Icons and the Smashing of Images

My recent series on iconicity would seem to require a word or two about the smashing of images (iconoclasm).


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.

iconoclasmThe 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 until his retirement this year), 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.





37 responses to “Icons and the Smashing of Images”

  1. David Avatar

    It seems to me that iconoclasm has something to do with imagination. That somehow we can purify ourselves by doing away with all the messiness of reality, for an idealized form which cannot be blemished. We can imagine the perfect circle and think that somehow we own perfection and glory in our imagination’s power.

    There is a violence in doing away with God’s world for one of our own invention, one protected from others, especially God.

    This abstraction afforded by our minds is a sort of drug a sort of intellectually erotic self-delusion.

    Icons force us out of ourselves to come to know the other. The other generically in persons, but ultimately the true Other, God. Icons bend us toward God, by their presence alone.

    This is one of those posts that reminds me why this blog was instrumental in helping me come to the Church. Thank you Father.

  2. nitangae Avatar

    I think it was Heine who said: “First they start burning books, then they start burning people.”

    I myself always thought that the problem with iconoclasm is that, by destroying icon, you put more importance on the idol than often the so-called idolaters themselves. I think of some Protestant ministers in South Korea who warn their parishioners against eating “devil food” from Buddhist monasteries – and in doing so, granting far more magical (not the right word, but I cannot think of a better one) significance to the Buddhist monasteries than most Korean Buddhists, who mostly, in my experience, see spiritual significance to sharing a meal with fellow Buddhists, but would be at least half-joking if they ascribed any particularly magical power to the food. In a sense, the only true idolaters of Buddhist temple-food are the anti-Buddhist Protestants

    However, Father Stephen reaches the core of the problem with iconoclasm in a way that I had not. Thank you very much.

  3. nitangae Avatar

    Sorry for the run-on sentence!

  4. Victor Avatar


    I think you’ve nailed something here. In the text Father identified as a popular prooftext for iconclasm there is mention of ‘casting down imaginations’. Icons do exactly that. They stubbornly persist as reminders that this world as we see it is not the whole or most real world. We are blind to the fact that most of our perceptions are not at all reality-based, they are imaginations/phantasia/prelest/etc. Rather like Plato’s wretched cave-dwellers. Icons, by their canonical forms, militate against our imagination by requiring our participation.
    While icons may be rendered artistically they are not ‘art’ as this would give licence to the imagination as the means of accessing the world to come or the deeper truth of how things are. This would make of icons an extension of carnality (sensual, devilish and earthly wisdom James 3:15) opening the door wide to spiritual self-delusion. It is the same with Liturgy which, while it may have ‘dramatic elements’ is NOT drama. In liturgy, as before an icon, when reading the scriptures or praying, we are not trying to be someone we are not. We are entering into our true and proper home and accidentally becoming our truest selves in the process.

    Indeed these “weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds.”

  5. jad Avatar

    Fr. Stephen-I appreciate your site very much-it’s a great source of spiritual blessing. I like your choice of image for a blog post, as I wrote a while back on the same issue using that quote.

    The link is here: http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2009/05/looking-images-in-the-eye/

    I have journeyed from Evangelicalism to Reformed Presbyterianism and am now a Byzantine Catholic, and can indeed relate to your thoughts about iconoclasm.

    May God bless you,

  6. David Avatar

    Victor, you said it much better than I.

  7. Marigold Avatar

    Thank you Father for this post, and thank you to the commenters for your insight! As it happens I spent last night with a group of rather iconoclastic types, and as often happens, found myself unable to articulate what you have done so well here.

    As I was reading this, a phrase from a long-ago History class on the English Reformation popped into my head: it is much easier to tear down than it is to build up.

    x M.

  8. Steve Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Iconoclasm is a good example of Buber’s I-It relationship gone bad. “Bad” because it is characterized by detachment from others and utilitarianism, where other becomes object, rather than subject.

    In stark contrast stands the I-Thou relationship, characterized by God as the “Eternal Thou” which never becomes an “It”.

    Only when this “total presentness” is existentially or ontologically known, can all things be unified in their real context (icons, people, etc).

    Unity is a reality, but it is spiritually discerned.

    (My thoughts and prayers are with your family at this time).

  9. Rick Avatar

    As a Catholic, I am a firm believer in the necessity, beauty, and spiritual help of icons. Each icon can help lead one to prayer. Some, such as the 11th Century Cross of San Damiano which contains the Gospel of John, can be “read” to bring further insight into a Gospel or a teaching of Christ.

    Fr. Stephen, you are so correct when talking about progressive secular humanism and all isms that devalue the human person. Pope John Paul II wrote extensively about the problems with secular humanism. One problem I see is how many “Christians” have slowly bought into secular humanist ideas without stopping to think about the consequences.

    We Christian barbarians are once again at the gates to the city and we have what the pagans want. If we love as Christ called us to love, we will once again take over the empire.

    Peace and All Good,


  10. Jesse Avatar

    “Those Christians who rail against the date of Christmas belong to this latter group of iconoclasts”

    I once went to a church where every Christmas the preacher had a sermon about how we shouldn’t have Christmas sermons. It always struck me as ironic, and now it seems even violently anti-Christian.

  11. Eric John Avatar
    Eric John

    Dear Fr. Stephen:

    May your mother’s memory be eternal!

    Nothing put the violence of the French Revolution and its form of iconoclasm into focus so much as visiting a church in La Rochelle. The revolutionaries had scrubbed the walls bare of their color, stripped the altars, smashed the colorful stained glass out and put plain leaded glass in, and ultimately reestablished the place as a “Temple of Reason” as part of the Culte de la Raison. It was a sad place even in the mid-1990s – unrestored to former glory and now a museum rather than a living parish. In their fury against the Roman Catholic Church and religion in general, they destroyed the reasonable work of their forefathers.

  12. Nicholas Avatar

    What a society we find ourselves in. We have Christians, who through their iconoclasm, seem to believe that God stopped actively revealing himself in this world after the Ascension (thought few admit that this is where their beliefs lead). This was carried on for so long that eventually other people thought there was nothing to be revealed. Enter postmodernism, which believes that icons are everywhere, but refuses to believe that they actually reveal anything. Icons become the object of worship themselves. Those who should believe in icons don’t, and those who shouldn’t do.

    How did we get so out of balance?

  13. fatherstephen Avatar


    “Sin is always at the door.”

  14. […] Icons and the Smashing of Images « Glory to God for All Things glory2godforallthings.com/2009/09/24/icons-and-the-smashing-of-images – view page – cached My recent series on iconicity would seem to require a word or two about the smashing of images (iconoclasm). — From the page […]

  15. Jay Avatar

    I am interested in following this up. Display name Jay is preferred.

  16. Jayanta Sarkar Avatar
    Jayanta Sarkar

    Please keep me subscribed.

  17. Jayanta Sarkar Avatar
    Jayanta Sarkar

    Display name Jay is preferred.

  18. fatherstephen Avatar


    You need to enter the name Jay when you comment (in the name box). Otherwise I would have to manually change the name in the display at each comment, which would be too tedious. Just enter the name Jay.

  19. Jay Avatar

    Display name entered accordingly, to save you the trouble of entering manually. That would be a mammoth task. Thanks! Praise the Lord!

  20. November In My Soul Avatar

    I have a very good friend who is a Primitive Baptist minister. To him the tradition of icons and indeed any other Christian visual representation other than the cross detracts from the purity of worship and sets up false idols. I one the other hand find the opposite to be true. Initially he was have accepted that, “There is a “righteousness” to the cause which refuses to accept anything other than complete obedience.” But we have had many discussions and while he does not agree he has gone to church with me. In small ways the understanding is coming through. We both remain committed to our faith and our friendship. Small victories and answered prayers.

  21. […] Thoughts on smashing the icon. […]

  22. Wonders for Oyarsa Avatar

    Father Stephen did you get my email about the podcast last week? It’s totally fine if you are busy or uninterested, but I wanted to make sure you had received it.

  23. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes. I got the email (forgive me for not answering quicker). I’ve sent along a private email this morning.

  24. David Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    Your insight that iconoclasm always, at least for the most, accompanies revolution, and hate and anger is the driving force, is so true. Throughout the Epistles of St. Paul he constantly warns the Churches that when love is void, then legalism, fighting, etc. will always creep in, and usually in the name of God. St. John warns the Ephesian Church about this in the book of Revelation.
    And so I would say that iconoclasm is an attempt at Christianity without true Christian love.
    Not too long ago I had a close friend visit me and he was shocked at the icons in my house. He told me it was idolatry. I gently explained to him that they are like pictures of those we love. We love Christ, the Theotokos, the Angels, and the Saints. I asked him if he had any pictures of people on his walls in his house. He said yes, of friends and family. I asked him why he had those there. He responded because he loved those people and so in honor of some, like late father, and of his children, etc. because he loves them and these people are special to him and most dear to him.
    Then I asked him one last question: “Then why don’t you have a picture of the Son of God in your house?”

  25. me Avatar

    …it seems to me one could easily become “dependent” on icons as well as other stimuli to muster a sense of Gods presence or achieve a particular “feeling” of piety.through americanization God is commonly believed to reside in the emotions of human beings and thus thought to be summoned by music or an emotional plea.i think when we eventually realize that God nor His presence is a “feeling”or emotional mood that can be manipulated then we are not far from the Kingdom.

  26. fatherstephen Avatar

    Such theoretical dependence becomes a moot point when it is understood that Orthodoxy discourages such moods and emotional states as poor substitutes for the mind in the heart. Icons have nothing to do with inculcating feelings

    Father Stephen+

    Sent from my iTouch

  27. David Avatar

    There are times when those feelings are productive. I know that some sentimental tears have still resulted in my heart turning to repentance, for example. I don’t feel dependent on them though because as Fr Stephen pointed out, I’m encouraged to seek something greater than that.

    However, I still think my confessions which followed such tears were genuine and spiritually beneficial.

    But I think there is a mistake to assume that because praying while standing is conducive to spiritually beneficial prayer, that I am “dependent” on standing. One doesn’t deliberately make it as hard as possible to pray, as a mere demonstration of spiritual fortitude.

    Our Bishop visited about a month ago and I commented to my priest that he had a gentle, almost lyrical, voice; but that somehow certain phrases like “Shouting, Crying and Saying” didn’t sound right in that tone. I didn’t mean any criticism of the Bishop (who am I anyway), it was just an observation.

    My priest immediately apologized! and said that he had “spoiled” me by his style. He was quite vexed, in fact. A great deal of teaching about Orthodoxy happened in a matter of these few words and the communication of distress on his face.

  28. Dana Ames Avatar
    Dana Ames

    my priest says tears attract grace, and that has help me a great deal. (I’m Italian and tears come quickly to my eyes because of that and God knows why else.) Your experience makes sense to me. I’m not worried when I don’t have any tears, for the reasons you & Fr. Stephen note; they usually catch up to me at some point anyway…. In the last number of months, I find that often what may start as something sentimental turns into a more “sober” sort of prayer/confession, while yet retaining emotion. I’m hopeful that this is an indication that my mind is in my heart in those moments.


  29. fatherstephen Avatar

    Emotions are by no means bad (I hope I didn’t imply that) but simply do best when they are in proper order. Then they function as they should and are very beneficial. Mostly, I wanted to underscore that Orthodoxy has an understanding of the heart, mind and soul that are utterly different from anything known in Protestantism. Someone who does not understand this will not understand how icons function, for instance.

  30. Alice C. Linsley Avatar

    An icon smasher has been put in charge of America’s public schools. Kevin Jennings is special advisor in the White House responsible for helping to keep US schools “safe and drug free.” Jennings is a homosexual activist who states in a book about his childhood that he embraced a homosexual lifestyle and bid God farewell with the words, “Screw you, buddy.”

    The report is here: http://www.lifesitenews.com/ldn/2009/sep/09092409.html

    Lord, have mercy.

  31. […] Fr Stephen Freeman Blessed Ever-Virgin Mary St Irenaeus of Lyons Lex Credendi […]

  32. Academic Avatar

    Father, thank you for your post. I do think that one of the biggest challenges for Orthodox Christians is to remember that each and every person on this planet bears the image of God, independent of how he or she may be eschewing the likeness of God. As people called to be disciples of Christ, I think that we must learn to see the image of God in the people we personally know and interact with so as to see that God does not desire the death of a sinner but desires all people to be saved. If we seek to root out sin without any consideration of the personhood of the sinner, then I suggest that we can only do that through seeking to understand the plank in our own eye. If we say, “Well, clearly THAT person is an egregious sinner despicable to God in every way possible, and I thank you God that I am not like him or her” then I fear we have submitted ourselves to the judgments reserved for the Pharisees.

  33. GVM Avatar

    Another fantastic post, Fr Stephen! Bless! Thank you!

  34. Henry Avatar

    I have seen the handiwork of General George Monk in Ireland with my own eyes and I was grieved when the Taliban blew up the two great statues of the Buddha in Afganistan. I do not endorse such acts. However, some Protestant part of my soul felt a bit insecure when reading this post. I think the first outbreak of Christian iconoclasm can be found in the Acts of the Apostles

    Acts Chapter 19

    [19] Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all men: and they counted the price of them, and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver.

    I also rather suspect the same and subsequent outbreaks of evangelistic enthusiasm resulted in a fair number of smashed statues and defaced murals. So is iconoclasm always wrong? I wonder.

  35. fatherstephen Avatar

    Good point – and a delicate one. There is an iconicity to all things, and yet there are also false images (both external and internal) – which do have to be “pulled down.” This becomes part of the difficult discernment of our daily spiritual life. Wholesale iconoclasm is not the answer, neither is wholesale veneration of all things.

    I’m working on a subsequent post about Icons and the Truth that will apply to this in more detail.

    Thanks, my friend!

  36. Karen Avatar

    Dear Father, bless!

    Probably because of certain Scriptures and also the rhetorical devices of certain Fathers in their refutation of pagan idolatry, when I was protestant/evangelical, I found it was too easy to overplay the significance of the external bowing before a physical object and not realize that there is much, much more to idolatry than this (let alone that this might, in fact, in the appropriate contexts be the very opposite of idolatry). It was also far from my mind to consider that the “subtle conformity to the world” that ultimately follows the smashing of Orthodox and God-created icons might be a far more dangerous idolatry for its insidiousness! The fixation on this very superficial external aspect of idolatry can be misleading even to non-Christians. I’ll never forget a post of a Hindu blogger I happened upon a few years ago. He was strenuously objecting to being called an “idolater,” any more than Christians he insisted, because Hindus do not worship the material idols before which they bow, but the spirits they represent (I thought of 1 Cor. 10:20)! It might be good for an iconoclast to ask what Spirit is represented by an Orthodox Icon of Christ, the Saints, and the events of sacred history before considering whether it ought to be smashed.

    The first comment by David and also Victor’s above really strike a chord with me as well. I’ll just reprise a little of Victor’s statement:

    “In the text Father identified as a popular prooftext for iconclasm there is mention of ‘casting down imaginations’. Icons do exactly that. They stubbornly persist as reminders that this world as we see it is not the whole or most real world. We are blind to the fact that most of our perceptions are not at all reality-based, they are imaginations/phantasia/prelest/etc. . . . Icons, by their canonical forms, militate against our imagination by requiring our participation.”

  37. […] icons, images, Matthew, Romans, worship trackback I enjoyed Father Stephen’s post on iconoclasm. Father Stephen is Eastern Orthodox, so his goal here is the defense of Icons; but I certainly […]

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