Iconoclasm has always been an integral part of revolution.
In revolution, a previous paradigm is eliminated, making way for the new. Statues are torn down, buildings and works of art are destroyed, people are slaughtered through riots and the resulting famine, and religious revival—or dissolution—is inevitable. History books reflect the triumph of the victors, while the oppressors of the previous regime are verbally laid to waste.
The most lamentable form of iconoclastic revolution is, of course, the killing of people—we who are all created after the image of God—and this has been part of every revolution in human history. Louis XVI and others can attest to this despicable reality.
Leonid Ouspensky reminds us that icons are an essential aspect of Christianity, as they are an essential witness to the Incarnation:
The Church declares that the icon is an outcome of the Incarnation; that it is based upon this Incarnation and therefore belongs to the very essence of Christianity, and cannot be separated from it.
—Theology of the Icon, vol. 1, p. 36
Unfortunately—and thanks in large part to eighteenth century English scholar Edward Gibbon and his work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—an idea found its way into popular scholarship that:
[T]he first Christians had an insurmountable aversion to the use of images . . . this aversion was a consequence of their Jewish origin.
Gibbon goes on to assert that the first icons didn’t appear until the fourth century or later. This idea has been presumed by many scholars ever since, at least until archeology and other scholarship was able to prove otherwise—in agreement, of course, with the claims of the Orthodox Church.
The problem here is not merely that such claims ignore evidence to the contrary (e.g. icons have been uncovered in archaeological digs from the first century onward, not only in the catacombs, but also in rabbinical synagogues and early Christian house churches), but that this approach to history is based upon a dis-belief in the Church. In other words, the Church and her claims are viewed as little more than pious superstitions; tall tales for the uneducated and easily misled. This approach rests on a denial of the Nicene Creed, in which we confess a belief in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
Another theory from Gibbon’s work is that the laity imposed the cult of icons on the clergy, overwhelming the Church against her better judgment. But the Church is comprised of both laity and clergy, who work together in a symphonic harmony for the preservation and proclamation of the one, true faith. We are all one body, though with many parts and roles. And beyond this, Gibbon’s claims ignore evidence to the contrary:
The existence of frescoes in the catacombs from the first century on is well known, namely in places of assembly and worship, and where the clergy were buried (for example, in the catacomb of Callistus). Such images were therefore known not only to the faithful but also to the hierarchy. It is hard to imagine that the clergy did not seem them and that, if Christianity was incorruptible with art, it did not take any measures to put an end to this error. —Theology of the Icon, vol. 1, p. 38
And as with any other truths of the Orthodox faith, antiquity alone is not chief, but whether or not something is true.
What is decisive for the Church is not the antiquity of a given passage for or against the icon (the chronological factor), but the agreement or disagreement of this testimony with the Christian revelation. —ibid.
Further, Gibbon and his supporters would advocate an archaeological approach to both history and theology, one that seeks to peel back supposed corruptions in favor of a pure point of origin. But as Christ said that he would never leave the Church, that he was sending the Helper—the Holy Spirit—to guide us into all truth, we can rest assured that truth is not a science we are left to figure out on our own, but is rather a divine revelation and continuation of Christ in his very Body. We are not radically disconnected from the Christians of the past, and we truly believe in (and experience) the communion of saints.
Icons are truly an expression of the reality of Christ’s Incarnation. But what does this mean? St. John of Damascus wrote extensively on this connection, during the first major era of Byzantine iconoclasm:
But when you see Him who has no body become man for you, then you will make representations of His human aspect. When the Invisible, having clothed Himself in the flesh, becomes visible, then represent the likeness of Him who has appeared . . . When He who, having been the consubstantial Image of the Father, emptied Himself by taking the form of a servant, thus becoming bound in quantity and quality, having taken on the carnal image, then paint and make visible to everyone Him who desired to become visible. Paint His birth from the Virgin, His baptism in the Jordan, His transfiguration on Mount Tabor . . . Paint everything with words and with colors, in books and on boards.
He further explains that “the law was not an image, but it was like a wall which hid the image,” as with the apostle Paul:
The law was but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities. —Heb. 10:1
And since icons connect us, by the Holy Spirit, with their divine or eternal prototypes, they are even divinely-inspired images:
To build the tabernacle according to the model shown on the mountain, God chose special men. It was not simply a matter of natural gifts and of the ability to follow Moses’ instructions: ‘I have filled him [Bez’alel] with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship”; and further, speaking of all those who would work with Bez’alel: ‘I have given to all men ability, that they may make all that I have commanded you’ (Ex 31:3 and 6). It is clearly shown here that art which serves God is not like any other art. It is based not only on the talent and wisdom of men, but also on the wisdom of the Spirit of God, on an intelligence granted by God Himself. In other words, divine inspiration is the very principle of liturgical art. —Theology of the Icon, vol. 1, p. 46
As with other aspects of the Law, liturgical art itself has been fulfilled—not abrogated—and raised from shadow-to-reality in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. As the Church emerged from the catacombs and homes of wealthy individuals with the advent of right-believing Emperors, the new Christian temples facilitated the solidification and spread of this glorified liturgical art—sacred art that could truly point catechumens and believers to the heavenly realities in Christ.
Contrary to Gibbon and others, iconography was not invented as a later perversion of the Imperial Church, but was rather emancipated and given full expression as the Empire became Christian. And icons then became an irreplaceable witness not simply to Christ’s Incarnation, but to our own history as well—a history that is both timeless and transcendent, helping us see the world as it truly is in eternity.