The Seventh Oecuminical Council of Nicaea and the Iconoclasts

Icons are the paintings of Christ, The Virgin Mary ,the Saints and holy events. These are kept in Churches and private homes by the Christian faithful as symbols of their faith.

During the eighth century in AD 726 , there arose a dispute between two groups of Christian worshippers.

The Iconoclasts demanded the destruction of icons and were suspicious of them as they considered their veneration as idolatry.They were also known as “icon smashers.” They were probably influenced by jewish and muslim ideas.

The "Iconodules" defended the place of icons in our faith and were also known as   "venerators of icons."

The veneration of icons, had been suppressed inside the Byzantine Empire during the reign of Leo III (717 - 741). His son,Constantine V (741 - 775), had held a synod to make the suppression official. Constantine's son Leo IV continued in his fathers steps when he took the imperial throne but with his early death his grandmother the Empress, Regent Irene of Athens , moved by her own beliefs and considerations, convened the council under which 350 bishops met and condemned the iconoclasts as heretics.

Even this meeting had been fraught with problems. In 786, the council had met in the   Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople . However, soldiers in collusion with the opposition who wanted to prevent the restoration of the icons in the churches, entered the church, and broke up the assembly. As a result, the government resorted to a different strategy.Under the pretext of a campaign, the soldiers were sent away from the capital — disarmed and disbanded.

As a result in the autumn of 787, on September 24th, the Seventh Oecumenical Council met. This was also the second council of Nicaea . This Council defended the principle of venerating icons.

Proof of the lawfulness of the veneration of icons was drawn from various passages in the Bible itself:

In Exodus 25:19 when the Lord God speaks to Moses and gives him instructions on how to make a Tabernacle in which the Lord himself will dwell: “Make two gold cherubim of beaten work at the ends of the cover , one at each end…”

In Numbers 7:89 it says “ And when Moses entered the Tent of the Prescence to speak with God, he heard the Voice speaking from above the cover over the Ark of the Tokens from between the two cherubim :”

In Hebrews 9:5 it says : ” …and above it the cherubim of God's glory…”

These extracts proved to the Holy Fathers that it was not wrong to venerate icons as symbols of our faith.

The bishops taught that the icons of Our Lord and the Virgin Mary and the Saints should be placed in the churches and elsewhere without fear of persecution. They made clear that icons should be venerated and respected but not worshipped. True worship is for God alone. Venerating icons was not idolatory. The respect and veneration due to icons as holy pictures depicts the love and respect we have for the person depicted in the icon. It is the same as hanging up a picture of one of our family whom we love. We do not worship their picture. Their picture is there to remind us of the person we love. We do not worship the paint or the wood. We show the love we have in our hearts for the Saint or person in the icon. Because the Lord came down to earth and became man we can depict him in an icon. The icons of the Saints are there to show us what can be achieved by faith. These were all normal men and women like us. Yet they suffered and died for their faith and love of the Lord. Their icons help us to remember them and to hopefully emulate their lives. If these normal men and women managed to enter the Kingdom of God with their faith, their icons help us to be strong and to realise that we too can emulate their lives if we have the desire to do so.

Icons are like books to remind us of God. Through icons anyone can see the mysteries of the Christian religion opened before their eyes.

Icons are necessary and essential because they protect the full and proper doctrine of the Incarnation.God, himself, cannot be represented in His eternal nature.

As it says in John 1:18

" one has ever seen God;but God's only Son ,he who is nearer to the Father's heart , he has made him known ."
God ie the Lord Jesus , the Son of God, can only be depicted simply because He "became human and took flesh." Of Him who took a material body, material images can be made. In so taking a material body, God proved that matter can be redeemed. He deified matter, making it spirit-bearing, and so if flesh can be a medium for the Spirit, so can wood or paint, although in a different fashion.

St. John of Damascus says : I do not worship matter, but the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who through matter effected my salvation...”

The seventh and last Ecumenical Council upheld the iconodules' postion in AD 787. They stated that Icons... are to be kept in churches and honored with the same relative veneration as is shown to other material symbols, such as the life giving Holy Cross and the Book of the Gospels.   They also proclaimed that the 'doctrine of icons' is tied to the Orthodox teaching that all of God's creation is to be redeemed and glorified, both spiritual and material.

This council is celebrated in our church each year on the first Sunday of Great Lent and again on the Sunday closest to October 11 (the Sunday on or after October 8). The former celebration commemorates the council as the culmination of the Church's battles against the iconoclast herectics while the latter commemorates the council itself.

Unfortunately the problem with the veneration of icons did not end here. The proper veneration of icons did not end properly until the Empress Theodora permanently ended the attacks in AD 843.

Largely through the work of St.John of Damascus   (AD 759-826), the iconodules' position prevailed . He addressed the charges of the iconoclasts in these words:

“Concerning the charge of idolatry: Icons are not idols but symbols, therefore when an Orthodox venerates an icon, he is not guilty of idolatry. He is not worshipping the symbol, but merely venerating it. Such veneration is not directed toward wood, or paint or stone, but towards the person depicted. Therefore relative honor is shown to material objects, but worship is due to God alone.

We do not make obeisance to the nature of wood, but we revere and do obeisance to Him who was crucified on the Cross... When the two beams of the Cross are joined together I adore the figure because of Christ who was crucified on the Cross, but if the beams are separated, I throw them away and burn them”   — St. John of Damascus.

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Last published: :28/11/2010
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