Today is the first Sunday of Great Lent (the Sunday of Orthodoxy), which features a procession of icons in the liturgy. In the 700s, there was a string of three icon-hating emperors (Leo III, Constantine V, Leo IV) who persecuted the faithful who maintained the veneration of the icons. Constantine V in fact attempted to hold an ecumenical council to condemn icons (the pseudo-council of Hiereia, 754) in which 380 bishops participated but no patriarchs. When Leo IV died, his wife St. Irene became Empress and slowly restored the full use of icons and held the Council of Nicaea II (787) which condemned iconoclasm and is notable for its great leniency toward repentent iconoclast bishops. But in 813, another string of three iconclastic Byzantine emperors arose (Leo V, Michael II, Theophilus) – known as the second period of Byzantine iconoclasm. The second period again ended when after Theophilus’s death, a woman became ruler (St. Theodora) and, creating a tradition that has lasted until today, had the icons returned to the churches in a solemn procession on the first Sunday of Lent in 842. For more on history and the tradition behind icon use, see Giakalis, Ambrosios, Images of the Divine: The Theology of Icons at the Seventh Ecumenical Council, 2nd ed. (Leiden: Brill, 2005).
Biblical Notes on Icons
Jesus says that the gold of the Temple is sacred because the Temple is sacred, and the Temple is sacred because God dwells in it (Matthew 23:18, 21). Just so, icons are sacred because the saints they depict are sacred, and the saints are sacred because God dwells in them (1 Corinthians 3:16).
That icons produce miracles is not surprising given that Jews laid out their sick on the street in the hope they would be healed by being covered by St. Peter’s shadow (Acts 5:15), which as St. John Damascene points out, is a type of image. Consider also how the woman with the issue of blood is cured by simply touching Christ’s garment (Matthew 9:20).
Dogmatic and Historical Notes on Icons
The Orthodox position is that icons should always be venerated, but never worshipped with the same worship due to God alone. It may be alleged that such a distinction is ad hoc, but in fact we have an example of a bishop invoking it long before the iconoclast controversy. The sixth-century anti-Chalcedonian Patriarch of Antioch, Severus, who supported veneration of saints, chastises certain Christians who “worship the angels like gods; and again, without moderation, they go forth beyond lawful boundaries” (Homily LXXII.3), and remarks the difference between pious Christians and “those who worship angels and attach to them the glory and worship which are due to God alone” (4).
Another iconoclastic argument is: depictions of Christ are useless because each race depicts Christ differently. St. Photius gives a particularly insightful reply (PG 101:948 ff). Rather than arguing that only the Byzantines have correctly depicted Christ, he says that such differences matter no more than the fact that the Gospel has been translated into many languages. Just as the many translations all point to the same Gospel, so too do the many depictions of Christ all point to the same God-Man. He also add that the widespread use and veneration of icons among all the different races of Christians in fact confirms the antiquity of the practice.
Notes on Icons Today
During Byzantine iconoclasm, iconodules noted that icons help teach the faith and demonstrate our faith in the Incarnation. During the Third Reich in Germany, a racial anti-Semitic theology came into vogue, which denied that God became a Jewish man, thereby essentially denying the incarnation. St. Maria Skobstova (an Orthodox nun in Nazi-occupied Paris, who helped Jews escape), when asked by Nazi officials if she had any Jews in her house, would respond affirmatively and return with all the icons she had of the Theotokos and of Christ.
Not only are icons helpful teaching tools, but they are primarily sacramental. A problem that came up during the controversy in the Byzantine iconoclasm was whether it was fitting for sacraments to be kept outside of the churches – iconoclasts seemed to lean no, while the Orthodox said yes. Even today, icons help ensure that access to God is not limited to the clergy:
It was true that in all Orthodox jurisdictions all but the very lowest formal positions were held exclusively by men. Priests, monks, bishops, etc. could ask for miracles, but they could not make them. Icons, like relics, living (lay) saints, and the earnest prayers of lay believers, were considered effective sources of religious help. More than that, they were independent sources of religious authority. While they were not in competition with structural hierarchs, they are also not subordinate to them. They were accessible and responsive to lay believers, most of whom were female, and therefore gave Orthodox women alternative sources of authority and legitimacy (Weaver, Dorothy C., ‘Shifting agency: male clergy, female believers, and the role of icons’, Material Religion, 7, 3 (2011), p. 417).