Smashing Icons

The first Sunday of Great Lent, on the Orthodox calendar, is set aside to remember the restoration of icons to the Churches during the reign of the holy Empress Theodora (9th century). It commemorates as well the gift of the entirety of the Orthodox faith.

I reprint these thoughts in honor of the day. The opening quote is from an earlier posting.

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 16 years or more that I have known Archbishop DMITRI of Dallas (my retired Archbishop), I have heard him warn repeatedly 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. It is interesting that the Puritan reign in New England (as a matter of historical fact) was, by its third generation, weakening and looking for something different. The “Great Revivals” that swept through those places did not leave a lasting religious legacy other than the cults that sprang out of the “burnt-over district” in Upstate New York, and a growing secularization that sought freedom from the iconoclastic regime of its ancestors. Our modern American world is an inheritor of that secularization.

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 retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





31 responses to “Smashing Icons”

  1. […] is from the blog Glory To God For All Things. The first Sunday of Great Lent, on the Orthodox calendar, is set aside to remember the restoration […]

  2. Steven Clark Avatar

    Another victim of iconoclasm were many of the older texts that had illustrations. This causes some confusion for contemporary scholars who don’t know church history and yet notice that there are more corrupt texts that are older and fewer received texts.

  3. […] to issues of human sexuality, please use the contact form here. Thanks for visiting!Well, it is the first Sunday of Lent after all… No one could describe the Word of the Father; but when He took flesh from you, O […]

  4. iconreader Avatar

    Dear Father,

    I feel I must add a caveat to your excellent post. Just yesterday we remembered a saint, Theodore Tyro, who was martyred for burning down a pagan temple. Even if we assume this was a false accusation, we also have his namesake, Theodore Stratilates, who most certainly was martyred for breaking up golden pagan idols and distributing the pieces to the poor.

    Clearly, this latter act is far from a “hate-filled” act done in anger, but it is still – basically – “icon-smashing”. The images being broken up by these Saints were false-images, idols, too. Yet the act itself was not outwardly different to the Iconoclasts’ in the 8th and 9th century. The main difference, and it’s a big one, was due to the motivation: a love for God (by destroying false images) and a love for man (distributing the gold to the poor).

    Forgive my words, but I only mention it because you give some examples which were not, strictly, the same as the heresy of Iconoclasm. To pull down statues and burn books from the “old order” isn’t iconoclasm, if it is done specifically so they may be replaced with “new” images.

    Theodore Tyro:

    Theodore Stratilates:

  5. […] Fr. Stephen Freeman, “Smashing Icons“ Bookmark […]

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    You make a vert salient point. I draw a distinction between iconoclasm and the actions of Sts. Theodore, etc. It was not images, per se, that they opposed, so much as a direct opposition against specific cults and religions. I think that neither saint would have been canonized merely for the destruction of a pagan shrine. It was the martyrdoms they endured that establish them among the saints.

    I think that it is fair to question the destruction of the shrines of other religions – something that would not likely be sanctioned by the Church today, despite historical precedents. Even so, it differs from iconoclasm in nature and spirit. Though were I a pagan, I would think that I had drawn too fine a distinction.

  7. Yannis Avatar

    Members of the clergy of the Orthodox Church of Greece still build occasionally Churches on top of the ruins of ancient pagan shrines and temples in Greece whenever possible (and sometimes even when theoretically impossible).

    There has been people that condemned this tendency that damages the cultural heritage of the country for its own agenda, from without but also from within the Orthodox Church of Greece.

    Orthodox Christian Theologian G.Mouzakis is one prominent critic of such actions.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    It is a situation fairly unknown in America (what remains of culture of any antiquity is often non-existent). There are many concerns to be considered. Most importantly, as far as this post is concerned, is the state of heart involved. The “revolutionary spirit” of anger, and even hatred of the past, of a very humanistic form of hubris, would be one indicator. Some may build on an ancient site, because it is a place which has long been considered holy (even before the coming of Christianity). It’s a strange form of respect, I’ll admit. But it is not always driven by iconoclasm.

  9. Aunt Melanie Avatar

    I really appreciated your synthesis of history in this post: from the Puritans to China to Germany to the Byzantine Empire, and all under the them of inconoclasm. I would gladly welcome more elaboration iin future posts on some the connections you made: the spirit of anger and hate, iconoclasm kills, secularization, offering honor. There is so much rich material here.

  10. Merry Avatar

    Once again, you bring us back to another reason our faith is so strong, steady, and all-encompassing. Our icons and our feast days are important to us – why should anyone else care? We don’t ask them to celebrate them too. They are welcome to, but no one forces them to.
    I will celebrate my first year as a member of the Orthodox Church – on Holy Saturday. It has been a long journey – thru many years of many faiths – to find the ancient and true place I belonged.
    I am 63 yrs old, and have seen or experienced many things in my life.
    Marrying a man whom God sent to me, and joining him in his Christian Orthodox faith, has opened a whole wonderful group of family and friends to me. The Saints, who all want to pray for us, help us, and care about us – in addition to the Theotokos who had spoken to me many years ago and is my patron now. Christ has always been “the comforter” to me. I am ever so much closer to Him now too. The Icons are extremely important and valuable to each of us – as they represent the Saints who once walked among us. St Raphael is very special to my husband, and I. St. Herman of Alaska – thru his intercession – stopped a dear friend of ours from drinking alcohol ever again. I have seen so many amazing things come from asking for their help and intercession – in the two years I have known my husband. Without the icons, we would lose a priceless gift we have been given – to “see” the Saints, and to feel closer to them. It is easier to talk to someone you can see, and icons are not mass-produced plastic statues – but rather carefully copied pictures of the real person – handed down thru the ages. What a wonderul gift! We have been blessed so much thru the icons, and most I know wear small ones; have them in their cars; and in homes and offices. I do, and I find them very comforting. I was raised Episcopal, and was Catholic for a while, and the whole effect and feeling of icons is a world of difference from the statues. Icons are imbued with something that truly sets them apart and makes them special. I am humbly grateful to God, and the Theotokos – for bringing me to Orthodoxy, and my wonderful husband. When people ask why we “worship” icons, and tell me it is wrong – I explain that we don’t “worship” them, but we “venerate” them – as we would pictures of beloved family and friends.
    We don’t pray in worship to the Saints, but rather we ask these loving friends of ours to pray on our behalf too – just as anyone would ask a friend to pray for them. It is so wonderful – to have all these amazing Saints who will pray for us – if we but ask them to. I cannot imagine how it must be to have grown up in this faith all your life. What a blessing! The world in these times does not seem to respect any Christian faith, and seeks to destroy all of them. The Orthodox faith has stood firm since the Apostles – what a rich history it has – to be the same today as it was in the beginning when Christ created it.

  11. iconreader Avatar

    Something I read a while ago regarding the fate of Parthenon in “Christian times”:

    I think it might be better to say that pre-Christian holy sites were “transfigured” by Christians, rather than destroyed. It would, I admit, require some “image-smashing” to convert a pagan temple into a Christian church, but the distinction into the nature and spirit behind the destruction can be made, and is crucial. People holding on to the old-beliefs would not make the distinction, as Fr Stephen says, but then many of the old shrines were pulled down and changed by those who had previously worshiped there, but were later converted.

  12. Yannis Avatar

    F.Stephen said:
    “Some may build on an ancient site, because it is a place which has long been considered holy (even before the coming of Christianity). It’s a strange form of respect, I’ll admit. But it is not always driven by iconoclasm.”

    Actually i agree with you – its a different phenomenon to iconoclasm altogether in many cases (but not all as you say).

    In all of Europe in fact you can see the same pattern; holy sites of previous religions overlap, as their spiritual dimensions do to a certain extent – for example a lot of the Celtic druidic religious traditions were merged and incorporated in early Christianity (4th to 6th centuries) in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England.

    The Christianised Celts produced wonderful hand-written and illuminated Scriptures among other things and their monasteries had reputation for being great centers of learning and siritual attainment, as the island monastery of Lindisfarne in the English North Sea coast, that unfortunately fell victim to the first recorded Viking raid.

    I have to say, that i didn’t expect this answer : )

  13. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    God makes only icons. Human beings make icons or we make idols. The very act of iconoclasm makes an idol of our own mind and discernment–limiting God to a very specific, controlable set of parameters that we understand. The forced lack of images becomes an idol of the mind.

    Sometimes those idols have to be smashed whether they are physcial, mental or virtual.

    Iconoclasm, as Fr. Stephen points out, can take the form inside the Church of disobedience to tradition, the bishops and a failure to appreciate the sacraments. Like all heresies, it never goes away. Our itching ears and turbulent hearts seek the satisfaction of the passions rather than the peace of virtue and humility.

    Unfortunately, even real icons can be made into idols by the manner in which we approach them.

    Holiness, the energies of God, can be imbued in things and places. Certainly, the Holy Spirit was active in the earth prior to the Incarnation and Pentecost. Therefore it may not be just respect for prior traditions that causes rebuilding on some sites, but a recognition and discernment that for whatever reason God has blessed a certain place.

  14. Karen Avatar

    Dear Father, bless! Thanks for this repost.

    Just this week we had to be the unpopular parents in forbidding our 14-year old son from playing one of the more realistic “shoot ’em up” video games, “Call of Duty” at a friend’s upcoming birthday party. Apart from the rating of the game (M for “mature” because of bad language and violence), what was disturbing to us was the desensitization to the sanctity of human life by making the human sillouette/image into little more than an enemy target for destruction. Another disturbing thing is that the birthday boy’s and several other friends’ parents are also professing Christians. This is just one very in-your-face instance of the iconoclasm that prevails in fallen human culture.

  15. mike Avatar

    ..i wonder if there is room either inside the Orthodox Church or in Gods heart for those of us who perhaps through weakness of faith cannot fully accept the veneration of the beautiful icons as others do…Im regularly attending an Orthodox church now though not a member and i like it..i am experiencing a connection with God through the liturgy that i can’t even begin to describe to anyone..i love the priest..i love the chanting and the censing..i love to light a candle upon entering and saying a prayer for someone who needs one….and i love *seeing* the icons and thats where im at….

  16. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mike, do what you can as you can. There is a prayer in the Liturgy that asks a blessing on those who love the beauty of God’s house.

    Pray, attend, be open, listen, honor the priest and the other congregants. The rest will come.

  17. Andrew Avatar

    Yannis if I might,

    Luigi Piccardi has conducted meticulous and multidisciplinary research into one such event “at Colossae in AD60”. In this particular instance, it is the supernatural appearance of the Taxiarch Michael that accompanies a very natural event (an earthquake).

    Iconoclasm figures strongly in the narrative as do eschatological markers (in this case a “Temple” to Apollo and Plutonium and a Byzantine Basilica).

    I am posting the link, in the event that either you or Fr. Stephen and his readers find this of interest.

    Wishing you well.

  18. Yannis Avatar

    take things slowly and adapt parts of the worship you can relate to and slowly. Don’t force yourself to accept more than that. Its best actually if you go to the Liturgy forgeting where you are going and what it is. Just enjoy that undescribable connection and don’t put unsurmountable dillemas to your self “I have to be Orthodox now!” etc.

    Let things happen as they happen to you and go with that. When you get close to a person, you establish ties from mutual interests and things you can relate to them – the same is with a spiritual tradition/religion.

    If you feel like venerating the icons do so, if not, don’t. Venerating them with the eyes as you do is anyway more important. Adulterous people kiss all day, but their kisses mean little. Its what’s in the heart that matters.

  19. Aunt Melanie Avatar

    Michael, I have heard it said that in the Orthodox Church there is something for all the senses: taste, touch, hearing, smell, and sight (I hope I got that right!). Icons, of course, would appeal to the sense of sight. Since I am a very visually-oriented person, I was able to relate to icons from the first moment I ever saw one. I think we all prefer some senses over others. For example, my sense of taste is poorly developed–gourmet food is wasted on me. I just cannot taste the nuances of flavor.

    By venerating the icons, do you mean kissing them? I can understand that. I want to gag if I kiss a priest’s hand. I’m an American–and it just does not settle with me on a very deep psychological and cultural level. Europeans have no difficulty with kissing hands, or greeting each another with kisses on the cheek. In America, we women tend to “air-kiss” if we greet each another that way. I prefer to shake hands.

  20. mike Avatar

    …thank you ALL for the encouraging empathetic replies to my honest post..i was expecting much worse…they have greatly eased my anxiety….thanks..again

  21. Yannis Avatar

    Northern Europeans don’t feel at ease with kissing either, be it icons or between them as greetings.

    Southern mediterranean ones do lots (Spanish, Italians and Greeks) and Eastern ones too but less. Its a cultural thing.

  22. Georgia Sibyl Smith Avatar
    Georgia Sibyl Smith

    “Regardless of whatever madness we may imagine year by year, the Resurrected Christ is at the center of all things, He is the Alpha and Omega.”

    I would have to add, “whatever madness we may imagine *experience or witness* year by year…”

    Some trauma and evil we will face, despite Christ’s glorious triumph, is not imaginary and will cause great and real grief and pain.

    The challenge is to keep our eyes and heart firmly focused on Jesus.

  23. Georgia Sibyl Smith Avatar
    Georgia Sibyl Smith

    Sorry, I meant to post that at the post above. I scrolled down too far.

  24. JD Ballard Avatar


    Could you comment on the apparent “iconoclasm” by Israel, often quite violent, in the Old Testament? I am a great lover of icons myself, but would love to hear your thoughts on that topic.

  25. BV Avatar

    “God is the great iconoclast” CS Lewis

  26. Yannis Avatar

    Thank you for the link Andrew, i’ll check it out.

  27. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    There are two rather important things to consider here:

    The Christian faith is paradoxical or rather full of antinomies such as Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man. The Incarnation changed (changes) everything.

    While we say we venerate icons, it is not the actual icons we venerate it is the saint or holy occurence depicted, even beyond that is the Holy Trinity we worship in the process. The images are used to point beyond themselves to a reality that does not have an image except in our neighbor.


    C.S. Lewis’s statement without greater context seems to be confusing icons and idols. Possibly it could be refering to the fact that no ‘image’ we have of God is sufficient and each one we have must be destroyed as we grow in communion with Him.

  28. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’m sure the context would help with understanding Lewis’ statement – of course – that I admire Lewis greatly – he was not particularly familiar with the 7th Council, and the integral role played by icons in Orthodox doctrine and piety – I suspect he would have had no difficulty with it – he did very well understand the role of beauty in the life of faith.

  29. fatherstephen Avatar

    There is certainly a mix within the practice of Israel (OT). There are times of iconoclasm, and a time a making images (the Ark and Cherubim, etc.). The lived interpretation of Judaism is not nearly so iconoclastic as Islam (in fact I would say it is very iconoclastic at all). I remember visiting as a priest in an Army chapel, that was also used as Synagogue. The Orthodox set up the icons, etc. for Divine Liturgy. But I noticed around the walls of the synagogue, photographs of great Rabbis and scholars. Not quite icons, but not the same as the prohibition of images some try to attribute to the OT. The excavations of the Synagogue at Dura, Europa, show a highly decorated synagogue, with images of famous Biblical figures. It dates back to around the time of Christ. Again, not the iconoclastic Judaism that many modern Christians imagine. The one thing I have learned about Jews and Judaism is that they are nothing like the make-believe version I was taught as a Protestant child.

    But, I do, in answer to your question, see occasional outbursts of iconoclasm that are not unlike other outbursts of later times. The reforms of Josiah are interesting from that aspect.

  30. BV Avatar

    I wasn’t fair in excluding the context of the CS Lewis quote. I understand him to mean that God continuously destroys our mental images of Him, because we cannot see Him fully this side of the veil.

    From my Protestant perspective, I think the only One who ever properly images God is Christ. I dont think we are at liberty to go beyond that when it comes to image making. But I know nothing.

  31. Andrew Avatar

    Most welcome Yannis.

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  1. Greetings, Father Stephen, Thank you so much for this reflection and all of the tremendous amount of work you have…

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