Sunday, March 5, 2017

On Iconoclasm

Some time ago I did two posts defending the use of Icons in Orthodox worship. The Orthodox Church, and therefore the Early Church, used Icons in their worship from early on. Saint Luke is said to be the first iconographer, making an icon of the Theotokos. But there is a period when the Church did not use Icons, and in fact forbade their use. This period came to be known as the Iconoclastic period.
Iconoclasm according to Wikipedia is, "the destruction of religious icons and other images or monuments for religious or political motives" (Iconoclasm). An iconoclast, while having a different meaning that is used today, is, "a person who destroys religious images or opposes their veneration" (Iconoclast). So, taken in the Christian sense, iconoclasts were those who destroyed Icons and opposed their veneration, and the iconoclastic period was a period of time when these icons were forbidden to be used.

There were two periods of Iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire, the first from around AD 730 - 787, and the second from around AD 814 - 843 (Iconoclasm, Orthodox Wiki). It seems that the start of the first period was from an overly literal interpretation of the Tenth Commandment, and possibly also due to Islamic influence (Byzantine Iconoclasm). As I mentioned in my previous posts on Icons, Icons were permitted to be used and venerated (but not worshipped) from the earliest times. I'm not going to rehash here what I've previously stated because this post isn't about defending Icons, but taking a historical look at the Iconoclastic Period(s).

Emperor Leo III is the one who instituted the first period of iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire. There is no quick answer as to why this was done, but there are many theories (Byzantium, Iconoclasm and the Monks). Some of those theories were mentioned above - a literal interpretation of the 10th Commandment, and Islamic influence. Before this time the Empire had almost collapsed from expanding Muslim domination and Constantinople was almost overtaken. Emperor Leo, then, just a soldier in the army, saved Constantinople, and thereby the Empire, and he was declared Emperor (Byzantium, Iconoclasm and the Monks). For those who don't know, Islam is against religious images to quite an extreme amount; it is, therefore, feasible to think that those parts of Christendom that were once a part of the Byzantine Empire and now under Islamic rule succumbed to the same kind of thinking - though those Christians living in the Islamic Caliphate had more liberty to write in the defense of holy icons than those who lived inside of the Empire (Iconoclasm, Orthodox Wiki).

Whatever the reasonings for Emperor Leo to declare that icons should be broken, we know that iconoclastic feelings didn't start with him. There seems to have been some discussion on the use of icons for some time (Iconoclasm, New Advent). Other possible reasons include wanting to stop the monasteries from growing rich from making icons, and even the eruption of a volcano as a sign of God's wrath (Iconoclastic Controversies). It is even possible that some felt that the veneration of icons displeased God so He let Muslims start to conquer parts of the Empire (Iconoclasm, National Gallery of Art).

This first period of iconoclasm ended with the death of Emperor Leo III's grandson, Emperor Leo IV, leaving his widow, Empress Irene, in charge of the Empire (Iconoclasm, Orthodox Wiki). Empress Irene was an iconophile and called for the Seventh Ecumenical Council which ended up affirming the use and veneration of icons (Iconoclasm, Orthodox Wiki). It should probably be noted that St. John of Damascus had previously written on the use of icons - coming to their defense while he lived in Muslim controlled Syria - and his works most likely helped to pave the way for some of the dogma clarified in the Seventh Ecumenical Council regarding icons (Byzantium, Iconoclasm and the Monks).

About 30 years or so after the Seventh Ecumenical Council there was a second period of iconoclasm initiated by Emperor Leo V (Iconoclastic Controversies). This second period of iconoclasm does not seem to have been as heavily enforced by the authorities as there seem to be fewer martyrdoms and destruction of icons reported (Iconoclasm, Orthodox Wiki). A reason given for this period of iconoclasm could also have been due to military defeat and the Emperor thinking they had displeased God (Byzantine Iconoclasm).

The second iconoclastic period ended in a similar fashion as the first - with the death of an emperor and his wife being left in power; this time it was the death of Emperor Theophilus that left Empress Theodora in charge of the empire, and she who restored the veneration of icons - though this time without an Ecumenical Council (Byzantine Iconoclasm).

Because of this victory of the iconodules over the iconoclasts - which was proclaimed by a synod in Constantinople - the Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholics celebrate the Feast/Triumph/Sunday of Orthodoxy on the first Sunday of Lent (which is when the first session of the aforementioned synod ended and the people made a procession of the Church of Blachernae to Hagia Sophia to restore the icons) (Feast of Orthodoxy). Another thing that was accomplished by the restoration of icons is for the holy images to be seen as an integral aspect of the faith of Orthodox Christians so much so that it is said, "No Orthodox home is complete without an icon corner, where the family prays," (The First Sunday of Lent: The Sunday of Orthodoxy).
Post a Comment