Up to now we have traced some developments of faith in the Western World after the fall of Rome in 476 AD. Here we must recall that Emperor Constantine in 330 AD Founded Constantinople as the Eastern Capital of the Roman Empire and that this city became the Christian cultural center of the Byzantine Empire. It is here that a specific kind of holy images (Icons) developed.

Icon at New Skete Monastery

The word "Icon" means image but today it means a holy image of the Eastern Church. St. Anthony of the Desert as portrayed here is meant to bring out his faith in Christ (hand symbolized two natures in Christ) and his faithfulness to God's word symbolized by the scroll in his left hand. The clothes he wears signify that he was a monk and the halo and golden background indicate his life of glory in God.

The painter has to strive to by prayer and faithfulness to tradition to express truths of faith. The image does not reproduce his natural likeness but his transfiguration in glory. The icon is meant to reveal the life of faith into which the Christian is called to participate. Prayer in front of an icon is a participation in the life of grace bestowed through the person portrayed in the icon. The icon "portrays the divine beauty and glory in material ways which are visible to physical eyes. The icon is venerable and holy precisely because it portrays the deified state of the prototype and bears His name. This is why grace, characteristic of the prototype, is present in the icon. In other words, it is the grace of the Holy Spirit which sustains the holiness both of the represented person of his icon, and it is in this grace that the relationship between the faithful and the saint is brought about through the intermediary of the icon of the saint. The icon participates in the holiness of its prototype and, through the icon, we in turn participate in this holiness in our prayers." (Leonid Ouspensky, The Theoloby of the Icon, Vl. 1, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, 1992, p.162)

Between the 8th and 9th centuries there arose opposition to the Icons by those who claimed that the veneration of Icons was idolatry forbidden by the first commandment. They maintained that the veneration of Christ's image was idolatry because only his human nature was represented. The only true icon they recognized was the Eucharist but the Church never thought of the Eucharist as an image but the real presence of Christ in his humanity and divinity. In the veneration of the Icon of Christ, it was pointed out, Christ the Person was venerated and worshipped in whom the union of the divine and human nature existed. What was at stake in this struggle was the reality of the incarnation.

In the Orthodox world iconoclasm began in 726 when Emperor Leo III, the Isaurian, influenced by the bishops of Asia Minor took a position against the veneration of icons. He tried to persuade the patriarch St. Germanus and Pope Gregory II to sign the imperial decree but to no avail. So, the emperor replaced St. Germanus with the iconoclast patriarch Anastasius (730-735) who signed the decree. What followed was the destruction of icons everywhere in Byzantium. Orthodox bishops were exiled. The monks who were the leaders of Orthodoxy were fiercely persecuted, their head smashed against icons, they were sown into sacks and drowned, they were forced to break their monastic vows and the hands of iconographers were burned. Italy alone received 50,000 monks during the time of Leo III.

In 731 Pope Gregory III called a Council in Rome where is was decided that "In the future, whoever removes, destroys, dishonors or insults the images of the Savior, His Holy Mother, or the apostles...will not receive the Body and Blood of the Savior and will be excluded from the Church." (Ibid., p. 110)

The Pope zealously had churches decorated with icons. To honor the insulted saints, he instituted the Feast of All Saints which until than had been a local celebration.

Despite all this, iconoclasm continued for about 100 years.


As you can see from the map the Byzantine Empire was vast and iconography influenced the Churches in all these regions. Giotto (1267-1337) an Italian painter who introduced natural perspective and realism into painting was influenced by iconography as you can see from the paintings above and especially those in the Scrovegni chapel of Padua. Metropolitan Mykhayil of New York visited the Scrovegni Chapel and has this to say: "What strikes me most, is the continued influence of iconography in this period of Italian painting. Not yet the 'realistic' and 'westernized' art of later centuries, these frescos maintain an order and style still followed by the stricter rules of Orthodox art. The entire chapel is a wonderful piece of art, arranged much in the same way as would be an Orthodox church. The walls are filled with paintings from the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary, interspersed with other biblical and theological themes."

Let us never forget that the veneration of Holy Images is a dogma of faith --"It is permissible and profitable to venerate the images of Saints." (De fide) (Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p. 126) We in the Catholic Church are using stained glass windows as the means of teaching the faith while relegating to statues the veneration of Saints, except in cases of miraculous images. We look upon the images of saints as reminders of the heavenly reality. With the Orthodox we pray:

"No one could describe the Word of the Father;
But when he took flesh from you, O Teotokos,
He consented to be described,
And restore the fallen image to its former state by uniting it to divine beauty.
We confess and proclaim our salvation in word and images."

8. Faith and Reason