The Icon Controversy in the Early Church
by Fr. Peter Orfanakos
As early as the seventh century, there existed a serious controversy concerning the matter of Icons. This controversy created a challenging problem for the Church, for within the Church, there were two different groups with two different attitudes towards Icons.
The first group of Christians felt that it was improper to use Icons in the Church. They reasoned that since Jesus Christ was Divine, He could not and should not be portrayed by an earthly image. They also were convinced that the depiction and veneration of an Image of Christ amounted to nothing more than idolatry and superstition.
They argued that the faithful would look to the Icon as an idol, and worship it rather than God Himself. They were sure that Icons would lead people into pagan practices and away from communion with Christ Himself. These people were known as Iconoclasts, which means 'Icon-breakers,' and with fiery zeal, they proceeded to fight against the presence of Icons in the Church and to rid the Church of all Images.
The second group of Christians took the opposite view, they believed that the depiction and veneration of Icons had a significant place in the religious life of the Christian community. They believed that Jesus Christ could be and should be depicted in the form of material Images.
This group reasoned that even though Jesus Christ was Divine, that He had become a real man and had truly assumed human nature. Therefore, He could be and should be portrayed or depicted in a human form. They also maintained that it was equally proper and right to love and venerate the Image of Christ. For in doing so, they were offering an expression of worship and devotion to the Person represented by the material Image.
Since they loved and reverenced Christ Himself, they saw nothing wrong with looking upon His Icon as an endearing and holy object. In fact, they felt compelled to worship Jesus Christ through the form of Icon-veneration.
These people were called Iconodules, which means 'Icon-venerators,' and with the deepest devotion, they were determined to preserve the presence of Icons within the Church and to promote the use of such Images within the Christian community.
Out of these two different and opposing positions, a passionate struggle developed. The quarrel rose to violent heights in the eighth century, when the Emperor, Leo III, aided the Iconoclasts in the destruction of Icons. Throughout this whole conflict the Church was strongly opposed to the attitude of the Iconoclasts and tried with all its might to uphold the position of the Iconodules.
Saint John of Damascus and other notable Church Fathers wrote and preached extensively in the defense of Icons, yet in spite of the Church's efforts, the terrifying conflict continued and resulted in sacrilege and desecration. Many icons were destroyed by fire and by other means. The faithful endured much ridicule and suffering and many even lost their lives in defense of Iconography.
A Struggle for Truth
Some might feel that it was rather silly to fight over the right to paint and honor a picture of Jesus Christ, but the conflict went very deep, and there was much at stake. At the bare roots of the whole battle was the struggle for truth.
An Icon is more than a mere picture. An Icon is a form of painting that bears witness to divine and religious truth. An Icon is a means of knowledge and teaching. This truth may be depicted in the form of a person or persons, or an event. Sometimes all elements are combined, never-the-less, there is always some message of revelation.
For example, an Icon of Christ and the Theotokos is a manifestation of the truth of the Incarnation (that is, the truth that God became man). Our veneration of such an Image is an act of allegiance to the Truth Himself; it is an expression of commitment to Jesus Christ and His mission.
The Icon of Pentecost, with the Holy Spirit descending on the Holy Apostles and disciples, is a depicted event that reveals another important truth in our Christian life and tradition. This truth is the fulfillment of Christ's promise to send the Spirit of Truth, and the reality of the Holy Spirit's presence in the church and in our personal life.
A Point of Spiritual Contact
An Icon also acts as a 'point of spiritual contact' between the human and divine and should be understood as something sacramental. An Icon of Christ is a material object that is consecrated by the Church to be a medium of Divine Grace, whereby we can enter into communion with our Lord and Savior. An Icon of Christ is an instrument of His personal presence.
When we pray before His Image, we stand face to face before Christ and enter into a personal relationship with Him. When we kiss His Icon, we not only show our love and respect for Him, we actually kiss Christ Himself, and thereby bestow our affection. When we light a candle before His Image, we honor Him and make an act of faith in His presence. When we kneel before His Icon, we are bowing down before Christ and worshipping Him.
An Aid to Devotion
It is true that we can experience communion with Christ without Icons. Yet Icons can deepen this experience. They can create within us a sharper awareness of the 'divine presence.' They awaken a more favorable disposition for prayer. They can evoke meditation and a deeper appreciation of God's gracious acts for our salvation. They can imprint upon our minds a more vivid image of the idea of things which are necessary for our spiritual growth.
For the Orthodox Church, the Icon has always been regarded as a valuable aid to devotion and spirituality. It has aroused love for God; it has deepened faith; it has nurtured piety; it has inspired dedication. Therefore, it has always held an endearing and significant place in the spiritual and devotional life of the Church.
Final victory in the Iconoclastic struggle was not achieved until the year 843. Nevertheless, the Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, held in Nicea in 787, defined the true Christian attitude toward Icons and succeeded in restoring them to their proper place in Christian worship. This definition is still regarded by the Orthodox Church as the correct and official pronouncement on the subject of Icons and on the true Christian attitude toward them:
"To make our confession short, we keep unchanged all the ecclesiastical traditions handed down to us, whether written or unwritten. One of these is the portrayal of painted representations, which by the way is a tradition in agreement with the message of the Gospel. For since both the painted representations and the message of the Gospel proclaim the incarnation of God the Word as being real and not as being a mere apparition, and since both benefit us in many other ways, it is then clear that they support each other and testify to each other."
"Therefore, adhering to the divinely inspired authority of our Holy Fathers and the tradition of the Catholic Church (for, as we know, this tradition is of the Holy Spirit who dwells in the Church) and following the royal procedure, we define with accuracy and certainty that the holy and venerable Icons are to be set up in the same way as the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross."
"We declare that painted Images and those in mosaic and other suitable material of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, of our undefiled Lady the Theotokos, of the honorable Angels, and of all the Saints and Holy People are to be placed in the holy Churches of God, on sacred vessels and vestments, on walls and panels, in houses and by the roadsides. For the more continually these persons are observed through such painted representations, so much the more will the observers be aroused to recollect or remember the depicted persons and to aspire after them."
"They will also be aroused, as is duly proper, to honor, reverence and salute such Images. Indeed, we do not say that people are to pay such Images the actual worship of faith which is properly due only to the Divine nature. But just as we do to the figure of the venerable and life-giving Cross, and to the Holy Book of Gospels and other sacred objects, so we must also honor Icons with the offerings of incense and candles; for such has been the pious custom of antiquity. For the honor paid to the Icon passes to its prototype, and he who venerates an Icon venerates through it the person that is depicted...."
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