The Triumph of the Icons: History, Theology, and Implications for Orthodox Worship Today

The only way for Christ to save the world and restore it was to be born in it and to sanctify matter, by becoming matter Himself. Indeed, the Incarnation of the Son of God then not only made the veneration of icons possible within Orthodox Christianity but a downright necessity. St. Theodore the Studite wryly states that if only mental worship was sufficient, then God would not have become human and endured the Cross. He could just as easily have communicated with humans mentally.
| 19 March 2008


Lecture on the Occasion of the Feast of the Sunday of Orthodoxy
Pan-Orthodox Vespers, St. Elias Eastern Orthodox Church, Battle Creek , Michigan Sunday, March 4, 2001

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen. With thankfulness to Almighty God for this glorious day that has dawned upon us and for the approaching night, I wish to express my gratitude toward the worshiping community of St. Elias and your pastor, Fr. Michael St. Andrew, for the opportunity afforded to me this afternoon to worship with you, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, and to share with you a few thoughts about the great feast worldwide Orthodoxy celebrates today. My homily this evening is entitled: “The Triumph of the Icons: History, Theology, and Implications for Orthodox Worship Today.”     

        It is true that the non-Orthodox world tends to identify Orthodox Christianity primarily with our use of icons in worship. It sees the icon as that one distinct element that distinguishes Eastern Christianity from the other expressions of Christianity. To a degree, this is not necessarily an incorrect view, given the fact that the icons in our Church tell so much more than just a story of the sainted person’s life. The holy icons are theological statements, which in their form and manner of depiction, explicate the teachings and doctrine that are central to the one true Faith, upon which the universe is founded. The triumph of the holy icons then on this First Sunday of the Great and Holy Lent is not simply a historical victory over the Iconoclasts, or opponents of the icons, but a celebration of the very essence of the Church’s Faith, which is best expressed in our liturgical worship.

            In order to understand the significance of this victory for the Orthodox Church and the ramifications of iconic use in the churches, proper procedure requires us to step back into history and examine, albeit in brief, those important events that lead us to celebrate this 1,158th Sunday of Orthodoxy. By exploring the historical background, we will encounter the theological positions on both sides of the Iconoclastic controversy, as well as the Church’s faithful persistence in formulating its Spirit-inspired dogma regarding the holy icons.

The Historical Overview

            The debate surrounding the importance of the holy icons and their liturgical usage spanned over a century, covering the historic period from 726-843 AD. The debate, known historically as the Iconoclastic controversy, mainly preoccupied the Eastern regions of the Byzantine Empire, with only a few repercussions in the West. It was a time of great political unrest, highlighted by various degrees of Byzantine intrigue, heresy, persecution, and even death. The Church, during this time, produced several martyrs and confessors for the Faith, men and women who refused to surrender the God-inspired teachings and Tradition of their Fathers. The end result was the final triumph of Orthodoxy over heresy, and once again, as during the first few centuries of Christianity, the Church was preserved upon and edified by the very blood shed by the holy martyrs for Christ our God.

            The conflict began during the reign of Emperor Leo III the Isaurian (726-741) who, ten years into his reign, publicly began speaking out against the icons and sought to eliminate “those who worship them” (Iconodules). To affirm his authority, he sent a representative to remove the icon over the Chalke (Bronze) Gate of the imperial palace in Constantinople and replace it with a cross. The representative was apprehended, needless to say, by a mob of citizens who favored the icons, mostly women, and was killed. Leo then retaliated fiercely against the Iconophiles (“those who love the icons”) and began his widespread campaign throughout the Empire.

            In the West, Pope Gregory II rejected Leo’s theological claims [we shall look at the Iconoclastic position in a few minutes] but sought to boost Leo’s popularity in Italy because of the need for Byzantine troops in the West to defeat the approaching Lombard hoards from the North. In 730, Leo passed an edict ordering the destruction of all icons in the Empire. Patriarch Gelasios refused to sign this document and was aptly deposed. A new Iconoclastic patriarch, Anastasios, was chosen and ecclesiastically sanctioned the edict. Even two representatives of Pope Gregory III from Rome were imprisoned for standing against Leo. Consequently, a great rift was created from this time forth between both East and West. In 754, after the Lombards captured Ravenna, the papacy formally aligned itself with the Frankish king Pepin, establishing the foundations for the new Holy Roman Empire under Charlemagne in 800 AD.

            Leo’s successor, his son Constantine V (741-775), intensified the persecutions against the Orthodox, the term that by this time was gaining popularity to describe the “correct” teaching of the Church. In Hieria, in the year 754, 338 carefully selected Iconoclastic bishops (minus the sees of Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem) convened at a council ordered by the theologically articulate Constantine, to establish their own dogma against the icons. Consequently, great figures such as St. John of Damascus, a champion for the Orthodox cause, were excommunicated. The total destruction of all the icons was ordered. Monasteries, the centers of theological learning and certainly from which the greatest support for the icons came, were forcibly closed. Many monks and clergy were imprisoned, tortured, exiled, or killed for their faith.

            Constantine’s son, Leo IV (775-780) was a moderate defender of his father’s holocaustic campaigns, abandoning his father’s anti-monastic persecutions. Leo’s premature death made his wife Irene co-emperor and regent for their ten-year-old son Constantine VI. Resolute in her commitment to restore the icons, Irene appointed the Iconophile patriarch Tarasios to the throne of Constantinople and convened the 7th Ecumenical Council at Nicea in 787 AD, composed of 350 bishops from all over the Empire and giving the Church its first respite. (As we shall see, there was a second wave of Iconoclastic persecution!) Iconoclastic writings were condemned and ordered to be burned, and the icons, along with St. John the Damascene, were restored to their rightful place in the Empire. In 802, Charlemagne from the West acknowledged that there was no emperor in Byzantium, by virtue of the fact that Irene was a woman and had actually  overthrown her son, making her the sole monarch in the East. Charlemagne’s proposal to Irene to marry him (in order for him to increase the size of his empire) was rejected and Irene was exiled to a monastery, where she later died.

            In 813, the second round of Iconoclastic persecutions resumed with Leo V the Armenian (813-820). He appointed Patriarch John Grammatikos as the theological voice of Iconoclasm and sought to reconvene a council to depose the icons once again. Two rivals, the former patriarch Nikephoros and St. Theodore of the Monastery of Studion, joined forces to fight against Leo. In the spring of 815, a new council was convened, condemning the Ecumenical Synod of Nicea and restoring the decisions of the one in Hieria in 754.

Following this change of events, the Iconoclastic emperor, Michael II the Amorian (820-29), ascended the throne, a moderate who did not continue the persecutions against the Iconophiles and actually recalled Patriarch Nikephoros and St. Theodore from exile. The final Iconoclastic Emperor Theophilos (829-842), influenced under the tutelage of John Grammatikos, fiercely persecuted the Orthodox, targeting especially the monasteries in an attempt to destroy once and for all the preservers of the true Faith. His death on January 20, 842, led to the ascent to the throne of his wife, the famous Empress Theodora, who also served as regent of their son Michael III (842-867).

            Empress Theodora deposed the Iconoclastic patriarch John Grammatikos and reinstated Patriarch Methodios to his rightful see. Convening a council in 843, the Church and State permanently established the holy icons in the churches and on March 11, the first Sunday of Great Lent, the decree was solemnized as the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” in the Great Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. To this day, our Church celebrates this victory by blessing God and those saints and martyrs who fervently and unshakably supported the Orthodox Christian Faith.

The Theological Positions in the Debate

            The theological arguments of the Church in support of the holy icons may be attributed to the writings of three important Church Fathers: St. John of Damascus (who shined during the first phase of the controversy), St. Theodore the Studite, and Patriarch Nikephoros of Constantinople (both of whom championed the cause during the second phase). Their theological positions may be viewed in four areas: (1) the argument about the Mosaic prohibition of idols (Ex 20.4-5); (2) the nature of the image itself; (3) the Christological argument; and (4) the issue of worship vs. veneration.

            The opponents of the holy icons and the positions they took were highly influenced by three dominant religious philosophies of the time: Judaism, Islam, and Manichaeanism, a heresy which taught that the material world was evil and not a creation of God. Judaism and Islam both advocate a “spiritual” worship of God and thus reject any graven or material image. The Iconoclasts were clearly following this line of reasoning when they rallied around the biblical prohibition of graven images in Exodus and Deuteronomy. For them, the icons were made by imperfect human hands, and the perfect and infinite God could never be controlled nor mastered nor circumscribed by visible human efforts and profane physical matter. Countering this stance, St. John of Damascus argued that although the worship of God is indeed primary among the Orthodox, God still commanded the tabernacle to be decorated with religious images, such as the cherubim and seraphim. These images were to lead the Israelites to a greater worship of God. Secondly, the Fathers taught that God made images of Himself, first and foremost being Christ Jesus, ‘the likeness of God” and “the image of the invisible God” (cf. 2 Cor 4.4; Col 1.15). Thus, the birth of God in the flesh, the Incarnation, surpassed all Old Testament prohibitions. Thirdly, humanity itself was created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gen 1.26). Hence, since God dwells in each human being, and since man’s image was depicted everywhere else in the world, how could Christ’s holy image not be depicted upon the holy icons?

Regarding the nature of the image, the Iconoclasts claimed that a true image must have the same essence (homoousios) as the original person (prototype) being depicted. The icons were not of the same essence with their prototypes. The Orthodox Fathers never regarded the holy icons as being of the same substance with the prototype. At the Seventh Ecumenical Council it was stated that, “. . . the icon resembles the prototype, not with regard to the essence, but only with regard to the name and to the position of the members which can be characterized . . .” (D. Sahas, Icon and Logos, p. 77). The honor then passed from the visible image to the prototype depicted upon the icon. St. Basil the Great likened the homage paid to the image of the Emperor with the honor given the holy icons (On the Holy Spirit 18.45). The people always respected the bust of the Byzantine Emperor in the squares and marketplaces, considering the material statue itself the “Emperor” but realizing that there were not two Emperors, but one. In addition, Theodosios the Great established a legal precedent, that any person seeking political asylum at the statue of the Emperor in the city could not be apprehended for ten days, out of reverence for the imperial icon and its prototype. 

            As for the Christological arguments, the Iconoclasts claimed that if the icons  depicted only the humanity of Christ and not the divine nature, then their opponents were in violation of the Fourth Ecumenical Synod (451 AD), which taught that Christ is perfect God and perfect Man and were thus either monophysites (they believed that the divine was subsumed in the human) or Nestorians (Christ’s divine nature was denied). Furthermore, if the icons depicted somehow Christ’s divinity, then Christ was not divine since it was impossible to depict divinity by imperfect human means. St. John of Damascus writes this classic apology in defense of depicting the incarnate Word of God:

But now when God is seen in the flesh conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter: I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take His abode in matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. Never will I cease honoring the matter which wrought my salvation! I honor it, but not as God (St. John of Damascus, First Apology 16).

He further adds that “what can be assumed can be saved.” The only way for Christ to save the world and restore it was to be born in it and to sanctify matter, by becoming matter Himself. Indeed, the Incarnation of the Son of God then not only made the veneration of icons possible within Orthodox Christianity but a downright necessity. St. Theodore the Studite wryly states that if only mental worship was sufficient, then God would not have become human and endured the Cross. He could just as easily have communicated with humans mentally (see First Refutation 7). What’s more, only the person of Christ (His hypostasis), and not His two natures could be depicted on an icon. The human and divine natures of Christ, perfectly united but never confused, co-existed in the mystery of the incarnate Son and Word of God.

            A final word on the distinction between worship and veneration. While worship is reserved only for God, veneration, or honor, is extended beyond the image to the prototype in the icon. The respect and honor do not stop at the icon, nor is the icon the recipient of our worship and praise. The icon serves as a reminder of the spiritual life that co-exists alongside our world, a window even, through which we envision the deified world of the Kingdom. Indeed then, as one writer put it very succinctly, “The appropriate encounter with the icon, despite its powerful presence as a visual image, is an encounter that goes beyond the icon itself to the greater transcendent reality of God” (A. Vrame, The Educating Icon, p. 44).

Implications for Orthodox Worship Today

            As material objects depicting the transformed, defied life of the Kingdom, the holy icons are used today primarily because of two very basic Orthodox teachings: (1) that matter is by nature good; and (2) that Christ’s incarnation rendered matter an instrument of salvation. These two very important doctrinal truths suggest to us various implications in our liturgical worship. I wish to share with you three of these.

            First, just as we live in a very material world, we also worship in a very material Church. The basic Orthodox belief in the goodness of all matter is the fundamental reason for our use of physical items in our worship: bread, wine, water, oil, incense, candles, icons, and music. We can take the famous pop singer Madonna’s verses, “We live in a material world, and I am a material girl” and modify them to apply to our Church’s liturgical worship: “We pray in a material Church, and I am a material worshiper.” The major difference here though is that Christ, through His incarnation, not only affirmed the goodness of matter, but also transformed it to serve as a means of divine grace, through which we are saved. The secular, material world seeks not the transformation and redemption of man, but rather his separation from God. In the secular world, matter is not a means to God but an end to itself, an idol, a god. In Orthodox worship, all our senses are engaged to praise and glorify the God of all.

            Second, the icons affirm not only the Incarnation, but also every single event Christ our Lord effected for our salvation. In our liturgical worship, God acts mystically when man acts physically. In other words, the various prayers and actions and gestures, the various material items we use in church, become the media, the instruments, through which the Lord acts in our lives to bless us and help us and save us. Through faith, and only through faith, can we see the hand of God acting mystically through the unworthy hand of the priest. Only through faith can we behold the glory of God in human beings. Put simply, faith allows us through physical worship to relive the salvific acts of Christ and to witness firsthand God’s continued involvement in the lives of His people.

            Finally, as the icons are holy images which point to a greater, transcendent reality, so too are we icons of God, in whom God dwells forever. As St. Paul says, we are living temple of the Holy Spirit and, as such, each of us created in “God’s image and likeness” (Gen 1.26) requires the respect and honor which is our due. This means that both inside and outside of worship, we are to treat others and be treated ourselves with the holiness and respect and piety due the holy icons, because God lives in each of us. Beyond our physical appearance, in our souls, God exists and makes His abode inside of each of us. For this reason does Christ command us to “love one another, as I have loved you”, for the simple reason that in loving another human being, no matter who he or she is, we love God. As St. John the Evangelist writes,  “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar, for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (1 Jn 4.20). Indeed then, we are all icons for each other’s salvation, through whom we cannot help but see, with the eyes of faith, the presence of Almighty God.

            May this holy feast of our Church, the Sunday of Orthodoxy, instruct us and inspire us all in our Orthodox Christian Faith, and raise us to honor the incarnate Son and Word of God, His saints, and His people, one another, who are living icons of the glory of God. Amen.



Since you are here…

…we do have a small request. More and more people visit Orthodoxy and the World website. However, resources for editorial are scarce. In comparison to some mass media, we do not make paid subscription. It is our deepest belief that preaching Christ for money is wrong.

Having said that, Pravmir provides daily articles from an autonomous news service, weekly wall newspaper for churches, lectorium, photos, videos, hosting and servers. Editors and translators work together towards one goal: to make our four websites possible -,, and Therefore our request for help is understandable.

For example, 5 euros a month is it a lot or little? A cup of coffee? It is not that much for a family budget, but it is a significant amount for Pravmir.

If everyone reading Pravmir could donate 5 euros a month, they would contribute greatly to our ability to spread the word of Christ, Orthodoxy, life's purpose, family and society.