Iconoclasm and the 7th Ecumenical Council
The Second Council of Nicaea met in 787 AD (at site of the First Council of Nicaea over 350 years before) to address the issue of icons. The veneration of holy images and relics comes from the Old Testament tradition (including the images in the Temple, the veneration of the tombs of the Patriarchs, etc.) It was also present in Christianity from the beginning, as one can see from the earliest extant church at Dura-Europos (c. 235 AD).
However, after centuries of use, the veneration of icons was suppressed by imperial edict inside the Byzantine Empire during the reign of Leo III (717 – 741). His son, Constantine V (741 – 775), held a synod to make the suppression official in the Church.
The iconoclastic controversy first arose when Emperor Leo III ordered the removal of icons from public places in 726 AD. It would end in 843 AD when the Empress Theodora ordered the return of icons – event which is now celebrated yearly in the First Sunday of Lent as the Sunday of Orthodoxy.
There were two main reasons for the rise of iconoclasm. First, the superstitions of the emperor and his general; as Muslims started to win strategic battles, and press against Constantinople, they reasoned that God might be favoring them, and so the abandonment of images, which the Muslims did not use and indeed forbade, would secure God’s favor against the enemy. (This was a new manifestation of the pragmatism of the Roman emperors of old who sought to recover the ancient glory of Rome by crushing Christianity and going back to the old pagan deities.) Secondly, but less importantly there were a few church leaders who were concerned about abuses in popular piety.
Iconoclasm became a law in the empire for many years, the result of a rogue council in Hieria in 754 AD and this ultimately led to the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787 AD (during the reign of Empress Irene). This Council met to affirm the belief of the Orthodox that veneration of the icons was proper and necessary for a correct understanding of the Incarnation of Christ, against those who held that icon-veneration was idolatry and that all icons should be destroyed (Iconoclasts). The council assembled on September 24, 787. It numbered about 350 members; 308 bishops (or their representatives) signed.
Exegetical basis for the lawfulness of the veneration of icons was drawn from Exodus 25ff; Numbers 7:89, Hebrews 9ff; Ezekiel 41ff; and Genesis 31:34, but especially from a series of passages of the Church Fathers; the authority of the latter was decisive. Following the Council other iconoclastic periods arose with another council in 815 AD until resolved in 843.
Although the issue was politically motivated (war against Muslims), the theological justification for iconoclasm came from the Old Testament prohibition against the worship of images. However, this has to be taken in context, since it is clear that the Old Testament has many accounts of images which the Patriarchs were commanded by God to construct, engrave, weave, etc., to assist in the Temple worship. The temple itself was full of images. Indeed, this included images of “things in heaven and on earth:” cherubim, bulls, trees, etc. In addition, to combat pagan worship, the Israelites were taught that, contrary to the anthropomorphic images of local deities, YHWH is infinite and invisible, and therefore He cannot be visually represented.
After the Incarnation, the issue in the 8th century became Christological: whether representing Christ, who is God incarnate, would constitute a violation of the commandment not to represent YHWH.
A related question was whether representing the humanity of Christ (without the possibility of visually representing his Deity) would constitute a division of His humanity from His divinity – and thus a return to Nestorianism, a heresy condemned in the Third Ecumenical Council (Ephesus, 431 AD). On the other hand, if His humanity and divinity are both represented together, then the question would be whether this would constitute a confusion of his natures, and therefore a return Monophysitism – another heresy condemned centuries before, in the Council of Chalcedon (Fourth Ecumenical Council, 451 AD)
The iconophile response (especially through the work of St. John of Damascus) to the iconoclasts’ dilemma emphasized a few key points:
(a) The icon represents neither Christ’s divine nature nor his human nature, but his Person which unites in itself these two natures. This is a simple restatement of the reasoning of the Council of Ephesus (431) against Nestorianism: because of the hypostatic union, Mary is not the mother of a nature (human or divine), but the Mother of a Person, who is God.
(b) Christ assumed all the characteristics of a human being (except sin), including the ability to be physically located, circumscribed, and described –thus making images of him possible.
(c) We don’t divide or confuse natures in icons but rather pass honor through them to the prototype – the Person of Christ.
(d) The Church does not teach the worship (latria) of icons; that is reserved for God alone. But rather it venerates (or confers proskynesis) the icons as one would venerate any loved one. Proskynesis is a very ancient practice (which extends to this day in many cultures) of honoring, often with bows, someone of higher rank, including family members. This veneration gives honor to Christ, the Theotokos and the saints whom the icons represent. The honor passes through them to those worthy of honor.
(e) In addition, the fallacious false dichotomy (the either/or dilemma) put forward by Constantine V had the appearance of a work of sophistry. To say it is improper for us to see images of Christ is the same as to say it was improper for his disciples to see him. This cast some doubt over the apparent religious nature of the emperor’s Christological concerns.
Between 726 and 775 AD thousands of Christians were killed, especially monks and nuns, because they held on to their icons. The Seventh Council in 787 AD theoretically put an end to this. The Council affirmed that icons are to be honored and not worshiped, placed restrictions on what would be considered an icon and how it was to be written (painted) and honored, and showed the theological necessity to represent Christ. According to the Ecumenical Council, a rejection of images was, in fact, a rejection of God incarnate in Christ, and communicated in the Holy Spirit.
The Council determined:
“As the sacred and life-giving cross is everywhere set up as a symbol, so also should the images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the holy angels, as well as those of the saints and other pious and holy men be embodied in the manufacture of sacred vessels, tapestries, vestments, etc., and exhibited on the walls of churches, in the homes, and in all conspicuous places, by the roadside and everywhere, to be revered by all who might see them. For the more they are contemplated, the more they move to fervent memory of their prototypes. Therefore, it is proper to accord to them a fervent and reverent adoration, not, however, the veritable worship which, according to our faith, belongs to the Divine Being alone — for the honor accorded to the image passes over to its prototype, and whoever adores the image adores in it the reality of what is there represented.”
The iconoclast controversy reflects not only a concern for Christology, but also a related concern for the value of matter and the body, and the relationship between the visible and invisible worlds, which were for the Byzantines equally real. Gnosticism was an ancient heresy that separated the physical from the spiritual, and argued that Christianity had nothing to do with physical things. Again, this had been condemned from the 1st century.
Inasmuch as iconoclasm brought together many different heresies that had already been addressed, it also differed from all earlier heresies in that it originated, not from the bishops and lower clergy, but from the rulers themselves. It was a classical case of the State telling the Church that it needed to change its beliefs.
Through iconography, the Church continued to affirm the goodness of the material creation. Matter was recognized as worthy means of expressing and proclaiming sacred realities, since God, through his Incarnation, has deified matter. The Spirit, who gives life to all things, “the Spirit of Truth, who [is] in all places and fills all things, the treasury of good things and the giver of life” sanctifies matter by making it Spirit-bearing. The Incarnation, having given to matter a new function and glory, legitimizes art, and even necessitates it.
Also the purpose and meaning of the incarnation was seen as the ‘deification’ of humanity; since matter (through the Incarnation) has become a vehicle of salvation (i.e., a means by which to attain salvation, rather than an obstacle to attaining it), a defense of icons was essentially a defense of the foundation of the Christian faith.
This connection between icons and soteriology was famously expressed by John of Damascus: “I have seen God in human form, and my soul has been saved.”
The attacks, however, did not abate. Emperor Leo V renewed the iconoclastic policies in 815 AD. He ordered that icons be placed out of reach of the people so they could not be venerated or kissed. On Palm Sunday in 815 AD, St. Theodore the Studite led a procession through the main part of Constantinople with icons against the imperial decree. This was met by attacks, tortures and murders.
Veneration of the holy icons was finally restored and affirmed by the local synod of Constantinople in 843 A.D., under the Empress Theodora. At this council, “in thanksgiving to the Lord God for having given the Church victory over the iconoclasts and all heretics,” the celebration of the Triumph of Orthodoxy was established on the first Sunday of Great Lent, which is celebrated yearly by the Orthodox Church throughout the world. Thus, with the resolution of the Iconoclast Controversy, the Age of the Seven Councils came to an end.