The iconoclastic controversy

The major dispute in the Greek or Byzantine wing of the Catholic Church after the seventh century was not over the nature of Christ, but over the use of images in Christian worship. In this the West also became involved, although it was not as badly divided as were the Greeks. The controversy broke out in 726 and raged, with intervals of comparative quiet, for over a century, until 843. It was concomitant with the recovery of the Byzantine Empire from the internal disorder from which the realm suffered near the beginning of the eighth century and was the result of the religious policy of the Emperor Leo III, who brought a fresh access of strength to the waning Byzantine power.

Objections by Christians to the use of images and pictures — icons as they are technically known — were by no means new. We have seen that pictures of Christian subjects, even of Christ himself, had been made long before the sixth century. Yet there had also been opposition to them on the ground that they smacked of paganism. In the sixth century, before his, consecration a Syrian bishop denounced the veneration of the representations of Christ, the Virgin Mary, the apostles, and other saints. In that same century, moreover, a bishop of Massilia (Marseilles) was reprimanded by the Pope for ordering the destruction of the images in the churches in his diocese, for that pontiff, while agreeing that they should not be adored, held that they were a valuable means of instructing illiterate Christians in the faith.

Yet icons became increasingly numerous. Christ, his mother, the apostles, saints, and scenes from the Old and New Testaments were pictured in mosaics, frescoes, bronze, and carvings in ivory. They were characteristic of churches and chapels and were in private homes.

Why the Emperor Leo decided to open a campaign against them is not entirely clear and has been much debated. It is noted that he was not a Greek but was from the East and it has been suggested that, having been faced with the taunts of Moslems and Jews that Christians were idolaters, he wished to remove the ground for that charge and thus to facilitate winning the support of Moslems and Jews for the Empire. It is also said that he hoped to reconcile the Montanists and other Christians who dissented from the Catholic Church. Leo is reported to have been moved as well by the desire to make the throne master of the Church, to reduce the power of the monks, and to eliminate the control of education by the Church. His is likewise conjectured to have been a revolt of the non-Greek elements in the Empire against the Greek dominance, for, in general, the Greeks were for the icons and Leo and the other Emperors who led in the attacks against them were of non-Greek stocks and cultures. Some have seen in the iconoclastic movement primarily an effort at religious reform.

Whatever the motives which originally actuated Leo, the struggle became complicated by many factors. In it were on the one hand abhorrence of the use of icons as idolatry and on the other popular emotional devotion to them, including veneration of some of the particular images which were singled out for destruction. The contest was in part from the conviction of many churchmen and especially of monks that the Church should be independent of the state, at least in matters of faith and religious practice, and the equally determined purpose of Emperors to assert their authority over the Church. Monks, who had separated themselves from the world, were particularly active in their opposition to the icon-forbidding Emperors. The Emperors may have wished to curb the monasteries because the latter drew so many men from the service of the state and, tax-exempt, reduced the imperial revenues. The army often sided with the iconoclasts, apparently because it wished its head, the Emperor, to be supreme and to be reverenced without the rivalry of veneration for the icons. Women were prominent in the defense of icons, perhaps because of emotionally religious temperaments. In general, as we have suggested, the Greek constituency in the Church was committed to the icons, and much of the attack on the icons came from non-Greek elements. Yet the iconoclasts tended to favour the revived study of the pre-Christian Greek literature while the monks opposed it as tending towards paganism. Personal ambitions and rivalries were always present and at times were very strong. Partisan strife in Constantinople had long been rife. Until the reforms of the Emperor Heraclius in the first half of the seventh century it had centred about the two major parties in the circus, the Blues and the Greens. It had entered into theological disputes. While the Blues and the Greens were now in the past the party spirit was still strong. At one point the putting away by an iconoclastic Emperor of his wife and the marrying of another woman gave occasion for the charge of adultery by those who favoured the icons and also was used by them to insist that an Emperor must be as obedient to the laws of the Church as the lowliest commoner. Theological issues were raised. It is said that the controversy was a split with Hellenism, that those who favoured the icons stood for the historical element in Christianity and that those who opposed them were of the Origenist, Platonic strain who were critical of efforts to confine Christianity to history.

The iconoclasts pled the prohibition of the second commandment to make "the likeness of anything" and held that to do so "draws down the spirit of man from the lofty worship of God to the low and material worship of the creature." They declared that "the only admissible figure of the humanity of Christ ... is the bread and wine in the Holy Supper." They took a variety of attitudes towards the icons. Some were completely intolerant. The more extreme among them condemned the popular veneration of the saints and of the Virgin. Others would compromise.

To be sure, the iconoclasts did not forbid art. They encouraged pictures of birds, musical instruments, clusters of fruit and flowers, hunting scenes, chariot races, and donors to the Church, and substituted the Emperor's head on the coins for Christ or the Virgin. Some of these motifs resembled and may have been consciously drawn from early Christian art, such as is still to be seen in the catacombs in Rome. The opponents of the iconoclasts held this art to be of the Devil. They argued, too, that the iconoclasts were really Monophysites, denying the reality of the incarnation and of the humanity of Christ, for by refusing to depict the human form of Christ they laid themselves open to the charge that they were affirming that he was God but were denying that he had ever really become man.

Two important figures, both against the iconoclasts, claim special notice. One was John of Damascus. In the early days of the controversy, before he entered a monastery and while he was still a civil servant in the Caliph's government, he came forward against the iconoclast, position. In the ninth century, in the later stages of the dispute, an outstanding defender of the use of icons was Theodore of Studius. Born in Constantinople of a well-to-do family, when he was twenty-two Theodore entered a monastery on Mt. Olympus, in Bithynia in Asia Minor, under the tutelage of his uncle. Eventually he suc ceeded the latter as abbot. Later he and some of his monks moved to Constantinople and entered a large monastery which had been founded in 463 by Studius. Under his leadership that house soon attained prominence and the Studite monks became famous.

There Theodore further developed a rule which he had received from his uncle and made it into a meticulous organization of the monastic life with a rigorous discipline. Among the features which he look over from his uncle was the prohibition of receiving not only women but also female animals into the monastery, probably to discourage the breeding of animals for sale and the accompanying employment of non-monks as servants to assist in this profit-producing activity. Theodore's changes had a wide influence in Byzantine monasticism and in the lands to which Byzantine Christianity spread.

Theodore took an uncompromising attitude in favour of the icons and he and his monks were prominent in the opposition to the imperial policy. Probably this was both out of conviction that the imperial position was wrong on that particular issue and partly from opposition to the domination of the Church by the state. Theodore was persecuted, banished, and imprisoned, but the rigours to which he was subjected did not break his spirit. A scholar, a gentleman, a leader, he attracted both men and women. Uncompromising, at times gloating over the disasters to the enemies of the causes which he espoused, he was also a writer of hymns and a spiritual counsellor to members of both sexes.

The details of the long attempt to be rid of the icons need not long detain us. The issue was raised, as we have seen, by Leo III not many years after he came to the throne. He is said to have been urged to this course by some of the bishops. An edict against the use of icons was issued in 725 or 726 and was followed by the destruction by imperial order of an image of Christ which had enjoyed great popular veneration. That act provoked a riot. In 730 a council convoked by the Emperor took further measures against the icons. The Patriarch of Constantinople was deposed for refusing to concur and one who was opposed to the icons was elevated to the see. The Popes set themselves against the imperial policy and Gregory III, the last Bishop of Rome to have his election confirmed by a Byzantine Emperor, called a council which excommunicated the iconoclasts. In retaliation for the hostility of Rome and to the great annoyance of the Popes, the Emperor transferred Greek bishoprics in Italy and Sicily from the supervision of the latter to that of the Patriarch of Constantinople. The son and successor of Leo, Consiantine V, was even more adamant against the icons than his father had been. In 753 or 754 he called a council of more than three hundred bishops which obediently condemned the icons but in which, significantly, neither the Pope nor the patriarchs of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria were represented. Severe persecutions of those who held to the icons followed, but under Constantine's son, Leo IV, icons were tolerated outside Constantinople.

On the death of Leo IV, in 780, his widow, Irene, became regent for his infant son. She favoured icons and promoted to the patriarchate Tarasius, a sympathetic civil official who, in conformity with ecclesiastical tradition, took monastic vows and so became eligible for the office. A council of the entire church was called which met in 787, for the most part at Nicsa. Tarasius presided rather than the Emperor or a civil official delegated by the Emperor. He was eager to solve the relations between Church and state by having the Church recognized as supreme in matters of dogma and by according to the Emperor authority in ecclesiastical law and administration. The Pope was represented and the gathering is generally regarded as the Seventh Ecumenical Council. The council approved the use of icons, but regulated the manner in which they should be honoured. The council also forbade the appointment of bishops by the lay power and ordered that in each ecclesiastical province an annual synod be held.

The decisions of the council did not immediately win universal acceptance. Many in the East held to their iconoclastic convictions. On the other hand, some who favoured the icons, notably Theodore of Studius and his monks, were unhappy because those bishops who renounced iconoclastic views were treated leniently and were permitted to retain their posts. Even in the West, where the Popes had consistently stood for the icons, in the Frankish domains a council at Frankfort (794), while allowing images to be set up in the churches, forbade their veneration and denounced the findings of the Council of Nic^a. In 825 a synod in Paris condemned the Pope for assenting to the findings at Nic^a. Not until the eleventh century did Northern Europe accept the Nic^an gathering as the Seventh Ecumenical Council.

Early in the ninth century, in 813, Leo V, the Armenian, came to the imperial throne and revived iconoclasm. However, he was much milder in his enforcement of the ban than had been some of his predecessors and the attack was not so much on icons in general as upon some of the uses of them, especially in worship in private houses. The veneration of icons seems to have continued outside the capital, especially in Greece, the islands, and much of Asia Minor.

In 842 another woman, Theodora, came to power as regent for an infant son, this time Michael III. Like Irene, she favoured the icons and in 843 she restored them. That act really terminated the struggle, although echoes of it were still heard and there were some who held to iconoclastic views. The day in which the icons were formally reinstated, the first Sunday in Lent, is still celebrated in the Greek Church as the Feast of Orthodoxy.

While icons were finally legitimatized, the long protest was not without lasting effect. By tacit consent, in practice after 843 in the Greek portion of the Catholic Church sculptured figures were no longer employed, and icons were confined to pictures. Yet, for good or for ill, they were permanently established in the life and worship of the Catholic Church in both East and West.

In the important and intimately related problem of relations between the Church and the state, the controversy ended in a compromise. The Emperor and the army, who wished the Emperor supreme, did not have their full way. The icons were retained, and this was a victory for the monks and those who wished to have the Church less subservient to the state. Yet in the final settlement it was the crown and not the Church which took the initiative.

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  • valeria
    How did iconoclasm affect catholic church?
    2 years ago

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