What are icons?
Icons are images of Jesus, the enthroned Madonna, saints, angels, and sometimes Biblical narratives. They are most commonly paintings, such as tempera on wood.
In the seventh century icons were increasingly used in Eastern Christianity liturgically and for personal devotion. By the eighth century they had become an issue of considerable controversy. One party, the iconoclasts, declared that icons violated God's commandment against graven images; venerating icons was a form of idolatry. It was a mistake to think that they were holy things, because they were manufactured by people, not consecrated by God, or by God's ordained agents. The other party, the iconophiles (or iconodules), pointed out that that commandment predated the Incarnation, when Christ's flesh became an icon of God's invisible nature, a worldly form participating in a reality not of this world. This theology was based on the Platonism which had influenced the great Eastern theologians such as Origen and the Cappadocian theologians; for Plato, the visible things of this world are subordinate realities which participate in forms of an eternal nature. In this theology, icons participated in some measure in the essence of what they represented, and therefore were links to Christ, and merited veneration.
Iconophiles had many proofs of the power of icons. For instance, in 626, an icon of Christ protected Constantinople from a Persian army. On the other hand, Iconoclasts had an equal number of proofs of the powerlessness of icons. In the 720s Byzantine armies, despite their icons, suffered many defeats at the hands of Arab armies. What if God were favouring Muslims because they, unlike the Christians, were obeying the commandment against making graven images of anything in earth? Which coins were more pleasing to God, the Byzantine ones with the image of Christ, or the Muslim ones without anyone's image at all?
For two historical periods (726 787; 814 842) the iconoclasts had the upper hand, and banned icons; at other points the iconophiles had the upper hand, but the iconophiles were finally victorious in 843. Icons became the chief sacred objects in the East (as relics continued to be in the West). Orthodox Christians venerated them and prayed to them as intercessors with God. They could ward off danger. Icons were instruments of teaching and sources of inspiration. They were used in church buildings, especially on the screen (iconostasis) separating the congregation from the sanctuary. They were also used in homes in a place of prayer. They were used liturgically in worship, for instance in processions. For many they replaced the Eucharist as the focus of devotion.
Examples of icons
Because the iconoclast emperors ordered the destruction of icons, it's extremely hard to find any examples before 843. One of the few is shown above to the left:"Virgin and Child enthroned between saints and angels," from about CE 600,found in the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai, Egypt. It's a little over two feet high, and is encaustic on panel. (Encaustic is a style of painting using pigments dissolved in hot wax. It was not used after the iconoclastic controversy.) It doesn't look particularly Byzantine, and it's apparently inspired from other (unknown) sources. This is the earliest known portrait of Madonna and Child.
This mosaic of the virgin and child enthroned (right) is the oldest surviving mosaic in Hagia Sophia. It must be later than 843, but earlier than 867 when it was shown at the Festival of Orthodoxy of that year. Note the human quality and natural poses, along with the colour, all representative of the best of Byzantine art (Janson, History of Art, rev. 6th ed., p. 257).
The politics of icons
Icons were particularly (though not universally) promoted by the monks, whose numbers, power, and financial influence steadily increased in the seventh and later centuries. Many devout Christians donated or willed estates and other property to the monasteries. One aspect of the iconoclastic movement was that it pitted the iconoclastic emperors against the monks. The iconoclastic emperors who removed icons sometimes promoted portraits of themselves instead.
The politics of Byzantine relations with Islam probably also influenced the iconoclastic controversy. The Emperor Leo III, nicknamed the "Saracen-minded," was friendly to Islamic culture.
Icons increased the divergence between Eastern Christian spiritualitly and Western Christian spirituality. Roman Christianity didn't particularly resonate to either side of the iconoclastic controversy. On the one hand, Roman Christians didn't like the idea of destroying devotional images, which moved them to oppose the official imperial iconoclasm which marked most of the late 700s and early 800s. On the other hand, it felt no need for icons as ways to connect with Christ, since the liturgical action and the bread of the Eucharist provided that connection, and, to a lesser extent, so did holy relics.
The iconoclastic controversy
Theological positions for and against icons
A theologian called Constantine of Nacolea, called by the Orthodox "the arch-heretic", initiated iconoclasm. (If you follow the link, he's mentioned in the fourth paragraph of the page, written by a Montreal-based team of Greek scholars.) Constantine argued that since the divinity of Christ could not be portrayed, no icon of Christ could begin tobe accurate. A later iconoclast theologian was the learned John Grammaticus. On the iconodule side, the most important advocates were John of Damascus, Theodore the Studite, and the Patriarch Nicephorus. They argued that representing Christ in human form confirmed the Orthodox theology of the Incarnation.
Dates in the history of iconoclasm
►726: The Emperor Leo III (who ruled 717 741) publicly adopted iconoclasm around this date. He had privately favoured it earlier. According to one story, a huge underwater volcanic eruption and a tidal wave in that year persuaded him of God's judgment against icons. The pope in Rome and the patriarch of Constantinople disagreed with the Emperor's policy. The Emperor replaced the patriarch.
► 730: The Emperor issued an edict to destroy icons; iconodules began to be persecuted. The pope condemned the edict. The Emperor had the pope's legates imprisoned.
► 754: Emperor Leo's son, Emperor Constantine V, called a council which rejected the portrayal of Christ and the saints. All icons were ordered destroyed, being usually replaced with secular art such as portraits of the emperor and scenes of chariot-racing. Orthodoxy would later remembered the time of Constantine V as a reign of violence and terror against iconodules. Popular underground resistance mounted.
► 787: The Second Council of Nicea restored the veneration of icons. This ended what is sometimes called the First Period of Iconoclasm (726 787). Nicea II is regarded in Orthodoxy as the last of the seven Ecumenical Councils. It was convened by the Empress Irene, Constantine V's daughter-in-law (the widow of his son, the Emperor Leo IV). This strong and effective leader (pictured here), an iconodule from Athens, was regent for her minor son, and then empress in her own right (780 802).
► 815: Leo V "the Armenian" (813 820), Asian and iconoclast in his outlook, called a synod in Constantinople in 815 which repudiated Nicea II and reconfirmed the iconoclast council of 754. Icons were again ordered removed. Even before the Council, Leo V had been favouring the iconoclasts, and hence the Second Iconoclastic Period is dated 814 842.
► 821: The Emperor Michael II (820-829), "the Stammerer," who was an iconoclast in his personal views but had little taste for persecution, pardoned the assertive iconophile theologian Theodore the Studite, who had been banished. (It wasn't long before Theodore was in trouble again.)
► 837: John Grammaticus, an iconoclast known for his scholarship, became patriarch. The emperor Theophilus (829 842) resumed the persecution of iconodules with cruelty. When icons were restored, it was necessary to depose John Grammaticus as patriarch, which was a challenging action to justify theologically or legally.
► 843: Theodora II, the widow of Theophilus, regent for the minor Michael III (842-867), called a synod restoring the veneration of icons. (Whle married to Theophilus, Theodora venerated icons in her private chamber.) The synod of 843 stated that icons may be venerated, though not worshipped.
The Triumph of Orthodoxy
Theodora's Synod of 843 is the final event in the iconoclastic controversy, and is called "The Triumph of Orthodoxy" in the East. The Synod decreed that its decisions should be celebrated every year, and the chief document of the Synod, which is called the Synodikon, is read out (at least in part, and in some version or another) as part of the liturgy on the annual Feast of Orthodoxy, which is the first Sunday in Lent. The Synodikon gives thanks for the triumph of Orthodoxy over all heresies, and for those who led the Church against the iconoclasts; it also condemns (by name!) those who opposed icons. The Synodikon used liturgically today includes names of heresies and Orthodox leaders who lived well after 843.
The year 843 begins a cultural, artistic, and religious revival in the Byzantine Empire.
"The iconoclast crisis was a period as decisive for the spiritual development of the Byzantine Empire as the struggle against the Persian and Arab invasions had been for its political existence.... The suppression of iconoclasm brought to a close the period of the great doctrinal conflicts within Byzantium." George Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State, pp. 217-220.
In Orthodox churches after 843, the iconostasis has become the most prominent feature of the building. It's a solid screen with icons, separating the worshippers from the sanctuary. The royal door in the middle leads to the altar; an image of Christ is always at the right, and an image of Mary always at the left. There are two other doors: the deacon's door to the right, and the door for the preparation of the liturgy (proskomide) to the left. The iconostasis pictured is designed by a Serbian-Australian Orthodox Christian named Peter Stefanovic.
Mount Athos is a self-governing state on a peninsula within Greek Macedonia, near Thessaloniki. The city is about 50 km. long and 8 km. wide. It's entirely dedicated to the practice of Orthodox Christianity and is divided into the territories of twenty monasteries. About 1400 monks live there. Women and children are not allowed. The first monks came here in the 400s. It was developed as a monastic centre in the 900s.