Icons in the Orthodox Church
Iconoclasts versus Iconophiles
There arose a great controversy over icons in the Eastern Church in the 7th and 8th centuries. Everyone, from simple believers to emperors, got involved. The argument began because of criticism of icons by Muslims. People who defended the use of icons were known as iconophiles. Those against the icons were known as iconoclasts (those who destroy icons).
The iconoclasts went on a rampage destroying icons in churches. New churches built in the late 8th century were dedicated without them. The Second Council of Nicea in 787 (the seventh and last ecumenical church council) retaliated by ordering the confiscation of all iconoclastic literature and this was carried out so successfully, that not a single piece of it survives today.
The worship of images was based on the belief that material objects can possess divine power, which might provide certain blessings to those who touch them. The sacraments were based on this same belief, particularly the Eucharist (Holy Communion).
Battle Erupts Over Orthodox Church Icons
Both sides claimed to represent the common folk. The iconophiles supported the use of religious art as a means to convey Bible stories to the illiterate. They were not opposed to unsophisticated people worshipping sacred art or relics. They believed that some might not understand a sermon, but everyone could understand a painting or mosaic representing a story from the life of Jesus—and learn from it. Besides, did not the creation story say that man was made in the "image" of God?
The iconoclasts also invoked concern for the peasantry in their arguments, claiming the ignorant could be led astray by lifeless objects into idol worship. Sure, educated people could tell the difference between the image and the divine; but the simple might not be able to make the appropriate distinction. Since the founding of Christianity, the Church had worked to rid pagans of their idols; and now churches had allowed idols in their own worship services.
Both sides tried to show that the use of icons and relics did—or did not—exist in the earliest churches. Iconoclasts insisted that neither Jesus, the apostles nor the Church Fathers had used images. It was true that some of the Church Fathers had prohibited images of Christ, his mother, or the apostles.
The aversion to the worship of idols had deep roots in the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible). The Ten Commandments forbade graven images. Jews considered them deceptive, dead matter. Iconophiles countered that King Solomon had made many objects to adorn the temple, for the glory of God.
The Adoration of Icons
The use of images arose within the Church not based on what was taught, but more on what was believed. And this came from a growing devotion to the relics of saints (and martyrs). People would see, touch, or kiss these relics; shed tears; and pray to the dead saint. Many stories had been passed around the Christian Community that relics first, and then later, sacred images, had produced miracles on behalf of believers. It came to be believed that these objects represented the divine presence.
The powerful leader of the iconoclasts was the Byzantine Emperor Constantine V (718-775). He called a Church Council in 754 to condemn icons. Icon painters and worshipers were imprisoned and tortured. Constantine V decried the "hellenization" of Christianity through images; and declared there was no authority in Scripture, or the apostolic tradition, for the use of them. He was opposed by two prominent leaders in the Church, Nicephorus (758-828) and Theodore of Stoudios (759-826).
The iconophiles argued that the iconoclasts were mistaken to apply Biblical passages against pagan idols to Christian images, because the intent is completely opposite. They also objected to the emperor claiming authority over Church matters, as this was not approved in the New Testament. Iconophiles also noted that iconoclasts themselves worshipped the holy cross—itself an image. The symbol and the sign of the cross were ubiquitous in Christianity—and could be traced directly back to the apostolic church.
Is an Icon a Graven Image?
Constantine V also expunged references to Mary from litanies (responsive petition) and canticles (song or chant) used in worship. He denied that Mary, or any saints, could intercede for the faithful. Most iconoclasts agreed that though proper respect should be paid to Mary and the saints, never should they be addressed in prayer, nor should images of them be worshipped. Even worse, they believed, were images of angels.
Since no one has ever seen angels, and they do not have physical bodies; images of them were to be prohibited. Pagan materialism should not be allowed to violate the spirituality of worship. Iconoclasts proclaimed this to be the work of the devil, deceiving the Church to worship created images rather than the Creator.
The iconophiles declared that the Incarnation of Jesus as a man had made His image portrayable. The reverence for images was deeply ingrained in the Eastern Christians and theological clarification was needed in the defense of them as icons, not idols.
The Orthodox Church believed that icons were holy in a holy church, whether of Jesus, Mary, saints or angels. It claimed the devil was working through the iconoclasts to destroy images in art and books that he hated because they were holy.
John of Damascus explained that Christians were not worshiping the icons themselves, but the reality behind the images; a reality that pagan idols did not share. Icons were acceptable props as a concession to human psychology, and the special role of sight among the senses.
Photius said, "Sight transmits to the mind the essence of what has been seen." Thus the icon served sight in the same way as preaching served the ear—especially for illiterate believers.
Veneration of Orthodox icons
Theodore of Stoudios said, "What person with any sense does not comprehend the distinction between an idol and an icon?"
Idol worship is worship of the devil but icons are dedicated to the glory of the one true God. Against accusations that worshipping an image of Mary was a revival of pagan goddess adoration, Theodore made clear that no Christian believes Mary to be a goddess, but she is Theotokos—the mother of God. The worship of saints supported—not perverted—the worship of Christ.
John of Damascus stated, "We portray Christ as King and Lord is such a way that we do not deprive Him of His army. Now the armies of the Lord are the saints."
He agreed that in Old Testament times images were prohibited; but explained that, with the New Testament of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, a "likeness of God was available; therefore the prohibition was superseded."
To deny this was to deny the humanity of Christ. John declared that the life and deeds of Christ should be represented in art and illustrated in books—from His birth to His crucifixion. "This beautiful exposition and beneficial description, how dare you to call it idolatry!"
The icons and the gospel told the same story. Since the content of the icon was identical to Scripture, "Why do you worship the book and spit upon the picture?"
Theodore of Stoudios explained that since only a truly human Christ could save, it was proper for His humanity to be portrayed. The remembrance of the history of Christ "in every ritual" of worship was a way of illumination for the mind. Nicephorus said that icons "convey theological knowledge, express the silence of God, and praise the goodness of God."
So, both sides claimed to be speaking for the illiterate masses, who could not have possibly have understood this Christological debate. But it was the fate of their faith at stake. Icons were cherished by the common folk, as objects of religious devotion and instruction. Still, many average Christians had misgivings about their propriety in worship.
Finally, the seventh ecumenical council reinstated the icons and pronounced anathema upon the iconoclasts. The icons had triumphed. The union of liturgy and images was restored.
Theodore of Stoudios praised Mary as the only human who had ever transcended human nature, "Granting peace to the Church, strengthening orthodoxy, protecting the empire, driving away barbarian tribes, maintaining the entire Christian people."
Nicephorus called her "Our most holy Queen, the Mother of God, Empress and the Lady of the entire universe, the throne of mercy for mortals throughout the universe. We confess and proclaim that she has been appointed as our mediator and secure patron in relation to her Son, on account of the confidence she has as His mother."
Before these mariological concepts were taught by the Church, they had already been believed and celebrated by the people in the pews. Mariology led to the cult of other saints. Opposition to icons had many times included hostility to the worship of Mary and the saints.
The rehabilitation of the icons led to the reinstatement of the role of Mary and the saints as participants in the liturgy, life, and service of the Church. The cult of angels was soon to follow, largely based on the speculations of Dionysius the Areopagite, for whom angels were the missing link between the visible and invisible worlds; and the belief that when the Church worships God, it does so in the company of the angelic host. When the liturgy of the Church praised God, it did so along with Mary, apostles, saints, martyrs and angels. These were subjects of icons.