Oxford history of the christian church


II. The Iconoclast Controversy 726-843



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II. The Iconoclast Controversy 726-843.

1. The North Syrian rulers: the first phase 726-787. The background to the eighth-century crisis.


The position of Constantinople in Christendom was for a time weakened by its eighth and early ninth-century crisis concerning icons, 1 in one sense a continuation of the Christological problem. The long drawn-out dispute in the Eastern Church over the use of icons had deep roots. The early Church avoided figural representation of Christ for various reasons. The second commandment (Exodus 20:4) forbade graven images and there was the strong desire to avoid any kind of idolatry such as was associated with the pagan world. Then both Old and New Testaments stressed that true worship was not concerned with material sacrifices but should be in spirit and in truth. And so in the catacombs Christ was portrayed by means of symbols. But by the fourth century it was clear that special material objects, such as the Cross and other holy relics, were being widely venerated. Gregory of Nyssa for instance extols the joy of those who touch the very relics of a martyr whom they address with a prayer of intercession just as though he were alive before them. At the same time the pagan cult of the imperial portrait was accepted and integrated into the normal practice of the Christian Empire. It was understandable that this was carried into the practice of the religious world. By the early fifth century the worship of religious images was being practised in the Church, as St Augustine noticed. It was opposed by Epiphanius of Salamis (d. 403) in Cyprus whose works were later cited by the iconoclasts. The authenticity of certain passages in his writings has been questioned by some scholars because of his refutation of a Christological argument which was thought to point to a later date. But there is in fact nothing unusual in such a point of view at this date (cf. Eusebius of Caesarea when dealing with the Empress Constantia's request for a picture of Christ), and opinion now favours the acceptance of these passages as genuine. 2

The late sixth and seventh centuries saw a marked intensification in the use of images. Such practices were not unchallenged, which perhaps accounts for the fact that those giving evidence about their use, pilgrims from the Holy Land for instance, seem to be somewhat on the defensive. Images now performed miracles, were worshipped and honoured, prayed to, set up as objects of devotion in private houses and workshops, as well as being used on public and official occasions. When in 656 a debate was held in Bithynian Bizna in an attempt to convert Maximus the Confessor to the officially supported monotheletism, the two protagonists were reported at its close to have kissed not only the Gospels and the Cross but also the icons of Christ and the Theotokos. 3 The image was regarded as being so closely connected with its prototype as to possess supernatural (some would say magic) efficacy. Hence the role of the icon in times of crisis, as at the Persian siege of Edessa in 544, though it has been pointed out that in the original account the use of the icon was not so much that of a palladium as a secretly worked miracle. 4 But in the minds of the Byzantines there was no doubt about the palladian qualities of the icon of St Demetrius of Thessalonica, or of the Mother of God in the various sieges of Constantinople. Thessalonica was never taken by the Slavs. The City beat off its attackers for nearly five hundred years.

The explanation of the growing cult of the icon in the late sixth and seventh centuries and the beginning of its firm rooting in the life of the Orthodox Church has been found in the need for additional security. It was a time when external forces seemed to be disrupting the life of the Empire, though in the end this time of crisis proved to be one of transformation rather than complete disruption. Justinian I's reconquest in North Africa and in Spain was lost to the Muslims, as were certain of the East Mediterranean provinces; part (but by no means all) of Italy went to the Lombards; Slavs and some of the Hunnic peoples spread through the Balkans, even into Greece. People living in the seventh century could not foresee Byzantium's remarkable recovery, ironically much of it to come under the able leadership of heretical iconoclast emperors. For them, the enemy was overrunning their countryside and pressing at the gates of their two finest cities, Constantinople and Thessalonica, and it was a life or death struggle in which the supernatural qualities of the holy icon could offer protection.

Thus the change in attitude to figural representation is understandable. To the unlettered peasant or soldier the icon simply seemed to afford protection in times of trouble, but the more articulate could go further and explain why it had such charismatic qualities. At a practical level it had also long been recognized that the picture was a means of educating the illiterate. The sixthcentury Hypatius of Ephesus, though not himself taking pleasure in icons, pointed out this use: 'We allow simpler and immature folk to have these as being fitted to their natural development, that they may learn through the eye by means adapted to their comprehension.' 5 But the icon was more than this because it could bring the beholder into contact with God. As the Pseudo-Dionysius visualized, it could lead the Christian through the various hierarchical stages to the Deity. Bishop Hypatius of Ephesus had also stressed this, 'some will thus be led to spiritual beauty'. 6 Then, in reverse, there was the relation of the icon, not to the beholder, but to its prototype. Since man was created in the image of God through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, he had in him something of God, and this was reflected in his portrait, particularly that of the saint. And how much more of Christ, who, since he became man, could be portrayed. By the late seventh century Christian apologetic on this theme had reached the point of regarding it as a tenet of Orthodox teaching. At the Quinisextum council in Constantinople in 691-2 canon 82 stated: In certain paintings of holy icons a lamb is represented being pointed out by the figure of the Forerunner, a lamb which is the prefiguration of grace, prefiguring for us in the Law the true Lamb which is Christ our God. Though we venerate the old prefiguration and shadows as symbols and announcements of truth given to the Church we prefer the grace and the truth which we have received in fulfilment of the Law. And so in order that that which is perfect may be made clear to the eyes of all, even in paintings, we decree that in future instead of the ancient Lamb, 'he who taketh away the sin of the world', Christ our God, shall be portrayed on icons in human form. And by means of this we shall understand the depth of the humiliation of the Word of God and think on his life in the flesh and his passion and death for our salvation whence came the redemption of the world. 7

Opposition to figural portrayal came long before the bitter controversy of the eighth century. Within the Church many had doubts which grew with the spread of superstitious practices associated with icons. From the fourth century onwards various objections were voiced. The Spanish synod of Elvira in the early fourth century had urged caution in the use of icons lest they should be painted on the walls of churches. Doubts had been expressed, for instance by Eusebius of Caesarea and Epiphanius of Cyprus, and by a sect within the Armenian Church (the first group-protest the members of which eventually seceded to the heretical Paulicians), but contrary to the condemnation of the sixth-century Severus at the fifth session of Nicaea II there is evidence that the monophysites did use icons. 8 The opponents of icons in the pre-iconoclastic period usually derived support from the Mosaic prohibition against graven images (Exodus 20:4-5) and stressed the Christian emphasis on worship in spirit and in truth. Obviously use of material media could, and did, lead to idolatry, and the tenacious survival of pagan and non-Jewish practice is vividly illustrated by the golden bull set up and worshipped by a group of peasant monks in Egypt as late as the fourth century. But the Christological argument for and against icons was not really developed until the eighth century and then not in the opening stages of the conflict.



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