Iconoclastic Controversy Essay, Research Paper
Although Christian art is now seen as a major part of the Christian religion, during the first three centuries of the church there was no Christian art and the church generally resisted it. Clement of Alexandria criticized religious art by calling it pagan. In his view, it encouraged people to worship that which had been created rather than the Creator (3, 79). But by mid-3rd century pictorial art began to be used and accepted in the Christian church but not without fervent opposition in some congregations. Warnings against this development were voiced by such leading theologians as Eusebius, who being the most diligent glorifier of Constantine, characterized the use of images of the Apostles Paul and Peter as well as of Christ himself as a pagan custom (1,1).
One reason that some Christians balked at the idea of icons was because of the emperor’s cult. It was through anti-Christian legislation that Christians were compelled to venerate the imperial images by offering sacrifices to them. The refusal to make the sacrifice was the chief cause of martyrdom at the time. Thus, after the church was recognized as the Roman imperial church, its reaction was expressed in the riotous destruction of the pagan divine images.
Although it is some Protestants belief that the development of ecclesiastical art was a part of the entire process of the church’s inner decay and corruption, the church developed a form of art particular to its needs. But Christian art developed at a slower rate. This was due partially to its origins in Judaism. In addition to a faith in God the Father, Creator of Heaven and Earth, and faith in the uniqueness and holiness of God, Christianity also received from its Jewish origins a prohibition against the use of images to depict the sacred or holy, including humans, who were created in “the image of God” (1, 2). The early church was also deeply involved in a struggle against paganism, which was viewed as idolatry in that its many gods were represented in various pictorial and statuary forms. In early Christian missionary preaching, the Old Testament attacks upon pagan veneration of images were transferred directly to pagan image veneration of the first three centuries AD. The struggle against images was conducted as a battle against “idols” with all the intensity of faith in the oneness and exclusiveness of the imageless biblical God.
The starting point for the development of Christian pictorial art lies in the basic teaching of the Christian revelation itself–namely, the incarnation, the point at which the Christian proclamation is differentiated from Judaism. The incarnation of the Son of man, the Messiah, in the form of a human being–who was created in the “image of God”–granted theological approval of a sort the use of images that symbolized Christian truths. Clement of Alexandria, at one point, called God “the Great Artist,” who formed humans according to the image of the Logos, the archetypal light of light (5, 92). The great theological struggles over the use of images within the church during the period of the so-called Iconoclastic Controversy in the 8th and 9th centuries indicate how a new understanding of images emerged on the basis of Christian doctrine. This new understanding was developed into theology of icons that still prevails in the Eastern Orthodox Church in the 20th century.
The foes of images explicitly deny that the New Testament, in relation to the Old Testament, contains any new attitude toward images. Their basic theological outlook is that the divine is beyond all earthly form in its transcendence and spirituality; representation in earthly substances and forms of the divine already indicate its profanation. The relationship to God, who is Spirit, can only be a purely spiritual one; the worship of the individual as well as the community can happen only “in spirit and in truth”(4, John 4:24). Similarly, the divine archetype can also be realized only spiritually and morally in life. The religious path of the action of God upon humans is not the path of external influence upon the senses but rather that of spiritual action upon the mind and the will. Such an effect does not come about through the art of painting. Thus, opponents of icons claim that the only way to reach and understanding of the truth is by studying the writings of the Old and New Testaments, which are filled with the Spirit of God.
The Iconoclastic Controversy was a dispute over the use of religious images in the 8th and 9th centuries. There were two main groups to the conflict: the Iconoclasts and the Iconodules. The iconoclasts were those who rejected images and objected to icon worship for several reasons, including the Old Testament prohibition against images in the Ten Commandments (4, Exodus 20:4) and the possibility of idolatry. Epiphanius (c. 315-402), bishop of Salamis in Greece stated, “Have God always in your hearts, but not in the community house, for it does not become a Christian to expect the elation of his soul from recourse to his eyes and the roaming about of his senses” (1, 1). The iconodules on the other hand insisted on the symbolic nature of images and on the dignity of created matter. John of Damascus wrote “For the invisible things of God since the creation of the world are made visible through images. We see images in creation which remind us of God” (2, 1). The decisive contrast between the two groups can be found in their understanding of Christology. The iconodules based their theology upon the view of Athanasius, who reflected Alexandrian Christology. They believed that Christ, the God become human, is the visible, earthly, and physical icon of the heavenly Father, created by God himself. The iconoclasts explain in terms of ancient Antiochene Christology, that the image conflicts with the ecclesiastical belief of the Person of the Redeemer. It is unseemly, according to their views, to desire to portray a personality such as Christ, who is himself divine, because that would mean pulling the divine down into the materialistic realm.
The Iconoclastic controversy lasted from 726, when Emperor Leo III began an attack on the use of religious images, until 843 when the empress Theodora allowed their restoration. The two periods of Iconoclasm were separated by the reign of the iconodule empress Irene, under whom the Second Council of Nicea 787 was held (2, 1). At this council Iconoclasm was condemned and the use of images was reestablished. The Iconoclasts regained power in 814 after Leo V’s accession, and the use of icons was again forbidden at a council (815). The second Iconoclast period ended with the death of emperor Theophilus in 842. In 843 his widow finally restored icon veneration, an event still celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox Church (1, 1).
The great significance of images of he saints for the Orthodox faithful is primarily expressed in the cultic veneration of the images within the worship service. Second, it is expressed in the categorical fixation of the figures, gestures, and colors in Eastern Church iconic art. In the West, the creative achievement of the individual artist is admired, but Orthodox painting dispenses with the predominance of the individual painter’s freely creative imagination. Throughout the centuries the Eastern Church has been content with reproducing certain types of holy images, and only seldom does and individual artist play a predominant role within the history of Orthodox Church painting (3, 79). Most Orthodox ecclesiastical artists have remained anonymous. Icon painting is viewed as a holy skill that is practiced in cloisters in which definite schools of painting have developed. In the schools, traditional principles prevail so much that different artist-monks generally perform only certain functions in the production of a single icon. Style motifs–e.g., composition, importation of color, hair and beard fashions, and gestures of the figures–are fixed in painting books that contain the canons of the different monastic schools of icon painters.
In the Western theology of icons, the authority of the two-dimensionally of church art also was abandoned. Alongside church pictorial painting, ecclesiastical plastic arts developed; even painting in the three dimensional form was introduced through the means of perspective. Art became embedded in the entire life of personal religiosity. The holy image became the devotional image; the worshipper placed himself before an image and became engrossed in his meditation of the mysteries of the Christian revelation. As devotional images, the images became the focal points for contemplation and mystical representation. Conversely, the mystical vision itself worked its way back again into pictorial art, in that what was held in the vision was reproduced in church art. The burden of ecclesiastical tradition, which weighs heavily upon Byzantine art, has been gradually abolished in the Western Church. Religious art in the west adjusts itself at any given time to the total disposition of the church and also to the specific needs. Art in the west has also been shaped by the imaginative fantasy of the individual artist, therefore, the church of the west is much more individualized thereby allowing for an adaptable development of ecclesiastical art.
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