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Iconoclasm is the destruction of religious icons and other symbols or monuments, usually for religious or political motives. In Christian circles, iconoclasm has generally been motivated by a literal interpretation of the second of the ten commandments, which forbids the making and worshipping of "graven images". It has sometimes been motivated by christological or even political concerns as well.

People who engage in such practices are called iconoclasts, a term that has come to be applied to any person who breaks or disdains established dogmas or conventions. Conversely, people who revere or venerate religious images are called iconodules.

Iconoclasm may be carried out by people of a different religion, but is often the result of sectarian disputes between factions of the same religion. It was particularly important in the history of the Eastern Orthodox Church within the Byzantine Empire during the 8th and 9th centuries.

Byzantine iconoclasm

A thorough understanding of the Iconoclastic Period in Byzantium is complicated by the circumstance that much of what exists as accounts and arguments of the time comes to us through the filter of the writings of the ultimate victors in the controversy, the iconodules. It is thus difficult to obtain a complete, objective, balanced, and reliably accurate account of events and various aspects of the controversy.

The first iconoclastic period: 730-787

Sometime between 726-730 the Byzantine Emperor Leo III the Syrian or "Isaurian," (reigned 717-741; born in eastern Anatolia) ordered the removal of an image of Jesus prominently placed over the palace gate of Constantinople. At least some of those assigned to the task were murdered by a band of iconodules (see Theophanes, Chronographia). Writings suggest that at least part of the reason for the removal may have been military reversals against the muslims and the eruption of the volcanic island of Thera, which Leo possibly viewed as evidence of the wrath of God brought on by image veneration in the Church (according to accounts by Patriarch Nikephoros and the chronicler Theophanes). Leo is said to have described image veneration as "a craft of idolatry." He apparently forbade the worship of religious images in a 730 edict, which did not apply to other forms of art, including the image of the emperor, or even religious symbols such as the cross. "He saw no need to consult the church, and he appears to have been surprised by the depth of the popular opposition he encountered" (Warren Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, Stanford University Press, 1997).

Germanus I of Constantinople, the iconodule Patriarch of Constantinople, either resigned or was deposed following the ban; letters Germanus wrote at the time say little of theology. "What worries Germanos is that the banning of images would only prove that the Church had been in error for a long time and so play into the hands of Jews and Muslims" (The Oxford History of Byzantium: Iconoclasm, Patricia Karlin-Hayter, Oxford University Press, 2002.) In the Western part of the Byzantine empire, Pope Gregory III held two synods at Rome and condemned Leo's actions, with the result that Leo seized some papal lands. During this initial period concern on both sides seems to have had little to do with theology and more with practical evidence and effects. Icon veneration was forbidden simply because Leo saw it as a violation of the biblical commandment forbidding making and venerating images. There was initially no church council or prominent patriarch or bishop calling for the removal or destruction of icons. During the destruction or obscuring of images, Leo "confiscated valuable church plate, altar cloths, and reliquaries decorated with religious figures" (History of the Byzantine State and Society, Warren Treadgold, Stanford University Press, 1997), but took no severe action against the former patriarch or iconophile bishops.

Leo died in 740, but his ban on icons was dogmatically confirmed under his son Constantine V (741-775) who summoned a council in Hieria in 754 ("the Iconoclast Council") in which some 330 to 340 bishops participated. This council became known as a Robber Council due to its uncanonical nature. Edward J. Martin writes (A History of the Iconoclastic Controversy , p.46), "On the ecumenical character of the Council there are graver doubts. Its president was Theodosius, archbishop of Ephesus, son of the Emperor Apsimar. He was supported by Sisinnius, bishop of Perga, also known as Pastillas, and by Basil of Antioch in Pisidia, styled Tricaccabus. Not a single Patriarch was present. The see of Constantinople was vacant. Whether the Pope and the Patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem were invited or not is unknown. They were not present either in person or by deputy. The Council of Nicaea [II] considered this was a serious flaw in the legitimacy of the Council. 'It had not the co-operation of the Roman Pope of the period nor of his clergy, either by representative or by encyclical letter, as the law of Councils requires.' [citing J. D. Mansi, XIII, 207d] The -Life of Stephen- borrows this objection from the Acts and embroiders it to suit the spirit of the age of Theodore. It had not the approval of the Pope of Rome, although there is a canon that no ecclesiastical measures may be passed without the Pope.' [citing Vit Steph, 1144c] The absence of the other Patriarchs is then noticed [Mansi above]."

The Iconoclast Council of Hieria was not the end of the matter, however. In this period complex theological arguments appeared, both for and against the use of icons. The monasteries were strongholds of icon veneration, and an underground network of iconodules was organized among monks. One Syrian monk, John of Damascus, was the major opponent of iconoclasm through his theological writings. Another, Theodore the Studite, wrote a letter against the emperor to Pope Paschal, an act with strong political implications. In a response recalling the later Protestant Reformation, Constantine moved against the monasteries, had relics thrown into the sea, and stopped the invocation of saints. Constantine's son, Leo IV (775-80) was less rigorous, trying to conciliate factions until near the end of his life, when he took severe measures against images and would have banned his secretly icon-venerating Athenian wife, Irene. But before that happened he died, and Irene took power as regent for her son, Constantine VI (780-97). With Irene's ascension as regent, the first Iconoclastic Period came to an end.

Irene initiated a new ecumenical council, ultimately called the Second Council of Nicaea, which first met in Constantinople in 786 but was disrupted by military units faithful to the iconoclast legacy; it convened again at Nicea in 787 and reversed the decrees of the previous iconoclast council held at Constantinople and Hieria, and appropriated its title as Seventh Ecumenical Council. So there were two councils called the "Seventh Ecumenical Council," the first supporting iconoclasm, the second supporting icon veneration and negating the first. The decrees of this council, unlike those of the iconoclast council, were approved by the papacy. Eastern Orthodoxy today considers it the last genuine ecumenical council. Icon veneration lasted through the reign of Empress Irene's successor, Nicephorus I (reigned 802-811), and the two brief reigns after his.

The second iconoclastic period: 814-842

Emperor Leo V (reigned 813–820) instituted a second period of Iconoclasm in 813, again possibly moved in part by military failures seen as indicative of divine displeasure. Leo was succeeded by Michael II, who in an 824 letter to Louis the Pious lamented the appearance of image veneration in the church and such practices as making icons baptismal godfathers to infants. He confirmed the decrees of the Iconoclast Council of 754.

Michael was succeeded by his son, Theophilus. Theophilus died leaving his wife Theodora regent for his minor heir, Michael III. Like Irene 50 years before her, Theodora mobilized the iconodules and proclaimed the restoration of icons in 843. Since that time the first Sunday of Lent is celebrated in the churches of the Orthodox tradition as the feast of the "Triumph of Orthodoxy".

Issues in Byzantine Iconoclasm

What accounts of iconoclast arguments remain are largely found in iconodule writings. To understand iconoclastic arguments, one must note the main points:

  1. Iconoclasm condemned the making of any lifeless image (e.g. painting or statue) that was intended to represent Jesus or one of the saints. The Epitome of the Definition of the Iconoclastic Conciliabulum held in 754 declared: "Supported by the Holy Scriptures and the Fathers, we declare unanimously, in the name of the Holy Trinity, that there shall be rejected and removed and cursed one of the Christian Church every likeness which is made out of any material and colour whatever by the evil art of painters.... If anyone ventures to represent the divine image (character) of the Word after the Incarnation with material colours, let him be anathema! .... If anyone shall endeavour to represent the forms of the Saints in lifeless pictures with material colours which are of no value (for this notion is vain and introduced by the devil), and does not rather represent their virtues as living images in himself, let him be anathema!"
  2. For iconoclasts, the only real religious image must be an exact likeness of the prototype--of the same substance--which they considered impossible, seeing wood and paint as empty of spirit and life. Thus for iconoclasts the only true (and permitted) "icon" of Jesus was the Eucharist, which was believed to be his actual body and blood.
  3. Any true image of Jesus must be able to represent both his divine nature (which is impossible because it cannot be seen nor encompassed) and his human nature (which is possible). But by making an icon of Jesus, one is separating his human and divine natures, since only the human can be depicted (separating the natures was considered Nestorianism), or else confusing the human and divine natures, considering them one (union of the human and divine natures was considered Monophysitism).
  4. Icon use for religious purposes was viewed as an innovation in the Church, a Satanic misleading of Christians to return to pagan practice. "Satan misled men, so that they worshipped the creature instead of the Creator. The Law of Moses and the Prophets cooperated to remove this ruin...But the previously mentioned demiurge of evil...gradually brought back idolatry under the appearance of Christianity." (Epitome, Iconoclast Council at Hieria, 754) It was also seen as a departure from ancient church tradition, of which there was a written record opposing religious images.

The chief theological opponents of iconoclasm were the monks Mansur (John of Damascus), who, living in Muslim territory as advisor to the Caliph of Damascus, was far enough away from the Byzantine emperor to evade retribution, and Theodore the Studite, who lived within the Empire.

John declared that he did not venerate matter, "but rather the creator of matter." However he also declared, "But I also venerate the matter through which salvation came to me, as if filled with divine energy and grace." He includes in this latter category the ink in which the gospels were written as well as the paint of images, the wood of the Cross, and the body and blood of Jesus.

The iconodule response to iconoclasm included:

  1. Assertion that the biblical commandment forbidding images of God had been superseded by the incarnation of Jesus, who, being the second person of the Trinity, is God incarnate in visible matter. Therefore, they were not depicting the invisible God, but God as He appeared in the flesh. This became an attempt to shift the issue of the incarnation in their favor, whereas the iconoclasts had used the issue of the incarnation against them.
  2. Further, in their view idols depicted persons without substance or reality while icons depicted real persons. Essentially the argument was "all religious images not of our faith are idols; all images of our faith are icons to be venerated." This was considered comparable to the Old Testament practice of only offering burnt sacrifices to God, and not to any other gods.
  3. Regarding the written tradition opposing the making and veneration of images, they asserted that icons were part of unrecorded oral tradition (parĂ¡dosis, sanctioned in Orthodoxy as authoritative in doctrine by reference to 2 Thessalonians 2:15, Basil the Great, etc.).
  4. Iconodules further argued that decisions such as whether icons ought to be venerated were properly made by the church assembled in council, not imposed on the church by an emperor. Thus the argument also involved the issue of the proper relationship between church and state. Related to this was the observation that it was foolish to deny to God the same honor that was freely given to the human emperor.

Emperors had always intervened in ecclesiastical matters since the time of Constantine I; as Cyril Mango writes, "The legacy of Nicaea, the first universal council of the Church, was to bind the emperor to something that was not his concern, namely the definition and imposition of orthodoxy, if need be by force" (Oxford History of Byzantium, 2002). That practice continued from beginning to end of the Iconoclastic controversy and beyond, with some emperors enforcing iconoclasm, and two empresses regent enforcing the re-establishment of icon veneration. One distinction between the iconoclastic emperors and Constantine I is that the latter did not dictate the conclusion of the First Council of Nicaea before summoning it, whereas Leo III began enforcing a policy of iconoclasm more than twenty years before the Council of Hieria would endorse it.

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