Growth in Christian imagery
By the year 400 churches and their leaders were receiving financial support from the Roman state. Church buildings were becoming more numerous, larger, and decorated with religious art. Artists modeled their images of Jesus after traditional ones of Jupiter and of Mary after ones of Olympian goddesses.
During the rule of the Roman state by Justinian (527-565), Christian religious paintings became common. Acts of veneration by Christians in front of images grew in complexity, intensity, and universality. In thought, feeling, and practice, the difference between the picture and the savior or saint represented by the picture gradually disappeared.
Icon as true presence
By 600, the common veneration of images fit in well with a whole Christian religious worldview which had gradually developed by that time. In that worldview, there was a hierarchy of blessing. From top to bottom there was God the Father, Jesus, Mary, other major and minor saints, bishops, priests, deacons, and ordinary Christians. To enjoy the blessings of God the Father, one needed access and influence. One started with those closest to one, like the priest of one's church, and prayed perhaps to a minor saint for intervention on one's behalf with Mary or even Jesus.
According to this worldview, where one prayed also mattered: the more sacred the place, the more effective the prayer. The most effective place to pray was at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. That marked the place where the resurrection of Jesus Christ had taken place. Pilgrimages there became important. Praying while close to a relic, like the hair or bones of a saint, or a holy object, like the Crown of Thorns, helped too.
If one couldn't go on pilgrimage or pray by a relic, then praying before an icon became a less effective but still suitable substitute. By doing so, an increasing number of Christians believed that the icon would intercede for them with God the Father and that God the Father would intervene to protect them through it.
Prohibition of images in the Bible and early Christian practice
There were always Christians who chose not to witness to Jesus in this way. They understood the second of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:4) to forbid the creation of such images. The early Church also refused to create them.
Islamic iconoclasm and military victories
By 660, Muslims from Arabia had taken control of Egypt, Levantia, and parts of Anatolia from the Christian ruler in Constantinople. From 674 to 678, and again from 717 to 718, Muslim armies had actually besieged Constantinople. Muslims refused to make images, consistent with the Ten Commandments and early Church practice, and they were defeating Christians in battle. More Christians began to search their consciences for why God might be punishing Christendom with defeat against its Muslim enemies. They concluded that the common Christian veneration of images was to blame. Those images had to go.
As if Muslim attacks were not enough, a volcanic eruption on the island of Thera in 726, and the destruction which followed it, also raised the question of God's wrath and its possible causes.
First period of Roman iconoclasm
Leo 3rd, Orthodox Christian ruler of the Roman state and leader of resistance against Muslim enemies in eastern Olympia, made religious images illegal. This led to the destruction of most mosaics in churches within the Roman Empire. It left the best surviving examples of that art in churches built by Justinian 1st in Ravenna—far enough away in 730 to be safe from Leo's destruction.
The ruler of the Roman Catholic Church condemned Leo's decision. Leo responded by stripping him of his control of the Catholic congregations in southern Latinia and eastern Alpinia that were located within the Roman Empire. This of course strained the already weakening relationships between Catholic and Orthodox churches.
Constantine 5th, Leo's son and successor (r. 741-775), convened the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 754 to consider the question of icons. Almost all of the 340 bishops present condemned the veneration of icons as blasphemy. They believed that the true image of Christ in our midst is the sharing of love between Christians. Constantine used their endorsement to purge his bureaucracy of iconophiles (“lovers of icons") and to politically weaken monasteries who challenged him over this or other issues.
First restoration of icons
When Irene became empress of the Roman state, she convened another council in 787 to reconsider the issue of icons. Gathered church leaders chose to restore the traditional practice of veneration and to call their assembly the true Seventh Ecumenical Council.
The ruler of the Catholic Church applauded their decision. Since the rule of Justinian 1st (527-565), the Roman emperor in Constantinople had either named or approved who would be ruler of the Catholic Church. The iconoclast controversy ended that. In 800, for that and other reasons, the ruler of the Catholic Church crowned Charles (called “the Great” or Charlemagne) as the first ruler of what came to be called the Holy Roman Empire.
This identification of Charles as ruler of the Roman state came as quite a surprise to Irene, authentic ruler of the one and only Roman state, as well as to her government and its subjects, but she and they could do nothing about it. That rebuff expressed another significant weakening in Christendom as it divided itself into Catholic west and Orthodox east.
Second period of Roman iconoclasm
In 815 iconoclasm (“icon-breaking”) returned with a new ruler named Leo 5th. Hoping to restore the military successes of his iconoclastic predecessor Constantine 5th, Leo restored his iconoclastic policy.
Second and permanent restoration of iconsThis continued until Theodora became ruler of the Roman Empire and restored the veneration of icons once again in 843. Her restoration of the veneration of icons has been celebrated ever since, on the first Sunday of Lent, as the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy.
Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.