Iconoclastic Controversy

(Gr. eikonoklastems, “image-breaker”). The dispute involving church and state over the presence of paintings, mosaics, and statues in churches, in the period from 717 to 843. Though early councils (e.g., that of Elvira) had prohibited pictures in churches, their usage became widespread between 400 and 600. It was claimed that pictures of the martyrs would teach the illiterate to follow their good examples. The veneration of pictures, however, had its opponents such as Epiphanius.*

In 717 Leo III,* the Isaurian, acceded to the imperial throne and in 725 legislated against image-worship. His motivation is not clear, but it was possibly affected by his knowledge of Muslim opposition to images and by a desire to gain greater control over the church. His legislation was rejected in Rome by Gregory II* as heretical, and the latter's successor, Gregory III, called a council of ninety-five bishops in 731 to confirm this position. John of Damascus* also wrote against Iconoclasm. This action did not stop Leo and his successor Constantine V in their crusade against images. In 753 Constantine summoned a council to meet at Hieria, near Chalcedon; this resulted in a full condemnation of images by the 338 bishops present. Iconodules were accused of circumscribing the divinity of Christ and of confusing his two natures by the veneration of pictures of Him.

The Seventh Ecumenical Council of Nicea (787), however, guided by the empress Irene and the patriarch Tarasius* (both iconodules) reversed the decisions of Hieria. Icons were justified by reference to the tradition of the church through quotations from the Fathers. When Leo the Armenian became emperor in 813, though opposed by the patriarch Nicephorus,* he reverted to the policy of Leo III, and at an assembly of bishops in Sancta Sophia in 815 had the decrees of Hieria restored. His successors, Michael and Theophilus, continued the policy of Iconoclasm, but after the latter's death his widow, Theodora, restored the use of icons. She caused a “feast of orthodoxy” to be instituted on the first Sunday in Lent in 843, and arranged the return of the exiled iconodules. This marked the end of imperial support for Iconoclasm.

The writings and records of the councils of the Iconoclasts were destroyed, thus our knowledge of them is drawn from what their opponents said. The theological significance of the controversy was threefold: it caused a development of thinking about the use of icons and of sacramental theology; it emphasized the importance of tradition in the church; and (in the West) it strengthened the papacy. Iconoclasm has often reappeared in European history, with Carlstadt,* Luther's colleague, an example of a fervent Iconoclast.

E.J. Martin, A History of the Iconoclastic Controversy (1930); E. Bevan, Holy Images (1940); P.J. Alexander, The Patriarch Nicephorus of Constantinople (1958); E. Gilson, The Arts and the Beautiful (1965).