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March 3, 2024

This week we are going to skip ahead a few centuries and find ourselves in the 7th century looking at a peculiar heresy that came back three different times and is one that has caused not just theological damage, but actual great monetary damage as well and contributed to a consistent and deep ignorance that is still ingrained in many people and religious denominations. The heresy we are speaking of is Iconoclasm. It is based upon a false and ignorant understanding of the place of images and pictures in regard to the Faith and Tradition and an erroneous understanding of the 2nd commandment.

This heresy is already seen in the early Church but lacks any cohesive unity and ebbs and wanes with time until toward the end of the 7th century when there is a persecution of the Christians by the Muslim leaders of Damascus. We know that Islam an amalgamation of Jewish and Christian teachings with the things Mohammed added himself, so it takes the command against idolatry and the Jewish understanding of images and statues (which forbids them in acts of liturgy or worship) and takes it one step further (prohibiting them at all – in the religious sphere or public sphere). This persecution requires the destruction of all images and statues that the Christians had and is then picked up by certain powerful people within the Eastern part of the Church, notably the Byzantine emperor Leo III.

The main tenet of Iconoclasm was that images and statues were a form of idolatry or led to idolatry and therefore must be destroyed or covered up. This heresy is violent in its nature, and we have houses being raided for images; churches being ransacked, and the images or statues publicly destroyed or burned and wall frescos painted over; monasteries and convents being raided and burned and people were being tortured and killed as well. The relics and bodies of saints were burned in some areas and there was even an attempt at the total suppression of monasticism. It is horrific in the anger and violence. The emperor even went as far as sending a letter to Pope Gregory II in 726 which demanded that all the sacred images in Rome be destroyed, and a council be called to forbid their use again. Leo threatens to come to Rome and destroy the statue of St. Peter in the church of the pope himself and imprison the pope. In 727 Pope Gregory responds with a brilliant defense of the use of images and flatly refuses to comply with Leo’s demands while asking him how he could so misunderstand the commandments and the Scriptures. He tells him to quit disturbing the peace of the Church. In so many words he tells him to - “knock it off” - and then basically dares him to come to Rome and try. In 731 Pope Gregory II died and was succeeded by Pope Gregory III, who kept up the defense of images as Gregory II had done.

The upper class were for the most part supporters of iconoclasm. It was the common people who were against it and in many areas they were rising up against the decree of the emperor as icons and images had always been very important to them. The “uneducated” knew and understood more than the “educated” concerning the use and meaning of images. The response was the escalation in violence and force by the emperor against the rebellions and the suppression of these rebellions accompanied by great destruction sometimes. On that note, we will close this article with the promise of a continuation to come.

God love you,

Fr. Anthony

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Iconoclasm follow up

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