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Icons in the Orthodox Church

James A. Watkins is an entrepreneur, musician, and a writer with four non-fiction books and hundreds of magazine articles read by millions.



Iconoclasts versus Iconophiles

There arose a great controversy over icons in the Eastern Church in the 7th and 8th centuries. Everyone, from simple believers to emperors, got involved. The argument began because of criticism of icons by Muslims. People who defended the use of icons were known as iconophiles. Those against the icons were known as iconoclasts (those who destroy icons).

The iconoclasts went on a rampage destroying icons in churches. New churches built in the late 8th century were dedicated without them. The Second Council of Nicea in 787 (the seventh and last ecumenical church council) retaliated by ordering the confiscation of all iconoclastic literature and this was carried out so successfully, that not a single piece of it survives today.

The worship of images was based on the belief that material objects can possess divine power, which might provide certain blessings to those who touch them. The sacraments were based on this same belief, particularly the Eucharist (Holy Communion).





Battle Erupts Over Orthodox Church Icons

Both sides claimed to represent the common folk. The iconophiles supported the use of religious art as a means to convey Bible stories to the illiterate. They were not opposed to unsophisticated people worshipping sacred art or relics. They believed that some might not understand a sermon, but everyone could understand a painting or mosaic representing a story from the life of Jesus—and learn from it. Besides, did not the creation story say that man was made in the "image" of God?

The iconoclasts also invoked concern for the peasantry in their arguments, claiming the ignorant could be led astray by lifeless objects into idol worship. Sure, educated people could tell the difference between the image and the divine; but the simple might not be able to make the appropriate distinction. Since the founding of Christianity, the Church had worked to rid pagans of their idols; and now churches had allowed idols in their own worship services.

Both sides tried to show that the use of icons and relics did—or did not—exist in the earliest churches. Iconoclasts insisted that neither Jesus, the apostles nor the Church Fathers had used images. It was true that some of the Church Fathers had prohibited images of Christ, his mother, or the apostles.

The aversion to the worship of idols had deep roots in the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible). The Ten Commandments forbade graven images. Jews considered them deceptive, dead matter. Iconophiles countered that King Solomon had made many objects to adorn the temple, for the glory of God.







The Adoration of Icons

The use of images arose within the Church not based on what was taught, but more on what was believed. And this came from a growing devotion to the relics of saints (and martyrs). People would see, touch, or kiss these relics; shed tears; and pray to the dead saint. Many stories had been passed around the Christian Community that relics first, and then later, sacred images, had produced miracles on behalf of believers. It came to be believed that these objects represented the divine presence.

The powerful leader of the iconoclasts was the Byzantine Emperor Constantine V (718-775). He called a Church Council in 754 to condemn icons. Icon painters and worshipers were imprisoned and tortured. Constantine V decried the "hellenization" of Christianity through images; and declared there was no authority in Scripture, or the apostolic tradition, for the use of them. He was opposed by two prominent leaders in the Church, Nicephorus (758-828) and Theodore of Stoudios (759-826).

The iconophiles argued that the iconoclasts were mistaken to apply Biblical passages against pagan idols to Christian images, because the intent is completely opposite. They also objected to the emperor claiming authority over Church matters, as this was not approved in the New Testament. Iconophiles also noted that iconoclasts themselves worshipped the holy cross—itself an image. The symbol and the sign of the cross were ubiquitous in Christianity—and could be traced directly back to the apostolic church.







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Is an Icon a Graven Image?

Constantine V also expunged references to Mary from litanies (responsive petition) and canticles (song or chant) used in worship. He denied that Mary, or any saints, could intercede for the faithful. Most iconoclasts agreed that though proper respect should be paid to Mary and the saints, never should they be addressed in prayer, nor should images of them be worshipped. Even worse, they believed, were images of angels.

Since no one has ever seen angels, and they do not have physical bodies; images of them were to be prohibited. Pagan materialism should not be allowed to violate the spirituality of worship. Iconoclasts proclaimed this to be the work of the devil, deceiving the Church to worship created images rather than the Creator.

The iconophiles declared that the Incarnation of Jesus as a man had made His image portrayable. The reverence for images was deeply ingrained in the Eastern Christians and theological clarification was needed in the defense of them as icons, not idols.

The Orthodox Church believed that icons were holy in a holy church, whether of Jesus, Mary, saints or angels. It claimed the devil was working through the iconoclasts to destroy images in art and books that he hated because they were holy.

John of Damascus explained that Christians were not worshiping the icons themselves, but the reality behind the images; a reality that pagan idols did not share. Icons were acceptable props as a concession to human psychology, and the special role of sight among the senses.

Photius said, "Sight transmits to the mind the essence of what has been seen." Thus the icon served sight in the same way as preaching served the ear—especially for illiterate believers.





Veneration of Orthodox icons

Theodore of Stoudios said, "What person with any sense does not comprehend the distinction between an idol and an icon?"

Idol worship is worship of the devil but icons are dedicated to the glory of the one true God. Against accusations that worshipping an image of Mary was a revival of pagan goddess adoration, Theodore made clear that no Christian believes Mary to be a goddess, but she is Theotokos—the mother of God. The worship of saints supported—not perverted—the worship of Christ.

John of Damascus stated, "We portray Christ as King and Lord is such a way that we do not deprive Him of His army. Now the armies of the Lord are the saints."

He agreed that in Old Testament times images were prohibited; but explained that, with the New Testament of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, a "likeness of God was available; therefore the prohibition was superseded."

To deny this was to deny the humanity of Christ. John declared that the life and deeds of Christ should be represented in art and illustrated in books—from His birth to His crucifixion. "This beautiful exposition and beneficial description, how dare you to call it idolatry!"

The icons and the gospel told the same story. Since the content of the icon was identical to Scripture, "Why do you worship the book and spit upon the picture?"

Theodore of Stoudios explained that since only a truly human Christ could save, it was proper for His humanity to be portrayed. The remembrance of the history of Christ "in every ritual" of worship was a way of illumination for the mind. Nicephorus said that icons "convey theological knowledge, express the silence of God, and praise the goodness of God."

So, both sides claimed to be speaking for the illiterate masses, who could not have possibly have understood this Christological debate. But it was the fate of their faith at stake. Icons were cherished by the common folk, as objects of religious devotion and instruction. Still, many average Christians had misgivings about their propriety in worship.

Finally, the seventh ecumenical council reinstated the icons and pronounced anathema upon the iconoclasts. The icons had triumphed. The union of liturgy and images was restored.




Theodore of Stoudios praised Mary as the only human who had ever transcended human nature, "Granting peace to the Church, strengthening orthodoxy, protecting the empire, driving away barbarian tribes, maintaining the entire Christian people."

Nicephorus called her "Our most holy Queen, the Mother of God, Empress and the Lady of the entire universe, the throne of mercy for mortals throughout the universe. We confess and proclaim that she has been appointed as our mediator and secure patron in relation to her Son, on account of the confidence she has as His mother."

Before these mariological concepts were taught by the Church, they had already been believed and celebrated by the people in the pews. Mariology led to the cult of other saints. Opposition to icons had many times included hostility to the worship of Mary and the saints.

The rehabilitation of the icons led to the reinstatement of the role of Mary and the saints as participants in the liturgy, life, and service of the Church. The cult of angels was soon to follow, largely based on the speculations of Dionysius the Areopagite, for whom angels were the missing link between the visible and invisible worlds; and the belief that when the Church worships God, it does so in the company of the angelic host. When the liturgy of the Church praised God, it did so along with Mary, apostles, saints, martyrs and angels. These were subjects of icons.




James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on September 05, 2012:

AudreyHowitt— Thank you for the accolades. I sincerely appreciate this visitation from you and your warm words. :D

Audrey Howitt from California on September 04, 2012:

Very interesting article--I was particularly happy to note where the terms "iconoclast" and "iconophile" came from--really well done!

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on October 05, 2011:

Orthodox Icons— You are most welcome. I do love art. And yes, I suppose my Hubs do draw a wide range of visitors.

Thank you for blessing me. I will be seeing you soon on your pages. :-)

Faithfully Yours,


stessily on October 04, 2011:

James: I appreciate your welcoming outlook towards my comments. And thank you for seeing me as "a blessing" to you "here on Hubpages." And three of my favorite words are "God bless you." So many many many thanks.

Your appreciation of art is conveyed clearly and is also obvious in the aesthetics of your hubs.

You have a real talent for drawing together a diversity of people, of all ages and backgrounds, through your writing. May you always honor that gift, as I am sure that you will.

Blessings and kind regards, Stessily

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on October 03, 2011:

stessily— Hello! I am well pleased that you appreciate the beautiful images on this page.

Unfortunately, I do not know the origin of the last picture, the Holy Guardian Angel. It is of Byzantine origin but beyond that I cannot find any information about it. I just love it!

I am glad that you enjoyed my sentence about Christian art in my home. :-)

Thank you ever much for the voted up, beautiful, awesome, and interesting. You are a blessing to me here on HubPages. I always look forward to your lovely comments. God Bless You!


stessily on September 30, 2011:

James: This is one of my favorite hubs, not just because it's on one of my favorite art topics, but also because of your wonderful presentation and the truly beautiful images which you selected. I also like it that you didn't take a side. :-)

That last guardian angel icon is so ethereal and the colors are so gentle and reassuring. (Perhaps I have finally seen a guardian angel!) Do you have any information on this icon? I have never seen it before.

I also love your sentence about the prevalence of Christian art in your home so that, as you so clearly observe: "whatever room I am in, I am not far from being reminded what I'm here for."

I especially appreciate the inclusion of the full extent of the Shroud of Turin. The photo conveys so much texture and shades in what ostensibly is a monochromatic fabric.

Voted up, beautiful, awesome, interesting!

Kind regards, Stessily

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on September 27, 2011:

Make Money— Thank you for coming over to check out this humble little Hub of mine. I very much appreciate the two links to those fascinating articles about the Black Madonna and St. Nicholas.

I had not ever heard that old St. Nick punched Arius. That's kind of funny, in its own way.

I surely see nothing wrong in kissing your crucifix after morning prayers. It seems a proper act of devotion and love to me.

I did write a little about Arius here:

I sure appreciate your encouragement, my friend. And I loved reading those two stories tonight. Thanks again. :D

Make Money from Ontario on September 26, 2011:

Nice hub James. Beautiful images too. You might be interested to know that there is a legend that claims that the icon of the Black Madonna, Our Lady of Cz?stochowa was painted on a cypress table top by St. Luke from the house of the Holy Family.

I just recently found out about these three icons of St. Nicholas. During the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea (AD 325), Arius was called upon to defend his position on the inferiority of Christ. Saint Nicholas just couldn't listen to all of Arius' nonsense and so he stood up and laid in to Arius with his fist. Yep he smacked him. The emperor tossed St. Nicholas in jail and the bishops took away his personal copy of the Gospels and his pallium. But Lord Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary visited Nicholas in jail. Jesus gave him back his copy of the Gospels. Next, the Blessed Virgin vested Nicholas with his episcopal pallium. When the Emperor Constantine heard of this miracle, he immediately ordered that Nicholas be reinstated as a bishop in good standing for the Council of Nicea. Now in my opinion that is a very cool story of Santa Clause that should be more widely known. The three traditional icons of Saint Nicholas on this page depict this miracle.

By the way after my morning prayers each day I kiss my little Crucifix.

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on July 28, 2010:

stephane86— I surely agree with you that the East has much to offer in terms of religious genius—and not only for their art though it is spectacular. Thank you very much for visiting my Hub. I enjoyed your comments. I appreciate the compliments, too. :-)

stephane86 on July 27, 2010:

Wow! You are such an erudite of history. I have been fascinated with icons since my teenage years. There is something of their luminosity and sharpness in line of drawing that just draws the attention and captures the imagination. The East, indeed, has a lot to offer too in terms of religious genius.

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on March 25, 2010:

stars439— I love these photos, too, my friend. Thank you for your compliments and blassings. :D

stars439 from Louisiana, The Magnolia and Pelican State. on March 24, 2010:

Educational hub, and beautiful photographs. God Bless You

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on December 12, 2009:

prettydarkhorse— You are welcome, Maita. I'm feeling better, thanks to an outpouring of love and support. I do have hope. :-)

prettydarkhorse from US on December 11, 2009:

icons and orthodox traditions, thanks for this piece, i really love reading a part of explanations about icons, I hope your ok today, just keep on believing and dont lose hope, never, Maita

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on December 08, 2009:

Petra Vlah— I get it. I wouldn't have known except I recognized your picture. Thanks for the clarification, dear. You are a great and classy lady.

Petra Vlah from Los Angeles on December 07, 2009:

Hi James,

I just wanted you to know that I did not changed my Gabriella D'Anton name (my real mane for that matter, the one you considere to be elegant).

Petra Vlah is my pen name and I am better known as Petra in the literary world

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on December 04, 2009:

Gabriella D'Anton— I remember San Marino from my stamp collecting days. I would love to take that stroll. Thanks for that great tip.

Gabriella D'Anton from Los Angeles, Ca on December 04, 2009:

If you make it to Ravenna James, going to Repubblica di San Marino is an absolute must see (only 30 minutes away)

It is an independent state (just like the Vatican) within the state of Italy. You can walk through the entire state of San Marino in about 30 minutes, but you will never forget it. It is magnificent

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on December 04, 2009:

Gabriella D'Anton— Thank you very much. You know, I haven't been to Ravenna but I have heard there are amazing sites there. I'll take your advice if I make it back to Italy—my favorite place to visit in the world.

Gabriella D'Anton from Los Angeles, Ca on December 03, 2009:

Beautiful, informative and well documented hub (as usually a peasure to read). I have some great old orthodox icons, but the best orthodox mozaic icones I have ever seen are in Ravenna. Next time you go to Italy make sure you stop in Ravenna, see Dante's tomb and Theodoricus tomb as well.

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on October 03, 2009:

Kebennett1— You're not in any trouble with me. You're free to speak your mind always. Paul does say it is best not to be married so you can serve God and His people with all your attention and that's where the celibate clergy (and nuns) comes from. I don't see that as a bad thing. Protestants owe a debt to Catholics in many ways. I am not for baptizing babies. I think that is ridiculous, personally. I believe Catholics and Protestants will be in Heaven together. And that will be a glorious day!!!

Kebennett1 from San Bernardino County, California on October 03, 2009:

Catholic Christians and Protestant Christians believe in a lot of the same things, but there are also a lot of differences. Catholics as you know believe in using icons such as rosaries, praying to Saints, going to confession, baptizing babies, clergy that can't be married... While Protestants don't. That is what I was talking about :) Not that I don't think there isn't a place for both in Heaven! Unlike a few people I have come across on Hubpages, I don't believe only one "religious belief" will make it to be with the Father! Did I clarify without getting into trouble with you :)

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on October 02, 2009:

Kebennett1— I think Catholics are Christians, dear. :)

The comments have been great on this thread. Especially yours! :-)

I do love art. And I thank you for coming by and leaving your warm words. Always a pleasure to hear from you.

Kebennett1 from San Bernardino County, California on October 02, 2009:

Ah James, The sparker of debate! Of course you knew this would happen, as this is still a hot issue today, to have and have not religious icons! The Catholics say yes, The Christians say no ( but we do have the cross!), and of course there are others in consideration who fall on one side, the other or somewhere in between! Your Historical data is always fantastic and very insightful and the artwork, superb! Wonderful Hub as usual.

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on September 30, 2009:

vanderhaven— This is quite a story. Sort of like your very own votive. I am glad it brought focus to your prayer life. Anything used in such a way seems good to me. And it worked, that's the main thing. God bless you for sharing this story. I appreciate you adding a personal touch to this thread. Thank you.

vanderhaven on September 30, 2009:

I had a trying time a few years back when My oldest son was thinking of leaving the Marines. I had been praying a lot and there were some troubling things I won't go into right now, but basically, I really needed to focus and think soundly so that I could relate some kind of help or advice to my son. -- I am not Catholic but I saw this candle in the store that had a picture of some saint on it and for some reason I bought it and took it home and made this kind of "ritual" thing that each evening when I sat to pray for him , I lit that candle --not for any kind of supernatural voodoo type thing to happen but because to me- it brought some kind of focus and attention and deliberate action to my prayers. By me concentrating and actively lighting that candle, I was saying in my heart, to God, how sincere I was. --

It made perfect sense to me at the time and I must say it worked for me. :) Our answers came, he stayed in the Marines - his anger toward their ways of doing things went away and all things worked out. Of course it wasn't because I lit some candle but simply because my heart was in the right place on the right message.

Anyway--- I love your research and this was another well written hub. Looking forward to more from you.

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on September 29, 2009:

Alexander Mark— I understand. It's a pleasure to hear from you again, brother. I am going to check out that web site. I hadn't heard of it. Don't feel guilty on my account. Thank you for your compliment. Thank you for coming by and leaving word.

Alexander Silvius from Portland, Oregon on September 29, 2009:

James - I have been busy with school and out of the Hub loop for a while, I felt guilty every time I saw your hubs and couldn't read them. Plus I have been writing for Lots of fun. I'm glad you didn't forget me. You have been busy! Seems like your hubs get better and better. Interesting point about the word "worship," appearing in comments both, "for and against," icons. But for me, there is no gray area. The trick for simple minded folk like me is to keep an open mind.

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on September 28, 2009:

Tina Irene— No offense intended. I offered no opinions of my own here. The inconophiles used this defense of icons, that their icons—just like the sacraments—represented the divine in physical form. They—not I—said that the images they used were akin to the cross, wafers, wine, rosary beads, baptism, anointing with oil, etc. I neither agreed nor disagreed. I simply reported what they, the iconophiles, said themselves.

I do believe in miracles yes and what better place for one than in Holy Communion. I don't doubt you for a minute about that, dear.

Tina Irene on September 28, 2009:

James -

I didn't read all of this hub 'cause this caught my eye:

"The sacraments were based on this same belief" (Divine Power and Blessings)", particularly the Eucharist (Holy Communion)."

OK...but, have you ever looked into the numerous Eucharistic miracles? They're eye openers, for sure.

James A Watkins (author) from Chicago on September 28, 2009: