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Eighth Century

The Icon Debate

In the eighth cen­tu­ry the Isauri­an rulers Leo III (717–741) and Con­stan­tine V (741–775) in the East attempt­ed to sub­ject the Church to their rule. The lat­ter even dared to call him­self “emper­or and priest.” In order to gain con­trol of the Church these two emper­ors vicious­ly attacked the zeal­ous Chris­tians, espe­cial­ly the monks, who defend­ed the integri­ty of the Church. The attack took the form of a fierce per­se­cu­tion against those who ven­er­at­ed the icons. The sub­ject of the attack was well placed because there real­ly exist­ed an exag­ger­at­ed ven­er­a­tion of icons among the pious peo­ple which tru­ly bor­dered on idol­a­try and paganism.

A coun­cil held in 753 for­mal­ly con­demned the ven­er­a­tion of icons by Chris­tians. It called for the removal of all images from the church­es, pub­lic build­ings’ and homes of the peo­ple. This coun­cil was not only a polit­i­cal move by the rulers to gain author­i­ty over the Church, but it showed a rea­soned and well skilled argu­men­ta­tion against icon ven­er­a­tion. The basis of the posi­tion of the coun­cil was tak­en pri­mar­i­ly from the bib­li­cal teach­ing that God is invis­i­ble, there­fore vis­i­ble, graven images are not to be made and adored by true believ­ers. It is prob­a­ble that this argu­men­ta­tion was inspired by close con­tact with the Moslems who were fanat­i­cal­ly strict on these very points.

The bish­ops of the Church were under strong impe­r­i­al pres­sure to con­demn offi­cial­ly the ven­er­a­tion of icons. When they did, a vicious per­se­cu­tion of those who con­tin­ued to keep and to ven­er­ate the holy images imme­di­ate­ly fol­lowed. The time between 762 and 775 is known as the “decade of blood” since hun­dreds of Chris­tians, most­ly monks, were impris­oned, tor­tured, and even killed for har­bor­ing and hon­or­ing icons.

The Sev­enth Ecu­meni­cal Council

In 787, dur­ing the reign of the Empress Irene (780–802), who favored icon ven­er­a­tion, a coun­cil was held in Nicea which defined the legit­i­mate and prop­er use of icons in the Church. This coun­cil, now known as the Sev­enth Ecu­meni­cal Coun­cil, fol­lowed the the­ol­o­gy of Saint John of Dam­as­cus (d.749). The deci­sion of the coun­cil affirmed that icons may be made and hon­ored but not worshipped.

The bish­ops of the coun­cil rea­soned that the very essence of the Chris­t­ian faith is the incar­na­tion of the Son and Word of God in human flesh. God indeed is invis­i­ble. But in Jesus Christ the invis­i­ble God has become vis­i­ble. The one who sees Jesus sees the invis­i­ble Father. (John 14:8) When icon paint­ing and icon-ven­er­a­tion in the Church are denied, the true human­i­ty of Jesus is denied. As well, it is denied that in and through Christ, the Holy Spir­it has been giv­en to men so that they may become holy, tru­ly ful­fill­ing them­selves as cre­at­ed “in the image and like­ness of God.” (Gen­e­sis 1:26)

Thus, it was the council’s deci­sion that the rejec­tion of the holy images is the rejec­tion of the fact of sal­va­tion by God in Christ and the Holy Spirit.

God the Father and the Holy Spir­it can­not and must not be depict­ed. Christ, the Theotokos, and the saints can be depict­ed in icono­graph­ic form because they show the real­i­ty of man’s sal­va­tion by God. They show the true trans­fig­u­ra­tion and sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion of man — and the whole of cre­ation — by Christ and the Holy Spir­it. The images may be ven­er­at­ed in the Church since “hon­or ren­dered to the image ascends to its pro­to­type, and he who ven­er­ates an icon adores the per­son (hyposta­sis) of the one por­trayed.” (Sev­enth Ecu­meni­cal Council)

After the coun­cil of 787 the attack against the icons con­tin­ued. It final­ly end­ed in 843 when the icons were returned to the Church­es where they remain today.

Liturgical Development

Saint John of Dam­as­cus was also respon­si­ble for litur­gi­cal devel­op­ment in the eighth cen­tu­ry. He was a high­rank­ing min­is­ter of the Moslem Caliph who became a monk in the St. Sab­bas monastery in Jerusalem. He wrote many litur­gi­cal hymns still sung in the Church such as the Canon of East­er Matins, and cer­tain hymns sung at the Ortho­dox funer­al ser­vice. He is con­sid­ered to be the orig­i­nal com­pos­er of the Octoe­chos which is the col­lec­tion of hymns sung in the Church using eight dif­fer­ent melodies, one each week on a rotat­ing basis through­out the year. (See Book 2 on Wor­ship) Saint John is the author of the first sys­tem­at­ic trea­tise of Ortho­dox Chris­t­ian doc­trine called the Com­plete Expo­si­tion of the Ortho­dox Faith. This trea­tise can be found in part three of the work, The Fount of Knowl­edge.

The feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos to the Tem­ple was intro­duced in Con­stan­tino­ple. Accord­ing to St. Andrew of Crete, the feast was already being cel­e­brat­ed in Jerusalem as ear­ly as the sixth cen­tu­ry. Thus, by the eighth cen­tu­ry, it had found its place in the uni­ver­sal cal­en­dar of the Ortho­dox Church.

The West

In the West, in the eighth cen­tu­ry, the bar­bar­ian tribes con­tin­ued to be con­vert­ed to Chris­tian­i­ty. The great­est mis­sion­ary at this time was St. Boni­face (d.754). Also in this cen­tu­ry the bish­ops of Rome became for the first time sec­u­lar rulers who gov­erned prop­er­ties in Italy, and entered into close rela­tion with the new­ly-emerg­ing Car­olin­gian rulers. It was these bar­bar­ian rulers of the Car­olin­gian House, par­tic­u­lar­ly Charle­magne, who were to restore the empire in the West with the coop­er­a­tion of the bish­ops of Rome. In order to do so, how­ev­er, they had to attack the legit­i­ma­cy of the empire in the East. They made their attack by accus­ing the East of idol­a­try because of icon ven­er­a­tion, and by accus­ing the East of drop­ping the words “and the Son” (fil­ioque) from the Nicene Creed. These accu­sa­tions were con­tained in the Car­o­line Books giv­en by Charle­magne to the pope of Rome in 792