From the Synaxarion of the First Sunday of Great Lent
On this day, the first Sunday of Great Lent, we celebrate the restoration of the holy and venerable icons by the ever memorable rulers of Constantinople, the Emperor Michael and his mother, the Empress Theodora, during the patriarchate of St. Methodius the Confessor.
The iconoclastic period is a confusing and curious era in the history of Byzantium and a bitter struggle in the history of the Orthodox Church. The discussion of this issue is quite valid today as the Orthodox Church is once more besieged by modern-day Iconoclasts in the form of different Christian sects.
What is Iconoclasm and where did it come from? To answer this we need to take a brief look at the time and people involved.
Leo III and Constantine the V
The general political environment in mid 8th century Byzantium contributed to the Iconoclast problem. Byzantium was besieged by the Arabs to the south and East and by the Bulgars to the North. Worthy to note, Iconoclasm did not originate in Byzantium but rather in the Christian lands in the East ruled by the Arabs. Early in the 7th Century the Caliph Yezid II commanded that all religious imagery in Churches be destroyed in the lands he controlled. Further, Leo III, who was likely from Syria, seems to have had a peculiar admiration for Arab culture, earning him the nickname of the Saracen-minded, which suggests a potential influence in religious belief.
Iconoclasm seems to have been born in the eastern provinces of the Byzantine Empire. In particular, these provinces proved to a breeding ground for iconoclasm due to a strong Muslim influence, resulting from the strengthening of the Arab dynasty in Syria under the Umayyad Caliphate; a strong Jewish influence, which clearly saw icons as a broach against the laws of the Torah; and the heretical trends of the Nestorians and Monophysites. Interesting to note, the so-called Oriental Orthodox still adhere to these two heresies. The empire had only recently quelled many Christological controversies, such as advocated in the form of the Monophysite, Miaphysite, and Monothelete errors. Though rebuked by emperors and the Church, the fires still smoldered in areas of the empire. Concerning these earlier struggles, some scholars have argued that the seed for much of this trouble was planted by Arius, the arch-heretic, in his teachings against the divinity of Christ, which was promulgated in the early 4th century. This problem led to other Christological controversies in Byzantium from the 4th-8th centuries and their proponents grasped onto Iconoclasm.
Both of the emperors, Leo III and Constantine V, were able administrators and courageous soldiers. Historically, they did much to secure the borders of the empire. During their respective reign, many famous military campaigns ended in great victory, assuring them the support of the powerful military. Many of the loyal soldiers and perhaps even the emperors saw their victories as rewards for their religious policies. It is important to note that all was not peaceful on the home front as there were several challenges to their authority in the form of revolts and the eruption of civil war as the general populace was not pleased with their theology.
There would be longer lasting repercussions During the reign of these two emperors, relations with Rome soured and Byzantine influence in northern Italy was permanently lost, due greatly to the Iconoclast policy. Both emperors assumed political as well as spiritual authority. In fact Leo III even referred to himself and priest and emperor. This zeal led to church councils whose goal was to increase the emperors position on the legality of iconoclasm. Emperor Leo III went to great lengths to attempt to legitimize his position. The middle of the eighth century also witnessed the rise to power of other Kings in western Europe, who would offer support and protection to the Pope. The die were cast for the Great Schism as East and West sailed on different courses. This estrangement also led to differences of theology. The western Church did advocate the relevance of icons in the Church but became confused in its understanding, as we see in the relationship between Pope and Charlemagne.
It is rather remarkable to consider the lasting effects of Arianism – the weakening of the empire, particularly the eastern provinces, which opened the doors to Islam; the rise of Iconoclasm; souring of relations with the west; and great interference in Church life and administration by the emperor.
What began as opinions against the veneration of icons under Leo III became an all-out war against the Orthodox Church under Constantine V. During his reign, the persecution of those who venerated icons and the destruction of icons escalated to include attacks on monasticism, veneration of sacred relics, and the veneration of Saints. The reputation of the emperor is soiled in eternity as his policies earned him the unflattering name of Copronymous, meaning the dung-minded.
We can look back at the mistakes and sins of that age with great remorse and regret, for the great empire of the Eastern Romans inflicted mortal blow upon mortal blow to its very existence. In spite of its best efforts, by the Grace of God, the empire continued for another 600 years, thus vouchsafing the existence of Christianity in Western Civilization.