Today I am completing a series of articles on the seven ecumenical councils of the early church. These councils commenced with the First Council of Nicaea in 325 and concluded with the Second Council of Nicaea in 787. Between these two events were five more, each of which attempted to understand and establish a unified Christian theology.
In this series we have taken a brief look at each of the seven councils. For each one we have considered the setting and purpose, the major characters, the nature of the conflict, and then the results and lasting significance. We close the series today with the final council: the Second Council of Nicaea.
Setting & Purpose
The Second Council of Nicaea opened on September 24, 787, some 452 years after the first ecumenical council met in that same city. Between 258 and 335 bishops were present, presided over by Tarasius, who was Patriarch of Constantinople. The council had been convened by Empress Irene in order to discuss the use of icons, a practice which had been condemned by the Council of Hieria in 754.
Major Characters & Conflict
Constantine V (718 – 775) had led a campaign against icons that had begun with his father, Emperor Leo III. The campaign culminated in the Council of Hieria in 754. This council claimed to be ecumenical and succeeded in establishing iconoclasm (the rejection and destruction of religious icons) as the orthodox teaching of the church.
When Constantine V died, his son Leo IV took over the throne. He maintained his father’s iconoclasm, though he was less forceful against those who remained in favor of using them, perhaps because his wife, Irene, was an iconophile. When Leo IV died in 780, just five years after taking the throne, Irene succeeded him.
In 784 the outgoing patriarch of Constantinople, Paul IV, urged Irene to call a council to help mend some of the divisions between the Eastern and Western church and to examine the use of icons. She agreed, and soon after appointed a new patriarch of Constantinople, Tarasius, to help her. She also wrote to Pope Hadrian in Rome, asking him to prepare for a council. He agreed, and expressed his support for the use of icons based on his understand of Scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers. Though he did not travel to Nicaea, he did send two representatives.
The council consisted of 8 sessions which took place over the course of one month (Sept 24 – Oct 23) and the discussions were grueling. Leo Davis writes, “The Patriarch [Tarasius] exhorted the bishops to brevity, but in vain, for the ensuing discussions were to prove long and verbose, at an intellectual level far below preceding councils.” Several sessions included discussions about whether or not they should receive back into their offices those bishops who had supported iconoclasm. Other sessions reviewed the Scriptures and the writings of the Fathers to show support for the use of icons. According to Wikipedia, the following were cited: Exodus 25:19 sqq.; Numbers 7:89; Hebrews 9:5 sqq.; Ezekiel 41:18, and Genesis 31:34. Most of these passages refer to the cherubs on the mercy seat.
Another session was devoted to reading the Horos, the decree of the Council of Hieria, and refuting it line by line. The final session was held in Constantinople, in the Magnaura Palace, before Irene and her son Constantine VI, so they could approve and sign the final statement which approved icons.
The main result was a wordy official decree regarding icons.
To make our confession short, we keep unchanged all the ecclesiastical traditions handed down to us, whether in writing or verbally, one of which is the making of pictorial representations, agreeable to the history of the preaching of the Gospel, a tradition useful in many respects, but especially in this, that so the incarnation of the Word of God is shown forth as real and not merely phantastic, for these have mutual indications and without doubt have also mutual significations.
We, therefore, following the royal pathway and the divinely inspired authority of our Holy Fathers and the traditions of the Catholic Church … define with all certitude and accuracy that just as the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross, so also the venerable and holy images, as well in painting and mosaic as of other fit materials, should be set forth in the holy churches of God, and on the sacred vessels and on the vestments and on hangings and in pictures both in houses and by the wayside, to wit, the figure of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady, the Mother of God, of the honourable Angels, of all Saints and of all pious people. For by so much more frequently as they are seen in artistic representation, by so much more readily are men lifted up to the memory of their prototypes, and to a longing after them; and to these should be given due salutation and honourable reverence…
Additionally, the council approved twenty two canons covering a wide variety of issues facing the church at that time, including the problem of simony (the buying or selling of church office).
This debate has come to be called the Iconoclast Controversy and it had great and lasting consequences on the East and West. Leo Davis identifies them in four categories:
- “Politically it was a factor in the alienation of the West from the Eastern Empire at a critical moment.” Rome was facing pressure from invaders, and they sought help from the Franks. This would lead to a new political alignment between the Roman church and the Frankish kings (whereas before they had been looking to the Byzantine Emperor in Constantinople). A picture of this realignment is seen in the crowning of Charlemagne in 800 as emperor of the west and defender of papal authority.
- “Artistically, iconoclasm arrested progress and destroyed countless ancient treasures.” Whereas, after the controversy ended, “Byzantine art rose to new heights and continued to exert strong influence on the West.”
- “Ecclesiastically, the monks’ resolute defense of sacred images in the face of imperial and episcopal pressures enhanced their standing among the laity.” Monasteries filled with images became “places of vital mediation between the divine and the human. And the monks themselves became the focus of the holy in the world.”
- “Theologically, the controversy was really an attempt to recover the meaning of Christ’s humanity. … Jesus, divine and human, was and is the way to the Father. The sacred images of Christ, portraying him as truly incarnate, truly reflecting their divine and human prototype, are a perpetual reminder of that fact.”
It would take the Reformers of the sixteen century to see the danger of icons and to exhort the church to once again remove them.