The Smashing of Images


I have a quote on the sidebar from an earlier posting. It is about the need we have for proper images and the danger inherent in “image smashing” or “iconoclasm.”

We have to renounce iconoclasm. In so doing, we inherently set ourselves against certain forces within modernity. The truth is eschatological, that is, it lies in the future, but we also believe that this eschatological reality was incarnate in Christ, the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega. We do not oppose the future in embracing the Tradition we have received. We embrace the future that is coming in Truth, rather than the false utopias of modern man’s imagination.

There is a strange spirit of iconoclasm (the Greek for “icon smashing”) and it breaks out now and again across human history. It is not just a short period in Byzantine history successfully resisted by the Orthodox but a strange manifestation of human sin that has as its driving force and hence allurement, the claim that it is defending the honor of God.

The icon smashers are as varied as certain forms of Islam or certain forms of Puritanism (and some of its Protestant successors). Some icon smashers direct their attention to pictures or statues, per se, while others turn their attention to even ideological icons such as honoring certain days and holidays. Those Christians who rail against the date of Christmas belong to this latter group of iconoclasts.

What is striking to me is that iconoclasm has almost always accompanied revolutions. I suppose those who are destroying the old and replacing with the new have a certain drive to “cleanse” things. Thus during China’s Cultural Revolution, books, pictures, older faculty members, indeed a deeply terrifying array of unpredictable things and people became the objects of the movement’s iconoclasm. As in all of these revolutions – iconoclasm kills.

In Christian history the first recorded outbreak of iconoclasm was the period that gave the phenomenon the name – during the mid-Byzantine Empire. Like later incarnations of this spirit of destruction, the icons themselves were only one thing to be destroyed – those who sought to explain and defend them became objects of destruction as well. Thus we have the martyrs of the Iconoclast Heresy.

During the Protestant Reformation iconoclasm was a frequent traveler with the general theological reform itself. Thus statues, relics, furniture – all became objects of destruction (as well as people). Some of this was state sponsored (as was the original iconoclastic period). The logic of iconoclasm, however, cannot always be confined. Thus in the Reformation the logic of reform moved from destruction of images to destruction of the state (which was itself an icon of sorts). In Germany the result was the Peasants’ Revolt, which became so dangerous to the powers that be that even Martin Luther had to denounce it and bless the state’s bloody intervention.

In England the Reform that was first put in place by the state remained unsteady for over a hundred years. Eventually, the Puritan Reform (that only took the logic of Reform to its next step) began to smash images, behead kings, outlaw bishops, outlaw holidays, outlaw dancing (they were a fun lot). For ten years England was ruled by a bloody dictatorship that was as ruthless in its iconoclasm as any regime in history.

One of the difficulties of iconoclasm is its appeal to the idea of God. Images are smashed because they are considered an affront to God. And not just images, but certain ideas are smashed (burn the books and those who wrote them). There is a “righteousness” to the cause which refuses to accept anything other than complete obedience.

I do not write about iconoclasm entirely from the outside. I’ve been there – done that. The verse of Scripture that seemed most “iconoclastic” to me was in 2 Cor. (10:3-6):

For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;) Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ; And having in a readiness to revenge all disobedience, when your obedience is fulfilled.

Of course, the verse is referring to sinful thoughts and uses (as is not unusual in St. Paul) martial imagery. That same imagery applied to the governing of a state (or a Church) can be quite dangerous. It is useful in the spiritual life, provided it is well-directed by a mature and generous guide.

The plain truth of the matter is that God is an icon-maker. He first made man “in His own image.” And in becoming man, the man he became is described as the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). The same God who gave the commandment to make no graven images, also commanded the making of the Cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant, as well as the images of angels woven in the curtain of the Tabernacle. He commanded the making of the image of the serpent, lifted on a staff, that brought healing to all who looked on it (an Old Testament prefigurement of the crucified Christ).

In the better than 14 years I have known Archbishop DMITRI of Dallas (my bishop), I have heard him warn incessantly that the greatest danger in the modern world is the attack on man as the image of God. That God became man in order to unite man to God is the only sure Divine underwriting of human worth. We have value because of the image we bear.

There is a restraint that is inherently involved in offering honor. Orthodox Christian living requires that we know how to worship God with what is due to Him alone, but at the same time to know how to honor those things that are honorable without giving them what belong to God alone. It is easy to say “give honor to God alone,” but this is contrary to the Scriptures in which we are told to “give honor to whom honor is due” (Romans 13:7 and also see Romans 12:10). We cannot honor God by destroying the very images He has created (and here I include the saints who could not be what they are but by God’s grace).

There is within iconoclasm, a spirit of hate and anger. Without them destruction would not be so easy. But it is also the case that such spirits are not of God – though they are easily attributed to zeal or excused as exuberance. Iconoclasm is not the narrow way, but the wide path of destruction. It is easy to declare that all days are the same and that no days should be considered holier than others. It is easy to check out the historical pedigree of every feast of the Church and declare that some had pagan predecessors. Of course some had pagan predecessors – as did every last human being. If the Church has blessed a day and made it to be a day on which an action of Christ or an event in His life, or a saint of the Church is to be honored and remembered, then it is acting well within the Divine authority given it in Scripture (Matt. 18:18).

More importantly, we will grow more surely into the image of Christ by imitating his actions and learning to build up rather than to smash. Giving place to anger and the spirit of iconoclasm, in all its various guises, has never produced saints – but only destruction that has to eventually give way to something more sane. The legacy of our culture’s image smashing (a powerful part of the Puritan world) is secularization – though now replete with its own images. If we fail to give a proper account of the role that images play in Christianity – the result will not be no images – but simply the dominance of culture images and a subtle conformity to the world. The only image that needs to be discarded is the one we have of ourselves as God. We are not Him. Worship God. Give honor to whom honor is due.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



19 responses to “The Smashing of Images”

  1. Chris Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Another much enjoyed post. Coincidentally, a loved one and I recently had a discussion (civil in nature, thanks to their patience and kindness) that centered on saints, their icons, and their worthiness of veneration. For background; this person is supportive of my conversion to Orthodoxy, but has no interest themself as they maintain what they refer to as a non-denominational viewpoint.

    The basis of our disagreement boiled down to one theme. Namely, how do we have the right to judge an individual’s sainthood. They maintain that making a judgement (or even a guess) on the status of someone’s soul is God’s place alone. I countered by explaining that the witness that the saints provided by the way they lived their lives was proof of their communion with God (likely not the most sound theological argument). Their counter was, to paraphrase; how do we know they didn’t renounce Christ in their hearts, or in another manner not apparrant to others. I didn’t capitulate, but on some levels I respected and could sympathize with the points being made. Maybe there do exist possibilities which render making such proclamations dangerous.

    I was tempted to bring up the fact of miracles attributed to saints before and after their repose. I refrained though, thinking that it would likely not get me anywhere. I felt as though I needed to stick to the “most rational” approach I could.

    I know that I have already read a proper explanation of this subject in one of Met. Kallistos’ books, or elsewhere, but I am interested in your thoughts as well. Or thoughts of other blog readers as well.

  2. fatherstephen Avatar

    Traditionally, the miracles associated with their intercessions is a key factor – the example of the lives is examined as well. It’s a discernment process in Orthodoxy, ultimately carried out by the Holy Synod of Bishops. Generally, time is allowed to pass, and in time God makes things clear. It is not a declaration of someone’s perfection (“for there is no man the liveth and sinneth not”) but of their life with God. God bears witness to those whom the Church honors as saints. Without God’s witness we would indeed be making a judgment for which we were not qualified.

  3. laura Avatar

    thanks for this post. It explains the understanding of icons beautifully.

  4. zoe Avatar

    Thank you for explaining this, Fr. Stephen. I will reread this explanation over and over again, I’m sure, for I tend to forget a lot of teachings along the way, I know that you have discussed this before in our inquirer’s class but I’m glad to be reminded of it again.

    This may be unrelated to the topic of your post today but since you have touched partly on how Saints are canonized by the Orthodox Church, did you tell us (when we were in your inquirer’s class) that the Royal Family of Russia, Czar Nicholas II and his family who were murdered during the Bolshevik Revolution, is in the process of being canonized, or the family had already been canonized?

    Thank you and God bless

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    They are already canonized.

  6. Meskerem Avatar

    Speaking of kings cannonized, there are quite a number of Ethiopian Kings who are cannonized as Saints. Saint Lalibela is one of them. He has built the 11 rock hewn churches carved out of single rock in a call to rebuild Jerusalem. He built these churches during his reign between 1185 to 1225 AD in the town also called by his name “Lalibela”.

    The Kings who were cannoized most of them have left their crown given up their wealth and belongings, given up worldly lives and joined monasteries till their death.

    There are a lot of other Saints too who like you said “…. in time God makes things clear. It is not a declaration of someone’s perfection (”for there is no man the liveth and sinneth not”) but of their life with God” There are signs either during their lifetime or after they passed away. All their deeds in doing GODs call is documented and is read on the day they are comemorated, which is the day they have passed away and we strongly believe in their intercession.

  7. Chris Avatar

    Yes, it has always been clear to me that sainthood is not a claim of perfection.

    Thank you for the responses, and I hope I did not deviate attention from the original message you were trying to put out. I felt it was relevant.

  8. Lana Avatar

    The churches of Lalibala/Lalibela are magnificant! Years ago I saw them while watching an IMAX movie at the science museum with my kids called The Nile (Lalibela is located at the beginning). I read that all 11 are connected 150 feet underground and that some believe the Arch of the Covenant is safeguarded there constantly being moved around from church to church underground. The most beautiful is dedicated to St. George. If people have not seen these they are truly amazing orthodox churches!

  9. Meskerem Avatar

    I am glad you are a witness. The churches of Lalibela are unbelievable to see humans did those since there was no machinery invented at the time. Especially Bete Giorgis (House of St. George, by the way He is the Patriot Saint for Ethiopia).It is all by hand and the precision and measurements are truly amazing. They were not discovered till the 1500’s when Europeans started visiting them. Services are carried out in the churches still today. There are no pews in any of them.

    About the Arc of Covenant, it is in Axum a city North of Lalibela, inside Our Holy Mother Mary Church. There is only one guard (Priest) chosen by the person before him and who dedicates his life there. These are the only people who have seen it (the people who guard it)

    The people have truly dedicated their life to GOD and the church and have survived all these years keeping their Faith. There is a lot of story behind it. As you notice this is from the time before Christianity (Arc Of Covenant) and then after Christianity, churches like Lalibela and even before him. It is years and years of history.

    Thanks Lana I hope Orthodox people make a plan to visit like you said. This is my only wish because I have seen pastors, ministers from other denominations visiting all the time. They always ask why the OLD Testament is still alive in those churches.

    Sorry Father Stephen, one thing led to another. On Iconoclasm, Ethiopian Orthodox has survived a lot of those including burning of Churches. You will mostly see the monasteries are on mountains some which can only be accessed by hanging on rope to get to them. Reason for them is to hide their prayer books, icons and all and survive the wars and the evil through history.

  10. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    Father, thanks for the encouraging post. I think that we either embrace icons (images of every kind) in a proper way or we become embraced by delusion, in danger of it strangling us. There is little ground between because it’s an orientation of the heart and mind, and we can’t go two ways at once.

  11. Steve Avatar


    In a previous post, Father Stephen, in so many words, did put forth the Orthodox Church’s position on icons and images.

    In so many words, Fr. S. said that while icons are not actually necessary for salvation; neither does it behove anyone to judge another whose love may require the use of such an icon. Fr. S. went on to say that the Church will judge those who pass judgement in this way. We should all agree with this.

    Yet sometimes it is the LORD Himself who gives us “images” and when He does, these have deeper significance still.

  12. […] New Iconoclasm Yesterday, Father Stephen wrote a wonderfully articulate and informative piece about icons and iconoclasm.  In it, he concisely presents the Orthodox understanding of icons, the […]

  13. T.C. Avatar

    Fr. Stephen…a fascinating discussion of icons and iconoclasm. My thoughts have focused primarily on your observation of God as the original icon maker. Unfortunately, our society tends to treat God’s original image, humanity, with much the same violence, hatred, and rage as the Iconoclasts did religious icons. I have expanded on these thoughts in my blog…thank you for your initial, thought-provoking words!

  14. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    Steve, of course I agree, and I appreciate being reminded not to judge how others may view icons.

    My point was not so much about the church’s icons or their necessity for our salvation. I meant the kind of truth-recognition we should aspire to have when we see ALL images –not just church icons– as Adam did when his eyes saw and named the animals rightly.

    I challenge myself to see all things as God sees them, knowing that as hopeless as I am, I need this kind of discernment about everything created that comes into focus. I’ve met many, some who don’t even profess Christ, who put me to shame by their immediate and thankful recognition of gifts they receive in the faces of people, music, art, nature, buildings, and so on.

    My point really is that all things have iconic value, and one proper objection to church icons, I think, comes because we may give them a kind of elevation they don’t need. As images they are elevated in the world of all icons, and the people they depict are elevated in the world of saints. Both these are quite natural. What’s not natural, I believe, is to spiritualize them in such a way that they loose their place among all created images and the people loose their place among all the saints. After all, how many saints will we never see in paint because they rested in anonymity? How many saints walk past me every day that we don’t see because my sensitivity to God’s image is so poor? I speak for myself. These thoughts recur to me, but I don’t regret them because they urge me to see more icons every day and everywhere.

  15. dunovich, john c. l. Avatar
    dunovich, john c. l.

    “I countered by explaining that the witness that the saints provided by the way they lived their lives was proof of their communion with God (likely not the most sound theological argument). Their counter was, to paraphrase; how do we know they didn’t renounce Christ in their hearts, or in another manner not apparrant to others.:

    I am inclined to find the reply of the man born blind to those who interregated him as being in kind with your answer about the witness of the Saints…God heard and continues to hear their prayers. For the man born blind, this was the one teaching that trumped the threats of the Religious Establishment (albeit a Divinly Established one).

    I recall the Lord Himself cried out, “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me!

  16. Mike Marsh Avatar

    Father Stephen: Thank you for your insightful comments. It seems iconoclasm is sometimes justified as defending or protecting God. But as you point out God is an icon maker. The incarnation lies at the heart of the icon and iconoclasm, therefore, would be a denial of the incarnation and the destruction of God’s work. The great tragedy is the iconoclastic behavior we exhibit toward each other and sometimes ourselves. God’s peace be with you. Mike

  17. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    Chris, I also have loved ones who distrust church elevatation of some saints above others. Indeed, being a convert, I was with them in this respect for many years.

    Underneath it, at least in my case, was a sense of egalitarian fairness. Fairness is a huge moral value in our culture. I also think there is an honest awareness that none of us is very fit to judge who is holy in God’s eyes.

    These days I don’t answer their objection by defending the church’s ability to judge holiness. Instead I speak of the necessity to recognize some saints.

    For example, without recognizing Medal of Honor recipients, how could the United States do justice to any of its heroes? Those we honor are icons who stand in our memory for all such heroes, and our hearts ache at the immense cost of their sacrifices for our country. Likewise, when we think of flowers, or dogs, or bears, an image usually comes to mind. If we are blessed to have clear or personally-known image of just one, that one icon becomes honored, or elevated in our mind, to stand for the whole species even if our judgment or the image itself is flawed.

    I don’t think the church claims to know or to elevate every saint, or even that its judgment about those glorified is perfect or final. Rather, it recognizes saints because what belongs to all saints is sufficiently evident in them for us to see and recall it together as icons of Christ in our midst. The point is how near the are to Christ as we should be near to Christ by living or dying in Him as they did.

    I think that we must honor in icons at least one member of every species we care about or we’ll forget the whole lot and what they mean to God.

  18. Alice C. Linsley Avatar

    I agree with your wise Bishop. Man in the image of God is the basis for the sanctity of life and our yearning for God. We seek return to our Source. Abortion, euthanasia, eugenics, slavery, pornography, sexual abuse… all are demonic attempts to expunge the Divine Image.

  19. […] Father Stephen wrote a wonderfully articulate and informative piece about icons and iconoclasm.  In it, he concisely presents the Orthodox understanding of icons, the […]

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