Through the first six Ecumenical Councils, there were a series of disputes within the Church regarding the nature of Christ. The councils had come to their theological conclusion on the true nature of Christ, but the controversy continued. The next element of Christological controversy was an attack on the Holy Images, or icons, which depicted Christ, the Theotokos, and the Saints. The people who were against the use of Icons are known as Iconoclasts or Icon-smashers. Those who strictly protected them are known as Iconodules.
This controversy resulted in the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which decided in favor of the Iconodules and proclaimed that Icons should be venerated along with other precious material items such as the Holy Cross and the Gospels. The council aided, but did not put resolution to the matter immediately. Shortly after the Council, Leo V from Armenia again claimed an attack on Icons. The controversy continued until the Empress Theodora finally reinstated them for good in what has come to be labeled the Triumph of Orthodoxy. Today in the Church, we celebrate this to begin Great Lent.
Tradition tells us that the first painted Icon of the Christian Era was written by St. Luke depicting the Theotokos, which is apparently enshrined today in Syria. There is also much evidence of the early Christians painting holy images in the catacombs on walls, and other holy places. By the fourth century, icons had come to have a strong place in the life of the Church. Icons, crosses, and the relics of martyrs were being venerated. St. Gregory writes of the joy one enjoys when praying to a Saint while touching the relic of this same martyr. The popularity of icons continued to grow in the 6th and 7th centuries. St. Maximos was reportedly seen venerating icons and soldiers took icons with them as a means of protection and comfort.
Icons were also important tools for the education of the illiterate. There are icons of all major feasts in the Church, especially those that portray the works and miracles of Christ Himself. He who lacks theological knowledge can walk into a typical Orthodox Church to have the Gospel explained to him.
The Turks and the spread of Islam into many Christian lands have been blamed for influencing the Iconoclasts and their way of thinking. In the eighth century, the Caliph outlawed images in lands under his influence. This, no doubt, greatly influenced Christian lands and thought. The Caliph believed that images were in contrast with the second commandment and that they were in fact idols. It is also considered that the Iconoclast leader, Leo III, was under Muslim influence as well. Leo’s first step in abandoning the use of icons was to remove all images of Christ from the imperial palaces and buildings. This was one of many power struggles between east and west, and this action by Leo brought opposition from Constantinople. Leo felt that the cross was enough of a depiction of Christ and none other was needed.
Many including the great Iconodule champion, St. John of Damascus, began an apology against the the first argument– that Icons were idols. In summary, he writes that the icon is not venerated as paint and wood, but as the image that is depicted. Others wrote that the cross was venerated when to pieces of wood are joined, but when they are separated, they are thrown in the fire (Ware, p32).
Leo’s son, Constantine V, realized that the controversy had moved past that of the second commandment and had become more of a dispute of the meaning of the material world and of the nature of Christ. St. John had begun his apologies on Icons and left no stone unturned. He was able to do this because he was actually defending the images from an Islamic region. It is in great irony that Islam acted as the protector of Orthodoxy in this regard. Because St. John was not in the Byzantine Empire, neither the powerful emperor, nor the Iconoclasts could not capture him.
The Iconoclasts then held a council of their own in which they officially anathematized St. John, Patriarch Germanus, and George of Cyprus. These heretical bishops of great number declared this council as the 7th Ecumenical Council. These bishops were careful not to contrast the already declared nature of Christ, but denounced Icons in the name of idolatry. They did however address icons, which depicted Christ as inaccurate. They asserted that this image depicted Christ in His humanity and not His divinity, thereby separating the two natures of Christ. They forbade the destruction of Churches and their properties, but this was not successful in stopping the desecrations. Finally, those who would not abandon the Icons could be excommunicated as heretics.
The pillars of Orthodoxy during this trial were the monasteries. They refused to abandon the holy images. Constantine V didn’t have a firm understanding of the ascetic way of life in the first place, so this made them a sure target.
The efforts of Constantine would ultimately be in vain, because he could not stop the writings of the monastics. Two monks in particular who have ultimately come to be called champions of Orthodoxy are St. John of Damascus and St. Theodore the Studite. Constantine’s reign was more active in iconoclasm than was his father’s. It would ultimately end through the office of emperor and his own family. His son, Leo IV, married Irene, who would be empress after Leo took the throne. She was an avid Iconodule and would use her efforts to support the cause. Leo later died and his ten-year-old son was crowned emperor. Irene then gave herself the title and office of regent and used her power and influence to further the Iconodule cause. It took time, but Irene set in motion what would eventually be the restoration of Icons.
The new Ecumenical Patriarch, meanwhile, called a new council to take the place of the previously claimed 7th Ecumenical Council in the city of Nicea, the home of the original Ecumenical Council. Irene was instrumental in this and probably had tremendous influence in gaining cooperation from the Pope. The Pope agreed to help in this endeavor in exchange for some areas of control, which had been under jurisdiction of Constantinople. The Pope then sent legates to the city to represent the papacy.
As we now know, the council decided in favor of the Holy Icons. The pretense for this decision was based in incarnational theology. When God became man, He saved the material world with His material body. Anything material, they argued, could be materially represented through an image. This meant that because God took on a human body that He could and should be represented through Holy Icons. To the Iconodules, it wasn’t simply a matter of allowance, but more a matter of necessity. If Icons were going to be used to educate people, how better to educate than to show the student that their God had become man so that man might become god?
The Council was successful in part, but Charlemagne got involved in the politics of the situation and had some refutations written. Because of the poor Latin translation, there was not much backing by the Pope. Also, argued Charlemagne, what place does a woman, Irene, have at a Holy Synod meeting.
The next few years proved to be hard on the Church in this respect. The new emperor, Leo, was meddling in Church affairs, which was sharply criticized by St. Theodore the Studite. There was even a sort of mini council held in the Hagia Sophia where the clergy involved pronounced that the first council was really the 7th, and not the most recent at Nicaea. Leo was later murdered and the new emperor, Michael, had really no reason to pursue either side of the issue. He wanted some reconciliation and expected everyone else to do the same. When Michael later died, Theophilus, his son, took office; Theophilus was an iconoclast. He really didn’t push the issue too hard though. Oddly enough, his wife Theodora, was an Iconodule. Theophilus died, leaving Theodora regent to her young son. This was amazingly similar to the regent/Empress Irene. Theodora was able to gain much support through noted church leaders and followers of St. Theodore, who had died nearly twenty years previous.
The Triumph of Orthodoxy in its finality occurred on the first Sunday of Great Lent in 843 and has continued as such since that time. There was no official or Ecumenical meeting or council, but a small meeting at a relatively small church.
“Let the mystical trumpets of Christ’s apostles sound in God-given harmony, proclaiming the re-establishment of the precious icons.
Let us sing in praise of Christ, Who has appointed a devout and pious Empress to rule over us, together with her son crowned by God”
(Canticle 3, from the Sunday of Orthodoxy)
The Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire; J.M. Hussey; Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1986
The Orthodox Church, Bishop Kallistos Ware; Penguin Books, London, 1997