The heresy of Iconoclasm (Eikonoklasmos, “Image-breaking”) is the social belief in the importance of the destruction of icons and other religious images that in the eighth and ninth centuries disturbed the peace of the Eastern Church. People who engaged in or supported iconoclasm were called iconoclasts. The origin of the movement against the Veneration of Images has it’s roots in Christian opposition to pictures due to a fear that their use was, or might become, idolatrous. This attitude in the East may have been partially fanned by the recent campaign by Muslims into Damascus. To Muslims, any kind of picture, statue, or representation of the human form was seen as an abominable idol. In 695 AD, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian II placed a full-face image of Christ on imperial gold coins, which caused the Caliph Abd al-Malik to stop using Byzantine coin and started a purely Islamic coinage with lettering only.
Imperial iconoclasm began with Byzantine Emperor Leo III, who issued a series of edicts between 726 and 730 against the veneration of images. Leo III died in June, 741, and was succeeded by his son Constantine V, who became an even greater persecutor of Catholics than had been his father. Constantine V arrested Patriarch Anastasius and had him flogged in public, blinded, driven shamefully through the streets. In 754 Constantine summoned a great synod called the Council of Hieria that was to count as the Seventh General Council. The See of Constantinople was vacant (due to the death of Anastasius) and Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem all refused to send legates. The Council servilely agreed to Constantine’s demands and declared the only lawful representation of Christ was the Holy Eucharist. Images of emperors, however, were still allowed by Constantine, which some opponents saw as an attempt to give wider authority to imperial power than to the saints and bishops. Constantine’s iconoclastic tendencies were shared by Constantine’s son, Leo IV. After the latter’s early death, his widow, Irene of Athens, as regent for her son, opened the way for the restoration of images. In 787, The Second Council of Nicaea restored the use and veneration of icons and holy images.
Veneration of images had been a part of Christianity since the beginning and even preceded it in Judaism. Although the First Commandment forbid the worship of any idols, there are instances throughout the Old Testament where representations of living things were used lawfully and even ordered by the law as ornaments of the tabernacle and temple, but were not in any way worshipped. That Christians from the very beginning adorned their catacombs with paintings of Christ, the saints, scenes from the Bible and allegorical groups is an obvious and well-known fact. Archaeology has completely debunked the myth that early Christians feared the danger of idolatry among their new converts and forbade religious imagery. The catacombs and sarcophagi from the first century are full of Christian art. The cross had a special place as an object of worship as it was the chief outward sign of the Faith and was treated with more reverence than any picture. This was an argument often posed to Iconoclasts, who were inconsistent in their use of the cross for worship, including its use in physical rituals. The sign of the cross on the forehead with the hand became a common form of blessing: “Sign thy forehead with the sign of the cross in order to defeat Satan and to glory in thy Faith” (c. xxix, 247—Cabrol-Leclercq, “Monumenta ecclesiae liturgica”, Paris, 1900-2, I, p. 271; cf. Tertullian, “Adv. Marc.”, III, 22). People prayed with extended arms to represent a cross (Origen, “Horn. in Exod.”, iii, 3; Tertullian, “de Orat.”, 14). And to make the sign of the cross over a person or thing became the usual gesture of blessing, consecrating, exorcising (Lactantius, “Divin. Instit.”, IV, 27).
- Nichols, Aidan (2010) . Rome and the Eastern Churches: A Study in Schism (2. rev. ed.). San Francisco: Ignatius Press.
- Hussey, Joan M. (1986). The Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire. Oxford: Clarendon Press
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