An Overview of the Iconoclastic Controversy

~740 AD - A coin showing Emperor Leo III with his wife. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The imperial leader of the initial iconoclastic outbreak was the Roman (Byzantine) Emperor, Leo III, who put forth a series of official decrees in opposition to icons.  Officially, it was in the year 726 that “Leo III introduced iconoclasm” (Andrew Louth, Greek East and Latin West,   p. 82).  Leo, however, was not a theological trailblazer.  While he was a political official who propagated iconoclasm throughout the empire, he was not the formulator of iconoclastic ideology.  To identify the sources of the iconoclastic outbreak, we must look a little deeper.

The ideology of iconoclasm may be likened to a number of isolated muddy streams, converging into a river of heresy.  Iconoclasm sprang from multiple anti-Christian sources, and found their nexus in the person of Emperor Leo.

In the 8th century, the religion of Islam supplied one of the major forces in favor of iconoclasm.  A notable example of this pressure came from the caliph Iezid II (720-724), who “ordered the destruction of all pictures in Christian churches within his dominions” (Edward James Martin, A History of the Iconoclastic Controversy, p. 23).  Considering the warring relations consistently endured by nations bordering the Muslims, it is not difficult to imagine why an unscrupulous state official (such as the Emperor) might think it advantageous to proactively destroy certain elements likely to cause friction with neighboring aggressors.

A second source of iconoclastic heresy was of Monophysite origin.  As early as the 5th century, a Monophysite bishop of Hierapolis had forbidden his diocese to have images of either saints or angels.  And in the late 6th century, the case of Serenus of Marseilles provided examples of icon-destruction which fueled the controversy-to-come over a century later.

A third bastion of pre-Leo iconoclasm was the Nestorian church, though their relative exclusion from the Roman (Byzantine) Empire make them unlikely candidates for influencing Leo.

Perhaps one of the strongest sources of Leo’s iconoclasm was the Paulician sect, a strongly iconoclastic group which flourished “in the very region of South-Eastern Asia Minor from which Leo’s family sprung” (Martin, p. 24).

An additional source of iconoclastic tendencies was found within a puritanical section of the Orthodox Church itself, among clergy who anticipated the iconoclastic controversy’s second-commandment objection against icons-as-idols. Episcopal examples of this iconoclastic tendency were Constantine of Nacolia in Phrygia, and Thomas, bishop of Claudiopolis, both of whom were reprimanded by the Patriarch in the early 8th century.

Dura Europos Synagogue ~ 244 A.D.

Dura Europos Synagogue ~ 244 A.D.

This puritanical section of the Church exemplified a thread of thinking which had various adherents ever since early Christianity had severed its ties with Judaism. Even though Jewish synagogues were covered with icons of saints and angels, they denied the Incarnation of Christ, and they were therefore opposed to making any images of the Deity.  This strand of thought did find some traction among pre-Nicea-II Orthodox clergy.  As Dr. Martin suggests, “What the Emperor [Leo] did in 725 was to make a public declaration of policy on a question which had long been agitated” (Martin, p. 26).

All of these influences, whether Muslim, Monophysite, Nestorian, Paulician or puritanical, to a greater or lesser extent, coalesced to form a heretical underground zeitgeist which eventually came to a head in the infamous Isaurian Emperor, Leo III.

In 726, Emperor Leo III made a public declaration of his opposition to icons.  “He followed this action with the symbolic gesture of destroying an image of Christ” (Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church, p. 231).  This action provoked outrage and rioting, as well as condemnation from the Patriarch Germanus of Constantinople.  Leo responded to the rioting harshly, though “none were executed” among this initial iconophile resistance (Martin, p. 32).

St. John of Damascus wrote three treatises which continue to be the Orthodox Church's definitive exposition of the theology of icons.

Over the remainder of Leo’s reign, the theological polemic matured on both sides.  This development was significant, because prior to the 8th century, “the Christological argument for and against icons was not really developed” (J.M. Hussey, The Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire, p. 34). Initially, the iconoclast’s arguments predominantly centered on iconophiles’ alleged violation of the second commandment. The Orthodox position, on the other hand, was multifaceted, and was preeminently articulated by St. John of Damascus.  Around the years 726, 730, and 732, he composed a series of three treatises “On The Divine Images”.  St. John presented the Orthodox position so clearly and thoroughly that “every subsequent writer repeated his arguments and authorities” (Martin, p. 35).  In fact, the question of idolatrous worship “is examined by St. John of Damascus so thoroughly and so finally that the argument about idolatry was felt by the Iconoclasts themselves to lack conviction and was practically replaced by a new one based on Christology” (Martin, p. 116). This is a point often overlooked by iconoclastic Protestants, who too quickly assume that their reservations regarding the second commandment were shared by most 8th/9th century Iconoclasts … when in fact even many Iconoclasts largely bent under the force of St. John’s arguments.  Not only throughout the iconoclastic controversy, but even down to the present day, St. John’s Three Treatises remains a definitive work.

- Emperor Constantine V "Copronymus" - His "lust confounded the eternal distinction of sex and species, and he seemed to extract some unnatural delight from the objects most offensive to human sense." (Gibbon, Decline & Fall)

Leo’s son, Emperor Constantine V Copronymus, carried iconoclasm to a new level.  He circulated among the bishops a number of theological papers called “Inquiries” or “Peuseis” (Louth, p. 55). Constantine argued against icons both negatively (claiming that they were a violation of the second commandment), and positively (suggesting that the Eucharist served as a true image of Christ, as an alternative to icons).  After this initial iconoclastic propaganda storm, a synod was called in 754, in the palace of Hiereia.  This synod anathematized the veneration of icons, and deemed itself an “Ecumenical Council”, despite the fact that the synod was neither attended nor ratified by a single patriarchal see.  “The see of Constantinople was vacant,” and the patriarchs from Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Rome were “not present either in person or by deputy” (Martin, p. 46). Reminiscent of the heretical Second Council of Ephesus held in 449, Hieria’s claims to ecumenicity were groundless assertions lacking any substantial evidence. Notably, many of the bishops in attendance at the synod of Hieria later recanted, and supported Nicea II.

Constantine’s iconoclastic theology was fueled by his defective view of the Incarnation. As Dr. Martin notes, “[Constantine’s] Christology . . . is Monophysite, sublimating Christ” (Martin, p. 43).  Additional evidence of Constantine’s faulty Christology is his rejection of the word “Theotokos” (Martin. p. 49).  Indeed, it was rampantly faulty Christology which necessitated the calling of the first Six General Councils. And the same issue raged in the Church’s anticipation of the Seventh.  As Dr. Martin has noted, “We may, indeed, go so far as to trace the whole Iconoclastic movement at least indirectly to Monophysite influences” (Martin, p. 127).

Saint Stephen the New of Mount Auxentius

During the controversy, the monasteries proved to be particularly strong bastions of Orthodoxy, and their heavy resistance incited Constantine’s wrath upon monks.  Beginning with the martyrdom of Stephen of Mount Auxentius, a concerted persecution of the iconodule monks proceeded for a full decade, only coming to an end upon the death of Constantine V.

In 775, Constantine V’s throne was succeeded by his son, Leo IV.  Leo continued the iconoclastic policies of his father.  Five years later, Leo IV died, leaving behind the young child Constantine VI, under the regency of Empress Irene.

The Empress Irene

With Irene the first wave of iconoclasm ended. “In the first year of her regency she restored the images and the monks” (Martin, p. 86). Her pinnacle came in 787, with the convocation of the Seventh Ecumenical Council in the city of Nicea. The Patriarch Paul had abdicated, and had suggested an Ecumenical Council was needed to heal the iconoclastic rift. The Empress Irene “wrote to the Pope requesting a General Council” (Martin. p. 88), and she chose a layman named Tarasius—the chief Imperial secretary—to succeed Paul. He became Patriarch on Christmas day, 784.  He corresponded with the bishop ofRome, and with the three eastern Patriarchates of Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem, calling for a Seventh General Council.

Nicea II - The 7th Ecumenical Council

The Second Council of Nicea was held in 787, and was presided over by Patriarch Tarasius.  Two Eastern monks were in attendance as delegates of Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem.  And Rome had two delegates in attendance as well.  Thus the Seventh Ecumenical Council was far removed from the synod of Hieria, which had enjoyed no Patriarchal support whatsoever.  Nicea-II officially anathematized iconoclasm, and directly employed many of the same Scriptural proofs and historical arguments which St. John of Damascus had penned in his Three Treatises.  Among the chief declarations of the Council was that icon veneration involved no idolatry, because the honor paid to the image is passed on to the original. The Council determined that icon veneration was not merely permissible, but was in fact mandated for all.  The Council’s definition was approved and signed by 309 episcopal delegates, and the session “closed with the traditional applause” (Martin. p. 104).  Orthodox Christology had won the day.  The Seventh Council was “the logical sequel to Chalcedon” (Martin. p. 108).

In 802, the Empress Irene was “deposed by a court coup” and was replaced by Nikephoros, who “did not turn out to be much of an improvement” (Louth, p. 119).  In 811, Nikephoros was killed in the Bulgar campaign.  In 812, Michael acceded to the throne, only to be deposed the following year by Leo V “the Armenian”.  In 815, the second wave of iconoclasm struck the Empire, when Leo V reintroduced iconoclasm as imperial policy.

Emperor Leo V

Initially, Emperor Leo V did not utterly ban the use of all images.  He proposed to “remove the pictures in positions low enough to permit gross acts of adoration, accepting those in higher positions as useful illustrations of Christianity” (Martin, p. 165).  The Patriarch Nicephorus, however, stood firm and would not budge.  After encountering consistent resistance from the iconodules, the Emperor forbade the monks to meet together, and he ordered them to stop preaching.  Leo V eventually deposed the Patriarch, as well.  He replaced him with a married layman named Theodotus, who inaugurated his Patriarchate with “games, laughter, quips, and buffoonery”, and also with a banquet where he encouraged bishops and monks to violate the canons by consuming flesh meat (Martin, p. 170).

Theodotus was so odious to the clergy that he was soon deposed.  After his replacement was enthroned, a new local church council was called.  A number of monastic leaders were invited, but they protested any attempt to reverse the decision of Nicea II.

As iconoclastic resolutions go, the decision of this council was of the mild variety.  While affirming iconoclastic sentiments and practices, the council’s definition conceded, “We refrain from speaking of them [icons] as idols” (Martin, p. 173).  The charge of idolatry, as well as the utter prohibition of images, had been discarded.

For the most part, the theological acumen of the Iconoclasts was vastly lower during the second wave of iconoclasm, than it had been during the first wave.  The notable exception was John the Grammarian, who was an avid iconoclastic apologist.  From a theological perspective, “The doctrine of the Incarnation continued on both sides to be the central subject of the controversy” (Martin, p. 189).  The iconodules espoused Orthodox Christology, while the iconoclasts frequently displayed a Monophysite bent.

Empress Theodora and the Triumph of Orthodoxy - 843 A.D.

In 820, Leo V was assassinated, and Michael II ascended the throne.  Nine years later, Michael was succeeded by Theophilus. After years of iconoclastic decline, the Emperor Theophilus died in 842, leaving behind his three-year-old son, Michael.  Theodora, the Empress-mother, acceded the throne.  She had been a fervent iconodule for years, and had taught all of her children accordingly.  Over the next year, she set the stage for another local council, which overturned iconoclasm for good, and upheld the decision of Nicea II.  On the first Sunday in Lent, 843, the restoration of Orthodoxy was celebrated.  To this day, we celebrate this “Sunday of Orthodoxy” every year, in remembrance of Orthodoxy’s triumph over the iconoclastic heresy.

About Fr Joseph Gleason

I serve as a priest at Christ the King Orthodox Mission in Omaha, Illinois, and am blessed with eight children and one lovely wife. I contribute to On Behalf of All, a simple blog about Orthodox Christianity. I also blog here at The Orthodox Life.
This entry was posted in 753 A.D. - Hieria, 787 A.D. - Nicea II, Church History, Icons, Prayers to Angels & Saints, Sculpture. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to An Overview of the Iconoclastic Controversy

  1. Wow! Excellent overview and great information. I love the way it was laid out. Thank you!

  2. Jon Marc Teusink says:

    Was the Monophysitism associated with the Greeks’ iconoclasm genuine Monophysitism or of the Christology taught by Sts. Cyril and Severus? If the latter, then how fascinating for it to become associated with iconoclasm amongst the Greeks! Icons are well represented in Syriac, Armenian, and Malankara Orthodoxy, and are as prevalent in Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodoxy as they are in Greek Orthodoxy.

    • St. Cyril was not a Monophysite. And Severus was not a saint. To the contrary, the Church condemned him as a heretic. This article does not say that all Monophysites were iconoclasts. Rather, this article simply observes that many iconoclasts were Monophysite. “As early as the 5th century, a Monophysite bishop of Hierapolis had forbidden his diocese to have images of either saints or angels. And in the late 6th century, the case of Serenus of Marseilles provided examples of icon-destruction which fueled the controversy-to-come over a century later.” And during the iconoclastic controversy itself, many of the chief iconoclastic leaders were Monophysites, including Constantine V “Copronymus”, and John the Grammarian. While I believe that their errant Christology helped fuel their iconoclasm, I agree that not all Monophysites are iconoclasts. I am aware that there is a rich iconographic tradition within the Coptic and Ethiopian churches.

      • Vincent says:

        Coptics and Ethiopians are not Monophysite, so we shouldn’t expect to find Iconoclasm among them (being Miaphysites, a position recognized as Orthodox by the Church today).

        However, among the Assyrian Church of the East and the Armenian Apostolic Church, there is a much different sentiment, if I recall, refusing to call Mary “Theotokos” even.

      • Regardless of whether they are “Monophysites” or “Miaphysites”, they are still not Orthodox. If being Miaphysites truly made them Orthodox, then they would accept Chalcedon, and the schism would be healed. But they refuse to accept Chalcedon. I believe this is proof that their Christology is still errant, and that there is still a significant gulf between Coptics and the Orthodox. If we are going to be serious about Orthodoxy, then we need to hold firmly to the Seven Ecumenical Councils. And we need to expect others to do the same.

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  6. orthodoxchristian2 says:

    This is a very interesting post. I personally adore icons! They are indeed portals into Heaven! And I greatly venerate St John of Damascus, too! And yes, to be truly Orthodox, one must accept all the ecumenical councils, from the first to the seventh. Though the rift between Eastern Orthodox Christians and Oriental Orthodox Miaphysites is complicated, though. But I know for sure that the Eastern Orthodox Church is in the right, that’s for sure!

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  8. savinabean says:

    I really found this article incite-full! It was very detailed and it went into a lot of depth.

  9. njoku remigius u john says:

    In the violent opposition, we should try to persevere and hold our faith firmly for the battle belongs to God. Well done! Our Patriarchs who fought the battle on faith and the price.

  10. Andrei says:

    in the first image is leo and his son, not his wife

  11. Andrei says:

    the teaching of saint damascene on the icon isn.t the last point of view of the church. this place belong.s to st Theodor the studite.

    sorry for the bad english

  12. Tim says:

    Notice how the idols were restored by two women, females who acceded to the throne. Athaliah of old was the same. Those who are ruled by women are cursed.

    • In Holy Scripture, read Judges 4-5. God’s people were ruled by Deborah. She was a righteous, godly judge. Also read about the godly exploits of righteous Queen Esther. And consider the exalted Queen in Revelation 12. It is also noteworthy that wicked kings were destroyed by godly women such as Jael and Judith. Throughout Scripture, God enables faithful women to destroy the power of evil. These are all examples of holy women treading on the head of the serpent, reversing the error of Eve.

      Saints Irene and Theodora fit into the same category. Irene means “peace”, and Theodora means “gift of God”. Both empresses lived up to their holy names.

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