. It can therefore be assumed by the existence of Canon 36 that images predated the council in Spanish  Churches. If the council determined that there was a need to address the use of images within the  Church, then that need implies that images already existed within the  Church.

Whatever the impetus the council had in issuing the Canon, it does not seem to have any great effect on the local  Church community. The Canon seems to have no real consequence on "the Spanish Christians of subsequent history because they continued to paint images on the walls of Spanish  Churches ... there has never been an iconoclastic controversy in the Spanish  Church.[25] It would seem that the main purpose of Canon 36 was to regulate, rather than prohibit, images. What that regulation might entail, or why the council found it necessary, is unknown. What is known is that the council didn't seem to have any great effect of deterrence upon the local  Church community; images continued to be painted inside  Churches and there is no known reference to any punishment or censure being levied against any persons or  Church communities on account of their use and creation of images.

The wider, universal  Church community also apparently ignored Canon 36 of the Elviran Council. Several councils of the 4th century adopted certain of Elvira's Canons verbatim, they did not however adopt Canon 36. "Even though it had existed since the beginning of the 4th century, the Canon had no historical importance until the 16th century. Since that time,  iconoclasts and iconophobes have used it as a weapon against iconodules both Catholic and Orthodox."[26] Not even the iconoclasts of the eighth and ninth centuries cited the Canon. It would appear that Canon 36 had no serious implications on the attitude towards images within the Church.

The prominence of images and icons within the  Church was unscathed by the short edict issued by the Council of Elvira. No real arguments were put forth, nor penalties attached to the ruling; it was simply stated more as a matter of opinion than of doctrine. It differs widely from the other Canons issued by the council, many of which carry th force of censure, penance, and excommunication. "If Canon 36 is, in fact, a disciplinary Canon attempting to regulate but not condemn a well established practice, then the council of Elvira doesn't deal with the basic theological question: the legitimacy of Christian images. Another 400 years will have to go by before that question is clearly and directly asked and answered."[27]


VI. The Council of Trullo

The Council of Trullo (692), or the Quinisext council as it is known, was a council called to complete the Canons of both the Fifth and Sixth Ecumenical councils, hence the name Quinisext which literally means, fifth and sixth. While most of the Canons simply reiterate those already passed by previous councils, the Quinisext council did issue regulations attempting to reform certain practices within the  Church that have strong pagan origins. Of all the 102 Canons issued at Trullo, only three deal with images:

Canon 73 Recalls the importance of the cross and its veneration.

Canon 100 Prohibits deceitful paintings which expose the public to corrupt intelligence by exciting shameful pleasures.

Canon 82 In certain reproduction of venerable images, the Precursor is figured, pointing to the lamb with his finger. This representation had been adopted as a symbol of grace, but was a hidden figure of that true lamb who is Christ our God, which was shown to us according to the law.  Having thus the truth transmitted to the Church, we prefer today grace and truth themselves, as a fulfillment of this law. In consequence, and in order to expose to the sight of all, even with the help of painting,  what is perfect, we decide that henceforth Christ our God must be represented in his human form instead of the ancient lamb.[28]

It is clear from these three Canons that there is no prohibition against images as such, but rather a refinement of purpose and scope. Christ is not to be personified; rather, He must be directly represented. Whereas in the early  Church, artists adopted the pagan imagery of the good shepherd, showing Christ as a personified lamb or as some generic shepherd, He must now be depicted as a distinct human person. This will have profound implications for the future defense of icons, equating image with incarnation. The difference between personification and person are vast. Personification asks, "Who is that?" The personified source of something is not a "someone" and, therefore, runs up against the ecclesial tradition which requires that a human form occupying so central and dominant a position in an icon represents someone, not something."[29]

According to Canon 82, Christ should no longer be depicted symbolically but rather as He is, as a person. In the incarnation God became man, depictable, and distinct. The  Church decided that whenever given the choice, the shadow should never be preferable to the light.[30] Direct representation of Christ is always preferable to the symbol. Direct representation has stronger ontological links to the prototype, whereas symbols shroud and conceal, offering abstractions rather than reality. Father Stephen Bigham explains:

By  "direct representation," we mean an image of a person, an icon, and not an indirect symbol of that person, for example a fish for Christ or  keys for St. Peter. Due to the direct link between the icon and its personal prototype, we can ask the question,  "who is that?" The answer can be either "that is Jesus Christ." Or  "that is an image of Jesus Christ." In either case, the key word in the question is "who" because it assumes that the object of the question is a person, whether human, angelic, or divine. In the case of an indirect symbol of a person, a fish, we have a direct image of some other thing, and that thing makes us think about the person absent but hinted at in the symbol. Standing in front of a catacomb image of a fish, we cannot really ask "who is that?" as though the question was meant to fall on the personal identity of the fish. The first question is "what is that?" And then we can ask "who or what does that represent?"[31]

An icon depicts a person, a who, not an abstract idea or a symbol. This is one of the distinguishing factors between icon and idol; as it will be argued in the coming centuries during the era of iconoclasm, the prototype and the icon have an ontological connection. Idols are dead and lifeless symbols, abstractions; icons have a personal connection to their prototype. The Church is beginning to realize "the full dogmatic impact of the incarnation on her art. It is not until the council of Trullo in 692 that the Church comes out categorically in favor of depicting Christ as He is rather than as a symbol."[32] Saint John of Damascus puts it succinctly: "The Old Testament is a silhouette of things to come in a future age, while the New Testament is the portrait of those things."[33]


VII. The War on Images Begins

There is great speculation regarding the root causes of the iconoclastic controversy: the shrinking fortunes of the Byzantine Empire, the loss of the Eastern frontiers to Arab and Turkish invaders, and the severing of ties with Western Europe all served to destabilize the empire. "Soldiers who saw the eastern provinces of the mighty Roman Empire fall to the hands of the heathens wondered if God was allowing the iconoclastic or, rather, 'un-iconic,' Muslims to prevail because of their stance against imagery."[34] Muslims believe that God is the only image-maker and therefore renounce all figurative art, however they also deny the incarnation, the principal upon which those who advocated icons laid their claim; therefore, those who stood against images in favor of Muslim iconoclasm also stood against the incarnation.

In 721, the Caliph Yazid II resorted to very draconian measures in order to eliminate all the images from the sanctuaries and homes of the provinces under his authority. Taking his cue from the caliph's iconoclasm, the Emperor Leo III took the initiative and provoked a crisis after unfruitful consultations with the pope and the patriarch in regards to images. Leo himself was from the eastern provinces of the empire where Monophysite sentiment was very much alive.[35]   Urged by great military losses, natural disasters like the volcanic eruption off the coast of Thera, which Emperor Leo III likely saw as a sign of condemnation from God, and a misreading of Holy Scripture, the emperor issued a proclamation banning the creation and use of icons within the empire. In 726, Emperor Leo III publicly spoke out against icons and characterized those who venerated them as idolaters. His aim was religious reform: to purify the  Church and the Empire by eliminating idols.[36]

The Emperor's proclamation, however, did not gain widespread compliance nor acceptance; there was popular protest and even violent reaction to his decree. When Emperor Leo III attempted to remove an Icon over the Chalke gate, a mob of iconophiles, mostly women, stormed the gate killing the government agents. The Emperor wanted to replace the icon with a cross because the vision Constantine received was In this Conquer, referring to the cross. Leo retaliated with a severe persecution. Lead by a group of disgruntled soldiers, a neighboring district in Byzantium, Hellas, attempted to usurp the Emperor's throne but their attempts were unsuccessful. 

The iconoclastic movement was supported by three bishops from Asia Minor:  Theodosius of Ehphesus, Thomas of Claudiopolis, and Constantine of  Nacolia. Constantine traveled to Constantinople to try to win over the patriarch, St. Germanus, to the iconoclastic cause, but the patriarch refused to accept any doctrine that contradicted the councils and the tradition of the Church."[37] The patriarch, St. Germanus, defended iconography, but the emperor ignored his council and proceeded with his plan to eliminate icons from the empire. The three iconoclast bishops succeeded in destroying the icons within their provinces. Outside the Empire, Pope Gregory II of Rome rejected the theological basis of Emperor Leos iconoclasm, but continued to support the Emperor because he needed military aid to fend off the Lombards. Within the empire, the revolt against the Emperor's iconoclastic policies only grew as the monastics within the empire became vocal opponents of the emperor's policies.

The fervor with which monastics defended icons may have come as a suprise to many within the Emperor's council. Ascetic literature of the time suggested an aversion to material possessions among monastics. "In the Platonist manner that underlies the theology of Evagrios, the mind/soul is closer to God when it leaves all material things behind. When the great controversy over icons arose, therefore,  it would have been natural to monks to have been supportive of the policies of iconoclastic emperors, but such was not the case."[38]  From the beginning of the iconoclastic controversy, monastics were vocal supporters of icons, offering their words as defense and their bodies as sacrifice in martyrdom.

When the emperor realized the seriousness of the revolt, he attempted to win over the patriarch to his cause, but St. Germanos would not be intimidated.  When the Patriarch was invited to the Senate to sign an act that prohibited the veneration of images, the patriarch stood up, took off his omophorion, and cried out: "I am like Jonah; throw me into the sea. I can have no other faith, Oh Emperor, than that of the ecumenical council." He then left and went to his ancestral home where he stayed for the rest of his life.[39] In his place, Emperor Leo III appointed the pro-iconoclast Anastasius as the new patriarch. Icons in  Churches were replaced with flowers, ornamental designs, and even scenes from hunts and horse races. This serves as further evidence that iconoclasm ultimately leads to idolatry.

It was a return to paganism which expressed itself in the liturgy as well; preaching was strengthened  along with an increase in religious poetry and all sorts of music. Pope Gregory II wrote to the Emperor Leo III in the following words: "You  have occupied  the people with vain speeches, futile talk, cithers, castanets, flutes,  and nonsense: instead of thanksgiving and doxologies, you have thrown  people into fables."[40]

In an attempt to purify the Church, the Emperor instituted a new idolatry; removing the icons of Christ, the Theotokos, and the Saints lead directly to the glorification of earthly material objects and events. The very thing which iconoclasm set out to correct became its idol, once again demonstrating an improper understanding and relationship to the image. The life of St. Stephen the Younger, who was martyred for venerating icons, illustrates the situation:

Icons of Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints were committed to fire and destruction; while representations of trees, birds, animals and such satanic scenes as horse racing, hunting, theatrical performances and games at the Hippodrome were carefully preserved. The  Church was turned into a vegetable garden and aviary.[41]

It was widely reported that Emperor Constantine V ordered the covering of six paintings of the ecumenical councils with portraits of his favorite chariot driver.[42] In rejecting the true icons the iconoclasts accepted mere pictures as icons; they exchanged the image of God for an image of an idol.

Under the emperor's leadership, a widespread persecution began in Constantinople; people were ordered to bring their icons to the town-square to be burned. Those who resisted, including clergy and monastics, were imprisoned, tortured, and killed. Responding to the bloodshed, Pope Gregory III convoked a council at Rome in 731, "which excommunicated everyone who opposed the veneration of the holy images and blasphemed against them, destroyed them, or profaned them."[43] This gesture was largely symbolic, however, since the Pope had no real authority in Constantinople, and his influence was limited.

After his death, Emperor Leos son, Emperor Constantine V (741-775) continued his father's iconoclastic policies and persecution until his brother Artabasdus, an iconophile, took his throne in a coup.  Patriarch Anastasius, who had been appointed by Constantine's father, Emperor Leo III, consented to crown Artavasdos as Emperor, as well as reverse his iconclastic position, restoring images to the empire. In addition, Partiarch Anastasius excommunicated Constantine V as a heretic. This reversal was not to last; Constantine V reclaimed the throne and had his brother blinded.  Once Constantine had reclaimed the throne, Patriarch Anastasius once again reversed his position and adopted an iconoclastic stance, proving by his actions that his motivation was the retention of power and not theological purity.


VIII. The Arguments Pro and Con

Unlike Emperor Leo III, the arguments offered by the iconoclasts under the leadership of Constantine V were to become highly sophisticated. Constantine V wrote extensively on the subject of iconoclasm; unfortunately only two of his writings survive. Iron does indeed sharpen iron as the Scripture says, and the "attacks of competent intellectual iconoclasts such as Constantine V made it necessary for defenders of icons such as John of Damascus, Theodore of Studios, and Nikephoros of Constantinople to promulgate a semiotic theory of iconography."[44] Constantine V began a new wave of persecution, being especially hard on the monasteries which were strongholds of resistance; as a result, monasteries were closed and the monks tortured.

The iconoclasts argued that the creation of icons was tantamount to heresies that had already been settled by the councils. They argued that it is impossible to represent Christ or the saints: "If we represent the divinity, we confuse the natures, and we claim to be able to circumscribe what cannot be expressed. If we represent the humanity, we divide what must be united in the person of Christ and thus fall into Nestorianism. Through a material image, we would thus deny the hypostatic union which has been defined by the Council of Chalcedon."[45] This statement is a logical fallacy called the 'False Dilemma', where only two choices are presented as if they are the only two options available. In the case of icons, however, the confusion or the division of the natures are not the only available explanations for the representation of of Christ. The charge of the iconoclasts was to insist that either the iconophiles were claiming to represent the divine nature, and therefore idolaters, or that they were somehow dividing Christ's two inseparable natures, and thus espousing heresy.

Saint Theodore the Studite, while accepting that the divinity cannot be expressed, countered the iconoclasts arguments by stating:

Christ, who has come in flesh, is portrayable in the flesh. The property of the divinity is unportrayablity, incorporeality, the absence of external appearance and form; whereas the property of the humanity is portrayablity, tangibility, measurability, of three kinds. If Christ consists of two natures, He is of course both unportrayable and portrayable. If our Lord Jesus Christ, without any doubt, came in the human image and in our appearance, then it is just to say that He can be portrayed and represented on icons just as we can be, even if according to His divine image He remains unportrayable ... but if He were not portrayable, He would stop being man.[46]

Saint Theodore's argument points out the inherent flaw in the iconoclast assertions: if Christ's humanity cannot be circumscribed, then was He really ever human? If He who comes from the uncircumscribable Father is uncircumscribable,  then obviously He who comes from a circumscribable mother is circumscribed ... But if both are true of the one Christ, then He has also acquired the properties of both origins and is uncircumscribable and circumscribed.[47] The argument in defense of icons was to largely become a defense of the incarnation. If Christ was truly incarnate, if He, at the same time was both God and man, then He must be both circumscribable and uncircumscribable. What the apostles and the Jews witnessed was truly Christ in His humanity, yet indivisibly united with His divinity, they saw one but not the other, yet He remained undivided in persons. The iconophiles claimed that it was the iconoclasts who had truly adopted heresy, charging that they espoused a view whereby Christ's divinity had absorbed His humanity, falling into the heresy of Monophysitism.

As already stated, the incarnation played a central role in the defense of icons. The iconophiles argued that before the incarnation, God could not be depicted since no one had seen Him, but from the moment of the incarnation, God became flesh, and was seen by men, therefore, from that point on, images of Him could be made. As the scripture proclaims: that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands."[48]

The iconoclasts also leveled charges of materialism against the iconophiles, asserting that matter degrades the holiness of Christ whom it attempts to depict. The iconoclasts charged that "the only possible icon, instituted by Christ himself, is the Eucharist  which is the mystic presence of the incarnation. The only permitted representation of the saints is to follow their examples and strive for perfection."[49] 

Material was viewed in a rather negative light by the iconoclasts, yet this suspicion of all that is material borders on Gnosticism, a teaching that urged its followers to shun the material world.  It was against this charge that St. John of Damascus was to write extensively.

You abuse matter and call it worthless. So do the Manichees, but the divine Scripture proclaims that it is good. For it says, "And God saw everything that He had made, and behold it was exceedingly good." I therefore confess that matter is something made by God and that it is good, you, however, if you say it is evil, either do not confess that it is from God, or make God the cause of evil. See, therefore, what the divine Scripture says about matter, which you call worthless: "And Moses spoke to all the congregation of the sons of Israel, saying, This is the word which the Lord has commanded, saying, Take from among you an offering to the Lord, gold, silver, bronze, aquamarine, porphyry, scarlet, twill, and twisted flax and goats' hair and rams' skin dyed red and skins died aquamarine and acacia wood and oil  for anointing and spices for incense and carnelians and precious stones for engraving and for the shoulder-piece and the robe. And let everyone wise in heart among you come and work everything, that the Lord has commanded, for the tabernacle.[50]

The iconophiles argued that through the Incarnation the material world was sanctified. All of creation played a role in the Incarnation, life, and death of Christ, and therefore all of material creation was renewed along with man, and began its return to Paradise. The waters of the Jordan became the life-giving waters of regeneration, the darkness of the burial cave became a light bearing Tabernacle; this redemption was carried throughout the Cosmos. Saint John of Damascus wrote of creation saying: "I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take up His abode in matter; who worked out my salvation though matter; never will I cease honoring the matter which wrought my salvation."[51] In rejecting matter, it was alleged that the iconoclasts rejected the incarnation; the iconoclastic position was a rejection of Christ who clothed Himself in matter.

As the debate intensified, Constantine V called a council of carefully selected Bishops to Hieria (AD 754) to consider the issue of icons. At the council the bishops reiterated the charges against the iconophiles, charging that the iconophiles were perpetrators of the Nestorian heresy which attempted to separate the dual natures of Christ. In addition, the iconclasts argued the insufficiency of matter in the representation of God.  Theodotus of Ancyra said: We have been taught not to fashion images of the saints by means of material colors, but rather to imitate their virtues, which are really living images, with the aid of what has been recorded about them in books, so that we may be stimulated in this way to a zeal like theirs."[52] This council was upheld by the 388 bishops in attendance and although the majority of the associated writings have been lost or destroyed, scholars attribute the authorship of the decision to the emperor, Constantine V.

On August 29, 754, the council prohibited the production and veneration of icons, and St. John of Damascus was formally excommunicated. Monasteries within the bounds of the empire were forcibly closed because of their tendency to be strongholds of iconophile theology. Constantine V attempted to stop the veneration of the Theotokos, the Saints, and Relics, but died before he could do so. His son, a moderate, Leo IV took the throne after his death. His wife Irene however, was secretly an iconophile.

After the death of her husband Leo IV, Irene was named co-empress along with her son. Irene worked tirelessly to restore icons, and attempted to call together a council to settle the dispute.  Irene's first attempt to convene a council was broken up by soldiers loyal to Constantine V when they staged a revolt. In 786, a second council was called, this time outside the city of Constantinople in Nicaea, away from threat of violence. The 350 Bishops in attendance denounced iconoclasm and declared the council of Hiera a false convocation. The council ordered the destruction of all the iconoclast writings, the renewal of icons, and of reinstating of St. John of Damascus. While this was a victory for the iconophiles, and the destruction of heretical writings was the cultural norm of the era, there was a significant loss to contemporary scholarship. Twenty-eight disciplinary Canons were issued at the Council at Nicaea, which was to become known as the Seventh Ecumenical Council.


IX. Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicaea II)

At the close of the first session of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, after a litany of anathema were uttered against the iconoclasts and their practices, a senior bishop by the name of John was recorded to proclaim: "This heresy is the worst of all heresies. Woe to the iconoclasts! It is the worst of heresies, as it subverts the incarnation of our Savior."[53] While many philosophical, semiotic, and theological arguments would be put forth by the defenders of icons, the chief argument would center on the incarnation of Christ; all of the other arguments would revolve around this one key point: "In former times, God, who is without form or body, could never be depicted. But now when God is seen in the flesh conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see."[54] The iconophiles argument rested upon the truth of the incarnation, as proclaimed by St. John the Apostle:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which We have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.[55]

The iconophiles argued that if Christ was truly incarnate, if God literally took on flesh and dwelt among men, then He could be depicted in icons; to deny this fact was to deny the very reality of the incarnation. If  we look with the eyes of the Orthodox apologists of icon veneration (in particular the patriarchs Nicephoros and Herman, and St. Theodore the Studite), we might initially think that iconoclasm was essentially a christological heresy, specifically connected  with the diminishment or denial of the truth of the Incarnation. The chief argument of these apologists, constantly repeated by them, was that if Christ was truly made man, then He could be portrayed in images and His images are worthy of veneration; thus, anyone who denies the fact that He can be portrayed in images and that His icons are worthy of veneration, denies the Incarnation and is thus guilty of doceticism or some other christological heresy.[56] But it was this issue of veneration that would become a key issue for the iconoclasts.

Charges of idolatry were leveled against the iconophiles, arguing that the honor they paid to icons was tantamount to worship which belonged to God alone. For the iconophiles, the issue was more subtle, and a distinction was made between worship () and veneration (). The iconophiles agreed worship is due to God alone, and to worship anything other than God was idolatrous, but veneration was not the same as worship. In addition, when veneration was given to an icon, it is not the material that receives that veneration, but rather its prototype. Bishop Lenontius of  Neopolis expressed this fact well when he argued:

As long as wood is fastened together in the form of a cross, I venerate it because it is a likeness of the wood on which Christ was crucified. If it should fall to pieces, I throw the pieces into the fire. When a man receives a sealed order from the emperor, he kisses the seal. He does not honor clay, paper, or wax for their own sake, but he gives honor and veneration to the emperor. Likewise, when Christian people venerate the form of the cross, they are not worshiping the nature of wood, but they see that it is marked with the imprint of the hands of Him who was nailed upon it, and so they embrace and honor it.[57]

The material of the icon is not worthy of either worship or veneration, of itself, it is mere material, but when it is fashioned in the image of Christ, or the saints, it becomes a conduit between the subject of the painting and the one offering veneration; the icon is a vessel of communion between the subject of the icon and the person bowing before it. The difference lies in the intent of the person offering veneration. The person offering the veneration is doing so with intent to honor the one depicted, not the wood or paint itself, if however, the image itself is venerated without thought of the prototype, then the one offering honor is treading on idolatrous ground. St. John of Damascus argued this distinction in his Treatise on Divine Images:

When therefore you see a Christian venerating the Cross, know that it is for the sake of Christ the crucified that he makes his veneration, not because of the nature of wood, as if we venerated all the trees of the field, as Israel venerated sacred groves and trees, saying, "You are my God, you gave me birth." Our case is not like that, but we have a memory and record of the sufferings of the Lord and of the deeds of those who contended for him, and we have them in  Churches and houses, making everything for His sake, for the sake of our Lord.[58]




A proper relationship with the image is crucial; when man's relationship with the image is not properly understood then idolatry ensues on the one extreme, and iconoclasm on the other. In the end, iconoclasm itself ends in idolatry. The idea of the image being linked to its prototype is not a foreign one. Even in the contemporary era, when a father is away from home and looks at a photograph of his children and experiences a sensation of warmth, is it the image that he longs for, or the children in the image? When a widow gazes at the picture of her late beloved and is overcome with a flood of memories, is it the image that created those memories, or her beloved himself? Even in ancient times, this phenomenon was experienced.  St. John of Damascus writes: I have often seen lovers gazing at the garments of their beloved, embracing the garments with their eyes and their lips as if the garment were the beloved one."[59] But human experience informs us that no one believes the garments to actually be the beloved one, rather they serve as a vessel of communion, facilitating a type of spiritual contact with the beloved.

There were practical applications of this image/prototype communion in the ancient world as well. In the absence of the emperor, his image would not only be venerated, but would also serve as a "stand-in" for legal proceedings, carrying the same legal weight as if the emperor had actually been present. Again, Saint John of Damascus writes about this practice in his Treatise on Images:

Just as in the absence of the Emperor his image is venerated in his stead, so in his presence it would be strange to neglect the archetype and venerate the image; but this does not mean that, because it is not venerated when the one for whose sake it is venerated is present, it must be dishonored. For just as he who abuses the image of the emperor suffers punishment as if he had dishonored the Emperor himself, even though the image is nothing other than wood and paints mixed and blended with wax, in the same way he who dishonors the figure of someone offers an insult to the one whose figure it is.[60]

There was great precedence in the ancient world for the notion that honor or veneration paid to an image passed to the prototype. The iconophiles seized upon this phenomenon in order to defend their position that worship is reserved for God alone and that the honor given to an icon passed to its prototype.

In the end, the council sided with the iconophiles, anathematized the iconoclasts and issued the following decree:

Continuing along the royal pathway, following both the teaching of our holy Fathers which is inspired by God and the tradition of the catholic Church for Her in absolute precision and harmony with the spirit, we declare that, next to the sign of the precious and life-giving cross, venerable and holy iconsmade of colors, pebbles, or any other material that is fitmay be set in the holy  Churches of God, on holy utensils and vestments, on walls and boards, in houses and in streets. These may be icons of our Lord and God the Savior Jesus Christ, or of our pure Lady the holy Theotokos, or of honorable angels, or of any saint or holy man.[61]


X. The Frankfurt Council

While the decree of the council was generally well received, its acceptance was not wholesale. In addition to opposition by the staunch supporters of iconoclasm, the Canons issued by the council were met with grave reservations by some leaders in the western  Church. There was already palpable tension between the Greeks and Charlemagne, so when the Canons and decrees of the Seventh Ecumenical Council were received by Charlemagne's court, "everyone was greatly surprised and dumbfounded. The Latin translation of the Greek acts was so poor that Anastasius the Librarian, a century later, said that the work was done by a bad translator rather ignorant of Latin as well as Greek."[62] This led to confusion and misunderstanding among the western  Church that caused Charlemagne's court theologians to issue a refutation of the acts.

Charlemagne's theologians made an appeal to common sense: "Man can be saved without seeing images but not without knowledge of God".[63] The legacy of the Frankfurt declaration is still guiding the contemporary western  Church whose view is that images are merely didactic; they are useful for teaching, books for the illiterate and nothing more. The theologians of Charlemagne's court were "lacking in the sharpness of the Byzantines, the Franks were not aware of all the Christological dimensions of the icon; they had never had to fight against Monophysitism or Islamic influence."[64]

The Frankfurt council convened in order to deliberate the issue, considering both the decisions of the Council of Nicaea II (the Seventh Ecumenical Council) which issued Canons in favor of the iconophiles, and the Council of Hieria which proclaimed support for the iconoclast cause. After evaluating the decisions of both councils, the members of the Frankfurt council issued the following decree:

Assuredly, neither one or the other of the two councils merits the title  "seventh": as we are attached to Orthodox doctrine which provides that images only serve to beautify  Churches as well as to recall past events..., we want neither to prohibit images, with one of the councils, nor to worship them, with the other; and so we reject the writings of this ridiculous council.[65]

The Council of Frankfurt was neither iconoclastic, nor fully iconophile. They had misunderstood the relationship between image and prototype, and made the error of confusing the act of worship with veneration of the image, making them coequal. Charlemagne's court accepted the rulings of the Frankfurt Council and disseminated its decrees throughout Christendom. Pope Hadrian however, rejected their rulings. He rejected the condemnation of the Seventh Ecumenical Council on the one hand, but hesitated to accept its decisions.[66]


XI. Iconoclasm Renewed

Without the full support of the wider Church, the Empress' iconophile council would not withstand the iconoclastic remnant that remained active in the region. Empress  Irene's reign was not a popular one. Her manipulation of alliances, and her crowning of Charlemagne as emperor of the west were unpopular. She also mismanaged funds and made poor military decisions. She faced a coup and in retaliation had her son blinded. After her death her successors upheld the decisions of the Seventh Ecumenical Council until the military,  who still had iconoclastic tendencies, overthrew the emperor, and set Leo V the Armenian on the throne; Leo was the former general of Anatolia and an Iconoclast."[67]

Emperor Leo V immediately reinstated iconoclasm to the empire, making it known that he despised icons and the decision of the council of Nicaea II (Seventh Ecumenical Council), stating: "iconoclast rulers had prospered and lived long lives, while iconophile emperors were deposed and killed in battle."[68] Theodore the Studite and Patriarch Nicephorus of Constantinople united to oppose the emperor, but they were deposed and exiled. In 815, a new council met at St. Sophia  Church under the new patriarch and condemned the iconophile council of 787, and restored the Hieria council of 754.

John Grammaticus, who became the theological voice of iconoclasm, was called to accumulate theological arguments for the new iconoclast council. The  council condemned the creation or veneration of icons, and also blamed the feminine simplicity of Empress Irene for the restoration of icons in 787."[69] While Leo V condemned the practice of venerating icons, he was more moderate than his iconoclastic predecessors. On Palm Sunday, over one thousand monks took part in a procession of icons under the leadership of St. Theodore the Studite.[70]

On Christmas day in 820, Emperor Leo V was murdered in  Church by followers of Michael II the Amorian.  Michael II (820-829) was also an iconoclast but did not continue the persecution of iconophiles. He even recalled Theodore the Studite and Patriarch Nicephorus from exile. While Michael II ceased the open persecution of iconophiles, he was still an iconoclast. When "Patriarch  Methodius openly challenged Michaels iconoclast policies, calling for the restoration of icon veneration. Michael responded by having Methodius scourged and imprisoned."[71]

Michael II was a shrewd but uneducated soldier and attempted to reconcile iconoclasts and iconodules. Even with the support of emperor Louis the Pious and Pope Pascal I, Michael failed to reconcile the two sides. Michael believed that images could be used but not venerated; veneration of the icons in his view was steeped in superstition. In 829, Theophilus succeeded Michael II as emperor. Theophilus was a harsh iconoclast and openly resumed persecutions.[72] Theophilus especially targeted the monasteries for persecution and appointed his tutor, John Grammaticus as patriarch.


XII. The Restoration of Icons

At the death of emperor Theophilus, his wife, Theodora, became regent and defacto empress. Theodora had secretly been an iconophile and made the restoration of icons her first priority. In the span of one year she had the iconoclast patriarch John Grammaticus deposed, and Methodius reinstated. She convened a council which declared the restoration of icons in accordance with the Council of Nicaea II and had it recognized as ecumenical. On the first Sunday of Lent, March 11, 843, the decree was solemnized in St. Sophia as the Triumph of Orthodoxy. With this decree, the conflict finally ended.[73]

The first Sunday of Great Lent, March 11, 843 was set for festivities. There was an impressive procession presided over by Patriarch Methodius; the empress and the whole court led the procession and behind them followed the monks and the faithful. Many of them still carried on their bodies the marks and proofs of their fidelity.[74]

St. Vladimir Orthodox Church - The FIRST SUNDAY of GREAT LENT The Sunday of  Orthodoxy The first Sunday of Great Lent is always a day of reflection and  rejoicing, as we celebrate

This Sunday is celebrated each year in the Orthodox Church on the first Sunday of Lent with a procession and blessing of icons. Liturgical hymns have been composed to bring honor to the festival. As always, these hymns teach in psalmody what the Church upholds as sacred. The Canon from Matins service of the day proclaims the importance of icons to the  Church, the sixth ode reads:

We keep the laws of the Church, laws which have been observed by our fathers; we paint images of Christ and all the saints, and we venerate them with our lips, our hearts, and our wills. The honor and the veneration addressed to the image rebounds to the prototype. This is the doctrine of the fathers, inspired by God; it is the doctrine we follow; and we cry aloud with faith to Christ: Bless the Lord, all you works of the Lord. - 6th ode, Canon from matins.[75]

Icons have continued to play a prominent role in the Church since the final resolution of iconoclasm in 843. A renaissance of icon painting took place over the next several centuries. Veneration of icons spread far beyond the borders of Byzantium, playing a prominent role in the conversion of both the Bulgarians and the Slavs. In AD 869, the Council of Constantinople, the eighth ecumenical council for Roman Catholics, confirmed the decisions of the seventh council at Nicaea stating:  "If anyone does not venerate the icon of Christ the Savior, let such a one not see His face at a Second Coming. In the same way, we venerate and honor the icons of His all-pure mother, of the holy angels painted as they are described in the Holy Scriptures, and those of the saints."[76]  This council further proclaimed that the icons of Christ are equivalent in nature to the Holy Gospels; both icon and Gospel are an image of Christ.


XIII. Post-Iconoclastic Controversies

Though the iconoclastic controversy faded, the controversy surrounding icons endured. In Russia, images of God the Father abounded. While the Seventh Ecumenical council settled the issue of images in regards to Christ, it did not issue any explicit ruling in regards to images of God the Father. This lack of Canonical clarity led to a period of turmoil within the Russian empire that in many ways continues into the contemporary age. From the 16th century, councils have been called to deal with the images of God the Father, many times overturning the rulings of the previous council. In AD 1553, "a layman named Viskovatyi protested to Metropolitan Macarius against images of God the Father, and other novelties, recently introduced. The  metropolitan and the council condemned Viskovatyi and approved images of God the Father on the basis of Old Testament visions."[77] Approximately one hundred years later this ruling was overturned.

The Great Council of Moscow was convened by Tsar Alexis in 1666. The council decreed that images of God the Father according to Old Testament visions should no longer be painted. These images often referred to as the Lord Sabaoth could not be painted as no one has ever seen Him in the flesh. "To  paint on icons the Lord Sabaoth (that is, the Father) with a white beard holding the only-begotten Son in His lap with a dove between them is altogether absurd and improper, for no one has ever seen the Father in His divinity."[78] It was argued that only Christ has appeared in the flesh, therefore it is only the Son, and not the Father who can be depicted in icons. The scripture confirms this line of thinking, proclaiming: "No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only He has seen the Father,"[79] and "the Son is the image of the invisible God."[80]

The issue would appear settled, however, further councils and synods would be called that would issue reversals of these decrees. This trend would continue throughout the history of the Russian  Church and continues to today. Inside and outside of Russia, icons of God the Father, under various names, Lord Shabuoth, the Paternitas, the Ancient of Days, the Divine Heart of God, etc. have appeared in Orthodox  Churches throughout the world bringing with them controversy.

The debate has not been confined to images of God the Father, but to the Holy Spirit as well. In the case of the Holy Spirit, the form of a dove was seen in His stead at the Baptism of Christ. It was determined therefore that this image is symbolically appropriate only in this instance. No image of the Holy Spirit should appear in an icon save for the Baptism of Christ. The Moscow Council issued the following decision with regard to the Holy Spirit:

And the Holy Spirit is not, in His nature, a dove: He is by nature God. And no one has ever seen God, as the holy evangelist points out.  Nonetheless, the Holy Spirit appeared in the form of a dove at the holy baptism of Christ in the Jordan: and this is why it is proper to represent the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, in this context only.[81]


In AD 1776, the Holy Synod of Constantinople would issue further restrictions by decreeing that the icon of the Trinity is an innovation, is alien to the apostolic Orthodox Catholic Church, and is not accepted by it.[82] This of course raises questions about one of the most beloved icons in the Orthodox  Church, the Rublev Trinity (below left), or the Hospitality of Abraham (below right). What is clear about all these rulings is that none of them seem to carry the force of law in the same manner that the Canons of the Seven Ecumenical Councils did.

        |    &  -    -  &


XIV. Reformation Iconoclasm Then and Now

With the advent of the Protestant Reformation, a new iconoclasm was brought to the west. This iconoclasm lacked much of the sophistication of that experienced in the east centuries earlier. The Protestant argument against images centered solely on the second commandment prohibition; no further thought was given to the issue and no attempt was made to reconcile the prohibition of images with the command to create images. A strict Sola Scriptura / Sola Fide doctrine resulted in a deficient and surface level misinterpretation of Scripture. It does not appear as if most Protestant theologians were even aware of the previous iconoclastic controversy, its writings, or resolutions.

[Protestant iconoclasm] does not rise to the level of the iconoclastic theology of the seventh century but rather regards icon veneration as nothing more than a kind of idolatry or superstition. Nor in the Catholic reaction, in the Counter Reformation, do we find any attempts to advance the question dogmatically. Although the Council of Trent confirmed the necessity of icon veneration, the Council represented not a step forward in the development of the doctrine of icon veneration but rather a step back compared to the Seventh Ecumenical Council.[83]

This Reformed mentality led to a great destruction of images throughout Western Europe. Statues were smashed, paintings defaced and discarded; Iconoclastic riots raged throughout Zurich, Geneva, Augsburg, and Scottland. Monastaries and  Churches were attacked. In England, William Dowsing, a Puritan soldier, was commissioned to oversee the destruction of images throughout the  Churches of East Anglia.  He wrote:

We broke down about a hundred superstitious Pictures; and seven Friars hugging a Nun; and the Picture of God and Christ; and divers others very superstitious; and 200 had been broke down before I came. We took away 2 popish Inscriptions with Ora pro nobis and we beat down a great stoning Cross on the top of the Church.[84]

What replaced the religious imagery? In some of the more austere communities, nothing replaced the sacred art that was destroyed. In other communities, Protestant artists turned to genre painting and landscape. The effects of Protestant iconoclasm can still be seen in the contemporary era among the writings of prominent Protestant theologians and art historians. Hans Rookmaker, wrote in his 1970 treatise on Modern Art and the Death of Culture:


I discussed the difficulty of portraying biblical themes in art. This does not mean that specifically Christian themes are impossible. It means only that Christian art is not art that uses biblical or other Christian themes ... Christian art is nothing special.[85]

Rookmaaker was no neophyte in the Protestant commnity; he was a theologian, art historian, professor, and author. He published his doctoral thesis on Paul Gauguin in 1959, and was made the chair of the Art History department at the Free University in Amsterdam in 1965. His work with Francis Schaeffer's L'Abri in Switzerland played a significant role in the contemporary Evangelical revival. Rookmaaker's vitae testifies to his authority to speak on behalf of contemporary protestant reformers.

In the opening of his book Modern Art and the Death of Culture, Rookmaaker argues for a reexamination of painting from a Christian context. In his analysis of several paintings he criticizes those that hint at anything supernatural or "other-worldy", preferring instead works that emphasize an earthly naturalism. This naturalistic art which "sings the songs in praise of the beauty of the world here and now, the world God created, the fullness of reality in which we live",[86]  Rookmaaker trumpets as truly Biblical art. By contrast, art works which depict the manifest and triumphant glory of the divine realm, Rookmaaker devalues, and in fact calls these works humanistic. The full weight of his iconoclasm is realized when he writes on the icons of the Theotokos:

We called the Madonnas we were talking about icons. So we may call this extra value that is often found in Western painting its iconic quality. Perhaps the strangeness of modern painting has some connection with this, for the art of painting has been given too high a value, too great a task ... Madonna paintings, icons, have something of the quality of idols, and that is perhaps the mistake that has led to this specific problem. But we cannot solve the problem overnight by saying that we feel that painting should be just painting and no more. Even if we do feel that this should be the case, we can do no more than to work towards it.[87]

Rookmaaker's view is emblematic of most mainstream Protestantism in the contemporary age. Both Calvanism and Puritanism, two strands of the Reformation that have had a powerful influence on American culture rejected art almost wholesale. As a result of these iconoclastic tendencies, the culture tends towards true idolatry with secular and humanistic images filling the void left by the true icon. In iconoclastic modernism, the profane gets exalted to iconic levels while the sacred becomes anathematized. Rookmaaker too concedes: "the fact that most Christians did not take part in the arts and the general trends of culture to any extent allowed them to become completely secular, and in the long run even contrary to Christianity.[88] While Rookmaaker recognizes the swing within culture from sacred to secular, he falls short of advocating a return to the sacred in art. Instead, he proposes that Christians once again promote artists, although naturalistic ones, who work within an art-for-arts-sake framework. Rookmaaker's solution is not to Christianize art, but rather to have a Christianizing influence on artists. Rookmaker's view of artists is almost as mundane as changing a lighbulb; by their example of "good culture", Christian artists bring light to those around them. In an effort to "free" artists from the limitations of sacred art, he enslaves them to a humanistic, and almost meaningless task.


XV. Conclusion

There is often a fine line that separates icon from idol; a proper relationship to the image is crucial in perceiving that line. An idol is that which erects a barrier between man and God, while an icon is that which points to Him. The purpose of iconography is to see the incarnation in all of life. Icons are a theophany, a revelation of the universal transfiguration through the Son of God available to all mankind; they are a portrait of the image of God within man. "Icons depict people who are radiant with the uncreated light of God. No shadows exist, because the light of grace within the saints dispels darkness, and the atmosphere in which they move and live and have their being is this same brilliant grace."[89]

Yet from his first days, man has rebelled against the image of God within himself, in favor of a lesser, more egocentric image. Adam chose the false promise of the serpent over the image of God within him. Aaron and the Israelites chose the worship of the Golden calf over the promises of God because Moses tarried too long on the mountain.  Iconoclasm is not an era, but rather a state of being within man.  Iconoclasts fight against the incarnation of God.

The iconclastic argument held a narrow and out-of-context view of scripture, isolating and misinterpreting the second commandment as an injunction against all images. The iconophiles showed that God Himself commanded Moses to fashion images, and therefore could not have intended a prohibition against all images. The iconoclasts then focused their attention on the uncircumscribable nature of God, stating that no one has seen God and therefore His invisible nature cannot be depicted. The iconophiles pointed to the incarnation in answer: Christ can be represented in an image because He was born of a mother who could be represented. He, who is God and unrepresentable, took flesh from the virgin, and became representable."[90]

Lastly, the iconoclasts attempted to level charges of heresy against the iconophiles, claiming that depicting Christ in images separated His two natures since His divine nature cannot be seen. "One of the main iconoclastic arguments, although the Transfiguration was not mentioned in connection with it, was that the divine nature of Christ could not be represented because it could not be seen. However,  its manifestation during the Transfiguration, even if partial, was sufficient to show to the apostles the indwelling deity."[91] Jesus is neither represented as God or as human, but as person, in which both natures are combined.

In their attempt to cleanse Orthodoxy of the influence of icons, which the iconoclasts viewed as idols, the iconoclasts became idolaters themselves. Images of horse races, nature scenes, and mere portraits replaced the sacred images of Christ and the saints in  Churches. It was an era in which the sacred became profane, and the profane, sacred. Though the issue was resolved with the convening of the Seventh Ecumenical council, and icons restored to their proper station within the  Church, the iconoclastic ethos has remained with mankind, repeating itself in various forms throughout the ages. Only through a proper understanding of the image and its relationship to the prototype can man hope to overcome his inherent iconoclastic idolatry. An idol will always remain egocentric; the glory of the icon is its ability to materialize a Chrsitocentric reality. "Icons show a man in his true nature, as a created being shining with the light of the Creator."[92] This is their true beauty.


XVII. Bibliography

Andreopoulos, Andreas. Metamorphasis: The Transfiguration in Byzantine Theology and Iconography. Crestwood, N.Y: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2005. Print.

Bigham, Steven. The Image of God the Father. Redondo Beach, Calif: Oakwood Publications, 1995. Print.

Bigham, Steven. (1992). Allegorical Personification in Orthodox Iconography. Sacred Arts Journal, 13(2), 66-37. Journal.

Bulgakov, Sergei.. Icons: And, the Name of God. Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2012. Print.

Cavarnos, Constantine. Orthodox  Iconography: Four Essays Dealing with  the History of Orthodox  Iconography, the Iconographic Decoration of  Churches, the Functions of  the Icons, and the Theology and Aesthetics of  Byzantine Iconography :  in Addition, Three Appendixes Containing  Authoritative Early Christian  Texts on Icons, Explanations of the  Techniques of Iconography, and a  Discussion of Two Russian Books on  Icons. Belmont, Mass: Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 1977. Print.

Damascus, St. John of. Three Treatises on Divine the Images. Crestwood, N.Y: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2003. Print.

Dowsing, William, and C H. Evelyn-White. The Journal of William Dowsing: Of Stratford. Ipswich: Pawsey and Hayes, 1885. Print.

Evseyeva, L. The History of Icon Painting. Moscow: Grand Holdings Publishers, 2005. Print.

Hart, Aidan, (August, 2012). Icons and Pastoral Care. (http://aidanharticons.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/PASTORIC.pdf). Web.

Hart, Aidan. Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting: Egg Tempera, Fresco, Secco. Leominster, Herefordshire: Gracewing, 2011. Print.

Hart, Aidan, (August 2012). Beauty and the Gospel. (http://aidanharticons.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Beauty-and-the-gospel.pdf). Web.

Hart, Aidan, (August, 2012). Icons and the Spiritual Role of Matter. (http://aidanharticons.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/IconsSpiritualRoleMatter.pdf). Web.

The Holy Bible, Containing the Old and New Testaments. Authorized King James Version. Oxford: Oxford University Press, n.d.. Print.

Kontoglou, Phōtēs, and Constantine Cavarnos. Byzantine  Sacred Art:  Selected Writings of the Contemporary Greek Icon Painter  Fotis  Kontoglous on the Sacred Arts According to the Tradition of  Eastern  Orthodox Christianity. New York: Vantage Press, 1957. Print.

The Orthodox Study Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008. Print.

 Ouspensky, Léonide, and Vladimir Lossky. The Meaning of Icons. Crestwood, N.Y: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1982. Print.

 Rookmaaker, H R. Modern Art and the Death of a Culture. Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1970. Print.

 Schaff, Phillip. The Seven Ecumenical Councils. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library,  2005. eBook.

 Schaff, Phillip, The  Twelve Patriarchs, Excerpts and Epistles, The Clementia, Apocrypha,  Decretals, Memoirs of Edessa and Syriac Documents, Remains of the First. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1885. eBook.

 Sendler, Egon. The Icon, Image of the Invisible: Elements of Theology, Aesthetics, and Technique. Redondo Beach, Calif:      Oakwood Publications, 1988. Print.

Vrame, Anton. The Educating Icon. Brookline, M.A: Holy Cross Press, 1999. Print.




[1]     Genesis 3.5b , The Orthodox Study Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008).

[2]     Numbers 21.7, Orthodox Study Bible.

[3]     John 3.14-15, Orthodox Study Bible.

[4]     2 Kings 18.4, Orthodox Study Bible.

[5]     Lossky, Vladamir & Ouspensky, Leonid,  The Meaning of Icons, (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1982), 34.

[6]     Exodus 20.4a, The King James Authorized Bible (New York: American Bible Society: 1999).

[7]     Vrame, Anton, The Educating Icon (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Press, 1999), 24.

[8]     Andreopoulos, Andreas, Metamorphasis: The Transfiguration in Byzantine Theology and Iconography, (Crestwood,  NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2005), 182.

[9]     Andreopoulos, 183.

[10]   Exodus 20.4a, The King James Authorized Bible.

[11]   Schaff, Phillip, The Twelve Patriarchs, Excerpts and Epistles, The Clementia, Apocrypha, Decretals, Memoirs of Edessa and Syriac Documents, Remains of the First (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1885), 755.

[12]   Sendler, Egon, Icon: Image of the Invisible (Oakwood Publications, 1988), 11.

[13]   Vrame, 31-32.

[14]   Vrame, 33-34.

[15]   Damascus, St. John, Three Trestises on the Divine Images (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladamirs Seminary Press, 2003), 65-66.

[16]   Cavarnos, Constantine, Byzantine Sacred Art (Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 1985), 34-35.


[17]   Sendler, 8.

[18]   Hart, Aidan, Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting (England: Gracewing Publishing, 2011), 9.

[19]   Sendler, 14.

[20]   Hart, Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting, 9.

[21]   Sendler, 17-18.

[22]   Cavarnos, Constantine, Orthodox Iconography (Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 1985), 13.

[23]   Bigham, Steven, The Image of God the Father (Oakwood Publications, 1995), 112.

[24]   ibid.

[25]   Bigham, The Image of God the Father, 115.

[26]   Bigham, The Image of God the Father, 116.

[27]   Bigham, The Image of God the Father, 115.

[28]   Sendler, 20.

[29]   Bigham, Steven. (1992). Allegorical Personification in Orthodox Iconography. Sacred Arts Journal, 13(2), 66-37.

[30]   Bigham, The Image of God the Father, 27.

[31]   Bigham, The Image of God the Father, 2.

[32]   Hart, Techniques of Icon and Wall Painting, 9.

[33]   Bigham, The Image of God the Father, 33.

[34]   Andreopoulos, 34.

[35]   Sendler, 22.

[36]   Vrame, 22.

[37]   Sendler, 22.

[38]   Andreopoulos, 34.

[39]   Sendler, 23.

[40]   Sendler, 23.

[41]   Evseyeva, L., The History of Icon Painting (Moscow: Grand Holdings Publishers, 2005), 48.

[42]   Evseyeva, 49.

[43]   Sendler, 25.

[44]   Andreaopoulos, 77.

[45]   Sendler, 26.

[46]   Bulgakov, Sergei, Icons and the Name of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), 13.

[47]   Bigham, Image of God the Father, 36.

[48]   1 John 1.1, Orthodox Study Bible.

[49]   Sendler, 26-27.

[50]   Damascus, St. John, 69-70.

[51]   Hart, Aidan, (August, 2012). Icons and Pastoral Care. (http://aidanharticons.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/PASTORIC.pdf), 4.

[52]   Vrame, 25.

[53]   Schaff, Phillip, The Seven Ecumenical Councils (Grand Rapids,  MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library), 533.

[54]   Bigham, Image of God the Father, 29.

[55]   1 John 1.1, Orthodox Study Bible.

[56]   Bulgakov, 10.

[57]   Vrame, 43.                                               

[58]   Damascus, St. John, 134-135.

[59]   Vrame, 44.

[60]   Damascus, St. John, 80.

[61]   Bigham, Image of God the Father, 123.

[62]   Sendler, 28-29.

[63]   ibid.

[64]   ibid.

[65]   Sendler, 28-29.

[66]   Sendler, 30.

[67]   Sendler, 30-31.

[68]   Vrame, 27.

[69]   Vrame, 27-28.

[70]   Sendler, 31.

[71]   Vrame, 28-29.

[72]   Vrame, 29.

[73]   ibid.

[74]   Sendler, 34.

[75]   ibid.

[76]   Bigham, Sacred Arts Journal, 60.

[77]   Bigham, Image of God the Father, 134.

[78]   Bigham, Image of God the Father, 138.

[79]   John 6.46, The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan House, 1984).

[80]   Colossians 1.15a, The Holy Bible, New International Version.

[81]   Bigham, Image of God the Father, 138.

[82]   Bigham, Image of God the Father, 146.

[83]   Bigham, Image of God the Father, 25.

[84]   Dowsing, William & C.H.E., The Journal of William Dowsing of Stratford (Ipswick, Pawsye and Hayes, the Ancient House, 1885), 15.

[85]   Rookmaaker, H.R., Modern Art and the Death of Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1994), 228.

[86]   Rookmaaker, 23.

[87]   Rookmaaker, 18.

[88]   Rookmaaker, 31.

[89]   Hart, Aidan, (August 2012). Beauty and the Gospel. (http://aidanharticons.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Beauty-and-the-gospel.pdf), 66.

[90]   Lossky, 31-32.

[91]   Anreaopoulos, 74.

[92]   Hart, Aidan, (August, 2012). Icons and the Spiritual Role of Matter. (http://aidanharticons.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/IconsSpiritualRoleMatter.pdf), 2.


Article published in English on: 06-04-2023.

Last update: 06-04-2023.