When Icons Were Condemned

FOR MANY PEOPLE icons are synonymous with a Byzantine church, Catholic or Orthodox. It took centuries for church iconography to develop to the pattern we know today and the Seventh Ecumenical Council, commemorated today, played an important part in that development.

In 1932 archeologists discovered a third-century synagogue in Dura (Fort) Europos, Syria, a military stronghold during the Greek and Roman occupation of the region. The city fell during a Persian invasion at the end of that century and was never rebuilt. The synagogue included reasonably well-preserved frescos of Biblical scenes and personages in three tiers above a frieze with symbols at floor level. A smaller Christian house-church with similar frescos was also unearthed.

Church iconography in the first centuries AD generally followed the Dura-Europus pattern. The upper walls, ceilings and domes were frescoed with images of Biblical – particularly Gospel – scenes, and icons of the saints. At floor level, below the frescoes, there would be a painted frieze or marble panels. Panel icons put forth for veneration were introduced much later.

Panel icons seem to have first been meant for private use. The oldest existing panel icons, at the Greek monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai in Egypt, date from the sixth century. The custom of venerating icons so developed that images were banned by the Byzantine Emperor Leo III (the Isaurian) sometime between 726 and 730. Icons were removed from churches and public places in the capitol. The cross was the only image permitted.

The emperor’s iconoclastic efforts came to the attention of Pope Gregory III who convoked a local synod in Rome in 731 to affirm the veneration of icons. It decreed the “If anyone, for the future, shall take away, destroy, or dishonor the images of Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, of His Mother, the immaculate and glorious Virgin Mary, or of the Saints, he shall be excluded from the body and blood of Our Lord and the unity of the Church.”

Leo’s son, Constantine V, sought formal Church endorsement for the ban on icons. He convoked a council at Hieria near Constantinople in 754. Over three hundred bishops attended, though none of the apostolic patriarchs or their representatives were present. The council supported the iconoclastic positions of Leo and Constantine and was proclaimed as the seventh ecumenical council.

Iconoclasm was not popular among the people of Constantinople or the monks who worked against the imperial decrees. The Council of Hieria was also condemned by a local council in Rome, the AD 767 Lateran Council, which reaffirmed the teaching of the earlier Synod of Rome. The West would not support the iconoclastic emperors and in effect severed communion with Constantinople.

The Second Council of Nicea

Iconoclasm continued through Constantine’s reign. His son, Leo IV, tried half-heartedly to reconcile the parties but died after only five years as emperor. His son, Constantine VI became emperor at the age of nine, ruling with his mother, Irene, as regent.

Irene began the movement to restore icon veneration in earnest. When Patriarch Tarasios was appointed in 784, he accepted on the condition that communion with the other Churches must be reestablished. This required calling an ecumenical council.

The council met in 787. Over 300 bishops attended, including two legates from Rome. Several bishop renounced iconoclasm. The Roman legates read letters of Pope Hadrian I asking for agreement with veneration of images, to which question the bishops of the council answered: “We follow, we receive, we admit”. The council discussed the theology of icons and condemned the doctrine of the Council of Hieria.

The Second Nicene Council issued its own teaching on icons, saying: “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 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.”

Still, iconoclasm was not yet eradicated. Twenty-seven years later, Emperor Leo V began a second period of iconoclasm which lasted from 814 to 842. Another Synod ratified iconoclasm which remained the official teaching under the next two emperors, Michael II and Theophilos. When Theophilos died in 842 he left his two-year old son, Michael III, as emperor under the regency of his mother, Theodora.

Theodora repeated the pattern set by her predecessor Irene. She permitted the restoration of icons in the churches and appointed the like-minded Methodios I as patriarch. A week after his appointment Methodios carried icons in a triumphal procession from the church of Blachernae to Hagia Sophia, restoring their veneration to the church. This event is remembered on the first Sunday of the Great Fast, the Sunday of Orthodoxy.

Not Talismans but Pointers

What caused iconoclasm to begin with? The seventh century had seen the increased popularity of panel icons. Some people began to see there icons, not as indicators of the presence of God in the world but as charms. Icons became more important in some people’s eyes than the holy mysteries themselves.

Writing in the seventh century, Saint Anastasius of Sinai documented some of these abuses: “Many think that he sufficiently reveres his baptism who, entering the church, kisses all the icons without paying any attention to the Liturgy and the divine service.” Other curious practices became common: the customs of taking icons as godparents for one’s children, of adding paint scraped from icons to the Eucharistic chalice, of laying the sacrament upon an icon so as to receive it from a saint’s hand, etc. Legitimate reactions against such abuses crossed the line into iconoclasm, the complete rejection of icons.

If our icons are ends in themselves – whether collecting them or venerating them – they have become talismans or charms for us. Rather they are meant, as 2 Nicea taught, to point us to the ones they represent that we may have living relationships with them in prayer. It is surely right to venerate their icons. Our veneration of these icons reaches its true goal in the living relationship we have with the ones whose images are depicted on them.