Herein is presented in brief the main historical and ideological elements in the stages of iconoclastic development in 8th century Byzantium.
by Konstantine Pietronuto. Holy Cross Seminary graduate, Parishioner at St. Gregory the Theologian Greek Orthodox Church
The First Stage of Iconoclasm: Outbreak and Restoration
Iconoclasm has its origin in a misapplication of the Scriptural texts on worshipping idols, a misunderstanding of the implications of the Incarnation, and a reaction against the worship of idols in pagan cults. Scripture condemns idolatry, not images (Ex 25:18-22). If Jesus was truly man in every aspect, and people could see His hypostasis (the concrete expression of His person), then He could also be represented visually. History makes evident that in the 4th century the Cross and holy relics, although being material objects, were venerated by the faithful, and in the 7th century images were prayed to, considered objects of devotion both publicly and privately, and believed to perform miracles by delivering entire cities from enemy assault. The Gospel book, the Cross, and images were all venerated by kissing.
One proposed explanation for the flourishing cult of icons is the need in the lives of the Byzantines for a sense of security against the many assaults upon their empire. The power and miracles attributed to icons gave comfort and hope to the oppressed. As the veneration of icons grew, an understanding came about concerning the icon and its beholder, and the icon and its prototype. Icons were seen as "Gospel books" for the illiterate, teaching them divine truth, and "windows into heaven", providing valid representations of Christ and His saints.
The beginning of the iconoclastic controversy is recognized as 726 AD, when Emperor Leo III removed the mosaic of Christ from the entrance of the imperial buildings. Prior to this time, many people were becoming anxious about icons. Superstitious practices were prevalent. Jewish and Muslim influences, being iconoclastic, were winning more followers. The imperial city was scandalized by Leo's deed. Friction and rebellion broke out in Asia Minor and the Cyclades. Icons were smashed and burned. Church furniture and cloths bearing images suffered similarly; relics were destroyed. Constantine V (741-775) sharpened the iconoclastic offensive in both argument and action. Christological issues now joined the accusation of idolatry. In 754 a council was convened in which the material nature of icons was condemned, claiming that a physical representation either circumscribed an uncircumscribable God, obscured the two natures, or separated the human nature of Christ from His divine nature. The former was condemned as a futility or a blasphemy, while the latter two were denounced as Monophysitism and Nestorianism respectively. The Eucharist was declared as the only true image of Christ, and the only acceptable image of a Saint was the replication of his virtues in another believer. While the council prohibited the whitewashing and destruction of sacred buildings, these atrocities only increased.
Leo IV was the son of Constantine V and the father of Constantine VI, who was only ten-years old when his father died in 780. Empress Irene, a passionate iconophile and acting regent for her young son, in conjunction with the recently elevated (784) Patriarch Tarasios and the approval of Hadrian I, Pope of Rome, convened the Seventh Ecumenical Council on 24 September 787. The iconophilic position was articulated in the writings of Patriarch Nicephoros, St. Theodore the Studite, and St. John of Damascus. Icons were to receive the same veneration as the precious and life-giving Cross, and were appropriately displayed on walls, panels, and vestments. Material representations lift men's vision to the prototype, when they are given appropriate veneration (???????????), and not the worship due to the Trinity alone (???????). The veneration given to icons passes to the prototype that the icon represents. Icons and relics were given imperial protection. Empress Irene and Constantine VI were hailed as a new Saint Helena and Constantine (see The Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire, J.M.Hussey, p. 49), and many of the iconoclastic clergy returned to Orthodoxy.
While Orthodoxy was restored in the East, and this council was accepted by the Pope of Rome, the Latin translation of the council proceedings that reached the West was so poor that it led Charlemagne to believe that the council had in fact decreed and established quite the opposite. This unfortunate circumstance, coupled with his political motives, caused Charlemagne to reject the council of Nicaea II. This event placed the Pope in a difficult situation, since he was dependent on Frankish assistance against Lombard incursions.
The Second Stage of Iconoclasm: Recapture and Resolution.
When Leo V (813-820) became emperor, he sought to recapture the military success of the North Syrian emperors. Since these emperors had been iconoclasts, and icon veneration had been linked with military defeats and therefore "God's displeasure", Leo followed the path of iconoclasm. The Seventh Ecumenical Council had not eradicated iconoclasm, and there was a large party of followers awaiting their opportunity. Leo soon collided with the staunchly orthodox Patriarch Nicephoros. Being unable to move the Patriarch, he pursued a compromise: those icons, which were upon walls outside the reach of the faithful, could remain for purposes of instruction and edification. Patriarch Nicephoros refused, and after subsequent friction, was finally forced into exile. Theodotos became the new patriarch; he was, of course, an iconoclast. He convened a synod in Hagia Sophia in which Nicaea II was annulled, and the council of 754 and other iconoclastic rulings were reaffirmed.
This second stage of iconoclasm was less violent, focusing on refutation in argument and centering on the Christological issues. That lifeless matter could not convey holiness was reaffirmed; the only true icon of Christ is the Eucharist, and that of the Saint, his virtues replicated in another believer. Leo V pursued his objectives with moderation, hoping to make capitulation by his opponents easier. This tactic did indeed succeed in that many bishops and even monastics accepted his policies.
Leo encountered steadfast resistance from Pope Pascal I, whom he had attempted to win over, and Theodore the Studite, a monastic leader. Theodore was vociferous and incessant in proclaiming Orthodoxy. Although he suffered imprisonment many times, his influence, by voice or letter, spread far and wide. Not only did Pope Pascal reject Leo's advances, but he also demanded the restoration of the holy icons.
Michael II, who succeeded Leo as emperor, adopted a policy of "status quo" and conciliation. He would leave the Church as he received it, and would both outlaw the discussion of icons and allow the return of exiled iconophiles. After having denied the request of Pope Pascal to restore both Patriarch Nicephoros and the icons, Michael became too engrossed in his other imperial concerns to give any more consideration to the issue.
Following Michael was Theophilos, who, although he was more intense and violent in his opposition to icons, disregarded their veneration on two significant fronts: outside of Constantinople and within his own home. Consequently, upon his death in 842, his iconophilic wife, Theodora, became acting regent for her two-year-old emperor son, Michael III. A general weakening of support for iconoclasm, the ready return to Orthodoxy by many who had capitulated, the continued orthodoxy of most monastics, and a council of influential advisors assisted Empress Theodora in her determination to restore the icons and to bring this long conflict to a resolute conclusion. Although religious objectives were often seeded with personal and political passions, and the friction between the monastic and parish-life viewpoints was present, Orthodoxy was formally restored on the first Sunday of Lent in 843. Henceforth, this day would be referred to as "The Triumph of Orthodoxy." No council was held and the Patriarch refused to appear. A small group of clergy, monks, and laity attended. Nicaea II was reaffirmed and the icons were restored to the imperial buildings, reversing the initiatory act of Emperor Leo III in 726. Anathemas against the heresy of iconoclasm were proclaimed along with remembrances for the Orthodox living and departed. The Synodicon, the proclamation of the Orthodox belief in icons, was likely written by the newly installed Patriarch Methodios. It grew and adapted with the Church through the centuries, having become the living Tradition of the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Orthodox Church, now and always, and to the ages of ages.
As was mentioned in the beginning, iconoclasm partly originates from a failure to understand the implications of the Incarnation of Christ, our God. The fuller comprehension of these truths of the Incarnation was a direct result of the struggle with iconoclasm, for the iconophilic defense began with the polemic of Patriarch Germanos I against the accusation of idolatry from Jewish and Islamic influences, included the Christological discussion of the circumscribability of Jesus by John of Damascus, and was capped by the erudite argument of Theodore the Studite involving the Orthodox understanding of matter. The most significant outcome of this struggle and clarification was the decisive entrenchment of icon veneration in the daily life of the faithful. That which aided the worship of, and communion with, the Holy Trinity in the Church was now working in the home its sacramental blessedness unto deification.