One of the most interesting moments in Church History comes in the conflict over the use of images in Worship. It’s born of the reality that Christianity has its roots in Judaism but had vast appeal among pagan Gentiles.
During the time of the Kings of Judah & Israel, Israel struggled with its call by God to abstain from idolatry. Indeed, a premier hallmark of religious revival under what are called the “Good Kings” was often marked by a systematic dismantling of idolatry across the land. King Josiah’s campaign to eradicate idolatry and pagan high places after the reign of his grandfather Manasseh is a prime example. But ultimately, these revivals weren’t able to stem the tide. Idols and high places went up as fast as they were torn down. So as warned by God, both Israel and Judah were carried away into captivity by foreign conquerors.
Carted off to Babylon, Idolatry Central, the Jewish exiles came to loath idols as well as to lament the tendency of their souls to turn to them. Babylon seemed to be a kind of aversion therapy for the Jews. “You want idols? Okay, have them aplenty!” And there in Babylon Israel was seemingly cured of idolatry; they never struggled with it again. On the contrary, they returned from exile with an almost allergic reaction to anything that even hinted at idolatry. So much so, that Jews were regarded as strange by their pagan neighbors, not just that they believed in a single, All-Powerful God, but that they utterly refused to give Him any kind of imagery & physical representation. Some pagans wondered if in fact Jews were atheists, because of their fierce reduction of the gods & goddesses to a single deity Who refused to be represented by an image.
And of course, the earliest Christians were Jews who understood their Faith, not as something new, but as something very old that had simply been moved along by God into the fulfillment He’d always pointed it toward. Jesus was THE fulfillment of what God had promised the First Jew = Abraham, all the way back at the beginning in Genesis 12. It was through Jesus all nations would be blessed. Fulfilling God’s promise to Adam and Eve in Gen, 3, Jesus was the seed of the woman Who crushed satan’s head and effected humanity’s salvation.
This Gospel quickly jumped the boundary between Jews & Gentiles. It turns out the Greco-Roman world of the 1st C was ripe for some much needed Good News. People were weary of the thread-bare of paganism with its pantheon of fickle gods and bitter goddesses. They were burned-out on the fatalism of Greek philosophy that locked them in a hopeless cage. The Gospel offered an entirely different way of looking at the world and life. It re-wrote peoples’ idea of God and offered an intimate & eternal love relationship with Him that infused them with boundless hope and joy. It filled life with meaning and purpose.
Once pagan Gentiles began coming to Faith in ever larger numbers, the Church had oit figure out what ot do with them. The NT book of Acts records an account of the Jewish leadership of the Church in Jerusalem wrestling with how to cope with all the Gentile converts. They didn’t deal with the issue of images then, but they’d have to later. Because it was inevitable that image-hating Jews & image-loving Gentiles would come to a loggerheads over the role of images in the practice of the faith.
Early on, Gentile converts to the Faith deferred to their elder Jewish brothers to define for them what to believe and how to conduct themselves. This included the use of images in worship. Pagans regarded opposition to the worship of images as irreligious, and so the rumor began that Christians were atheists. But as more and more Gentiles came into the Faith and took on leadership of the Church, some of the old strictures fell by the wayside. From the 3rd to 7th Cs, a change in attitude toward imagery took place. In the 3rd C, the theologian Origen slammed the use of images worship. But by the 7th C images had become an indispensable part of religious life. The reasons and chronology for this sea change regarding images are obscured by a glaring lack of record. Like the transition form adult to infant baptism, it’s something that took place without much controversy or debate, at least that we have record of.
We don’t became aware of the importance of images in worship until there was a major controversy over them. It’s almost as though a significant portion of the Church woke up one day & said, “Wait. Where’d all these images come from and why are people worshipping them? This has to stop.” Now of course, that’s way overstating it; but as far as the record in concerned, that’s the way it appears. We don’t really see much about the ubiquity of images in worship until there was a movement to banish them in the 8th & 9th Cs in what’s called the Iconoclast Controversy. This controversy between image-haters and lovers stirred up fierce passion and is well documented. It concluded with the establishing of Eastern Orthodoxy as it’s practiced today, where images in the form of icons play a central role in worship.
With the arrival of Islam in the 7th C, the face of the Mediterranean World changed dramatically. In short order, vast regions that had looked to the Cross, now looked to the Crescent Moon. One time great centers of Christianity in Syria & Egypt became Muslim. But Islam’s relentless march into Europe was stalled in 4 yr long siege of Constantinople and in Southern France by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours in 732. Until the 8th C, though Rome was the sentimental capital of the Roman Empire, the Pope it’s theological center, the far more populous East was the de-facto center of Christianity. With Islam’s conquest of the Middle East and North Africa, Christianity’s center shifted Westward into Europe, leaving Constantinople an increasingly isolated island in a Muslim Sea.
Deprived of its once vaunted status and vast resources supplied by the East, the Church in Constantinople went into decline. It was unable to answer the challenge of the now dominant Islam that proved to be an effective adversary to the moribund Faith the Church had fallen to. Islam was nothing like the mish-mash of frayed paganism Christianity had contended with in its early Cs. Islam regarded Christianity as degenerate and polytheistic in much the same way Christians had considered paganism. Church leaders realized they needed to turn things around. A new generation of theologians and leaders emerged to take on the challenge.
Leo III came to Constantinople’s throne in 717 during the 2nd Muslim siege. He attributed the Arab presence and pressure on the City to Divine displeasure. The solution was a thorough round of repentance; a systematic purification of both Church & State.
Leo established the Isaurian Dynasty after a 22 year period of near anarchy in Constantinople that saw 6 different emperors seize the throne. The Isurians ruled for the rest of the 8th C, repeatedly rescuing the Capital & what was left of the Christian East from the on-going menace of the Arabs and a new threat by pagan Bulgars. Even more thoroughly than Justinian the Great had, Leo reformed the Law Code, seeking to harmonize it with the Christian Faith.
When Leo III came to the throne in 717, the Muslims launched a major campaign to take Constantinople. In Mid-Summer, an Arab army laid siege round the walls on the land side. An Arab fleet arrived a month later to seal off the flow of supplies by water. But the Arab Navy was hammered by strong storms and Imperial cutters using a new weapon called Greek fire. Dysentery, the perennial enemy of siege-forces, as well as other sickness, forced the Arabs to withdraw the next Summer. While the army was able to march away, nearly the entire Arab fleet was sunk by a fierce storm. The Christians attributed all this to divine intervention. With the people of Constantinople thankful toward God, Leo thought it a good time to launch a reform of the Church; especially in regard to something he assumed was obvious to all godly folk; the use of images in worship. Well, Leo couldn’t have misread the attitudes of his public more.
As I mentioned, the early church theologian Origen was vehemently opposed to the use of images in worship based on the clear reading of the Second Commandment. The little we know about the eventual use of images began with the inclusion of relics. In Acts 19:12 we read an interesting little story about how some of the Apostle Paul’s clothing was used to effect healing. Based on that, a theology was derived that used the remains and possessions of saints as touchpoints of devotion. And of course, a relic needed to be kept somewhere, so shrines were built to house them. Then churches were built to house the shrines. Both church and shrine were decorated with images pointing to the relic and the saint the relic came from.
But of course, the use of symbols and a simple iconography started very early in the Christian tradition. Who doesn’t know today that the fish became a secret symbol Christians used to identify themselves to one another in the midst of persecution? The catacombs of Rome are rich with imagery depicting the faith of those interred there. The anchor, ship and a shepherd are all early images Christians used to mark their faith.
A lingering reluctance from Judaism to cast Jesus in the form of a man saw Him instead depicted as the Lamb of God. It wasn’t till the very end of the 7th C that a Council in Constantinople decreed Christ should be portrayed in His human form RATHER than as a lamb or some other symbol.
While both Jews & Gentile converts agreed God in His essence as deity ought not be represented by an image, Jesus Christ was God become man. Some argued that just as God became man, taking on human flesh so that people could see, hear, and touch Him, so it wasn’t just permissible to make images representing Him, it was necessary! Spurring the production of these images were the “discovery” of manuscripts that supposedly gave a description of Jesus, enabling artists to create a portrait. Wild reports of these portraits’ miraculous completion at the hands of an angel while the artist slept were heard. Such “not made by hands” images were then given created for effecting healings and miracles. When Constantinople was attacked by the Avars in 626, Patriarch Sergius had icons of Mary painted on the City’s gates & walls for protection.
At the dawn of the 8th C images were in wide use in the worship of the Eastern Church. The West used them primarily as instructional aids, but their coin as aids in worship was growing. But that’s not to say their use hadn’t been a point of debate, minor as it may have been. Beginning in the 5th C, there are a handful of protests by church leaders in both the East and West. In 599 Bishop Serenus of Marseille was appalled by the cult that had sprung up around the images in his diocese. He ordered their destruction. Pope Gregory I at the turn of the 7th C told him he was right to resisr the adoration of images but instead of destroying them ought to use them as aids in instruction the illiterate.
Our first record of a government action against images was a decree, not by a Christian ruler, but by a Muslim. In 723, Caliph Yazid II ordered the destruction of all images, not just in churches but in houses as well. This ban was secured by a Palestinian Jew’s promise such a command would yield long life to the Caliph. A hollow promise since Yazid died the next year. That becomes a frequent charge made by Christians at that time; that Jews urged Muslim rulers to interfere with their worship as get back for the Cs Christians had troubled Jews.
The Quran doesn’t prohibit images per se; only when they’re turned into objects of worship; AKA idols. The first caliphs decorated their palaces with mosaics in the Byzantine style and used Roman coins that often bore the effigy of an Emperor or Christ. It was during this time Arabs began to reject all images, not merely those used in worship.
As far as Christian rulers, it was Leo III, following the successful breaking of the 2nd Siege by the Arabs, who installed reforms that moved to eradicate the use of images in worship. The Patriarch of Constantinople at the time was Germanus. He pushed back on the initial order but only tepidly. He really didn’t want to take on the Emperor. Besides many of the local bishops of Asia Minor were all for a suppression of images. In 720 Leo ordered that all coins be minted bearing the head of his son and co-emperor Constantine V, rather than the traditional bust of Jesus. Later, a simple cross was used. Leo’s zeal increased dramatically when a volcano erupted. He took that as a sign of God’s anger at the lingering presence of idolatry. Leo personally took a hand in demolishing a bronze image of Christ tradition had assigned to the agency of no one less than Constantine the Great.
In 730, Leo replaced Patriarch Germanus, who’d been less than enthusiastic about Leo’s war on religious imagery. The Imperial Chancellor Anastasius was made the new Patriarch. In the meantime, John of Damascus, the most eminent Orthodox theologian since the Cappadocian Fathers, penned a defense of images from his refuge in Arab-ruled Palestine.
At this point in our story, we’ll switch from referring to religious imagery as images to their more accurate term – icons. Since we talked about what an icon was in Season 1 we’ll summarize by simply saying that an icon isn’t considered by those who make them as being painted; they are written. Artists who produce them attend extensive training and there are set rules for their production. They are deemed to be a means by which God’s grace flows to those who use them in worship. They aren’t worshipped, per se, they’re venerated as aids IN worship or aids TO worship.
Those opposed to the use of icons are called iconoclasts; icon-breakers. Supporters of icons were called iconodules; icon-servants.
The afore-mentioned Constantine V was named co-emperor by his father in 720. He reigned as sole Emperor, 741-75. He was even more opposed to icons than his father. A number of theological arguments were developed by iconoclasts, mostly relating to portrayals of Christ. They said that since His human nature can’t be separated from His divine nature, any attempt to portray Him was an attempt to portray God, which is forbidden by the 2nd Commandment. A similar line of reasoning was used with icons of saints who’d been raised into the heaven. Icons were labelled by the boogeyman of being Nestorian. The only safe image iconoclasts allowed was the Cross. Emperor Constantine himself wrote an iconoclast treatise which is lost to us but which was cited by others. He argued that while Christ’s human nature may indeed be represented by an image, his divine nature can’t. So, all portrayals separate the natures and are therefore heretical. Constantine V’s position is called by some historians, Christian Primitivism. He would have caused no problems in his thinking among Christians prior to the conversion of his namesake, Constantine the Great. He rejected the intercession of the saints, a practice unknown among early Christians.
In 754 Constantine V held what he numbered as the Seventh Ecumenical Council—a distinction denied by both Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. Neither the pope nor the patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, who by then were under Arab rule, attended. The patriarchate of Constantinople at the time was vacant. The Council lasted 7 months, and the record of its actions has been lost – all except its final decision regarding icons. The veneration of icons, that is, their use in worship was forbidden. So too was their destruction. A new iconoclast Patriarch was seated in Constantinople while the deposed Germanus, a Bishop of Cyprus, and John of Damascus were declared heretics.
Constantine V didn’t immediately treat iconodules as hated heretics. Threats from Islam obliged him to preserve internal peace for a time. But when the vast majority of monks became increasingly agitated iconodules, monasticism came under imperial scorn. In 761, 2 iconodule-monks were executed for speaking out against the Emperor. That action crossed a line in Constantine’s mind that saw him then proceed to ramp up persecution of those calling for a reinstitution of icons.
iThe Iconoclastic Controversy, as it is officially called, was the first period of persecution in Church history to be based on something other than a dispute concerning doctrinal fundamentals. Although to those caught up in it, it certainly seemed fundamental to them! Hey, when blood is being spilled, people tend to think it’s pretty fundamental. Anything that trumps the urge to survival will do that. We’re allowed the leisure of saying this was a controversy over non-essentials only because we’re so far removed from its bite. For the first time, Christians executed Christians for religious reasons.
When the main force of lingering iconodule support was found in monasteries and among monks, an Imperial military commander at Ephesus named Michael Lachanodracon decided to take matters into his own hands. He may have felt that he was only implementing what the Emperor wanted to but was restrained by politics from doing. In 770, he gathered all the monks and nuns he could find and ordered them to marry. Those who refused were blinded and exiled to Cyprus. He razed monasteries and those churches so filled with iconography it was easier to just level them. The military’s participation in this may have been partly fueled by their frustration at being handed one defeat after another by the Muslims. But they were also furious at the monasteries and monks who drained much needed resources form the war effort and robbed the army of much needed man-power. As Lachanodracon assumed, Constantine V expressed his appreciation for his brutal and bloody campaign.
When Constantine died in 775, the throne passed to his son Leo IV, The Khazar; so named because his mother was a Khazar princess named Irene. Which is a whole other fascinating tale. Influenced by his wife, also named Irene, who later played a gruesome role in Byzantine history, Leo abandoned the repressive iconoclast policies of his father. Leo named his 6 year old son Constantine VI co-emperor shortly after his own ascent. When he died only 5 yrs into his reign the 10 yr old became sole Emperor; except for that interesting mother of his who became the real power at court.
Irene had already backed down the iconoclastic policy of the imperial government during her husband’s reign. With him out the way, she moved quickly to put an end to iconoclasm altogether. The iconoclastic patriarch Paul was forced to abdicate, allowing Irene’s secretary, Tarasius to be elected to the post. A new Council was called in 786 to restore the veneration of images. It’s called the 7th Ecumenical Council, even though that’s what Constantine V had called his 32 yrs earlier. The new Council was opposed by large numbers of the military still beholden to Constantine V. Irene replaced iconoclast units with more loyal troops from Thrace and reconvened the council in Nicaea. The veneration of images was declared orthodox; iconoclasts who recanted were forgiven & restored, despite the hostility of monks who wanted some serious pay-back. The Council managed to get around the charge of idolatry by saying the veneration shown images was to be understood as applying to the saint depicted, not to the image itself. Worship was reserved for God alone.
When Constantine VI reached maturity, his power-hungry mom refused to step down. In the ensuing conflict, the ferocious iconoclastic general Michael Lachanodracon took the son’s part. Irene was able to resist at first, but when Asian troops threw in with Constantine he prevailed and was proclaimed sole ruler in 790.
It seems Irene’s apple didn’t fall far from her tree in her son. He merged cowardice with cruelty, and lost the support of his followers. In a shocking moment of scandal, he set aside his wife of 7 yrs to marry his mistress. That enflamed the hatred of the monks who went to Irene and gave her their support. So she was able to return and take the throne in August, 797. Constantine was blinded, a deformity that by Byzantine Law prohibited him from ever being ruler again.
Talk about being a bad mom! Way to go Irene.
Her cruelty may have done away with her son, but it provoked a coup that replaced her with Nicephorus I in 802. He died in battle 9 yrs later, to be succeeded by the inept Michael I Rangabe. Barely 2 yrs later Michael was deposed by another Leo, the V, who sought to restored the old Iconoclast policies of his namesake. He convened yet another council at Constantinople in 815, to once more do away with icons. But Leo V didn’t have any popular support and was murdered by supporters of the next Emperor, Michael II. This guy was a moderate iconoclast,; that is, while advocating a theological position opposed to icons, he didn’t use imperial force to make people stop their use. He hired an the outstanding iconoclastic scholar named John the Grammarian as tutor for his son and successor Theophilus, under whom iconoclasm enjoyed its last gasp. In 837, Tutor John was made Constantinople’s Patriarch. An energetic repression of iconodules once again began, with a special focus on those pesky icon-loving monk.
But by that time iconoclasm had lost its popular following and the movement ended with the death of Theophilus in 842. He was succeeded by his son Michael III under the regency of his widow, Theodora who immediately set about restoring the use of icons. John the Grammarian was deposed and in 843, a synod officially reinstalled the veneration of images.
The brief revival of iconoclasm that ended with the so-called “triumph of orthodoxy” in March of 843 produced what we know today as Eastern Orthodoxy, the “Church of the Seven Councils.” From the perspective of Eastern churches, the Council of Nicaea in 787 was the 7th and last ecumenical council. The councils Rome convened and labeled as ecumenical the East regards only as regional synods. Later events would drive a wedge between the two churches, that up to this point had been one.