The Western Critiques of Christian Iconoclasm

The Western Critiques of Christian Iconoclasm


As most historians recognize, the central events related to Byzantine iconoclasm in both the eighth and ninth centuries unfolded in and around the imperial city of Constantinople. Nevertheless, the churches of the West—and especially in the city of old Rome—were intimately involved in combatting this new, imperially-sanctioned heresy.

In a piece last May on the Patristic evidence in favor of iconodulism (in response to The Calvinist International), I only briefly touched on one of the sweeping generalizations in that article: A dismissal of any substantial Western involvement in the iconoclastic disputes. In that post, the iconoclastic controversy was termed: “a wholly Byzantine affair.”

For example, Peter Brown’s 1973 article, A Dark-Age Crisis: Aspects of the Iconoclastic Controversy, was referenced, in spite of the fact that Brown himself has since retracted many claims he made in the 70s on the subject at hand, among others (e.g. most recently, in a 2013 interview with Dr. Albert Mohler, as well as in the 1993 Tanner Lecture at Cambridge University, Aspects of the Christianisation of the Roman World). This was a fact not mentioned by The Calvinist International.

Regardless, there are a number of synods, encyclicals, and other events in the West that demonstrate not only involvement in the iconoclastic controversies of the eighth and ninth centuries, but also Roman—and not necessarily Carolingian or Frankish—support for iconodulism. Despite the decline of Western Christianity in the centuries following Charles I, the iconodulistic spirit of this period would endure all the way until the Council of Trent (1545–1563). Only in recent memory has the Roman position on iconodulism been altered, aligning with a more moderate or Carolingian position—e.g. the Papal encyclical Mediator Dei of Pius XII, Nov. 20, 1947, ¶189 and 195–196.

Iconoclasm arises in two different time periods: A.D. 726–787 and 815–843. Its initial arrival in 726 was a result of the decrees of Emperor Leo III, the first ruler of the Isaurian Dynasty. While Leo III was able to protect Constantinople from the invasion of the Umayyads, his legislative reforms—including iconoclasm—are far less commendable.

The Council of Rome, A.D. 727

The first edict against icons takes place in 726, being met with almost universal disdain outside of the imperial city. When the edict reaches Rome the following year (727), Pope Gregory II assembles a council and condemns this new heresy of iconoclasm along with his fellow bishops and priests. According to a letter from Pope Hadrian to Frankish ruler Charles I (in 790, following the Second Council of Nicaea), this synod under Gregory II argues in favor of icons and their proper veneration, citing examples such as “the ark of the covenant, the cherubim, [and] Bezaleel and Aholiab” (Hefele, A History of the Councils of the Church, vol. 5, p. 302).

While Hadrian would later support the decisions of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787), Rome has already ruled in favor of iconodulism—in unity with the rest of the orthodox faithful—some 60 years prior.

The Council of Rome, A.D. 731

The final edicts against the veneration of icons come from Leo III in 730. In response, Saint Germanos I resigns from his duties as Ecumenical Patriarch, being replaced by one of Leo’s supporters (Anastasios). When Pope Gregory II dies in 731, Gregory III succeeds him. This new Gregory assembles yet another synod in response to iconoclasm on November 1, 731, with over 93 Western bishops in attendance and “the priests, deacons, and clerics of the Roman Church, and many distinguished laymen” (Hefele, p. 303).

At this council it is decreed:

If anyone, for the future, shall take away, destroy, dishonor, or revile the pictures of the Lord or of His Mother, he shall be excluded from the body and blood of the Lord and the communion of the Church.

The decisions of this council were approved by all in attendance, and as a result, Gregory III sends a number of letters to Constantinople in defiance of the imperial edicts against icons. It is not clear, however, whether these communications were ever received, due not only to foul play but also some other historical circumstances.

The Council of Gentilly, A.D. 767

Before the rise of Charles I (a semi-iconoclast), a local council was held in Gentilly (present-day Paris, France) at the behest of Pepin, then king of the Franks. On the agenda for this synod was a discussion of the proper veneration of icons, and “iconoclastic ambassadors from Constantinople hoped to obtain Pepin’s condemnation of images” (Bigham, The Image of God the Father, p. 121). However, despite their best efforts, the decisions of this council came down in favor of both Pope Paul I and the iconodules.

As Hefele notes (p. 331):

The Pope here praises the zeal of Pipin for the exaltation of the Church and the defense of orthodoxy, and we see from this that the Synod of Gentilly had also made a declaration in regard to the veneration of images which was agreeable to the Pope.

This council serves as another important example of the steadfast Western support for icons, even prior to the Second Council of Nicaea.

The Council of the Lateran, A.D. 769

Regarded as “the most important Roman council held during the eighth century” (Noble, Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians, p. 146), this synod was assembled not only to deal with some antipope controversy, but also to anathematize the bishops and decisions of the “robber’s synod” of Hieria in 754—a synod that condemned the veneration of icons. The Council of Hieria was later termed both the “Mock Synod of Constantinople” and the “Headless Council,” given that no Patriarchs were present (the seat of Constantinople was vacant at the time) and its decisions were ignored, later to be overturned by the Seventh Ecumenical Council.

Hefele summarizes (p. 338):

The fourth session was occupied with the question of the veneration of images. Patristic testimonies for this were presented, the Council of Constantinople of the year 754 was anathematised, and that veneration recognised for the images which had been shown to them until this time by all Popes and reverend Fathers. In this session, too, that Synodica of the Patriarch Theodore of Jerusalem, with which we made acquaintance above, was read and approved. At the same time, Pope Stephen appealed to the picture of Agbarus, since by that Christ Himself had confirmed the veneration of images.

After the session was ended, all present betook themselves barefooted from the Lateran to the Church of S. Peter. The decrees adopted were solemnly read, and every departure from them threatened with anathema.


Less than two decades later, the Second Council of Nicaea was convened—the greatest of all Ecumenical Councils—and the whole Church (including Rome, through Pope Hadrian and his representatives) anathematized the few iconoclasts left, making plain the orthodox and catholic belief on the proper veneration not only of icons but also of the Saints, relics, and the Cross. And although this “heresy of heresies” had been suppressed for a moment, it would not die an easy death.

As noted elsewhere, the reign of Charles I and the Frankish usurpation of the Papacy would lead to a confusion in the West in subsequent centuries, but there can be no denying that the refutation of iconoclasm was a matter undertaken by the entire Church—East and West—during the eighth century.

Far from being a “wholly Byzantine affair,” iconoclasm and the controversies it spawned were an issue that struck to the very heart of the empire. As such, it was dealt with in a serious and judicious manner, knowing that the edicts of the emperor in Constantinople affected all, and that iconoclasm was an attack on the Incarnation itself.


  1. Marlon Scott says

    Excellent! The Orthodox West had a strong voice in this controversy. St. Theodore the Studite, one of the greatest defenders of icons, sought help from the Pope of Rome because many of the eastern bishops succumbed to imperial pressure.

    Lateran Council of 769

    If we wish to be partners with the saints, we should venerate the relics of the saints, not only of their bodies, but also of their vestments, the basilicae named after them, and even their images and likenesses wherever they might be depicted. (Council of Rome [769], MGH Conc. 2,1:87.)

    One editorial tidbit, it’s St. Germanos I, not Gerasimos. Great post. Not too many Orthodox cover the controversy from this angle. Iconophilism is catholic, not eastern.


    • says

      Thank you for your thoughts. I also made the correction on the name. I probably confused them due to our own Metropolitan being named Gerasimos (even though I just finished reading a work of Germanos!).

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