The First Iconoclasm

Today, some Reformed Protestants still like to accuse us Catholics of “idolatry”, retaining Calvin’s rejection of the usage of images in worship. When Calvin did talk about “image”, he meant a spiritual image of God in Jesus Christ the Word of God or the image of God in our soul. He dismissed the arguments for images of the Council of Nicaea as “childish” (cf. Calvin’s Institutiones Christianae, I, 11). The rejection of images in the churches belongs to primary emphases of the Second Helvetic Confession (1566), which established a definite, common and lasting consensus among the German speaking Reformed churches in Switzerland. This decision found its pendant in England, where Protestants destroyed thousands of icons. As David Davis put it: “Most English reformers followed Calvin’s line that only ‘historical, which give a representation of events, and pictorial, which merely exhibit bodily shapes and figures’ subjects were to be permitted. […] Elizabeth’s articles in 1559 sustained that any image ‘whether in their churches and chapels.of feigned and false miracles, pilgrimages, idolatry, and superstition be removed, abolished, and destroyed.” (Source click Here). Some radicals event destroyed crosses which they considered also to be an idol (for example the attack on the famous Cheapside Cross, 1581).

The Calvinist and Puritan Iconoclasm is not the first in history. The Second Council of Nicaea, which is combated by Calvin, was a reaction to the so called “First Iconoclasm”. The second iconoclast Period lasted from 814-842 and was ended by the the Empress Theodora, who restored the icons. The Byzantine Iconoclasm has also influence on the West Latin Church, where Charlesmagne tried to follow the example of the iconoclast Emperor Leo III but was stopped by Pope Hadrian I.

Clasm Chludov

Byzantine iconoclasm 9th century

"God, Cosmos and Humankind", one of the numerous monographies of this great scholar

An article by Gerhart B. Ladner, a great mediaevalist and Jewish convert, which I happen to come across, sheds some interesting light on the Byzantine conflict between iconodule and iconoclast parties. He sees this conflict as a fundamental contest between Church and State (emperor). The iconoclasm, thus Ladner,

was from its beginning an attack upon the visible representation of the civitas Dei on this earth. Not only because the images had such an important place in the Byzantine Church, theologically and liturgically, that an attack against them was ipso facto an attack against the Church but also and still more because the emperors showed unmistakably that even in maintaining the belief in the supreme, supernatural government of Christ, they did not wish to permit on this earth any other but their own image or more exactly the imagery of their own imperial natural world. They wished even more ardently than their predecessors and than most of the occidental emperors to be the Christian, the sacred emperors – Βασιλεὺς καὶ Ἰερεὺς είμὶ, “I am King and Priest”, wrote Leo III to Pope Gregory II, following the old caesaropapistic theory – but they understood this in such a way that only their sacred empire was to be the material form of Christendom in the terrestrial world; the Church would be only the liturgical function of the empire. Accordingly the supernatural should remain abstract, Christ and his heavenly world should not and could not be expressed visibly in images. (Ladner 1940: 135).

Ladner observed that both Byzantine and Protestant iconoclasm contains an inconsistency: their hostility towards images concerns only religious images, whilst venerating profane images is not at all considered as contentious. In both cases there is a refusal to

venerate God under visible forms, and, as a consequence of denying or, at least, limiting the sacramental order of the world, also the view that the State is the highest visible form of life on the earth. The special characteristic of the imperial Byzantine iconoclasm, which distinguishes it from the iconoclasts of the Reformation, was however the simultaneous increase of a profane imperial art whcih was meant to replace religious art in the churches and in the public buildings and places (ibid. 136).

Furthermore, there is a causal relation between the profane imperial art and the origin of iconoclasm. The religious images are, according to the iconophile party,

to such an extent a true representation of Christ and his Saint that they were in some way identical with it and consequently able to bring those prototypes down to the earth. But it was just this intense and visible terrestrial representation of the Kingdom of God through the Church and their images which the iconoclastic emperors wanted to replace by a more abstract conception of Christendom which left more room for the idea and the reality of the empire (ibid. 139).

The iconoclasm was, as Ladner concluded, the climax of the caesaropapistic theory (i.e. Christian ruler and avove all the Christian Emperor was rex and sacerdos, vicarius Dei on this earth) and practice of the State.

Great defenders of the veneration of images are St. Theodore of Studion and St. John Damascene. The Incarnation is a central argument for this practice: The reality of the Incarnation and a relative divinity of imagery are dependent upon one another. For the Byzantine iconophiles the Incarnation

implied necessarily the making and worshipping of images; further, the relation between the image and its prototype, that is to say for instance with Christ, the Blessed Virgin, the Saints, was a relationship of identiy, a relative identiy but not a rude material one (ibid. 143).

This identity, as John Damascene and Theodore of Studion explain, is an identity according to the hypostasis, to the person of Christ. The image is a necessary outgrowth of the prototype, like the shadow of a natural body. The prototype includes its image potentially. There are also images which were (supposedly) created without intermediary of human hands, for example the legendary impression of His Face on a veil. St. Basil the Great states: “the honour of the veneration of the image is transferred to its prototype” (cf. PG 32, 149G). Basing on this theology of icons, the Byzantine (and later the Eastern) iconography has a much greater conservatism than the occidental iconography. A second consequence of this theory is the survival of a certain degree of naturalism in Byzantine art.

In the Latin West, Charlemagne and his theologians like Alcuin and Theodulf of Orleans allowed images but defied their worship, whilst Pope Hadrian agreed with the Greek position as expressed in the Second Nicaenum. The Frankish position sees religious images as merely reminders and paradigmatata, following the teaching of Pope Gregory the Great that images are “images are the books of the laity”.

  • Cooper, David J. C.: The Theology of Image in Eastern Orthodoxy and John Calvin. in: Scottish Journal of Theology (1982), 35: 219-241
    Zachman, Randall C.: Image and word in the theology of John Calvin, Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.
    Ladner, Gerhart B.: Origin and Significance of the Byzantine Iconoclastic Controversy. in: Mediaeval Studies (1940) II, 127-149.
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