• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Before the Storm: The Status of Images in Christianity Before Iconoclasm



There are a number of iconoclastic tendencies within Christianity, most obviously the Old Testament Decalogue, which prohibited the creation and worship of graven images and likenesses (Exodus 20:4; Deut. 5:8).

There’s also Daniel’s vision (Dan. 3:1-7) in which the word icon is used of the great golden image Nechadnezzar set up for worship. Hippolytus emphasised the resemblance between the three children who allowed themselves to be thrown in the furnace rather than venerate the Babylonian king’s idol and those who preferred to suffer martyrdom than worship Caesar’s equivalent.


Even worse is Ezekiel 23 in which Oholibah saw icons of Chaldeans that were so appealing that she went mad with lust and fell into prostitution with the folk depicted in them. God promised that she would have to “drink deep from the cup of ruin and desolation” and in the end she was stoned by a mob, her children killed and their houses burned.[1]


This reaches fever pitch in the Psalms where the one hundred and fifteenth claims:

“The idols… have mouths and speak not. Eyes and they see not. Ears and hear not. Noses and smell not. Hands and handle not. Feet and walk not… And so are all such as put their trust in them.”


And another muses how:


“They made a calf in Horeb… Thus they turned their glory into the similitude of a calf that eateth hay.” (Ps. 106:19).


But God also offered the Israelites images in the form of theophanies (visions). God approved of those that pointed symbolically towards salvation such as the bronze serpent (Numbers 21), the Ark of the Covenant, and the cherubim.[2] The first book of the Bible is very positive in its use of the word “icon:” “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). In fact, so strong is this image that to kill man is ultimately to commit deicide:

“Whoso sheddeth Man’s blood, by Man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God made I Man” (Gen. 9:6).[3]


Images, then, were far from forbidden but were supposed to reflect greater truths than themselves. And pagan cults were not signposts to God, but falsehoods. Therefore, the majority of Jews interpreted the second commandment as a sort of shock therapy that kept them away from idolatry (rather than a belief that images were somehow intrinsically false).


Despite this, the early Christian theologians feared that representational art would lead people astray – mainly because they would be dim enough to mistake the image for what it represented. This led some – such as St Ignatius of Antioch – down a rather dark Manichaean path when he claimed “nothing that is visible is good.”[4] Clement of Alexandria, too, stated that “He usurps the divine power who by carving, moulding or painting claims to be a creator of flora and fauna.”[5]


Their general thrust is best articulated by Justin Martyr, who claimed that because anthropomorphism was the idiom of idolatry, the true faith could have nothing to do with it.[6] And in fairness, some pagan sects (such as the Carpocrations) managed to appropriate Christ by taking his images and placing them among the great philosophers for cultic rituals[7] – an easy conflation in an Age when icons often replaced the emperor in the latter’s cult.[8]



Tertullian demurred. The Carthaginian thought images could have utility in Christianity but were easily abused. As much is clear from his condemnation of drinking glasses adorned with the Good Shepherd. As they were not Eucharistic chalices, it seemed flippant and disrespectful for such images to adorn ornaments that encouraged bibulous habits.[9]


The Christian mainstream ultimately held image worship to be idolatrous but considered Christian images – which by definition pointed towards the Trinity – to be legitimate. While idols could lead a minority to perdition, really they were empty vessels – a kind of “nothing in the world” in the words of St Paul (1 Cor 8:4). So what made Christian images different? Origen had the answer: an idol was nothing (like the animals of mythology) but an icon was real because it is based on an archetype i.e. a form based in God – in other words: true.[10]

For those who saw such nuances as being far too refined for the dimwits of the faithful, aniconism was the safer option. As much is clear from the local Council of Elvira (300-306) which – in its thirty-sixth canon – dealt with images in churches by decreeing that


Picturas in ecclesia esse non debere, no quod colitur et adorabitur in parietibus depingantur

(There should be no paintings in churches in case what is revered be painted on the walls).[11]


This was echoed by monastics who believed that though images might aid prayer to God the greatest prayer involved them giving way to greater truths. Early Christianity, then, didn’t fear images as much as it feared stupid people. Augustine is a classic example of this ambivalence: divine reality was ultimately beautiful, the source of all earthly beautiful (including images) but idols could also be beautiful so it was never a trustworthy guide.[12]



When images were condemned outright, there tended to be a deeper target. Take, for instance, those attacked by Asterius of Amaseia (d. 410) for having images of “Gospel scenes” embroidered on their robes.[13] This was less because he detested images than the fact the Cappadocian felt that it was un-Christian to spend money on gorgeous robes depicting their salvation while withholding alms or love from the poor.


The only destruction of images before the iconoclastic period (730-) in the East seems to have occurred under the watch of the eccentric Philoxenus of Mabbug (d. 523). Regarded as a Manichaeist by the orthodox, he forbade the production and display of images of all the faith’s intercessors from angels to saints.[14]


Meanwhile, in the West the tenth bishop of Marseilles – Serenius – seems to have acted in ignorance when he destroyed all the images he found people praying through them. A fact corroborated by the fact pope Gregory saw fit to reprimand him twice.[15] It was probably in this period that the Carolingian view (articulated at Gentilly in 767 and confirmed at Frankfurt, 794) gestated, condemning both iconodulism (the veneration of images) and iconoclasm (their destruction). Instead, the West favoured their use for educational purposes.


The real watershed was the Council of Trullo (692) which allowed imagery on the basis of the Incarnation but sought to define the nature of acceptable and unacceptable imagery. In short, it eschewed the symbols (anchor, fish, laurel, lamb, alpha and omega etc. famous in the catacombs of Rome) that had been used for centuries (to provide historical reminders such as the resurrection of Lazarus that their faith and hope was justified) in more uncertain times and demanded that imagery should directly and accurately reflect the matter it sought to depict.[16] Furthermore, it insisted inscriptions should be added to avoid misunderstandings.

Shortly afterwards (699), the caliph Abd-al Malik replaced his portrait on his coinage with verses from the Qur’an. Then the caliph Yazid (732-24) was persuaded by a Jewish magician to decree a ban on images in churches and public spaces.[17] This encyclical was written


“… to the effect that every representational painting, whether on tablets or in wall-mosaics, on sacred vessels or on altar coverings, and all such objects as are found in churches, be destroyed and thoroughly abolished, nay, also representations of all kinds that adorn and embellish the market-places of cities.”[18]



This is probably the correct junction to add that the two greatest authorities on iconoclasm, Brubaker and Haldon, argue that Byzantine and East Christian (i.e. submerged under Islamic rule) iconoclasms were different phenomena.[19] This does not mean, however, that they cannot be compared. And Islamic aniconism was certainly at odds with the strong strands of iconophilic DNA in the orthodox tradition, which pondered upon how the material world could possibly be good enough for God’s Creation but not the imitative creation of mankind.

Moreover, the accuracy of these images was never truly an issue within mainstream orthodoxy because the Mandylion (Image of Edessa) captured the likeness of Christ in his lifetime, just as the Theotokos was painted by the Apostle Luke in hers. The latter was a claim taken so seriously by the Eastern Romans that Eudocia, wife of Theodosius II, even maintained that she possessed one of the originals (painted by St. Luke).[20] Indeed, the transmission of early icons can’t have been entirely dubious as even those who detested them, such as Eusebius of Caesarea (d. 339), stated he’d seen many preserved from previous centuries.[21]


The main problem with such artistic accuracy was that given few people had access to the Mandylion or its copies, the only two physical descriptions of Christ in the Bible portrayed him during the Transfiguration and the Resurrection (Matt. 26, 46-49; Mark 27-36). Iconography therefore settled on two types: Christ the beardless young man with short curly hair and Christ the older bearded gentleman with long hair. As the Pantokrator slowly became the most authoritative type, the latter displaced the former giving us the characteristics we associate with the Son today.


Accuracy aside, the strongest strain of iconodulism came not from highfalutin theories but the stone-cold reality that icons fulfilled societal roles as either palladia or apotropaia. The need for such icons reached a height in the war against Iran. It was in this period that the Camuliana was discovered, the Virgin was paraded around Constantinople’s walls by the patriarch, and wondrous visions of the Theotokos were seen by the infantry. And it was the association of these icons with miraculous acts that probably severed them from their traditional intercessory role and gave them personalities of their own. Hence the circulation of wondrous tales such as the one about a Saracen who hurled a javelin at St George’s icon only to find himself impaled upon the same weapon.[22]

My favourite account in this vein is contained in the Passio of Anthony, originally a Muslim called Rawh- al-Qurashi and a nephew of the caliph Harun al-Rashid (786-809). When still a Muslim he owned a monastery close to the north gate of Damascus. He often entered to disturb ceremonies, drink from the chalice or indulge in acts of vandalism. But this changed one day when, after the liturgy was over, Rawh’s eye was caught by an image (sura) of St Theodore riding a horse and piercing a serpent with his lance. When he tried to shoot the icon with his bow, the arrow turned mid-air and hit his own hand.” His conversion followed and he was executed by his uncle, the caliph, in 799.[23]


It was probably the icons’ accretion of these eccentric characters that gave the iconoclasts enough ammunition to insist matters had gone too far.[24] Sadly, we do not have large amounts of information about what exactly irked the iconoclasts so much. This is due to the fact almost everything we know is derived from the Horos of the Council of Hiereia (754), and we only possess that because it survives in the minutes of the Council of 787 where it was read out point-by-point in order to be refuted.[25]


[1] The chapter contains some of the lewder passages in the Bible. To give a brief flavour: “There she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose ejaculations were like that of horses” (20-22).

[2] Also the wall paintings at the synagogue of Dura Europos, Syria. It must be noted, however, that the logic of hardliners such as the Sabbatians and Novatians won in the end and after the sixth century there were no representations in the Jewish religion.

[3] At root Genesis’ passages on the power of God’s image/icon is the foundation and basis for theosis. Christ, the perfect man, is the perfect icon of God – a calling to all Man. In Paul this motif is at its most strident: “We all with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord are changed into the same image, from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord (2 Cor 3:8). And “For whom God did foreknow he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image/icon of his Son” (Rom. 8:29).

[4] T. G. Elliott, “Constantine and the Arian Reaction after Nicaea,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 43, 2 (1992) 169-76.

[5] A. Grabar, L’Iconoclasme byzantin (1984) 24-25.

[6] H. Chadwick, Early Christian Thought and Classical tradition: Studies in Justin, Clement and Origen, Vol. IV (1966) 13-192.

[7] Eusebius, EH IV, 1, 22.

[8] The power or supernatural charisma of the emperor was not necessarily lost in late antiquity as long as he was perceived to be orthodox. The properties associated with the image of the emperor were miraculous in every sense of the word if John the Stylite’s account of the statue of the emperor at Edessa in 496 is credible (J. Wortley, “Iconoclasm and Leipsanoclasm: Leo III, Constantine V and the Relics,” Byzantinische Forschungen 8 (1892) 243-279).

[9] W. Lowrie, Art in the Early Church (1977), 196.

[10] Origen, Homiliae in Psalmos, PG 12, 353-354 and 17, 16c.

[11] Mansi II, 11.

[12] Augustine, Confession, X, 34, 53.

[13] Asterius of Amaseia, Homily of the Rich Man and Lazarus, PG 11, 169B.

[14] P. J. Aleksander, The Patriarch Nikephoros of Constantinople: Ecclesiastical Policy and Image Worship in the Byzantine Empire (1958) 44.

[15] J. Moorhad, “Byzantine Iconoclasm as a Problem in Art History,” Parergon 4 (1986) 1-19.

[16] L. Ouspensky, Theology of the Icon (1978) 69.

[17] This account was circulated by iconodules at Nicaea II (787) and has been considered authentic by most scholars. Some, however, question it. For them the principle of “cui prodest” has provided an explanation, for it was to the benefit of the iconodules to connect the outbreak of iconoclasm with the archetypal foe. However, it seems to fit within a raft of legislation that differentiated the Islamic empire from its neighbours: from the monetary reforms of Abd al-Malik and the passing of administration from Greek to Arab hands during the reign of Walid I, to the suppression of taxes for converts by Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz.

[18] Mansi 13:197D-E (=Lambertz, Concilium, pars altera, 594.1-7). The translation is by A. A. Vasiliev, “Iconoclastic Edict of the Caliph Yazid II,” DOP 9-10 (1956) 25-47. It is probable that much of the venom against images had its origin in the fact early Muslims (and their rulers) prayed in churches (cf. S. Ognibene, Umm Al-Rasas (2002) 102; S. Bashear, “Qibla Musharriqa and Early Muslim Prayer in Churches,” The Muslim World 81 (1991) 267-82.

[19] L. Brubaker & J. Haldon, Iconoclast Era (2015) 113-15. For the different versions of iconoclasm (Arab, Byzantine, Carolingian and Palestinian) see Anathemata Eortika : Studies in Honor of Thomas F. Mathews, ed. J. D. Alchhermes, H. C. Evans and T. K. Thomas (2009) 73-81.

[20] N. Kondakov, History of Theotokos (1915) 154.

[21] Eusebius, EH VII, 18; PG 20, 6790.

[22] A. Kazhdan & H. Maguire, “Byzantine Hagiographical Texts as Sources on Art,” DOP 45 (1999) 1-22.

[23] I. Dick, Theodore Abuqurra, Traite du culte des icons: Introduction et texte critique (1986) 173. Amusing – at least to the dark humour of this author – is the genre of Christian tales in which Arabs spectate a miracle but then fail to convert and so fall down dead.

[24] In response, iconodules believed it was the iconophiles who were obtuse or perverse because while they destroyed sacred images, “if the images were about trees, birds or animals – especially about the satanic horse races, hunting parties and scenes of the theatre or the hippodrome – then they considered them with respect and ordered artists to brighten them up” (Stephen the Deacon, Life of Stephen the Younger, 26 [ed. Auzepy]).

[25] Mansi 13.356D. It’s important to remember that Hiereia attacked icons and not relics even though earlier interpretations (based on iconodule sources) suggested the Isaurians had destroyed relics. While there is an ongoing dispute in scholarship over whether Constantine V destroyed relics, it is clear that Theophanes Continuatus (2.14) has the emperor Theophilos parade around the walls Constantinople with the relics of the Virgin’s robe, but not her icon (L. James, “Dry Bones and Painted Pictures,” Eastern Christian Relics, ed. A. Lidov [2003] 52).

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