Imagine a bloody struggle, fought over the course of a hundred years, about the use of images in worship. It actually happened. Emperors of Byzantium, having set their minds to control the church and its forms of worship, used armies to oppose the veneration of icons, smashing many of the art works in the process. This destruction of icons is called iconoclasm.
An icon is a stylized representation of God, Christ, or a saint. By the early middle ages, icons (and other images) were widely used as aids to devotion--or as objects of worship. Often, the devotees bowed to these aids and kissed them. To some believers this was shocking. They argued that the Ten Commandments forbade worshipping images. To them, icons were no more than idols. The only allowable representation of Christ was the bread and wine, they said. Scripture and early church practice were against icons, they insisted. Furthermore, it violated the church's definition of Christ as both God and man to try to capture the essence of Christ in any representation. Many iconoclasts also opposed prayer to saints and veneration of relics.
Byzantine Emperor Leo III saw icons as the chief reason Jews and Moslems could not be won to Christ and also as a cause of national disunity. At first he merely tried to persuade his people of this. But when a violent undersea eruption shook Constantinople, Leo took it as a warning from God. He ordered his soldiers to tear down a famed picture of Christ. When some old women pushed the ladder from under the soldiers, riots commenced. After that, Leo violently persecuted bishops and monks who favored icons. In 754, he convoked a council to rule against the images.
Those who defended icons said they weren't images. An image represents what a thing really is. An icon attempts to convey spiritual truth. Defenders claimed that the early church did, indeed, use icons. For instance, tradition said that Luke painted a picture of Mary that is now in Rome. The famous bishop John Chrysostom found inspiration in a portrait of Paul. Icons are a true response to the creeds, they argued. Christ had a real body that could be portrayed.
Emperor Constantine V was even more opposed to icons than Leo. He renewed the persecution. More blood flowed. But after his death, Empress Irene worked with the Patriarch of Constantinople to call another council, the Second Council of Nicaea (787). This one favored icons. However, the emperors and army remained opposed. Not until this day, February 19, 842, which was the first Sunday of Lent, were icons restored to the churches in solemn processions. The Empress Theodora had a strong part in the restoration. The first Sunday of Lent is still observed as the "Feast of Orthodoxy" in Eastern churches.
The Protestant reformers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries sympathized with the iconoclasts. God must be worshipped in "spirit and in truth," they taught. Protestant gangs sometimes smashed images in churches. The reformers firmly rejected prayer to saints and repudiated veneration of relics.
- Bellitto, Christopher M. The General Councils : a history of the twenty-one general councils from Nicaea to Vatican II. New York: Paulist Press, 2002.
- Fortescue, Adrian."Iconoclasm." The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.
- Guitton, Jean. Great Heresies and Church Councils. [English translation by F.D. Wieck] New York, Harper & Row, 1965.
- "Iconoclastic Controversy." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
- John of Damascus. "In Defense of Sacred Images." http://tabernacleoftheheart.com/Tabernacle%20Project/ english/iconoclasm.html.
- Rahal, Joseph. "St. Theodora the Empress." Saint George Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church http://saintgeorge.org/ news_and_events/church_calendar/ saint_of_the_day/02feb/feb_11_saint_theodora_the_empress.php.
- Various other internet articles.
Last updated May, 2007.