Iconoclasm: The Heresy of Heresies (Part Two)

Iconoclasm: The Heresy of Heresies (Part 2)

In Franks, Romans, Feudalism, and Doctrine, Fr. John S. Romanides suggests:

The schism between Eastern and Western Christianity was not between East and West Romans. In actuality, it was a split between East Romans and the conquerors of the West Romans.

By the end of the seventh century, whole areas of the western part of the Roman Empire were now under either Arian or Muslim rule. In Spain, for example, the Visigoths had replaced all of the bishops with Arians—later to be supplanted by Franks, who were iconoclasts. Constantinople made several attempts to reverse this trend, but most attempts were thwarted (and most decisively so by the barbarian Charles Martel). The Frankish kingdom spread throughout Europe, as far as both Spain in the west, and south into both Lombardy and central Italy.

Romanides also offers:

[T]he West Romans [Franks] used the Church to suppress the Roman nation, whereas under Islam the Roman nation survived by means of the Church.

It seems that the Franks were willing to do just about anything to divide the Christians of the West, under Rome, with the Christians of the East. They used their power as ‘protectors’ of the Roman Christians to their advantage, and this most successfully under Charles I, a son of Charles Martel. Charles I reigned over the Frankish kingdom from 768 until his death in 814.

One of the ways the Franks drove a wedge between the West and East Romans was by accusing the Eastern Christians of heresy. A first step towards this schism came in 790 with the publication of the Libri Carolini, or ‘Charles’ Books.’ These four books were offered as a refutation of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. However, they show either an intentional misrepresentation of the council’s arguments, or a reliance on poor translations (from Greek into Latin). Unfortunately, John Calvin would later use these both inaccurate and misleading translations as the basis for his own arguments against sacred images.

For example, the Latin translation obscured the council’s clear distinctions between both veneration and adoration. In effect, their minutes of the Seventh Ecumenical Council argued against the council itself, when properly understood (as in the Greek editions).

As a result, the Franks claimed to be taking a ‘middle road’ between Hieria and Nicaea. The Carolingians claimed that icons are acceptable, especially as teaching aids, but they should not be either venerated or worshipped. For them, Mary and the Saints are venerable as people, but not in any form or depiction. Churches constructed under these guidelines would place statues and images far out of reach, to avoid any temptations towards either idolatry or veneration.

Four years after the Libri Carolini were published, Charles I assembled a synod in Frankfurt (A.D. 794). Led by Pope Hadrian (A.D. 772–795), this assembly addressed the ancient heresy of Adoptionism, while also condemning both Hieria and the Second Council of Nicaea. In other words, the Franks condemned both iconodulism and iconoclasm. By this, the Franks alienated the Roman Christians under their control from the Christians of the East. To them, the ‘Greeks’ of the East were idolaters, and this divisive message continued to spread.

Hadrian was succeeded in 795 by Leo III. Near the end of the eighth century, an assassination attempt was made on his life. He was also embroiled in a scandal, having been accused of immoral behavior. Leo fled Rome and then begged Charles I for his support. Charles began an investigation and followed Leo back to Rome, where Leo swore his innocence (December 23, 800). Two days later, Pope Leo crowned Charles I as ‘Emperor of the Romans.’

Many historians today allege that both Charles and Leo arranged to exchange Charles’ coronation for Leo’s exoneration, although some doubt that Charles had expected—or even desired—to be given the dubious title, Emperor of the Romans. Nevertheless, from this point forward, the Frankish kingdom would have its own emperor, in opposition to the rightful, ‘Greek’ emperor in Constantinople.

Following his coronation, Charles I had the Filioque added to the Creed, asserting its orthodoxy. Pope Leo objected to this addition, and had silver plates engraved with the Creed in both Greek and Latin—without the Filioque clause—and placed in St. Peter’s church in Rome.

By asserting that the Filioque was ‘necessary for salvation,’ another dividing point was found between the Greeks of the East and the Latin Christians under Frankish rule. Over time, the theological and historical issues took a backseat, and all anyone knew was that the Greeks were both heretics and idolaters, and that—as they were being told—the ‘original Creed’ had always included the Filioque.

Back in the East, Leo V became Emperor in 813, and started promoting iconoclasm in 814. Since Constantine V, the East Roman Empire had suffered many, successive years of both relative misfortune and military defeat—especially from the Bulgarians. Leo V attributed these failures to the veneration of icons, and argued that iconoclastic emperors were more successful, both in their personal lives and on the battlefield.

In an effort to gain sympathy for iconoclasm, Leo commissioned a group of learned monks to study the history of icon veneration. They brought the arguments of Hieria to Leo’s attention, and this provided the ammunition he needed. A synod was then held at the Great Church in 815, re-instituting iconoclasm.

During this second era of iconoclasm, Theodore the Studite was pivotal in educating the masses on both icon veneration and the history of the robber’s synod of Hieria. In his work, he connected the importance of icons with both the incarnation and the Gospel. On Palm Sunday of that same year, Theodore led his fellow monks at the Studite monastery (in Constantinople) in a procession through their garden. They held icons high above their heads, being seen over the outer walls of the monastery grounds. This was done as a sort of peaceful protest against the Emperor and his iconoclasm.

Leo’s successor, Michael II, tried to earn favor with the Franks by sending a note to the Frankish Emperor Louis the Pious (824), informing him of the East’s abandonment of iconodulism. Michael no doubt hoped that this would go towards soliciting military support from the Franks in their continued struggles against the Muslims and other would-be aggressors. Michael II was then succeeded by his son Theophilus, and Theophilus was succeeded by his young son Michael III and his wife Theodora.

The Empress Theodora—like Irene a generation before—sought to overturn iconoclasm, and did so through the Synod of Constantinople (A.D. 842-3). On February 19, 842—the first Sunday of Great Lent—the clergy of the synod made a procession to the Great Church, restoring its icons. This procession was a sort of homage to the one made by St. Theodore and his fellow monks just decades before, and is continued by the Orthodox faithful to this day (the ‘Sunday of Orthodoxy’).

Thanks to both Theodora and the writings of Saints like Theodore, iconoclasm had finally been defeated, removed from the life of the Orthodox Church forever.

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Iconoclasm: The Heresy of Heresies (Part One)



  1. Nathaniel says


    Your history lesson was interesting, but what grabbed me was the introduction:
    It’s not surprising that iconoclasm persists in contemporary Christian culture, and especially in America.

    Without a proper understanding of both the Incarnation and the deeper purpose of creation—throughout which God is ‘everywhere present and filling all things’—we are left with a worldview that is distorted. With no emperor or royal family to honor, we venerate celebrities, pornographers, amoral politicians, and the farce of ‘reality television.’ As addicted voyeurs, we look not into heaven, but rather into the deepest recesses of the pit.
    I’d love to hear more about this link between iconoclasm and modern life.

  2. Fr Paul Walliker says

    Gabe, interesting article but . . . It ignores the fact that during the period of iconoclasm the Bishop of Rome was busy decorating his private chapel, Santa Maria Antiqua with magnificent wall frescoes preserving the iconographic traditions which were imperiled in the East. The Bishop’s of Rome were at the time either Greek or heavily influenced by the Greek traditions. They stood solidly against the Arian influences for many centuries.

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