From the earliest days of the Church, Christians have kept depictions of Christ and the saints. The Good Shepherd is depicted in the catacombs of Rome, and a Church in Dura-Europos contains depictions of Christ and Peter dating back to AD 235. As Christianity gained ground in the fourth century, such depictions became prominent, and were known as icons. They became widespread under the reign of Emperor Justinian in the sixth century, and Christ was even depicted on Byzantine coins in the seventh and eighth centuries.
The iconoclast controversy began in 730, under the reign of Leo III. By an Imperial Edict, he forbade the veneration of icons—seemingly without consulting Church authorities. He held that icons of Christ and the saints were idols, and that their usage in churches was tantamount to idolatry. Iconoclasts argued for this position on the basis of Old Testament prohibitions against graven images (Ex. 20:4, Dt. 5:8). Thus, they maintained that the only true icons of Christ are the Cross and the Eucharist.
Following the edict, destruction of icons (and persecution of those who defended them) began, reaching their high point during the reign of Leo’s son, Constantine V, from 741-775.
The crisis did not affect Western Church—which was outside the bounds of the Byzantine Empire—and the West remained staunchly opposed to Leo’s actions. Pope Gregory III convened two synods in Rome defending the veneration of icons. Other Christians outside the Empire also joined in condemning iconoclasm; St. John of Damascus, for example, quickly became the intellectual leader of the resistance against iconoclasm in the East.
Seeking to solidify his position, Constantine V summoned a council in Hieria. Nearly 340 bishops answered the call and embraced iconoclasm, but none of the five Patriarchal Sees—Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem—were present, and none of them endorsed the movement.
After the death of Constantine in 775, his son Leo IV ascended the throne and attempted to mediate between the two factions. The controversy was causing turmoil in the Empire, and his wife, Empress Irene, supported the veneration of icons. After Leo’s unexpected death in 780, Irene took power as regent for her young son, Constantine VI. In 781, she called a council to settle the controversy. The Seventh Ecumenical Council first met in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople in 786, but was interrupted following an attack on the church by iconoclast troops.
It reconvened the following year and would be known as the Second Council of Nicaea. It rejected the decrees of the Council of Hieria and restored the veneration of icons in the East. The council participants answered the charge of idolatry by pointing out that Moses was commanded to make statues of cherubim to adorn the top of the Ark of the Covenant (Ex. 25:19) and depict them in the curtains of the tabernacle (Ex. 26:1). Idols were condemned in the Old Testament due to their being depictions of false gods, not merely because they were images.
In addition, the Council pointed out that the Old Testament forbids the depiction of God because He is incomparable to anything in creation, but God takes on flesh in the Incarnation, and this allows for Christ to be depicted in icons. There was also broad support for the veneration of icons among the Church Fathers.
Reflecting these conclusions, the Synodical Letter of the Council proclaims: “Christ, our true God, and His saints we honor in words, in writings, in thoughts, in sacrifices, in churches, in icons, on the one hand bowing down and worshiping Christ as God and Master, on the other hand honoring the saints as true servants of the Master of all and offering them due veneration.”
Following another brief struggle with iconoclasm in the early ninth century, the East began commemorating the Seventh Ecumenical Council on the first Sunday of Lent, in what is known as the “Sunday of Orthodoxy.”
While the West remained largely untouched by this controversy through the eighth and ninth centuries, the issue was rehashed during the Reformation, with Protestant leaders making the charge that veneration of religious images amounted to idolatry—a similar charge to those made in the East centuries before. As a result, icons are strictly denounced in most Protestant denominations today, making iconoclasm a chapter of Church history that still echoes today.