"Now, however, when God is seen clothed in flesh, and conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see." —Saint John of Damascus
In the eighth and ninth centuries, a crisis of sorts emerged over the use of icons in the Church. Icons, from the Greek word eikon meaning "image," are depictions of persons and events either here on earth or in the heavenly Kingdom. Some of the more popular icons are the Christ Pantocrator, the Mystical Supper, and the Resurrection. Icons are painted (or written) in such a manner as to convey "other-worldliness." Although Orthodox Christians say that icons are a window to heaven, I prefer the term "door." Icons reveal the Kingdom of God to us. Through a window we may see and be seen; but through a door we not only see but we also pass, and those on the other side may pass to us.
However the early Church in the opening centuries tended to avoid the literal representation of Christ or other persons in the heavenly realm. The rationale was chiefly the second commandment: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me. -Exodus 20:4-5 In light of this commandment the Church had a strong desire to avoid any kind of idolatry. In addition, early Christians saw the rejection of idolatry as a way of separating themselves from the pagans. Christian worship was not concerned with material sacrifices but rather worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). Therefore instead of portraying Christ literally (e.g. in human form), they portrayed the Christian truths in symbols, such as the fish and the Chi-Ro.
However, the use of symbols led to their veneration, and soon even relics and objects such as the Cross were widely venerated. By the early fifth century the worship of holy images also became part of Church practice. Such worship was opposed by Epiphanius of Salamis (403 BC) whose work was subsequently used in support of the iconoclastic position. By the sixth and seventh centuries, miracles were attributed to images, images were venerated, honored, and prayed to, and they were set up as objects of devotion in homes and employed in public on official occasions. Some even went so far as to ascribe supernatural powers to the images.
In addition to its purely pragmatic use as a method to teach the Gospel to those unable to read (Bishop Hypatius of Ephesus promoted this practice), the theology of the icon began to develop during this period. God gave the commandments because He wanted to emphasize to the Hebrews the importance of not going back to Egypt and Egyptian ways. Egypt was a death-oriented society (its most magnificent architectural achievements were giant tombs, and their bible was the book of the dead). God did not want the Hebrews backsliding into this obsession with death, for God is not the God of the dead but of the living. Once the uncircumscribable God became flesh and dwelt among men (John 1:14), He could then be depicted. Of course, God the Father could never be depicted (there are icons of God the Father but outside of the "Hospitality of Abraham" they are very rare), but God the Son and occasionally God the Holy Spirit were depicted. The iconophiles reasoned that Man was created in the image ("eikon") of God, and since God became Man, God (the Son) could now be portrayed.
This sufficed for awhile but eventually the controversy concerning icons arose anew in the eighth century. Some say that this was the most important event in the history of the Byzantine Church while others only ascribe it only minimal importance. The Emperor Leo III and his son Constantine V were instrumental in initiating the movement against the icons. Those opposed to icons were called "iconoclasts;" those who supported the icons were called "iconophiles" or "iconodules." These Emperors had to deal with the rise in Muslim power, and Muslims did not view the use of the icons favorably. Islam was closer to Judaism than Christianity as it believed in one god "Allah" with Mohammed as his prophet. The non-Trinitarian Allah was more analogous to the "God the Father" in Judaism. Muslims held Christ as a great teacher but not as the Incarnate God. Lacking any concept of a Trinity or of a God who assumed human flesh, it's understandable why Muslims did not view icons favorably. It is thought that when Leo III made his attack on icons in 726 he was motivated by the Muslim leader Yazid, who actively smeared Christians. However, no evidence of contact between Leo III and Yazid has ever been found.
Some sources, attribute iconoclasm to Jewish rather than Muslim influence. It is said that a Jewish seer promised Leo III a long reign if he would ban icons, and John of Jerusalem elaborated on this theme at the council of Nicea in 787.
The iconodules in their writings sought to differentiate Christianity from the Jewish religion, and it is in this spirit that the connection between the Old Testament prohibition on idolatry and the Jewish religion was stressed by their polemic.
A number of the surviving documents of the early early iconoclast period refer to unrest in Asia Minor. The Patriarch Germanus of Constantinople wrote to three prelates, Metropolitan John of Synnada, Bishop Constantine of Nacoleia, and Bishop Thomas of Claudiopolis. The last was a close advisor to Emperor Leo III. While it is true that these Bishops did visit Constantinople, it is not clear whether they did or did not discuss their problem with the Emperor. What is known is that there were a number of iconoclastic churchmen in Asia Minor.
In the De Haeresibus et Synodis by Germanus he makes Constantine of Nacoleia the leader of those who were at odds with the traditions of the Fathers. But Germanus regarded these more as innovators instead of heretics. In early 726 Leo III took the unprecedented step of ordering the removal of the mosaic of Christ above the Chalce entrance to the imperial complex. This provoked violent opposition from the Constantinopolitans. In January of 730 a decree was issued for the destruction of the icons. Germanus refused to sign such decrees and retired from office to live as a private citizen until his death in 733. During this time the iconoclasts were ravaging iconophile sites: They burnt images. They removed altar furniture. They even stripped relics of their reliquaries. All of this was later later condemned by the iconoclast council of 754. The council also condemned the "cult" of icons, the burning of candles and incense, and the worship (latreia) rather than the mere veneration of the saints.
Under Leo III's son Constantine V the iconoclasts greatly widened their argument: they developed a much more sophisticated theological approach which recognized that the relationship of icons to Christological teaching be taken into account. As it was, the great exponent of icons, St. John of Damascus, had already developed a detailed Christological defense of icons. However, because St. John wrote from Muslim territory, it's not clear whether his work was actually known to Constantine V.
A digression is in order regarding the theology of the icon. What does the icon symbolize? The icon represents the Kingdom of God brought to us. The icon can and does communicate spiritual truths. In the icon of Christ, He is made immediately present in our minds as we contemplate the image: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner." How much more powerful is that prayer when addressed to Christ personally through His holy icon. God the Father cannot be depicted because to do so would circumscribe the infinite nature of His deity, but God the Son can be depicted because He became flesh, He became that which was seen, touched, and handled (1 John 1:1), infinite God became finite humanity. We make an image of the God that revealed Himself to be seen by the eye of man. It is important to recall that it is not appropriate to worship (that is, to give "latreia" to) the material of icons, or Saints or others depicted in icons. Only God the Trinity is worthy of "latreia" worship and we must always remember that distinction. Perhaps like the iconoclasts, I am somewhat of a skeptic regarding icons working miracles in and of themselves: although I don't presume to limit how God intervenes in the world, miracles (e.g. speaking in tongues), are very rare, and miracles attributed to icons are no exception. But we admit the possibility of miracles, and we say that the veneration we render to the icon passes from the icon to the persons depicted therein.
Constantine V was a good general and administrator. However the political pressures of his younger years left little time for Constantine the Theologian to worry about iconoclast policy. This might have even afforded a respite to the persecution of the iconoclasts. Constantine V however did manage to take his father's work a step further by attempting to secure synodal approval for an official iconoclast policy. Although a council was held in 754, the Patriarchs of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria, all of whom by then lived under Muslim rule, were unable to send legates (representatives). Not even the Pope was able to send a legate because he was busy dealing with the Lombards and later forced to flee to Frankish territory! (Hussey, 39) It was not surprising then that at the council of 754, attended by 338 bishops, most of whom were iconoclasts, that iconophiles such as John of Damascus were specifically anathematized. The arguments were well-known and well-worn: directed against idolatry, condemned by the Scriptures and by the early fathers, and against the material nature of images. An image of Christ either circumscribed an infinite Godhead and confused the human and divine natures (monophysitism), or divided the human from the divine Person (Nestorianism). For iconoclasts, the only true image of Christ was Holy Communion (Eucharist) itself. (Hussey, 40-41) With the formal condemnation of the icons in 754, those refusing to abandon them could be punished as heretics. Priests could be defrocked. Monks and laity could be excommunicated. Rarely would punishment go beyond this, and such instances were exaggerated in iconodule literature. But with the death of Constantine V in 755 iconoclasm died down somewhat. Leo IV, who succeeded Constantine V, was much more moderate than his father. In fact he was somewhat indifferent to the icon controversy. This, in addition to the fact that his wife Irene was ardent iconophile served to swing the controversy in the other direction, towards the iconophile position.
The Council of 786-787
The leadership in the Empire and Church was changing. Tarasius was elected Patriarch in 784 and consecrated on 25 December 784. He replaced the aging Patriarch Paul IV who had resigned. The Empress Irene now ruled as regent for Constantine VI, the son of Leo IV and grandson of Constantine V. Although in certain respects her reign was questionable, she did at least manage to bring about the restoration of the icons over a period of time. Both of Tarasius and Irene needed the cooperation of Pope Hadrian I in order to move forward. They were successful and Hadrian granted two legates.
The council convened in 786 in the Church of the Holy Apostles with Irene and Constantine VI in attendance. Iconoclast bishops supported imperial guards who stopped the proceedings. Tarasius was shouted down and the assembly broke up. However, a second summons to a general council went out in May 787, and this time the council was held. Many distinguished clergymen and monks were in attendance. After considerable discussion in which the fathers were extensively quoted, most of the iconoclast "penitents" were received back into the Church by the council. In later sessions the discussion of the iconophile position and refutation of iconoclast tenets produced some of the most valuable records of the proceedings, perhaps in retrospect to the dismay of those present. The iconophile presentation was certainly not as detailed as might be found in the writings of St. John of Damascus, however Tarasius was succinct and to the point in stating that just as the "venerable and life-giving cross" was set up in the church, so should the images of the Lord Jesus Christ and the Theotokos. He further distinguished between the honorable veneration (proskinesis) given to holy images and the true worship (latreia) given to the Holy Trinity. Further, the violation of icons, relics, and monasteries would be punished by defrocking if a cleric or excommunication if a layman or a monk. Pope Hadrian I also sent a letter to Charlemagne voicing his support for the 787 council (also known as Nicaea II).
The restoration of the icons under Empress Irene failed to immediately provide an acceptable solution to the controversy which had divided the Eastern Roman empire under North Syrian rulers. The years between 787 and 843 were troubled, as icons were grudgingly accepted however there was a mild iconoclastic movement before the full restoration of the icons in 843. Emperor Michael II died in 829 leaving his son Theophilus to succeed him. Theophilus was an ardent iconoclast; he persecuted iconophiles even going so far as to inflict cruel punishments. But when he died in 842 he left a minor as his successor and Theodora, his wife and a venerator of icons, acted as regent for her son. Theodora wanted to restore icons to their rightful place, and she got her way. One year later, on the first Sunday of Lent in 843, the veneration of the icons was formally restored. This became known as Orthodoxy Sunday.
In our church, we celebrate Orthodoxy Sunday by making a procession around the church building with our icons. It is a joyous time because we remember that the icons give so much vitality to our worship. The icons in the sanctuary help get us out of this present age and into the Kingdom to come, if only for a relatively short time. They remind us that this life is not all there is, and that we are merely sojourners on our way to a far better place than we have ever known.
Hussey, Joan, The Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire (New York: Oxford University Press. 1990)