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Iconoclasm Part II

March 10, 2024


We left off last week discussing the beginning of the heresy and some of the immediate consequences. After the death of Pope Gregory II, we have Pope Gregory III entering the scene and continuing the fight against the iconoclast heresies. In 731 Gregory III had sent a legate to the emperor, but he had been arrested and imprisoned. In that same year, Gregory III held a synod of ninety-three bishops at St. Peter’s, in which all persons who broke, defiled, or took away images of Christ, of His Mother, the Apostles, or other saints, were excommunicated. Another legate was sent with a copy of this decree and of its application to the emperor, but he was arrested and imprisoned in Sicily. The emperor Leo, who had already threatened Gregory’s predecessor, now took the next step and sent a fleet toward Rome to force the pontiff into obedience and punish the pope; but it was wrecked and dispersed by a storm. Meanwhile all sorts of calamites afflicted the empire; earthquakes, pestilence, and famine devastated the provinces, while the Muslims continued their war against the Byzantine empire and conquered further territory. Yet these warnings from God still went unheeded.


In 741 Emperor Leo III died and was succeeded by his son, Constantine V who was an even greater persecutor than his father had been of those who refused to give up images. After the death of Leo, the brother-in-law of Constantine began a rebellion against the iconoclasts and set himself up as emperor and began the restoration of the images, but soon Constantine marched on the capital and in a most cruel way put down the rebellion and severely punished all who had been involved. He then summoned a council of bishops to condemn the use of images. A number of the more well-known patriarchs refused to send anyone as they suspected that it was merely a sham in which the emperor and his friends could force iconoclasm on whichever bishops refused. It turned out they were right, and the sham council declared all who worshipped with images of Christ to be either Nestorian or Monophysite heretics. The aftermath of this is written briefly with a few examples in the Catholic Encyclopedia: “Instead of paintings of saints the churches were decorated with pictures of flowers, fruit, and birds, so that the people said that they looked like grocers’ stores and bird shops. A monk named Peter was scourged to death on May 16, 761; the Abbot of Monagria, John, who refused to trample on an icon, was tied up in a sack and thrown into the sea on June 7, 761; in 767 Andrew, a Cretan monk, was flogged and lacerated till he died; in November of the same year a great number of monks were tortured to death in various ways. The emperor tried to abolish monasticism (always the center of the defense of images); monasteries were turned into barracks; the monastic habit was forbidden; the patriarch Constantine II was made to swear in the ambo of his church that, although formerly a monk, he had now joined the secular clergy. Relics were dug up and thrown into the sea, the invocation of saints was forbidden. In 766 the patriarch ran afoul of his emperor, who had him scourged and beheaded and replaced by Nicetas I (766-80), who was, naturally, also an obedient servant of the Iconoclast Government.”


In 775 the Emperor Constantine V dies and is succeeded by his son Leo IV. For the majority of his reign, he held the iconoclast views, however he was much more lax in enforcing them and the persecutions died down for a bit, picking up only shortly before his death in a fit of rage. His wife, Empress Irene, was an opponent of iconoclasm and was known to have hidden holy images around their apartments in the palace. He was going to exile her but died before he could. After her husband’s death, she became regent for her son Constantine VI for a period of time and set about righting the wrongs and with the help of the new patriarch of Constantinople, contacted Rome with the desire for a council and to restore the union of the eastern Church with the See of Peter. In response to this petition, the Church calls the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 where the official teaching of the Church is once again made known and the letters of the pope, Adrian I, are read and those bishops who express contrition for their part in the heresy are received back into the Church and the monasteries are restored their property and so on.


On that we will end our article this week. Since this is an “important” heresy, there will be a third part coming soon to finish this topic.


God love you, Fr. Anthony

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