The image controversy around orthodox icons | Iconoclasm

The Christian man of the early times thought quite differently. He refused to make the divine present in the image. Painters and sculptors were to refrain from depicting the divine, it was said at the time. This view may also have its reason in Judaism’s hostility to images. The different opinions led to tensions, especially in Byzantium, which was rich in people, and from which a dispute ignited that was conducted with great passion. Conviction stood against conviction; the iconodules, the image worshippers, fought against the iconoclasts, the opponents of image worship. The question of images had been simmering since the 4th century. There were voices for image worship and voices against it. The most famous churchmen of the time discussed it with each other and commented on it in writings, such as St. Augustine (354-430) and especially St. John Chrysostom (344-407). Both show a positive attitude towards the. The artists of the time, however, did not yet fundamentally deal with the veneration of images.

There are three outstanding teachers of the Eastern Church who were ready to accept Christian image-making because they saw the benefit for the piety of people who did not know how to read. Moreover, the representations from the lives of saints and martyrs were able to make people be unwavering in their faith better and more forcefully than written or recited words. Basil the Great (330-379), for example, encouraged painters to summon all their skill to depict scenes vividly and artfully, dignified the characters and victorious the new faith. The lives of female saints are also depicted pictorially, such as the Passion of Saint Euphemia, from her torture by the executioners to her death by flame, which she endures without pain in the sign of the cross, in the certainty of blessed life. Gregory of Nazianzus (330-390) and Gregory of Nyssa (335-394) expressed themselves similarly to Basil. The criterion for the quality of a picture at this time is the statement, the effect of which must be so strong that genuine piety arises or is promoted in the soul of the viewer. Martyrs and saints are people who participate in the divine because of their pious lives and extra-ordinary deeds. But was this also true for Christ? The question of whether and how he should be portrayed touched on the fundamental question of Christianity, which was still open at the time: Is Christ consubstantial with God? The presbyter Arius in Alexandria (died 336) denied this question – for him Jesus was a godlike man -, the Greek church teacher Athanasius (around 293-373) affirmed it. The church assemblies of Nicaea in 325 and Constantinople in 381 proved Athanasius right and confirmed the consubstantiality of Christ and the Father. Nevertheless, among the Germanic tribes, which had become Christian, the teachings of Arius persisted until the 7th century.

But according to both the Western Roman and Eastern Roman conceptions, Christ was divine in nature, and the question now arose: Is it permissible to depict the Lord’s humanity detached from his divinity in the image? Or is the divine representable, and how can it be embraced in the image? Is it possible to fix the real figure of Christ at all, who, according to reports, appeared differently to different people, who was infinitely changeable by virtue of his divinity?

The solution was found in a compromise. The portraits of that time – frescoes, mosaics and icons – show Christ as a human appearance, but endowed with the dignity and majesty of the heavenly, whose most important symbol is the aurole, the mostly golden halo, they show him as a God-human entity. The main arguments that it was not impossible to represent God-man were the Incarnation of the Second Trinitarian Person and that passage from Genesis which says that God created man in His image. But the Church had not yet sanctioned this view. It is only centuries later that she is forced to take a stand.

The friendly attitude towards cultic or religious images according to Greek tradition and Byzantine conviction began to falter in the 8th century.

It was the Byzantine emperor Leo III who unleashed the image controversy in 730 by banning images. How can this rather sudden change of heart be explained in the otherwise so image-friendly Byzantium? Doubts about the legitimacy of artistic activity had never completely died down; they found new nourishment in the concept of Islam, which now began to spread powerfully. For some time already, the Arabs had been storming the Byzantine Empire and threatening Constantinople. In Islam, the human form of God or his prophet could only be suggested as an abstract ornament on pictures. In 720, the Caliph Jazid II had issued a strict ban on images, which also applied to the Christians in his country. He had all the images removed from their churches. The persuasive power of this young religion, which carried the new message of salvation to the peoples of Asia, Africa and Europe with sword and fire, was not without effect on Christianity, although Leo III considered the defense of Christianity against Islam as his Holy War. His decision against the images also had a political reason: he was striving for the independence of the Eastern Church from the Pope and at the same time wanted to emphasize his power, the power of the Emperor, over the Church in his empire.

Popes Gregory II and Gregory III condemned iconoclasm, the prohibition of images. The Greeks also resisted, and Byzantium in particular became the scene of this hot and bloody conflict. Imperial troops, supported by an elite Armenian force, fought against crowds of monks who used underground methods against the well-organized army. The imperial spokesman was overrun and slain in the open street by an angry crowd. The response was crowbars and poles with which the imperial and the churches and homes destroyed the images. Many followers of icon worship emigrated to lower Italy and the Crimea, creating reserves of icon painting here.

The Synod of Hiereia in 754 wanted to end the image controversy once and for all by banning images and ordered the destruction of images. But the Pope objected and deprived the law of its ecumenical effectiveness. Nevertheless, a new storm of images began in the Eastern Roman Empire. There are not many icons that escaped destruction, about 40 to 50 from the so exceedingly creative Justinianic period (6th-7th century) and the period of the iconoclastic controversy (726-842), when people had not stopped painting in secret. From the early period (4th and 5th centuries) we have not preserved any icons at all.

The controversy over images came to a temporary end with the Empress Eirene, a staunch supporter of image worship – she came from Athens – who reigned over her underage son Constantine VI and later became sole ruler. The West also took a stand on the image issue. The Synod of Frankfurt in 794, presided over by Charlemagne and attended by Pope Hadrian I, opposed both the veneration of images and the destruction of images.

The 7th Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 787, which Eirene convened together with the Patriarch of Constantinople and to which Pope Hadrian I himself did not appear, but his legates did, stated: All holy images of Jesus Christ, the Mother of God, the saints may be painted or otherwise designed and set up. Everyone may show them reverence and veneration, but without worshipping them in the actual sense, which is only due to God. This veneration does not concern the image, but the person depicted in it.

Once again the dispute seemed to be decided in favor of the iconoclasts, a synod in 815 revoked the decisions of Nicaea, but in 843 the Empress Dowager Theodora finally ended iconoclasm at a synod in Constantinople. In a solemn procession icons were carried through the streets, churches and houses were decorated anew. The enthusiasm in Constantinople was boundless, and even today, to commemorate this day, the Greek and Russian churches celebrate the “Feast of Orthodoxy,” or orthodoxy, on February 19.

The decisions of the Synod of Constantinople had even more far-reaching political consequences: They deepened the separation of the Eastern Church from Western Rome, the division of European Christendom. The Eastern Church remained the state church. In 1054 its independence from the Pope was finally sealed. Eminent churchmen had led the fight on both sides. Point by point, the Abbot Theodore, called Studita, and the Patriarch Nikephoros of Constantinople, based on the thought of John of Damascus and the statements of the Bible, refuted the arguments of the iconoclasts. Their justification of image making also simultaneously established the meaning and goal of icons for the next centuries, they created, so to speak, a theology of icons.

But in addition to their astute arguments, they also found very simple reasons: Human nature is designed to look. The people around Jesus wanted to see their Savior. We would like to get a picture of him. And by this is meant not only the simple image that captures the outward appearance, but an image that encompasses the whole holy person. And those who look at the picture, look not only with the eyes, but also with the heart.

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