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Russian Greek-Catholic Church

The Crisis of Iconoclasm

adapted from the book The Icon: Window on the Kingdom
by Michel Quenot


.....In addition to its Roman and Egyptian heritage, the icon originates from yet another tradition which is of prime importance for its future evolution: the Acheiropoietos Icon, the Holy Face "made without human hands."  It was sent to King Abgar by Christ himself.  Legend has it that the leprous king wanted to both see and speak with Jesus.  King Abgar sent a small delegation from his court.  While on route they met Jesus preaching in Palestine.  Jesus knew that his Passion was near and so could not fulfil the king's wishes.  He then miraculously imprinted his Holy Face on a linen towel destined for Abgar, creating thus the very first icon, source and basis for all others.  Let us note that a Western version of the legend also exists.  That of Veronica's veil, onto which Jesus supposedly imprinted his Holy Face.  There is here an evident parallelism: does not the name "Veronica" mean "vera icona," true icon?

The Acts of Quinisext Council, 691-692 (Canon 82), testify to the first official canon about the icon and its importance at the time. They require that artists no longer represent Christ symbolically by the ancient Lamb, but that they paint his humanity, to manifest the Incarnation through which he redeemed the world.

Use of the word "icon" is perhaps most appropriate from that moment in history where sacred images became an object of veneration for the entire Church.  This was already the beginning of the eighth century, when fervor sometimes bordered on superstition, to the point that the icon of a deceased saint could become the godparent of a newly baptized person.  In Byzantium, certain faithful, before eating the Eucharistic Bread, went so far as to place it first on an icon!  Needless to say, such abusive practices were quickly condemned.

The opposition to the cult of icons had been sporadic up to the eighth century, although it was aggravated by the iconoclasm among the Jews and many Muslim Arabs from the Eastern provinces.  It broke out at this point in history with a huge upheaval provoked by the Isaurian Byzantine Emperor, Leo III.  Rejecting any representation of Christ and his saints, he felt that such representations should not be objects of veneration.  Today, we are forced to recognize that numerous economic and political reasons exerted their influence behind the scenes on that crisis, whose consequences were incalculable.

The iconoclastic crisis was in full swing around 730.  The Council of Hieria, which convened in 754 near Constantinople, agreed to a formal condemnation of the cult. It denied outright that the mystery of Christ included both his divine and human nature, i.e., the hypostatic union.  According to the iconoclasts, his divinity absorbed his humanity.  

Despite the resistance of the Church, the imperial condemnation of the cult of images resulted in a massive destruction of icons, which were removed from churches and private homes.  Uncompromising, courageous iconodules [the supporters of icons], whose ranks included innumerable monks, were treated as heretics, imprisoned, tortured, and even mutilated.  Their monasteries were sacked and burned, their lands and possessions were confiscated.

One day, a monk from Nicomedia was summoned before the emperor, who said to him contemptuously:  "Stupid monk, do you not see that anyone can walk on the image of Jesus Christ without being disrepectful to his person?" Quick to retort, the monk threw a coin stamped with the emperor's portrait onto the palace floor and responded:  "In that case, I am permitted  to walk on your face without dishonoring you!"  The emperor's asststants stopped him in the act, and the monk was put to death for having insulted the emperor's image.

This new heresy, along with the continued indiscriminate harrassment directed by the Byzantine authorities against the iconophiles living in the Italian provinces, only hastened the decline of the Empire.  It also sowed the seed of their definitive estrangement from Byzantium.

The Second Council of Nicaea in 787 -- the Seventh Ecumenical Council -- was decisive. At this council, the iconophiles sustained the persistent vehemence of the iconoclasts.  They valiantly defended the cult of icons with every possible theological argument.  Their victory prompted a restoration of the cult of icons, which in turn provoked a final surge of violence at the beginning of the ninth century (813-842), notably during the reign of the Armenican Emperor Leo V.  But the monastic world resisted, intrepid and undaunted, until the final victory in 843, the Triumph of Orthodoxy (True Faith) over all the heresies.  The 11th of March was then established as the Feast of Orthodoxy, which is still celebrated tody on the first Sunday of Great Lent every year.

Because of the massive destruction of icons, it is not surprising that so few icons from those centuries prior to the iconoclast quarrels remain.  The most ancient date from the sixth and seventh centuries and originate from the regions quite distant from Constantinople:  Greek and Coptic monasteries in Egypt, Saint Catherine Monastery on Mount Sinai, Rome, and also from fourth-century Christian Georgia.

As we conclude our brief historical survey, is it not interesting to note that the icon was at the very center of the deepest, most soul-stirring crises within the entire Eastern Church?  Unfortunately, the Western Church never really grasped the true dimension of the crisis, which contributed to the alienation of the Church of Rome. The schism of 1054 only added the finishing stroke to a painful and deplorable separation.  When all had been said and done, the icon was the focal point of that profound theological debate whose central theme was the Incarnation, the cornerstone of all Christianity.