Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

5. Orthodox Icons |
The veneration of icons sets Eastern Christians at war for 117 years

Orthodox Icons is drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 116, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Icons preside at horse races and become godparents until a hero-emperor calls it idolatry, orders a purge, and thousands are slain and jailed defending them

Orthodox Icons - The veneration of icons sets Eastern Christians at war for 117 years

Orthodox Icons - The veneration of icons sets Eastern Christians at war for 117 years
The Virgin Hodegetria (Indicator of the Way). Mary points to Jesus as the way to salvation, from the Icon Gallery, Ohrid, Macedonia.

Emperor Leo III, “the Isaurian,” was a magnificent soldier, accustomed to command. It was he who had so decisively defeated the enormous Muslim assault on Constantinople in 717, saving all Christendom from Islam. (See previous volume, The Sword of Islam, chapter 10.) It was he who then reformed Byzantium’s tax code, military command structure, and rural, maritime and civil laws. And it was he, who like many soldiers, conscious of the narrow gap between life and death, would attribute his triumphs to Divine Providence, and give every evidence that he meant it.

Yet, when Leo contemplated the state of the church within his own empire, everything within him rebelled at what he saw. While the rural population slowly shrank, the monasteries were bloated and running wild. Hairy, wild-eyed monks, exempt from imperial service, would jump their cloister walls and stir mobs of women into pious frenzies. The monasteries, exempt from imperial taxes, were growing ever richer, charging ignorant peasants and craftsmen to kiss and caress their most revered icons.

To Leo, icons were mere paintings of Christian faces and depictions of Christian events, harmless in themselves, but being taken to the point of idolatry. Iconolatry, it might be called. As a child in the Isaurian Mountains near the Syrian border, Leo had been exposed to Muslim and Jewish taunts that Christians were idolaters, worshiping “graven images.”

Were these charges valid? Everywhere Leo looked, there were icons: icons of the Lord, icons of his mother, icons of countless saints; icons draping churches, in shops and homes, sewn to clothes or painted on drinking cups, furniture and trinkets; icons kissed and caressed, wreathed in garlands and candles, and lathered in incense smoke. People made icons godparents at their children’s baptisms, scraped the pigment into cups as tonics for illnesses, and sang hymns to them. Icons presided at horse races. An icon of Christ dominated the Bronze Gate of Leo’s own Sacred Palace. Icons were placed in the path of fires to prevent them spreading. Icons were paraded instead of spears, to defend the walls of a city. In the Divine Liturgy, the consecrated elements must touch an icon.

Thus in the ninth year of his rule, 726, Leo the Isaurian resolved to stop it. In so doing, he set off a 117-year crisis that would pit Christians against Christians, Asians against Greeks, the Eastern Church against the Western, and soldiers against women and monks. Tens of thousands of churchmen would be deposed, exiled or killed. It would see a revered empress blind her emperor son. Two emperors would be assassinated, one executed, two forcibly made monks, one killed by attacking barbarians who made a drinking cup of his skull. When it was all over, midway through the ninth century, icons would be formally reinstated, amidst great public rejoicing, an event annually celebrated by Orthodox Christians ever since. The whole affair would create “the most serious crisis that has ever attacked Eastern Christianity,” says historian Henri Daniel-Rops (The Church in the Dark Ages), and from that day to this, the cause and fury of the conflict would remain largely incomprehensible to Western Christians.

This incomprehensibility, however, did not mean that the icon controversy was in any sense trivial or frivolous. When Leo III set the battle lines between “iconoclasts,” who condemned the use of images in worship, and “iconophiles,” who defended them, he raised a core doctrinal issue of Christianity: Can God be depicted in human terms? “Do not the Ten Commandments condemn the worship of graven images?” demanded the iconoclasts. “Yet even the Jews portrayed their religious history with images,” replied the iconophiles. “And was not the whole point of God’s becoming human to reveal himself in terms we could understand?” To which the iconoclasts replied: “Any attempt to portray Divine reality must of necessity be impossible and therefore blasphemous.” And the iconophiles responded: “Words themselves are created by man and are used to portray God. Are they also blasphemous? Is the whole Bible therefore blasphemous?”

Christian art was hardly new, of course. In the catacombs, it appeared in symbols–Jesus Christ as a fish or lamb, the Holy Spirit as a dove–all codes to foil the authorities. This reticence began diminishing, however, after Constantine decreed public toleration of Christianity. Narrative pictures of the Holy Family, apostles and martyrs became common, even fashionable, by the late fourth century, although depictions of Christ alone were rare. One bishop, circa 400, who criticized the fad of embroidering gospel stories on clothing, was more troubled by the ostentation than the pious sentiments. Still, there was that seemingly uncompromising commandment: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow down thyself to them or serve them” (Exodus 20:4—5).

Most Jewish and Christian theologians concluded that the commandment, in the full biblical context, prohibits only those images that are manufactured as the focal point of worship in themselves (i.e., blatant idolatry). God had approved, after all, the golden cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant, and the graven bullocks in Solomon’s Temple. While not essential to salvation, images can play a constructive role in religious life, just as music or poetry. But both faiths were deeply concerned that any image-making not offend the second half of the commandment–that is, slide into idolatry. Fear that Christians might appear to be worshiping idols, for example, had caused a Spanish synod in 305 to ban any painting in a church.

The great Christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries, debating Christ’s divine and human natures, sharpened the issue. Since Jesus of Nazareth was God Incarnate, his human form–and image–must constitute a legitimate vision of God. Furthermore, a great many people were illiterate. They depended on images because they could not read. So in 599, when the bishop of Marseilles tore the images from his churches, Pope Gregory I admonished him: “Pictures are the books of the illiterate. They should be permitted, though not worshiped.” A council of 692 decreed that Christ ought always to be depicted in human form, not as a lamb, “so all may understand, by means of it, the depth of the humiliation of the Word of God.”

In time, images of saints were venerated as well, and the most revered of all, in both East and West, were images of the mother of Jesus, known in the West as the Blessed Virgin Mary, and in the East as the Theotokos, the Bearer of God. Always, in both East and West, official church teaching was that the spiritual focus must be on the person represented, not the physical artifact. Kissing a holy image, or bowing or genuflecting before it, signified only respect for the personage depicted, as one might reverence him or her in natural life. And only Jesus Christ himself may be actually worshiped–not his image, however beautiful or beloved.

As the centuries passed, a notable difference would develop between the art of Eastern and Western Christendom. Western artists, led by men like Raphael and Michelangelo, developed the naturalistic, representative style that became the glory of European art, and produced thousands of revered paintings and sculptures. In the East, meanwhile, three-dimensional representation was not allowed, so Eastern churches could contain no statues. God the Father, never having taken corporeal form, may not be depicted at all (though some Orthodox churches in North America have disregarded the rule). The Holy Spirit is usually shown as fire or a dove, both scriptural images. Jesus Christ and the Theotokos predominate, along with legions of equally stern saints, and angels of martial appearance. These austere, sometimes forbidding, severely stylized faces that gaze from church walls and ceilings baffle westerners. None looks precisely human–nor are they meant to–for Eastern icons have a purpose beyond instruction and beyond sentiment.

The iconic image, as the revered fathers of the church consistently explained, is a window through which may be perceived the reality of eternity and the presence of God. It is in representing the divine that it becomes sacred, not the paint and wood. Thus the making of an icon (which is called “writing” it, not “painting”) is to be done by the “iconographer” with prayer, fasting and minimal stylistic change. “When depicted in an icon,” wrote St. John Maximovitch of San Francisco1, “the Savior must be [portrayed] so that we sense that he is a man, a real man, yet at the same time something more exalted than a man, that we not simply approach him as we approach a visitor or an acquaintance.”

Whether in the East or West, however, such subtle distinctions are easily blurred, be it with the miracle-working icon of Jesus Christ at Edessa, the images of the Virgin of Guadalupe, or even a much-venerated family Bible. In eighth-century Byzantium, this human inclination had evolved into a feverish piety that burst all bounds. Theologians then as later, writes historian Charles Diehl in The Cambridge Medieval History, “were accustomed to explain that the saint was mystically present in his image, and that respect paid to the image penetrated to the original, which it represented.” But now, it seemed, “the populace no longer drew this distinction. To them, the images seemed real persons, and Byzantine history is full of pious legends in which images speak, act and move about like divine and supernatural beings … they stilled tempests, put evil spirits to flight, and warded off diseases.”

The tendency, however, was not universal, and it became repulsive to those Christians having to contend with Islam. One of these was Leo III. The Muslim caliph himself, trying to persuade him that Islam was the true faith, had accused Christians of idolatry. The caliph did not convert Leo, of course, but he did succeed in convincing him that “image worship” was the main obstacle in converting Muslims and Jews to Christ.2

Now, within his empire, he saw the icon craze arousing the erratic enthusiasms of monks and women, feminizing the church and alienating the army. Most of his soldiers came from Armenia and Asia Minor, and sometimes seemed to respect their image-hating Muslim foes more than they did many Christian priests, at least in the matter of images. Unrest in the army was not something Leo could afford. As for the clergy, Patriarch Germanus of Constantinople was a confirmed iconophile, but many bishops, especially in Asia, were not. Then in 726, there came an incident that persuaded Leo to act. A volcano devastated the Aegean island of Thera, darkening the skies for days, writes the ninth-century chronicler, the monk Theophanes, and following that an earthquake shook Constantinople itself. Two such disturbances in close succession struck Leo as heavenly portents.

He began his reform by ordering the removal of icons that were receiving what he regarded as excessive public devotion, among them the greatly revered Christos Antiphonetes (“Christ the Responder”), which dominated the Bronze Gate of his own palace. This came like a declaration of war. While the soldier trying to remove it was still aloft, a crowd of frantic women gathered, yanked his ladder out from under him, and murdered the man. Although more guards were sent out, rioting spread. People were killed or mutilated, and many were jailed. The violence that would detonate again and again for more than a hundred years had begun.

Declaring himself the “high priest of the empire,” Leo wrote to Rome, ordering Pope Gregory II to remove religious art from his churches, and to convene a synod that would forbid all image worship. Gregory replied that the emperor “ought not to concern himself with matters of faith, nor change the ancient doctrines of the church.” He later expressed a pious hope that some demon might sufficiently torture Leo on this matter as to save his soul. Iconophile Greece and Christians in the Byzantine lands of Italy sided with the pope. The much-respected monk (and future saint) John of Damascus, residing in Muslim territory beyond reach of the emperor, plunged into the controversy. Calling iconoclasm “an abnormal fear of matter,” he bombarded Constantinople with pro-icon pamphlets. The iconophile patriarch Germanus, who was within Leo’s reach, was promptly deposed and replaced by Anastasius, a more cooperative ecclesiastic. By now, extreme iconoclasts were condemning as well the practice of praying to the saints to intercede with God. They believed that Christians must focus on Jesus Christ alone as the sole avenue to salvation.

Rome regarded Leo’s ousting of Patriarch Germanus as a clear assault on the authority of the church. Pope Gregory convened a synod, as requested, but far from banning images, with Gregory’s support, it proceeded to excommunicate all iconoclasts. Meanwhile, the rebellious Byzantine-held city of Ravenna in Italy opened its gates to the pope’s allies, the barbaric Lombards. In southern Italy, the Calabrians lynched the imperial exarch, the emperor’s representative, and the Duke of Naples. Pope Gregory refused to remit any further taxes to Byzantium, and had himself declared Duke of Rome. From now on, the pope would often act as its secular lord, supported by the rising power of the Franks. Although over the next year the emperor regained control of southern Italy, Rome itself remained beyond him. He had to content himself with confiscating the papal possessions in Sicily, Calabria and Illyricum.

All this notwithstanding, Leo’s official anti-icon measures remained relatively mild. He continued to suppress their public use, and replaced Christ’s portrait on coins with his own. He closed iconophile church schools. (One was torched, some claimed, with a dozen clerics inside). Above all, he patiently packed the church hierarchy with iconoclast bishops. Nevertheless, at his death in 740, the iconoclast war was well under way. It would divide into two phases. The first, conducted over a seventy-six-year period, pitted Leo and his immediate successors against the monks and iconophiles. The victor was the empress Irene, who had declared herself to be both empress and emperor. The second phase raged in the ensuing forty-one years of political chaos that Irene left behind her, during which seven emperors ruled. One died in battle, two were assassinated, and two were deposed as incompetent. Only two died in bed. It was finally won for the iconophiles by the empress Theodora.

With the accession of Leo’s twenty-two-year-old son, there came radical change. Like his father, Constantine V would become an able general and administrator, campaigning successfully against Muslims, Slavs, and Bulgars, improving Constantinople’s water supply, and forcibly resettling the city after a terrible plague. Unlike his father, he was widely hated and widely jeered. At baptism, the infant Constantine had supposedly defecated in the font, an ominous sign that won him the nickname Copronymus (literally, dung-named, or dung-christened). Obsessed with horses and riding, he was also mocked as Cabillinus (Stable Boy). And though he married a Khazar princess, writes Edward James Martin in A History of the Iconoclastic Controversy, “he cannot be completely acquitted of the accusation of sodomy.” He derived from his religious education a belief in a single and transcendent God, not unlike Islam’s,3 and became a convinced iconoclast, particularly contemptuous of any veneration of the Virgin. “Mary gave birth to Christ as my mother gave birth to me,” he bluntly told the patriarch, and on another occasion mused: “Of what value is a wooden box that once held gold?”

Constantine began his reign with a fight. His brother-in-law seized control of Constantinople, promising to restore the holy images. Constantine besieged the city, starved it into submission, and blinded the usurper. He had the aged patriarch Anastasius, who had weakly supported the takeover, flogged and paraded naked in the amphitheater, seated backwards on an ass–then contemptuously left him in office. Soon he had largely succeeded in clearing Byzantium of religious imagery. Most icons surviving from his reign or earlier come from Muslim territory.

When Anastasius died in 753, Constantine called a church council at Hiera, near the capital, attended by 338 iconoclast bishops, none representing Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem or Rome. The council observed that any image of Jesus Christ would necessarily portray him as either divine or human. Therefore, since neither one would represent his full nature, any attempt to depict him must by definition be misleading. Prayer to the Virgin and other saints for intercession should be allowed, it was decreed at Hiera, but any veneration of images was idolatry. It would now be considered heresy, and deserving of death. But the iconoclastic victory proved illusory. Acts of defiance kept recurring–like that of the lone monk who crept into the palace to denounce Constantine as an apostate to his face, earning himself death by flogging.

Furious, the emperor began an all-out war against the monastic celibates, who together with women were the most stubborn iconophiles. In 764, he forced the patriarch to take a wife. His army made free with clubs and torches against what he termed “idolaters worthy only to be forgotten.” One abbot, seen reverencing an icon, was torn limb from limb. Monks in chains were herded into amphitheaters, spat upon, and forced to parade hand-in-hand with giggling harlots. Monks’ nostrils were slit, their tongues cut out. They were tied into sacks and tossed into the sea.

Iconophiles by tens of thousands fled westward beyond Byzantine jurisdiction, while in Constantinople, the emperor cracked down harder. He instituted an iconoclast oath, backed by blindings and executions, to thoroughly purge his army and administration. He installed as patriarch an almost illiterate Slavic eunuch. Prayers to saints were prohibited outright, and even common exclamations like “Mother of God!” In Thrace, hundreds of monks and nuns were ordered to marry or be blinded; most submitted, but not all. On Cyprus, monks’ beards were soaked in wax and set aflame, so that their last struggling breaths seared their lungs. At Ephesus, thirty-eight elderly contemplatives were buried alive under a public latrine. Theophanes claims that the emperor congratulated the prefect responsible for that barbarity as “a man after my own heart.”

Such savagery turned the public against the emperor, and cast doubt on his thinking. “It revolted the common sense of the day to think that Christ was inaccessible to the prayers of his mother,” writes historian Martin. Despite the peril, many women remained faithful to their well-loved traditions. Constantine’s own daughter, Anthusa, hid icons within the palace. Jailers’ wives brought icons to shackled monks. Some women turned viciously on the army, once catching a soldier alone and tearing him limb from limb. But as an administrator, ruler and general, Constantine could not be faulted. When he died in 775, after reigning thirty-four years, he left his empire with a well-filled treasury and mastery over external foes on every front.

His son Leo IV, called Leo the Khazar because of his mother’s ancestry, inherited his father’s religious outlook, but not his ferocity, and was moreover frail in constitution. Though the iconoclast laws remained on the books, the persecution slackened. Leo even restored the Eastern practice of limiting the office of bishop to celibate monks, but it was his wife who would prove the supremely effective defender of the icons. Her name was Irene.

She was an Athenian, fifteen at her marriage, almond-eyed, olive-skinned, hauntingly beautiful, and possessed of a razor-sharp mind. The imperial pair produced a son, and soon after their coronation, Irene persuaded her husband to crown the boy co-emperor. Later on, however, when Leo found icons in Irene’s apartments, he coldly banned her from the imperial bed. Moreover, as his health began to fail, Leo’s iconoclast patriarch played on his conscience, so that suddenly imperial offices were being searched, many icons discovered, and officials by the dozen beaten and dragged through the streets to prison.

But the violence came to an abrupt end. Leo died in 780, and Irene became regent for Constantine VI, then ten years old.4 She immediately halted the persecution. Iconophiles ecstatically hailed her as the “lionhearted, God-fearing woman” who had valiantly championed their cause. Monks streamed from the prisons, and the Christos Antiphonetes was returned to its place above the Bronze Gate. But the army–still iconoclast–did not share in the rejoicing. These things, grumbled the senior officers, were being done by a woman–and not only by a woman, but by an idolater. Their first coup attempt came within six weeks, but Irene’s agents discovered it. The conspirators were flogged and banished, and a military revolt in Sicily was crushed.

She looked westward for help, betrothing her son to Charlemagne’s oldest daughter, and writing in conciliatory tones to Rome to propose an ecumenical council on the icon issue. Pope Adrian I cautiously agreed to send legates, and two deacons slipped quietly out of Egypt through the Muslim blockade to speak for the patriarchs of Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria. But the council, meeting in Constantinople, got off to a bad start. Soldiers of the imperial guard burst into the hall at the opening session, bellowing, “Death to monks and idolaters!” As the swords began to flash, however, a number of iconoclast bishops who were in attendance, mistakenly concluding that this show of military threat would secure their victory without actual bloodshed, jostled the warriors from the hall with glad cries of, “We have conquered! We have conquered!” The iconophile majority then prudently suspended proceedings.

Irene had appointed eunuchs to key administrative posts in her government, headed by the cunning Stauracius as her chief executive. He now dealt with the imperial guard, dispatching this elite regiment on a supposed Asian campaign. Once it was well away from the city, he dismissed all its members, and recruited half-trained Slavs to replace them in the capital.

What was to become Christianity’s Seventh Ecumenical Council reconvened safely at nearby Nicea in 787. Here the iconoclast bishops crumbled completely, recanting their prior opinions and begging to retain their offices.5 Despite the bitterness of many monks, who had not forgotten their agonies, Irene’s politically astute patriarch (her former chancellor, Tarasius) insisted on reconciliation. There must be no counter-persecution. However, the council unanimously condemned iconoclasm, rejecting it as akin to Manichaeanism, Judaism and Islam. Holy images of Christ and saints were approved for display anywhere they might spiritually profit God’s people. God could be worshiped through an icon of Jesus Christ. Saints, too, could be venerated through their icons.

At this point, however, Irene revealed the other side of her character, a naked political ambition–with her own son as her rival. She had kept Constantine VI, now seventeen, unloved and unschooled. Soon she canceled his betrothal to Charlemagne’s daughter, substituting a pretty Armenian girl, a clear signal that nothing must threaten his mother’s dominance. His despair curdling into resentment, he plotted the arrest of Stauracius. When Irene found out, she tortured and banished his confederates, publicly slapped Constantine, then had him thrashed and confined to his chambers. “God does not want your son to reign,” Stauracius assured her. So she decreed that her name must precede Constantine’s on all imperial documents, and required every soldier to swear: “So long as you live, we will never accept your son as emperor.”

Now she had gone too far. The Armenian troops mutinied, declaring Constantine their emperor, and the entire army followed, compelling her to release her son. So the roles reversed. Irene was confined to her private palace, Stauracius was flogged and banished, and in a brief glory, Constantine VI received the raucous homage of his army. But as a general, he failed conspicuously. With the army weakened by the conflict, he lost ground quickly to both the Muslims and Bulgars. Within a year he allowed Irene, followed by Stauracius, to return to court, where with subtle slanders they turned this weak young man against the Armenian general who had helped put him in power. The blinding of this officer cost him the army’s support. New conspiracies erupted with increasing violence. Disaffection spread.

Lured on by his mother, Constantine now divorced his Armenian wife in order to marry a lovely young woman named Theodote, a member of a particularly devout and orthodox family. Patriarch Tarasius, aghast at this unlawful divorce, refused to perform the wedding. When the emperor threatened to adopt iconoclast policies, Tarasius permitted a lesser ecclesiastic to marry the couple, but the divorce and second marriage cost Constantine the support of the more zealous religious, including members of the empress’s own family.

It was this extraordinary family of Constantine’s new wife Theodote, however, that now entered the story, epitomizing the steadfast, self-sacrificial heroism that would cause the ultimate iconophile triumph. The family had a curious history. Early in the eighth century, a plague had orphaned a sister and brother at Constantinople, Theostica and Plato. In destitution, they educated themselves, learning to read, studying the Christian faith and putting it into practice. Despite her poverty, Theostica found a loving husband high in the ranks of the civil service. Her brother Plato also reached the senior echelons of the imperial administration. But the brother abandoned this comfortable life, became a monk in the desert, then with his sister, her husband and their four children formed a Christian community in the wilderness. One of the four children was destined to play a decisive role in the iconoclast controversy.

He is known as Theodore of Studion, and by the reign of Constantine VI, he and his uncle Plato had become the two most respected monks in all Byzantium. They defiantly disapproved of both the emperor’s divorce and his illegitimate marriage to their young cousin Theodote. Declaring that kings are not above God’s laws, they refused to even meet with Constantine when he waited upon them in a monastery vestibule. The emperor responded by having both men beaten and jailed. On August 15, 797, guards loyal to Irene seized Constantine VI. Upon his mother’s orders, his eyes were gouged out in the Purple Chamber, his birthplace twenty-seven years earlier. Some sources say the deposed monarch survived another two decades, a husk of a man haunting the back halls.6 His second wife, Theodote, was immured in a convent, as his first wife had been.

As for Irene, she now proclaimed herself not merely empress, but emperor. She believed in the value of charm. She charmed the people by parading in shimmering purple through the capital, scattering coins. She charmed the monks by recalling Theodore and Plato and expelling the priest who had officiated at Constantine’s second wedding. And she charmed everybody by recklessly remitting taxes for five years. Everybody, that is, but the army. To charm it, she would have had to deliver victory on the battlefield, something she singularly failed to do. So the soldiers remained restive, and as her health began to fail, the palace eunuchs (chief among them Stauracius, whose incessant conniving was finally thwarted by his death) hatched plots within plots to seize power.

Then as she approached the age of fifty, there occurred the unexpected. Frankish envoys arrived with a proposal of marriage from Charlemagne himself, uniting the two imperial crowns. She accepted eagerly. The Byzantine aristocracy was appalled. To them, Charlemagne was little more than the tribal chief of a barbarian dynasty in the hinterland. Was this German aboriginal, they fumed, to rule all Christendom? Were they to be vassals to a savage? The end came swiftly. Even as the marriage contract was being drawn up, Irene was arrested on October 31, 802. Her chancellor, an aristocrat named Nicephorus, had himself crowned Emperor Nicephorus I the General Logothete, by the pliant patriarch Tarasius. “Pious Irene, lover of God,” as she was still praised by the monks, was exiled to an Aegean island, where she was required to spin wool until she died eight months later. Thus ended the dynasty of Leo the Isaurian and phase one of the iconoclast struggle.

The new emperor Nicephorus I began by tackling the financial problems left by Irene, raising taxes and making himself very unpopular in the process. Meanwhile, the power struggle between palace and church intensified. Determined to demonstrate his ascendancy, Nicephorus demanded reinstatement of the hapless priest who had performed the second marriage of Constantine VI. Theodore of Studion stood firmly opposed, and thereby earned himself another month in jail.7 Then Nicephorus became bolder. He convened a synod, which dutifully declared that Constantine’s second marriage was legitimate, that emperors were above church laws, and that all dissenters with this view must be excommunicated.

It was open war with the monks, and here something had been occurring of which Nicephorus was unaware. A new and powerful spirit of self-sacrifice had ignited within the monastic movement, and a stream of eager Christians were dedicating themselves to the celibate life. The spark for this revival was Theodore. In the iconophile peace of Irene’s five-year reign, he had returned from exile and revived Constantinople’s Monastery of Studion, which had been emptied by the persecutions of Constantine Copronymus. Its discipline was now based upon prayer, manual labor and study, all with strict accountability. Fully seven hundred monks belonged to the famous monastery. It became the center and model of Eastern monasticism, says The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, including the monasteries of Mount Athos.

So the Studites declared their rejection of Nicephorus’s council, Theodore further angering his sovereign by appealing to the bishop of Rome as the “first of pastors.” He and his aging uncle Plato were again imprisoned, and the Studite monks either jailed or scattered. The army, according to Theophanes, was encouraged “to use bishops and clerics like slaves.”

But the emperor’s foreign enemies were not so easily subdued. The Muslims took Cyprus and Crete, and in 811, Nicephorus died in a campaign against the Bulgar khan Krum, who commemorated his victory by casting a silver-lined memorial cup, made of the skull of the late emperor. In the pandemonium that followed, two emperors, Nicephorus’s son and his son-in-law, were enthroned and deposed for incompetence within two years. Krum meanwhile pressed Constantinople hard, offering peace only on condition that the masses of Thracian refugees in the capital be turned over to him to become slaves. Byzantine authorities would have complied, but one voice dissuaded them. It was Theodore’s. He quoted St. John’s Gospel: “Whoever comes to me, I will by no means cast out” (6:37). The generals acceded. They believed the Bible.

It was the army in Asia that produced the next emperor, Leo V, known as the Armenian. Swarthy, curly-bearded and energetic, he led rapidly reorganized troops to victories against the Bulgars. Krum’s death in 814 ended that war. But the war over the icons blazed up anew. Leo was an iconoclast, and promptly restored the laws against images. In protest, on Palm Sunday, 815, Theodore led a thousand Studites in procession, bearing icons and singing, “We venerate your sacred images, blessed saints.” Leo responded with a judiciously selected synod that declared icons “mere idols.” Soldiers stoned the Christos Antiphonetes over the Bronze Gate, and Leo removed it “for safekeeping.”

Back to prison went Theodore, where he wrote hundreds of letters, some in cipher, exhorting the faithful to stand firm. (Patrician ladies reportedly helped smuggle them out.) Leo repeatedly ordered him lashed, but only one warden is said to have actually carried out the order. Other monks were tortured or executed, however, and many–counseled by Theodore to avoid martyrdom whenever possible–went into exile. Meanwhile, Leo V freely reinstated iconoclast priests and abbots. His network of informers weeded out iconophiles, bringing men and women alike under the lash. Then in 820, the rule of Leo V ended in a suitably horrific climax.

Leo uncovered a plot by a fellow general called Michael the Stammerer. The appropriate penalty, he decided, was to skewer the offender on a spit, together with a monkey, and roast the two of them in the palace furnace. But it was nearly Christmas, scarcely an appropriate time for executions, however novel, said his wife, who persuaded him to postpone the gruesome event over the holiday. The delay proved fatal. Through his priestly confessor, Michael told his fellow conspirators that they’d better rescue him or he’d see that they joined him. Thus on Christmas morning, while the emperor Leo was at the Divine Liturgy, several men vested as priests appeared with drawn swords. The iconoclast monarch ran to the altar, grabbed its large gold cross and started swinging it in self-defense. “Time for killing, not sacraments,” snarled one assailant, and Leo V was thereupon hacked to pieces in the holiest part of the cathedral. Michael the Stammerer, brought from prison with feet still fettered, was proclaimed Emperor Michael II.

Michael II came from Amoria in Asia Minor, where he had been raised amid the eclectic doctrines of a fringe Jewish sect.8 His sole religious concern seems to have been with public conformity. He first declared an amnesty, and the monks joyfully proclaimed him “a new David,” but then he unilaterally appointed a new patriarch. When the pope protested, the emperor had the man who brought the papal message, a monk named Methodius, flogged and jailed. Theodore of Studion asked that public icons be restored, and Michael refused; they would be tolerated only in private. He formally requested the Frankish emperor, Charlemagne’s son Louis, to destroy all religious images in Rome–which Louis (known as “the Pious”) could not do, and in any event, presumably would not.

The Eastern empire began to roil into almost hallucinogenic anarchy. One of Emperor Michael’s supporters, Thomas the Slav, claimed to be Irene’s son, Constantine VI, defender of the holy images, with his sight miraculously restored, and was crowned patriarch of Antioch. This caused a massive peasant revolt in Asia Minor. Rebel forces besieged Constantinople for a full year, until the Bulgars attacked again, dealing a deathblow to the insurgency. Michael II then cornered the last hold-outs, and impaled and dismembered Thomas.

The final act of the icon controversy now began to unfold, and women again would play the key roles. The wife of Michael II, mother of his son Theophilus, had died during the Bulgar siege. Seeking legitimacy, Michael II now insisted upon marrying Euphrosyne, daughter of Constantine VI and the last blood descendant of Leo the Isaurian. The emperor saw no detriment in the fact that this woman was a nun, and despite vehement protest from Theodore and the Studites, the marriage took place. It was Theodore’s last protest. He did not live to see the icon controversy settled. In 826, at sixty-seven, he died in exile on the Black Sea coast, surrounded by brethren chanting from Psalm 119: “Princes sit and speak against me, but your servant meditates upon your statutes.”

Michael II died peacefully three years later, and was succeeded by his son Theophilus, sixteen.9 The boy had been thoroughly versed in iconoclast theology, but it was Euphrosyne who made the move that would prove decisive. She herself probably had little or no personal choice in either making or breaking her vows as a nun. In any case, she was a devout Christian and also a believer in the veneration of icons. It was she who set up and supervised the bridal contest to find a wife for her stepson.10 All the candidates were of course beautiful, but one was far more stunning than the rest, and the young emperor unerringly chose her. As Euphrosyne well knew, she was an ardent iconophile. Her name was Theodora.

Her influence was certainly not immediate. Emperor Theophilus made the fervid and articulate iconoclast John the Grammarian patriarch, and began another violent persecution. He had the hands of an icon-maker named Lazarus grilled on hot metal plates. He summoned prominent iconophiles, and alternately debated with them in his palace or had them chained in his dungeons. To win these debates was dangerous. When two Palestinian monks caught him misquoting Isaiah, he had the misquoted lines tattooed on their faces. He had Methodius, the papal messenger who had been flogged and jailed, brought from his prison cell to argue the iconophile case. The manufacture of Christ’s image demeaned Christ’s dignity, declared the emperor. If so, countered the courageous monk, the emperor’s dignity would be enhanced by banning his own image, too. This earned Methodius six hundred lashes, applied slowly.

Nevertheless, in his thirteen-year reign, Theophilus became an effective administrator and an impressive patron of the arts.11 Although he remained a determined iconoclast; he was surrounded by devoted iconophile women–his stepmother Euphrosyne, his mother-in-law, his wife Theodora–plus his five daughters. When he died in 842 (from dysentery), Empress Theodora became regent for their son Michael, then two.12 With iconoclasm seemingly fading in the army, Theodora shunted John the Grammarian into retirement and the courageous Methodius became patriarch. Then she summoned what the chronicles call “a divine and holy synod,” and had to plead with it not to condemn her beloved husband. On his deathbed, she swore, the repentant emperor had venerated a holy image. The assembled ecclesiastics swallowed their doubts, and refrained from anathematizing the late emperor Theophilus.

So on the first Sunday in Lent in the year 843, a date celebrated ever since by the Holy Orthodox Church as the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the empress Theodora, her imperial son Michael and the scarred patriarch Methodius led a solemn procession of holy icons into Hagia Sophia. With his damaged hands, the iconographer Lazarus restored the Christos Antiphonetes to its place above the Bronze Gate of the palace, where it would remain for another six hundred years.

Patriarch Methodius then rid the church of hundreds of iconoclast bishops and abbots in a purge so thorough (although relatively bloodless) as to settle the issue once and for all in Eastern Christendom. Back from his Black Sea exile came the revered bones of Theodore of Studion, to lie in honor beside his valiant relative, Plato. Back, too, were brought the bones of the more questionable Irene, for interment in the imperial crypt. Her sins seemingly were black, but her defense of the holy images would earn her canonization. The emperor Michael III, last of the line, would be assassinated. (See following sub-chapter.)

Was this preservation of icons worth one hundred and seventeen years of bloodshed and appalling cruelty? And what of the iconoclasts? They too fought from Christian conviction. Eastern theologians firmly agree that the battle was worth fighting and the outcome satisfactory. The icon question touched on the central Christian claim, they say, that God actually and literally “became flesh.” St. Paul wrote that Jesus Christ was “the image of the Father” (II Cor. 4:4), undoubtedly basing this claim on the Lord’s own words: “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Thus it follows that human art can portray, however inadequately, this image of God, and, as lovers know, to venerate the image is to reverence the beloved.

Moreover, thanks to Theodore of Studion and his many allies, the monastic movement emerged from the violence as the disciplined core of the Eastern church, a role its monks continue to maintain. The church became “not only stronger, but purer for the conflict,” concludes historian Diehl.

Nevertheless, say its critics, iconoclasm was both imposed and repudiated on imperial authority. Thus the whole controversy was an exercise in “caesaro-papism,” the subservience to state authority of which the Eastern church is chronically accused. Against this charge, its defenders merely point to the hundreds of thousands of Christian martyrs under emperors, caliphs, khans, sultans, czars and commissars over the centuries. Their blood, they say, refutes the criticism.

This is the end of the Orthodox Icons category article drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 116, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City. To continue reading more about Orthodox Icons from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at