Iconodules in Christianity

In history, the Christian religion has developed along . Currently, there are many different denominations and ideals relating to Christianity. While the basic belief in Christ unifies Christianity, Christians themselves are often faced with a somewhat bewildering choice relating to the sheer amount of differing churches they could attend. Even the early church faced serious disagreements relating to certain ideals of doctrine. One such serious controversy occurred around the seventh century, where believers began to disagree on the use and importance of icons in the church. Basically, the disagreement manifested itself in two basic groups of believers; the iconoclasts and the iconodules.

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According to Orfanakos (2011), the Iconoclasts were a group of Christians who believed that the use of icons in the church was entirely improper. The reasoning behind this was the fact that Christ’s divinity did not allow his portrayal as an earthly image. Furthermore, they took such representation to be both idolatry and superstition, based on the commandment that no earthly image should be worshiped as divine. From this, they made the connection that the icon would be worshiped, rather than Christ or God himself. The basic fear was that icons would furthermore lead the faithful to adhere to pagan practices rather than the worship of Christ. The title “Iconoclasts” means “icon-breakers,” which is what this group of people attempted to do. They were committed to the fight against all icons in the church, attempting to remove these from the church.

Orfanakos (2011) notes that the Iconodules took the opposite view to this. Their main concept was that icons had a significant place in the life of Christians and the Christian community collectively. Their belief was that Christ could be and should be depicted in material form. In contrast to the view of iconoclasm, the basic argument of this group was based upon the human nature of Christ. Iconodules believed that, because Christ had taken full human form, it was important to also depict him as such. As such, the image of Christ should also be loved and venerated. This brought an important sense of worship and devotion to the divinity behind the humanity of Christ. Because this love was directed at Christ himself as represented by the image rather than to the image itself, this group of believers so no wrong in this. As such, the word Iconodules then also means “Icon-venerators.” For them, the use of icons was therefore a vital vehicle for their faith and devotion to Christ. This group therefore worked towards preserving the use of images within the Christian community.

Interestingly, one might say that there was one point of agreement between these two divergent groups; both iconoclasts and iconodules agreed that the Christian people would prosper only when they held the proper attitude towards icons. The specific manifestation of this attitude is at the basis of the disagreement (, n.d.).

One of the most important defenders of the iconodule position was St. John of Damascus, the eighth century theologian. John focused on Neoplatonic doctrine to advance his position that the role of the icon within the church was to serve as no more than a symbol. The creation of the symbol was justified on the basis of the fact that Christ did more or less the same thing by manifesting as a human being; he gave form to the formless concept of God. In worshiping the body of Christ, the church was also worshiping his image, which in turn justified the creation of images in his name. This still meant that God himself was worship, while the icon served only as a symbol of the entity being worshiped.

As seen above, the iconoclasts responded to this argument by referring to the wording of Second Commandment, where God forbids the worship of images. Leo III was possibly influenced by Islam (World History Center, n.d.) in his aversion to images used as a focus for worship. Islam as a religion was strictly opposed to the use of religious images. With the same aversion to the iconodule position, Constantine V was in turn influenced by Monophysitism. This means that the single, indistinguishable, divine nature of Christ precluded any use of imagery to represent him or his nature. Hence, the iconodule position was seen as representative of sacrilege. In technical terms, the iconodule position for Constantine meant Nestorianism, or the reduction of divine nature to human terms. Alternatively, Constantine also held that this sector of Christianity represented Chalcedonian Dyophysitism, which meant an attempt to distinguish that which no man could distinguish, i.e. The nature of Christ as human being from his nature as divine.

Another issue influencing the controversy was the fact that iconodule emperors during the sixth and seventh centuries regarded themselves in a pietistic fashion, which promoted their own image as subservient devotees to God. Hence, icons were used to focus worship on Christ and God in favor of providing honor to the emperor himself. In the case of Constantine V, however, icons were replaced with imperial portraits and portrayals of his victories and conquests. Hence, Constantine V made his case for iconoclasm not so much on the basis of a religious drive to obey the Commandments as it was to promote the image of his own success and glory.

At the time of the controversy, the chief defenders of the iconodule position was the monastic community. The Orthodox clergy were mercilessly persecuted, resulting in a number of factions within the church institution.

Specifically, the monks of Studion, a monastery founded by Studius, were among the strongest supporters of the iconodule position. The monastery’s abbot, St. Theodore Studites, served to maintain this position in the face of opposition from officials and other factions among the faithful. The patriarch Ignatius was also a strong spokesperson for the iconodule position.

The Iconoclast controversy therefore represented a major turning point in the history of the Orthodox Church. It also permanently affected the relations between the Roman Empire and Catholic Europe. Rome and Constantinople were, for example, alienated from each other, not only by the iconoclasm issue, but also by a disagreement regarding ecclesiastical jurisdiction over Illyricum and Clabrai in southern Italy. Indeed, the disagreement among the high officials of the church and politics was as intensely divergent as that among church members themselves.

, for example, would not accept the iconoclasm of Leo III, while Gregory III openly condemned these doctrines at a council. After the fall of Ravenna and the end of the exarchate in 751, the papacy had to turn to a new protector in the person of Pein III, the Frankish leader. Pope Stephen II anointed Pepin III as king of the Franks in 754. While icon veneration was resorted in 787, this could do little to recognize the major differences that had grown between the Orthodox Byzantium and Catholic Europe.

The controversy continued with Pepin’s son, Charlemagne, rejecting the iconodule position and condemning it with as much fervor as Leo III’s iconoclast position was rejected in earlier times.

After this, the church had never been quite the same. Rome and Constantinople appeared to constantly suffer disputes around central issues of ecclesiastical discipline and other doctorne issues. These disagreements also extended towards politices, where there were two clear groups who were open to conversion by either Rome or Constantinople: these included the Slavs of central Europe and the Bulgars in the Balkans. This was also a political issue, as the acceptance of Christ from either center would also mean a political allegiance to either. Those with the most converts, would also have the greatest political strength.

Once again, the reign of Michael III, starting in 842, resorted the veneration for icons in 843. Despite the fact that the diplomatic handling of the issue resulted in no new rifts, the basic factions remained around the issues. The monk Ignatius was appointed as patriarch, to be replaced two years later by a more moderate scholar and layman, Photius. This sparked a “new age” and a renewed focus on missionary activity among the Slavs, Bulgars and Russians during the middle of the ninth century.

What is interesting about the iconoclast/iconodule controversy of the time is its effect not only on the church and politics of the time, but also on the church today. Even today, there are divergent opinions on the use of icons and images in the church. Most Protestant churches today do not favor or include icons as part of the worship process. Most churches, however, include some representation of the cross either within their walls or as part of the church architecture itself. In this way, the cross is a universal symbol of Christianity and everything the religion stands for.

As for icons that represent Christ, many believe that the Second Commandment considers this idolatry. On the other hand, those who do include such symbolism in their worship hold that it provides a valuable focus for their religious fervour.

In conclusion, the church today consists of many different beliefs and ideas. Although the central figure of Christ and his cross form the central imagery of the religion, there is still disagreement over what form or position such images should take in the church, and indeed in the hearts and minds of those who profess to love Christ and each other. Perhaps the most important thing is the central message that all Christians profess to believe; that Christ has come to the world to teach and save humankind. Some feel that using icons to focus these beliefs is part of the beauty of the religion.


Icons and Iconoclasm. (n.d.) Retrieved from: http://individual.utoronto.ca/hayes/earlychurch/23icons.htm

Orfanakos, P.J. (2011). The Icon Controversy in the Early Church. Saint Barbara Greek Orthodox Church. Retrieved from: http://www.saintbarbara.org/faith/history/iconcontroversy.cfm

World History Center. (n.d.). The Iconoclastic Controversy. Retrieved from: http://history-world.org/byzantine2.htm