As for the appeal of icons to popular sentiment, perhaps this was best understood by local Soviet commanders in the 1930s: when they were ordered to campaign against the influence of the Church, they were known to line up icons, sentence them to death, and then shoot them.
Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire, by Judith Herrin
Lighting a candle, burning incense, all in front of an image. This was not something developed in Christendom. It was an ancient practice – an ancient way of showing respect. Images were set up on alters, decorated with flowers; prayers were offered for medical cures.
The earliest Christians would not offer such practice to the Roman images – just one more reason for persecution. But, as time went on, Christian images would gradually replace pagan ones. Christ, the Virgin, and various saints took over the role.
Pagan images were likely models for the subsequent Christian ones: Isis, a model for the Mother of God; Zeus for Christ. This actually worked out well for the pagans, who could pretend that they were venerating Christ when in fact they were venerating the other guy.
From where dd the dominance of this practice in Byzantium come from? There is a story that St. Luke had painted the Virgin and Child. And all later copies were endowed with authentic power. It was believed that in some way, the icon captured the essence of the holy person depicted.
Large eyes captured attention and Christians offered their total devotion. Icons could serve as intercessors – prayers directed to the icon would pass through to the person depicted.
Of course, stories could be told through the images as well; not a small thing. Eventually, images would find their way onto coinage. Given the craft and quality of materials, some icons would be seen as valuable works of art and evidence of the superiority of the Byzantine culture.
Then, the great debate. In the period from 730 to 843, the battle over icons. This can be captured via the following two quotes:
The falsely called “icon” neither has its existence in the tradition of Christ, of the Apostles, or the Fathers, nor is there any prayer of consecration to transpose it from the state of being common to the state of being sacred. Instead, it remains common and worthless, as the painter made it.
- Definition of the Iconoclast Council of 754
The making and worship of icons is no new invention, but the ancient tradition of the church… it is impossible for us to think without using physical images…by the bodily sight we reach spiritual contemplation. For this reason Christ assumed both soul and body, since man is fashioned from both.
- St John of Damascus, eighth century
Iconoclasm is one of the few Byzantine words still in English and European usage: “breaking the icons.” The commandment prohibiting the making or worshiping of graven images comes to the fore: God is, after all, a jealous God.
But it seems this wasn’t really the driving force. Getting consistently routed by the Muslims seemed to play a more significant role. Icons had no role in Islam; the Muslims were routing the iconophile, “idol worshipping,” Christians; the icons are failing the Christians. Perhaps the Muslims are succeeding because they don’t worship idols.
Between 695 and 717, there had been a succession of six rather ineffective Byzantine rulers. In this turmoil, there was little serious attention played to the Arab expansions. Only in 717, with the successful defense of Constantinople against the Arab siege, was the onslaught halted.
With time now to breath, questions were asked: why did God give such triumph to the Arabs? On what cause did the Byzantine Christians bring on divine disapproval? Then, in 726, a great volcanic eruption in the Aegean, giving birth to a new island. The sky was darkened for days. What was the cause? The emperor’s advisors suggested that this was a warning against idolatry – the excessive veneration of icons.
In 730, Emperor Leo ordered church leaders to remove icons. The patriarch didn’t agree, and he was dismissed. The pope, meanwhile, disagreed with Leo as well. By the time Leo died in 741, he had achieved a decisive defeat of the Arabs – perhaps a sign that removing the icons returned God’s favor.
Advancing to the year 780. Emperor Leo IV died, leaving Empress Irene in authority. She would reverse the iconoclast policy. New councils were called, disruptions by iconoclast bishops, eventually the reversal formalized. The chief argument: the Incarnation of the Son of God made veneration (not worship) of images appropriate. All iconoclast texts were to be destroyed.
It isn’t that Irene was pious. She saw the return to veneration of icons as a means through which she would seize and maintain control. She was eventually overthrown in a coup by her finance minister, having reigned longer than her husband before her.
Leo V would follow, and iconoclasm would return. Once again, military victories would follow – at least somewhat. In 842, Theopolis would die, leaving Empress Theodora in control. Once again, an empress would reverse the policy of iconoclasm. Once again, all iconoclast texts would be destroyed. All previous iconoclast heretics would be condemned – all except for Theodora’s deceased husband, Theopolis. I guess she cut a deal.
The position was never again challenged. Well, until the Reformation.