The Icon Controversy

By Paul Shunamon

Icons represent two aspects we must consider. Simply regarded as art, no one has an issue with their production or display, but as an object of veneration there has been unending debate and disagreement.

In my opinion, the very fact that they have caused so much division is matter enough for them to be considered something we should not use. Others have expressed the notion that in the Middle Ages so many of the populace could not read that devices like these, statues, and even the Rosary Beads, served as mnemonic devices to remind people of persons, events, and teachings.

Gregory the Great wrote to Iconoclast bishop, Serenus of Marseilles, saying:
Not without reason has antiquity allowed the stories of saints to be painted in holy places. And we indeed entirely praise thee for not allowing them to be adored, but we blame thee for breaking them. For it is one thing to adore an image, it is quite another thing to learn from the appearance of a picture what we must adore. What books are to those who can read, that is a picture to the ignorant who look at it; in a picture even the unlearned may see what example they should follow; in a picture they who know no letters may yet read. Hence, for barbarians especially a picture takes the place of a book. (Ep. ix,105, in P. L., LXXVII, 1027)
Despite that good intention, the truth is that Icons were religious images often used for prayer, devotion, and for many even worship. This of course caused many to remain in protest against their implementation. I myself have seen old school Catholics genuflect, kneel, and pray to the saint such an image represents asking the saint to do some miraculous thing for them or asking them for a grace that we know only God can provide and having the full expectation that the alleged saint would and could perform the task or grant the wish they would ask. In defense of the official position however I saw a priest at Holy Cross church correct a woman once and instruct her to pray the saint would ask the Lord to grant their request. The priest explained that the saints are all still alive and this would be like asking members of our local church to also pray for us. But in far too many cases when this mistaken approach is used there is no correction forthcoming, and I have never heard a correction or instruction forthcoming from the pulpit, though it may be explained in their catechism classes, I do not know.

What we do know, however, is that no such devices existed in the earliest church (for the first 200-300 years). The gospel and the lessons written therein were passed via the Apostolic tradition of teaching and preaching, and mnemonic devices were not in use. Learning to read, which was always a merit in the eyes of the Jewish people, was encouraged among the early Christians.

Regarding the use of images, apparently some groups bordered on idolatry in the way they approached and treated these images. This eventually caused some to form rather cultic groups dedicated to certain representations. The heated reactions on both sides of the issue seems to have reached a peak in the time of Leo III when he publicly took a position strongly opposing icons. As a result of the Iconoclasts on the one hand (people adamantly and sometimes militantly opposed to Icons), and those insisting on their use and allowance on the other, the period known as the Iconoclast Controversy caused social and cultural upheaval and even inflamed powerful political controversies. Some say Leo III saw the volcanic eruption of 736 AD (in the Aegean Sea) as a sign from God, and made a point of forcing their removal and destruction. The whole affair lasted over 100 years (from about 717-867 AD).

Politically at the time, the renunciation of Icons was good for the peace of the Empire. Their mere presence, let alone seeing parishioners pray to them, bow down to them, or reverently kiss them, incited the Jews and Muslims. The continued removal and destruction of Icons brought much more toleration between the different groups, and from a political view this was good. The Emperor Constantine V could only support the action. In fact, it was Constantine V himself who expressed the opinion that because Christ was both God and man united without separation, any depiction of Christ not only misrepresented His actual appearance, but asserted His human nature.

Iconophiles (those who supported them), like John of Damascus and others, argued images do not speak to natures and even those of Christ only indicate the reality of a concrete person who in this case is Jesus, the Messiah, incarnate Son of God. The images therefore were used to convey the memory of the one represented to inspire worship but never to be worshipped. The first phase of Iconoclasm ended with the 7th Ecumenical Council which found in favor of the Iconophiles (787 AD), but when Leo V became Emperor around 814 AD he once again incited the controversy condemning them which lasted until in 843 AD wen the wife of Emperor Theophilus, after his death, reinstated the use and adoration of Icons based on the decision of the very same 7th Ecumenical council. Since then they have remained a part of the Orthodox Church and Roman Catholics have continued to make stained glass images and produced statues for religious use.

Image Credit: gunthersimmermacher; untitled; Creative Commons

TagsControversial-Issues  |  History-Apologetics  |  Other-Religions  |  Theological-Beliefs

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Published 1-23-17