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
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
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
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."
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."
This, unfortunately, is not the end of the history of the Bronze
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."
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.
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
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."
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,"
but that icons also separated the dual natures of Christ, thus
falling into the Monophysite heresy, or the Nestorian.
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.
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."
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."
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
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?
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.
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
especially in connection with the worship of God. The
Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant were signs of God’s
presence, and both were decorated with cherubim."
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.
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
creation instead of the Creator'."
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."
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 meaning—a 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."
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
Christians, another example, are depicted as the three children
in the fiery furnace showing endurance and salvation in the
midst of persecution."
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."
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
Christ’s 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."
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."
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."
V. Canon 36 and the Council
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."
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."
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
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."
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."
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
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
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."
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.
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
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?"
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."
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."
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."
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
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.
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.
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
Theodosius of Ehphesus, Thomas of Claudiopolis, and Constantine
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."
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 Leo’s 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
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."
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
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
the people with vain speeches, futile talk, cithers,
and nonsense: instead of thanksgiving and doxologies, you have
thrown people into
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.
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.
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."
This gesture was largely symbolic, however, since the Pope had
no real authority in Constantinople, and his influence was
After his death, Emperor Leo’s 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."
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."
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.
Theodore the Studite, while accepting that the divinity
cannot be expressed, countered the iconoclasts arguments by
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.
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.
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."
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."
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
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.
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
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."
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
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."
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."
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.
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
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 (ëáôñåéá) and veneration (ðñïóêýíçóéò). 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.
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
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
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.
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
icons—made of colors, pebbles, or any other material that is
fit—may 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.
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."
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
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
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
Assuredly, neither one or the other of the two councils merits
"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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
the theological voice of iconoclasm, was called to
accumulate theological arguments for the new iconoclast council.
condemned the creation or veneration of icons, and also “blamed
the ‘feminine simplicity’ of Empress Irene for the restoration
of icons in 787."
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.
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.
Methodius openly challenged Michael’s iconoclast policies,
calling for the restoration of icon veneration. Michael
responded by having Methodius scourged and imprisoned."
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
Approximately one hundred years later this ruling was
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."
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,"
and "the Son is the image of the invisible God."
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
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.
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.
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
[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
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.
We broke down about a hundred superstitious Pictures; and seven
Friars hugging a Nun; and the Picture of God and Christ; and
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.
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
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
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",
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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."
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
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."
This is their true beauty.
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