It’s not surprising that iconoclasm persists in contemporary Christian culture, and especially in America.
Without a proper understanding of both the Incarnation and the deeper purpose of creation—throughout which God is ‘everywhere present and filling all things’—we are left with a worldview that is distorted. With no emperor or royal family to honor, we venerate celebrities, pornographers, amoral politicians, and the farce of ‘reality television.’ As addicted voyeurs, we look not into heaven, but rather into the deepest recesses of the pit.
The heresy of iconoclasm arose as a continuation of other heresies before it, and it brought both turmoil and suffering to the Church in two major eras: A.D. 726–787 and 815–843.
In its common form, iconoclasm opposes the veneration of holy icons (from the Greek word ‘image’) depicting Jesus Christ, the Theotokos, and Saints and angels. However, it did allow for the veneration of the Cross, relics, and the adoration of the Eucharistic elements (the bread and chalice), as well as the decoration of Christian churches with iconographic depictions, frescoes, and even statues. Most iconoclasts today, however, would reject all of the latter forms of veneration and artistic elaboration.
Iconoclasm first gained a foothold in the Roman Empire through Emperor Leo III. In A.D. 726, he allegedly called for the removal of an icon of Christ at the Chalke Gate in Constantinople, the Imperial City. This action—much to the dismay of Patriarch Germanos—led to a riot and the death of many. As word spread to even Palestine, the priest-monk John (of Damascus, A.D. 645–749) wrote treatises against iconoclasm as a heresy. His work was accessible and quickly spread, helping both laity and clergy outside of the Imperial grasp to remain faithful to the orthodox position.
As it became clear that iconoclasm would not dominate the Empire, Constantine V (Leo III’s son) assembled a council in 754. Held at the palace in Hieria and led by Archbishop Theodosius of Ephesus, this synod was later called a “headless” and “robber’s” synod by the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787. While this council claimed to uphold iconoclasm as orthodox theology, it did so without the participation of either the Pope of Rome, or any other Orthodox Patriarch. Later opponents of iconoclasm, such as St. Theodore the Studite, would cite this synod extensively in their arguments against the heresy.
The aftermath of Hieria was a destruction and annexation of several monasteries, along with a slaughtering of thousands of monastics and laity who refused to become iconoclasts. Many illuminated manuscripts, relics, and other priceless treasures of the Church were lost during this tumultuous period. By God’s providence, the son of Constantine V (Constantine VI) and the Empress Irene reversed the decisions of this “robber’s synod” in 787.
The Second Council of Nicaea was represented by every Patriarchate of the Church. During its deliberations, the fathers argued that iconoclasm was about more than gold, paint, and wood, but rather went to the very heart of the Gospel. In most of these discussions, the writings of the now-reposed John of Damascus were cited.
There were many profoundly theological statements made during this council. One example is the confession of Theodore, bishop of Myra, who had been at Hieria and previously accepted iconoclasm. In his repentance before the synod, he confessed:
Theodosius, the humble Christian, to the holy and Ecumenical Synod: I confess and I agree to and I receive and I salute and I venerate in the first place the spotless image of our Lord Jesus Christ, our true God, and the holy image of her who bore him without seed, the holy Mother of God, and her help and protection and intercessions each day and night as a sinner to my aid I call for, since she has confidence with Christ our God, as he was born of her. Likewise also I receive and venerate the images of the holy and most laudable Apostles, prophets, and martyrs and the fathers and cultivators of the desert. Not indeed as gods (God forbid!) do I ask all these with my whole heart to pray for me to God, that he may grant me through their intercessions to find mercy at his hands at the day of judgment, for in this I am but showing forth more clearly the affection and love of my soul which I have borne them from the first. Likewise also I venerate and honor and salute the relics of the Saints as of those who fought for Christ and who have received grace from him for the healing of diseases and the curing of sicknesses and the casting out of devils, as the Christian Church has received from the holy Apostles and Fathers even down to us today.
Moreover, I am well pleased that there should be images in the churches of the faithful, especially the image of our Lord Jesus Christ and of the holy Mother of God, of every kind of material, both gold and silver and of every color, so that his incarnation may be set forth to all men. Likewise there may be painted the lives of the Saints and Prophets and Martyrs, so that their struggles and agonies may be set forth in brief, for the stirring up and teaching of the people, especially of the unlearned.
Several other bishops publicly repented, and these confessions were concluded with the words of a bishop John, who said:
This heresy is the worst of all heresies. Woe to the iconoclasts! It is the worst of heresies, as it subverts the incarnation of our Savior!
The Seventh Ecumenical Council concluded with a decree and some administrative canons, and these decisions were seen as a continuation of the faith of the apostles. And so, in one of the closing statements of the council, it is stated:
The Holy Synod cried out: So we all believe, we all are so minded, we all give our consent and have signed. This is the faith of the Apostles, this is the faith of the orthodox, this is the faith that has made firm the whole world. Believing in one God, to be celebrated in Trinity, we salute the honorable images! Those who do not so hold, let them be anathema. Those who do not thus think, let them be driven far away from the Church. For we follow the most ancient legislation of the Catholic Church. We keep the laws of the Fathers. We anathematize those who add anything to or take anything away from the Catholic Church. We anathematize the introduced novelty of the revilers of Christians. We salute the venerable images. We place under anathema those who do not do this. Anathema to them who presume to apply to the venerable images the things said in Holy Scripture about idols. Anathema to those who do not salute the holy and venerable images. Anathema to those who call the sacred images idols. Anathema to those who say that Christians resort to the sacred images as to gods. Anathema to those who say that any other delivered us from idols except Christ our God. Anathema to those who dare to say that at any time the Catholic Church received idols. Many years to the Emperor!
Iconoclasm was temporarily defeated, but it would not die an easy death.
– – –