The History of Iconography

Because one of the intellectual defaults of our longstanding culture seems to be that of following hard and fast rules and keeping things as simple as possible, the more theological matters of the Bible, for instance, can encounter fierce opposition as they begin to take dominion over society; especially if they involve both heaven as well as earth. The intellectual default seems to be that of creating division between heaven and earth, completely separating the visible from the invisible. But this is not what Christ taught us.

All the earth is God’s and when a priest prays over a certain part of God’s matter to be set apart for veneration, God takes dominion of that matter. God’s blessing sets apart His matter for His specified purpose. Matter matters, as we can see with Christ as well as the Apostles – remember when people were being healed from Saint Peter’s garments, for instance? God desires that the kingdom be “ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN!” Sound familiar? It should, because those are the words of Christ!

Iconography, which means “image writing,” is one of these more theological matters of the Christian life that requires more than just what the eye can see. And not only the creating of the icons, but the knowing how to use them also requires more than what the biological eye has to offer. To embrace icons we need to understand and believe how God has commanded us to actually take dominion over matter and make it God’s! When an icon is blessed it is blessed within this sphere of time and space, thus taking on the full thrust of “on earth as it is in heaven.”  

It has been supposed by many that iconography is a result of the Byzantine Empire and the so-called heretical and apostate culture of the Church from that point into the rest of Orthodox history. But iconography has been a practice that the Church has embraced since its earliest times. Although iconography escalated in the 4th century, after the Nicene Council and Constantine established the Byzantine Empire, we have evidence of pre-Nicaea icons within the catacombs, showing that iconography is not simply a result of the period of Constantine.

Saint Irenaeus (A.D. 130–202) mentions icons in his Against Heresies, condemning the improper use of icons by the Gnostics. From the earliest times of the Church images of the saints were painted by and for the Church. Icons were primarily a tool of evangelism and doctrinal proclamation, but it seems that as they began to do their job those that recognized the revelation behind the icons began to teach others that this recognition was much more than a mental discovery, but more of a spiritual awakening to the wonders that are happening within the realm of heaven itself.

St. John of Damascus wrote: “We are led by perceptible Icons to the contemplation of the divine and spiritual”  (PG 94:1261a).

This proclamation that the icons were more than what the novice eye sees began to stir much controversy. There were many western Christians that opposed such views of the icons, believing that such recognition of matter giving off such holiness was idolatrous. Western Christianity was certainly the instigator of iconoclasm (anti-icon). A western council, the Synod of Elvira (c.305) was one of the earliest movements to prohibit icons: “lest that which is worshiped and venerated be depicted on the walls.” One of the earliest iconoclastic quotes in existence would likely be the third century teaching of Tertullian, who was known to have many heretical viewpoints: “Likewise, when forbidding the similitude to be made of all things which are in heaven, and in earth, and in the waters, He declared also the reasons, as being prohibitory of all material exhibition of a latent idolatry.” (Against Marcion Bk. 2. 22) Tertullian was at one point an orthodox clergyman and gained a powerful influence in the west, so it is likely that this teaching carried much weight for future iconoclasm.   

Although some in the west had launched their attacks against iconography, the majority of the east seemed to be flourishing with icons, despite the few bishops that opposed them. The emperor Justin II (A.D. 565-578) went as far as revolutionizing Byzantine by placing the image of Christ for the first time on the coins with the inscription, “King of kings.” 

With the approval of the use of images by the Trullan Synod (A.D. 692) of the Third Council of Constantinople, the debate was joined again. In this council it was decreed that Christ was not to be depicted merely as a lamb but in human form, “so that we may perceive through it the depth of the humiliation of God the Word and be led to the remembrance of His life in the flesh, His passion and His death, and of the redemption which it brought to the world.” The use of icons began to gain more ground and within a short period, in 726 Emperor Leo III, the Syrian (717-741) initiated the fight to overthrow the sacred images of the Byzantine Empire. This is what the Church had to deal with as a monarchial ministry; the relationship with the state was primed by the Apostles and Martyrs, given flight by Constantine and the Bishops of the Nicaean Council, but not to encounter a number of violent storms such as this controversy between the iconoclasts (those opposing icons) and iconodules (those advocating icons). The effects of iconoclasm were so devastating that they can be seen as comparable to the Arian controversy and the Monophysite conflict.

At the beginning of Leo’s initiative – which is said to have been a personal vendetta of Leo, perhaps due to his Monophysite background – Leo decided to prompt a very radical act by ordering the destruction  of the icon of Christ over the bronze doors if the imperial palace. There were some women that overturned the ladder of the workers that were engaged in the desecration, which then provoked a riot with several deaths. The women were arrested and condemned to lashing, mutilation and exile.

Amidst the emperors initiatives, the patriarch of Constantinople, Germanus, began to defend iconography and stated: “In eternal memory of the life in the flesh or our Lord Jesus Christ, of His passion, of His saving death and the redemption of the world, which result from them, we have received the tradition of representing Him in His human form, that is, His visible theophany, understanding that in this way we exalt the humiliation of God the Word.” Leo eventually stopped recognizing Germanus as the patriarch and assigned the emperors chaplain as patriarch. Bishops in the west, including Gregory II of Rome, refused to recognize the new patriarch. Gregory II died and was succeeded by Gregory III who formed a synod at Rome to excommunicate the iconoclasts, anyone who refused to honor the ancient custom of the Church. This infuriated Leo, who then sent a fleet to Italy, only to be destroyed by storms.

Between 726 and 730, Saint John of Damascus, a officer of the court, who gave up his position to serve as a priest, said this in regards to the defense of iconography: “If we made an image of the invisible God, we would certainly be in error, but we do nothing of the sort, for we are not in error if we make the image of the incarnate God, who appeared on earth in the flesh, an who, in his ineffable goodness, lived with human beings and assumed the nature, quantity, shape and color of flesh.”  

After Leo died, his son, Constantine V, proceeded to the throne and called a council in 754 at Hiereia. The council was not ecumenical nor was it even attended by the Oriental bishops or the bishop of Rome. The council proclaimed that the creating and venerating of icons is to be condemned.  By summoning this council iconoclasm became the official dogma of the entire Eastern Church. Many monks, laymen and clergy railed against this and were tortured and publically beheaded, including the Patriarch Constantine in 776.

After the death of the emperor Constantine V, Leo IV ascended to the thrown. Leo married Irene, a very influential woman who at the command of Patriarch Paul began to communicate with the Roman bishop to form a council. In September 24 of 787 the council of Nicaea II was formed, meeting at the Basilica of the holy Apostles in Constantinople. Nicea II declared icon veneration to be the orthodox and iconoclasm to be condemned as a heresy, and the destruction of all iconoclastic writings is ordered. 

The second phase of the iconoclastic controversy is dated 815-843 which began with the rise of Leo V as emperor, who reverted to iconoclasm. At a council in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, in 815, Nicaea was repudiated and the decrees of the Iconolasts of 754 were declared to be the faith of the empire. But only five years later Leo V was assassinated in front of the altar of Hagia Sophia.

Leo V was replaced by Michael II who refused to allow the return of iconography or even it very discussion. A number of prominent bishops and monks joined the Patriarch and vowed to fight iconoclasm even to death itself.  Michael ordered that prominent, low-hanging icons in the Temple used for veneration be removed.  Patriarch Nicephorus refused and was deported to Asia Minor where he eventually resigned his office.

Michael’s son, Theophilus, assumed the throne in 829, and severely persecuted iconodules. He died in 842 and his power passed to his mother – due to the successor being only three years old – Theodora, who then elected an iconodule as Patriarch: Methodius. Patriarch Methodius declared sacred images to be lawful and condemned iconoclasm. Icons are lawful to this day within the Orthodox Church thanks to the struggle of these many saints. We honor their accomplishments on the first Sunday in Great Lent, Orthodox Sunday, with a procession of icons!

* All information in this article can be found in Orthodox Christianity, by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev; The First Seven Ecumenical Councils, by Leo Donald Davis; and The Orthodox Christian Church, by J.M. Hussey


  1. Good thoughts.

    The rejection of Iconography – Iconoclasm – inevitably leads to Idolatry in a multitude of forms. One need only look at America today for a prime example.

    Lord have mercy.

  2. That’s a good point. The fact that we are designed to embrace matter and yet reject the matter that is available through revelation would indeed cause us to default to matter that is not revelatory – idolatry. I really like that. Thanks!

  3. Excellent Michael.

    I’ve heard it said that a person must ultimately choose between iconography or pornography. For us nowadays this is truer than ever because we are inundated with unholy images all day and every day. Most people who reject icons (holy images) will have no problems with going to the movies and watching what Hollywood offers to its gods.

    In reference to the Synod of Elvira Fr. John Whiteford has some illuminating comments:

    The Canon of the Synod of Elvira is often cited in support of an Iconoclast position. In its 36th Canon, the council decreed: “It is ordained that Pictures are not to be in churches, so that that which is worshipped and adored shall not be painted on walls.” Even Protestant scholars concede that the meaning of this canon is not as clear as Protestant apologists often suggest. For one, it is unclear what was the occasion for this canon, and it is not clear what it was trying to prevent, a fact even Protestant scholars acknowledge:

    “…no great weight can be attached to this [canon 36 of the council of Elvira], the exact bearing of the canon being unknown” [Edward James Martin, A History of the Iconoclastic Controversy (London: Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, 1930), p. 19, fn 4].

    Because of the wording of this canon, it is almost certainly not a blanket ban on images. What is not clear is what it is banning, and more particularly to what end. Plausible interpretations range from this being merely a ban on images in Church, to a precautionary measure to protect Icons from the Pagans (since the canon was composed during a time of persecution, this is certainly possible). In any case, the fact of the matter is that Icons were in use in Spanish Churches before this Synod, and they continued to be used after this Synod, without any further evidence of controversy. Furthermore, this Synod was of a purely local character, and was never affirmed on an Œcumenical level.

    The Icon FAQ:

  4. I would like to make a paper on iconography, as a beginner in theology. But I am in struggle of simple questions which I think are very important to answer.
    Some simple questions that I want to ask: Is it alright to depict God the Father in icons? Do we represent God the Father through Images, or only Jesus and the Saints?
    Is there really a sin of idolatry in venerating the icons and images in reference to the second commandment? What is our defense against those who condemn us for venerating the icons?
    What are the most concrete biblical bases of venerating the images?
    I hope you can answer my questions…Thank You.

  5. Greetings KRII,

    I will give you a lot of resources since you are embarking on a serious study of this issue.

    Is it alright to depict God the Father in icons?

    Christ IS the image (icon) of God the Father. Alas, the practice has entered the Church.

    Is there really a sin of idolatry in venerating the icons and images in reference to the second commandment?

    What is our defense against those who condemn us for venerating the icons?

    What are the most concrete biblical bases of venerating the images?

    1 Chron. 28:2 Then King David rose to his feet and said: “Hear me, my brothers and my people. I had it in my heart to build a house of rest for the ark of the covenant of the Lord and for the footstool of our God, and I made preparations for building.

    The Ark is the footstool…Ps. 99:5 explicitly commands to “exalt the Lord our God; worship at his footstool!” Thus, the Israelites bowed and venerated in the presence of the Ark:

    Joshua 7:6 Then Joshua tore his clothes and fell to the earth on his face before the ark of the Lord until the evening, he and the elders of Israel.

    Israelites understood the difference between a holy object worthy of veneration and an idol. Imagery has been used in the worship of the true God since Moses began to write Holy Scripture. God commanded Moses to write and to make holy images;the revealed word and image signifies the Word made flesh.

    Questions for you:
    What is the most concrete biblical basis for worshipping God without holy imagery??
    Is there a OT or NT verse that specifically condemns the making and veneration of holy imagery??

    Thanks for visiting the site!!

  6. Greetings. I am interested to the comparison – if it is possible – between iconography and pornography. For it seems to be one of the greatest challenges nowadays. Thanks in advance.

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