a movement within the Christian church where icons were destroyed, was an
essential part of the eighth and ninth century in the Byzantine Empire. Leo III
was the emperor at the time and was struggling to understand why his army was
failing against not well-trained armies, like the Muslims, and therefore losing
revenue producing territory. To Emperor Leo III, the only explanation was that
God was angry and inflicting these losses on his people. Emperor Leo III begins
to investigate other losses, further examining the sixth century, when
Justinian attempted to move into the west to retake his land and being
completely unsuccessful. He starts to notice a pattern with, what he believes,
is the underlying problem: the misuse and general misunderstanding of icons. He
noticed that religious individuals were scrapping the paint off of material
icons and drinking it, in hopes that it will cure their sickness. Similarly,
there was a general misunderstanding of icons; the question of whether or not
it was even possible to depict God’s human nature without representing his
divine nature. Specifically, if this would go against the validity of the
Council of Chalcedon that stated that the two natures were indivisible,
unconfused, inseparable, among others. Emperor Leo III also felt that
portraying Christ on a material object related too much to Gnosticism, one of
the greatest heresies of the time. Because of Emperor Leo III’s conviction that
icons were causing all of these major problems within his empire, he decided he
had to demand a change.
Beginning in 725 A.D., Emperor Leo
III mandates a policy that condemns icons and sacred images. Later in 730 A.D.,
Emperor Leo III put this policy into place by creating an edict that orders the
destruction of all icons and religious images within the empire. He demands
that all images be removed, even if that required frescos to be painted over
and mosaics to be removed in churches, or even the removal of the icon of
Christ in the imperial palace. It is not until 754 A.D., during the Council of
Hiereia, under Constantine V, that iconoclasm becomes a part of church doctrine
and is later signed by over three-hundred bishops to put it into place.
One of the most powerful opponent of
iconoclasm was John of Damascus. He writes in Three Treatises on the Divine Images,
“I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the
Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take His abode
in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter”1.
Veneration and worship would later be distinctly defined; veneration being the
honoring of saints and icons, whereas worship is saved for God alone. John of
Damascus emphasized this distinction and felt that it was acceptable to show
honor and respect to those religious figures associated with God.
before the Seventh Ecumenical Council, Emperor Leo III’s son rose to power in
761 and ordered that all subjects had to take an oath against icons or else
they were tortured and killed; Constantine is an example of one just one of the
individuals who refused to take part in iconoclasm. Empress Irene was the first
to call the Seventh Ecumenical Council in Nicea in 787, where she announced the
decision to condemned iconoclasm and permitted the use of images.
Empress Irene also believed in two
separate distinctions between veneration and worship, similarly to John of
Damascus. With this, Empress Irene’s decision stated that venerating icons is
an essential part of the Church teachings and permitted their usage. The
decision of the Seventh Ecumenical Council would eventually go west, however,
Charlemagne refused to sign the verdicts. The translation, between Greek and
Latin, was extremely poor and created some misinterpretation issues.
Similarly, Charlemagne refused to recognize Irene as the Byzantine emperor,
therefore leading to tension between the east and the west. It was not until
the reign of Empress Theodora that the idea of iconoclasm was finally put to
rest and icons were deemed lawful again.
of Damascus, Three Treatises on the Divine Images (Andrew
Louth, trans.; New York: SVS Press, 2003).