Signs and Symbols

What was the movement known as Iconoclasm and why was it important?

The Iconoclastic (from the Greek for “image-breaker”) controversy arose in the early eighth century C.E. and lasted until 842 C.E. For centuries Byzantine Christianity had used sacred icons, but Emperor Leo III called the practice into question on the grounds that it prevented Muslims and Jews from converting. Leo’s order that all icons be destroyed provoked turmoil throughout the church, both politically and theologically, with monks and their monasteries taking most of the punishment for refusing to submit. Sixty years after Leo began the controversy, the Second Council of Nicea in 787 reversed his decrees. But within less than thirty years another Leo (the Fifth) returned to his namesake’s policies with a vengeance, severely persecuting iconodules (those who supported the use of icons). The theological sore point was the argument that people who venerated icons were ever on the brink of idolatry. Their counterargument was that icons were merely symbolic of the sacred realities beyond them. Though the controversy did considerable damage and cost a surprising number of lives and careers, the Eastern church recovered from it rapidly and has suffered no challenge of its kind since.


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