Early Christian Theology and the Iconoclastic Controversy

painting of the Sunday of Orthodoxy

The Iconoclastic periods in Byzantium history (730-787, 813-843) were  in many ways a manifestation of a centuries-long disagreement among various Christian groups as to the place of art in worship, especially the making of images of Christ and, to a lesser extent, of Mary and the other saints. Not all Christians approved of the making of images, though artistic objects become common by the 4th century.

The controversy is sometimes understood as a result of and response to the influence of Judaism, and later Islam, with their opposition to images, though one should keep in mind that the extent of that opposition was uniform among neither. Jewish and Islamic influences were most pronounced in Syria and the Middle East , areas where the Monophysite and Monoenergist heterodoxies were most entrenched.

The controversy can, therefore, also be understood as the final stage in the Early Christian theological battles over the nature of the Trinity and the two natures of Christ. The key disagreements among iconoclasts (those who oppose images) and iconodules (iconophiles, iconographes--those who approve and love images) were expressed in the concerns and vocabulary of earlier debates about the nature of God and about the cosubstantial relationship of the Son to the Father. Thus, one can look back to earlier ideas and debates as the sources for the iconoclastic ones.

The most important questions that the controversy debates are:

  • Is Jesus the God-man still the image of God in human form?
  • "Does the Incarnation reveal or conceal the Son?"
  • What kind of participation is that of the body of Christ in the Word (the Logos)?
  • Can Christ in either of his two natures be represented in an image?
  • Likewise, should Christ be represented in an image?
  • To what extent is the Incarnation an observable reality?
  • What role does the human body of Jesus play in salvation and in the revelation of the Father's glory?
  • Does the resurrection body of Jesus maintain a corporeal, paintable form?
  • What are the limits and potentials of human art? 

I. Reflections on the Trinitarian Shape of Christ as Image


  1. The Son as the image of the Father must possess all the Father's traits. The Son as image is not a lesser imitation of an original.
  2. The Father and the Son share an ontological union. There is no graduation of being between the divine original and the divine image. They are cosubstantial.
  3. Only the Son as the perfect image can reveal the Father without loss.

Gregory of Nyssa

  1. Hypostasis for Gregory is that which grants individual subsistence to the persons of the Trinity.
  2. A person is circumscribed (perographein--"to sketch," "to delimitate the contours of") by what is distinctive and specific about the person.
  3. Charaktêr donates what circumscribes a person from a more general, unspecified essence. (i.e. a particular person as opposed to all persons.)
  4. God is a Trinity of Persons because their specific activities each reveal the specific being of the Divine Person. These persons are distinguished by their relation to each other. "What makes them distinct, also makes them one."
  5. The Son's property is to reveal the Father as his image.
  6. The countenance of the Son does not act as a series of masks, but truly reveals the Logos. This is because being a manifestation of the Father is the mode of existence of being the Son

II. Theological Sources for Iconoclastic Theology

Origen (Pre-Nicea)

  1. The human body of Jesus is an adaptation to limited capacities. The perfect desire to behold God with spiritual eyes only.
  2. Therefore, physical images of Christ are a distraction from the higher end.
  3. The image always has shortcomings in relation to the original, but this need not lead to a rejection of all art and imagery, only a distrust of portraits of the divine.

Eusebius of Caesarea (Semi-Arian)

  1.  He doesn't reject all Christian art per se, but he does reject images of Christ.
  2. Christ as the image of the Father is subordinate in position. The Logos is an instrument of the Father, therefore, a buffer between the finite and infinite.
  3. The body does not impact the Logos; the goal is to finally move beyond the bodily. The resurrected body of Christ is swallowed up in his divinity.
  4. The body has only an intermediate dignity, and idolatry is found in attachment to the sensory.

III. Theological Sources for Iconographic Theology

Cyril of Alexandria

  1.  Incarnation means a true identity of the Logos with Christ the human. Christ's flesh is now part of his very identity as Logos.
  2. The Incarnation preserves the Logos' likeness. Christ's flesh participates in the Son's hypostasis. It does not veil his identity; it reveals it.
  3. Christ's sonship is one, not two; his flesh is essential to the "remedy of immortality."
  4. His sonship is now an active element in his humanity.
  5. The lowliness of the Son in his flesh reveals the glory of the Father.
  6. Human nature, as the imago dei, makes the larger Incarnation of the Son possible because human bodily existence has an orientation toward divine likeness and, therefore, toward the Son.
  7. Christ's humanity cannot be a passive instrument. To do so is to downgrade bodily existence. The body is fashioned by God to cooperate in the work of salvation.

Maximus Confessor

  1. In the union of the Logos, one nature never predominates over the other. As a result, only a hypostatic union of the two natures can preserve the infinite distance between the divine and the human without the former absorbing the later.
  2. The freedom of the Trinity is marked by mutual self-giving, so the Incarnation is marked by freedom.
  3. Christ is his two natures; he is not other than them. The human existence of Christ is not absorbed by the divine, but is ever freely resonating with it. Christ operates in both his natures.
  4. To force a union of the two natures compromises their relationship.
  5. Human free will points to our destiny with God, but the fall has interrupted this destiny.
  6. In Christ, human free will now again conforms to the divine will and, therefore, frees the human will to be again the imago dei and thus free for God.
  7. The Incarnation is thus an icon of obedience and love, just as love is the icon of God.

IV. The Iconoclastic Position

  1. Exodus 20:4, among other Old Testament passages, is a clear injunction against images. However, decorative art and ornament are allowed.
  2. Matter is second-rate. To venerate it in any fashion is to bestow honor on something lifeless.  The icon is lifeless and, therefore, not worthy of Christ, his Mother, or the saints.
  3. The consubstantial image of Christ cannot be painted on wood. Only the Eucharist is a true icon of Christ (Constantine V--see below).
  4. The material realm can only offer an inferior copy of the exalted original (Synod of 754AD). Physical beauty is a distraction from the higher, spiritual reality. This position is taken by the synod in part to moderate a perceived monophysite-leaning theology in Constantine V.
  5. The cross, as a pure symbol, may be venerated.

Constantine V

  1. "Christ's hypostasis cannot be separated from his two natures."
  2. His divine nature cannot be circumscribed; therefore, it cannot be depicted in art.
  3. "It is, therefore, impossible to paint the hypostasis of Christ." 

V. The Iconographic Position

Germanus of Constantinople

  1. The veneration of images is not idolatry. Idolatry only applies to giving worship to what is not worthy of worship.
  2. The Incarnation changes everything. Now that God has a visible likeness, we can behold that likeness.
  3. The charaktêr of Christ is iconic. The Eternal Word has a human face.

John of Damascus (675-749 AD)

We will be studying John's first and third treatise on this subject closely, but here are a few key matters:

  1. Images have a number of different categories; the icon is of a differing category than that of the consubstanial image of the Son. An icon is an analogy.
  2.  The lesser image participates in the greater.
  3. Matter has a positive role in our complete salvation.
  4. An icon can be an instrument of grace, even a grace-filled object.
  5. Christ is present in a real way in his images.
  6. Adoration (worship) and veneration (honor) are not the same thing. Worship is given only to God, while veneration may be given to saints and holy objects.

Nicea II (787 AD)

"Christ our Lord, who has bestowed upon us the light of the knowledge of himself, and has redeemed us from the darkness of idolatrous madness, having espoused to himself the Holy Catholic Church without spot or defect, promised that he would so preserve her: and gave his word to this effect to his holy disciples when he said: Lo! I am with you always, even unto the end of the world, which promise he made, not only to them, but to us also who should believe in his name through their word. But some, not considering of this gift, and having become fickle through the temptation of the wily enemy, have fallen from the right faith; for, withdrawing from the traditions of the Catholic Church, they have erred from the truth and as the proverb says: The husbandmen have gone astray in their own husbandry and have gathered in their hands nothingness, because certain priestspriests in name only, not in fact, had dared to speak against the God-approved ornament of the sacred monuments, of whom God cries aloud through the prophet, Many pastors have corrupted my vineyard, they have polluted my portion...

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 fantastic, 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 (for, as we all know, the Holy Spirit indwells her), 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 Savior Jesus Christ, of our spotless Lady, the Mother of God, of the honorable 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 honorable reverence (ἀσπασμὸν καὶ τιμητικὴν προσκύνησιν), not indeed that true worship of faith (λατρείαν) which pertains alone to the divine nature; but to these, as to the figure of the precious and life-giving Cross and to the Book of the Gospels and to the other holy objects, incense and lights may be offered according to ancient pious custom. For the honor which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who reveres the image reveres in it the subject represented. For thus the teaching of our holy Fathers, that is the tradition of the Catholic Church, which from one end of the earth to the other has received the Gospel, is strengthened. Thus we follow Paul, who spoke in Christ, and the whole divine Apostolic company and the holy Fathers, holding fast the traditions which we have received. So we sing prophetically the triumphal hymns of the Church, Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion ; Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem . Rejoice and be glad with all your heart. The Lord has taken away from you the oppression of your adversaries; you are redeemed from the hand of your enemies. The Lord is a King in the midst of you; you shall not see evil any more, and peace be unto you forever

Nicephorus of Constantinople (750-829 AD)

  1. Painting is not circumscription. In one sense, all created things are circumscribed since all have finite existence.
  2. An icon is an artificial image. While it imitates nature, it is not the same as its model. An image is in relation with its original.
  3. Circumscription is not a category of the fall but an aspect of our created reality.
  4. Christ's flesh preserves its humanity even in its fully divinized state.

Theodore the Studite (759-826 AD)

  1. "The icon of someone does not depict his nature but his person."
  2. An icon portrays what is visibly particular about a person; therefore, it mediates the knowledge of a person's properties. (A middle position between John and Nicephorus.)
  3. Christ is truly a human being only if his humanity is a particular humanity. Christ is one person with two natures; the human nature is not a separate person, so the human body reveals the human-divine person of the Logos.
  4. The Logos can be circumscribed in the human flesh of Jesus.
  5. The original is present in the icon relationally not essentially. An icon is, therefore, not sacramental in the true sense of the word.
  6. To behold Christ will always be a bodily beholding, never a purely "spiritual" one. It will always be iconic. The Incarnation is not a stage to be got over, but an aspect of the Logos forever.
  7. Icons, like the hearing of scripture, imprint on our souls the nature of Christ. To reject the icons of Christ is to reject his humility.

This material is gathered from:
Schőborn, Christoph. God's Human Face: The Christ-Icon. Trans. Lothar Krauth. San Farancisco: Ignatius P, 1994.

Davis, Leo Donald. The First Seven Ecumenical Councils: Their History and Theology (325-787). Collegeville: Liturgical P, 1990.