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 offer 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 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.





34 responses to “Smashing Icons”

  1. […] background-position: 50% 0px; background-color:#222222; background-repeat : no-repeat; } – Today, 9:29 […]

  2. Randi McAllister Avatar
    Randi McAllister

    THANK YOU, Fr. Stephen for a well-written piece on icons! To remind ourselves that we are made in God’s image, and that is the reason that human life is worthwhile…
    Blessed lent,

  3. simmmo Avatar

    Profound! And most helpful! Thank-you Father 🙂

  4. Karen Avatar

    Father, bless! I love this post. Thanks.

  5. Bruce Avatar

    Father Bless

    Perhaps with this being the first week of Lent; your post was a poignant reminder of my own shortcomings. When I forget that light overcomes darkness and I respond to evil with evil…I am lost and in the wilderness…far away from His Light and Goodness. When I find myself so convinced of my ‘rightness’ that it justifies any means to accomplish it; I’m believing a lie, far from His Truth and not following Christ as Lord, Teacher, Savior, and Friend.

  6. Anna Avatar

    Father, bless!

    I find very compelling your study of iconoclasm as a phenomenon that comes up in history more than once, and especially how you bring the Chinese Cultural Revolution (all communist countries had their version, more or less) into the discussion. I also like the point about the attack on man as the image of God. This is something that Cultural Revolution activists have in common with iconoclasts.

    We can easily recognize this attack when it is straightfoward, when icons are smashed and monks are killed. It is difficult to recognize it as such when it is disguised into something apparently positive, such as a humanistic or hedonistic celebration of man. Or, as you say, man seeing himself as God.

    I have the feeling that there is some deeper meaning to be found here, but I can’t quite capture it. Iconoclasm of all sorts, regardless of its professed position for or against God, smashes or obscures in one way or another all the material symbols and images that may point towards God. Without them, we may never know there is a God and a Church. The skandalon is smoothed up.

  7. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    We either venerate icons and the Incarnate God (including man as His image) or we make idols and ideologies and utopias. There is no middle ground.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    I very much agree. There is indeed something even deeper. I think about it from time to time. The present article is about as far as my thoughts have gotten. But I think it is something fundamental – and that iconoclasm comes straight from the pit. I know that our adversary hates humanity and specifically hates our materiality and that we are the image of God. There is anger, murder and pride deeply involved in this.

  9. Darlene Avatar


    Your entry brings to mind the destruction of Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow in 1931 by the Soviets. This was an egregious act of iconoclasm. The Palace of Soviets, which would have attempted to glorify Communist leaders, was never built in its place. Godless regimes have their icons, so to speak. Images of Lenin were hung throughout Soviet Russia. Images of the swastika were on display throughout Hitler’s Nazi Germany. Images of Mao Tse Tung were also on display throughout China during Mao’s reign. It seems these regimes, and ones like them, had no problem with icons as long as they didn’t make references to the Christian faith.

    To ignore icons, images of art, monuments, etc., or to consider them irrelevant to the identity of a culture shows ignorance. The cross has been an image of hope and victory since the time our Lord hung from Calvary’s cross. Not too long ago many Christians – even non-Orthodox ones, marveled that when the Twin Towers fell on 9/11, a cross was formed in the rubble. Many took hope in this symbol, and this cross has been saved and is now on display at Ground Zero.

    I recall being in a Presbyterian church one time – Covenanters they were called. The walls were completely bare, everything was bare. Only pews and a pulpit in front. There was something very empty about that place. I knew the mindset well. They feared the people making an idol out of any symbol, so the remedy was to erase all symbols from their sight. The sight of a crucifix would have offended them.

    Not too long ago, I had made a remark to a Calvinist that I thought his language was too an extreme. He was lamenting the condition of modern evangelicalism and its willingness to depart from the sufficiency of Scripture. At one point he said, “With all such misbased, badly-premised challenges to Biblical faith and life, we should take the premise to the Bible and brutalize it (and its adherents) to non-compliance.” I took objection of his need to “brutalize adherents,” in that such language is unnecessary and inappropriate for one who would be a Christian to use against a person. The defense was that this was figurative language and not meant to be taken literally. Then why use such language at all, I asked.

    Oddly enough (or perhaps not) one of the Scriptural references that was given for such language was the very passage you cited in II Corinthians chapter 10. Of course, others mentioned Christ overturning the money-changers tables, St. Paul rebuking the circumcision party, and other passages of Scripture to defend this position. Even more telling, in this same blog entry there was a refutation of making images – equating it with idolatry. I have encountered the ire of these kinds of iconoclasts within Protestantism and I think that if the law allowed, they would willingly and gladly destroy icons, thinking they were doing so in the service of God.

  10. […] has as its driving force and hence allurement, the claim that it is defending the honor of God. Icon-smashing, in all of its forms, is evil, because God is an icon-maker, and you are made "in… __________________ Your socks stink. To view links or images in signatures your post count […]

  11. Howard Avatar

    I’m always inclined to doubt a sweeping generalization. Is it always wrong to destroy icons — without regard for what the icon the icon represents? Was it wrong for St. Boniface to chop down the Donar Oak? Was it wrong for the images of pagan gods to be torn from their niches so that the Pantheon in Rome could be consecrated as a Christian church to the glory of Our Lady? Is it wrong for today’s Germany to ban the swastika and other symbols of Naziism?

    Yes, God sometimes represents Himself as a sower, but also sometimes as one who trims olive trees or even digs up fig trees.

  12. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Howard, the items you mention are not icons–they were idols. Vast difference. We must learn to discern the difference for if we are unable to do so, iconoclasm will get hold.

  13. Rhonda Avatar

    Superb, Fr. Stephen! Very well said.

    Your words rang quite true to my ears with “…There is within iconoclasm, a spirit of hate and anger…such spirits are not of God… Iconoclasm is not the narrow way, but the wide path of destruction.”

    I love your comment “God is an icon-maker. He first made man ‘in His own image.’” Absolutely priceless!

    Just as icons are windows into heaven, so too are they windows into our hearts as well. I have come to firmly believe that one’s reaction to icons, especially towards those of our Savior accurately show what is truly in one’s heart regarding God. I have seen sincere Christians have reactions ranging from the noncommittal “That’s nice.” through vehemently flinging an icon away with cursing! My own initial reaction to icons was an extremely powerful & mystical experience which I pray I will never forget. Icons are so much more than mere religious art!

  14. Anna Avatar

    Darlene, you make a very good point about the destruction of images by bolsheviks being followed by the instauration of false imagery. Iconoclasm (the destruction of true images) has the same purpose as the making of idols (of false images). Once false images are everywhere, true images are difficult to see, even if they haven’t been destroyed.

    Interestingly, one of the ways of obscuring icons is to preserve them as cultural artefacts. Apparently, there is nothing wrong with it: the cultural value is truly there and it is a valid reason for their conservation. Even the communists preserved whatever was left still standing, when they realized that the Cultural Revolution approach showed too much of their true colors to the international community. But the conservation of liturgical art and architecture just for their cultural value, in a museum, removes them from everyday life, with the implication that they are no longer relevant to the modern man.

    This is what Vladimir Solovyov wrote about in his book about the Antichrist: when he comes, he will set up great museums for the preservation of Orthodox traditional art.

  15. Anna Avatar

    Father, bless!

    “Iconoclasm comes straight from the pit.” I have some more thoughts on the faces of iconoclasm, but God willing, I will write about them later.

  16. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude

    A very fine article, Father. I heartily agree.

    That said, veneration can slide into idolatry. It is important that the Church be vigilant to prevent excessive devotion to relics and icons and statues and whatnot, especially on the part of the uneducated laity, some of whom confuse superstition with faith.

  17. Nick in Vienna Avatar
    Nick in Vienna

    Philip Jude, it’s less of a problem than you appear think. Most Orthodox, educated or not, know what they’re doing when they venerate holy things. And surely you realize that education itself often becomes an idol. In any case, when does veneration become “excessive”? Whose superstition meter do we use? What is the redline for calling out the vigilant Church police? Let’s let the faithful venerate and not worry so much about the “slide into idolatry.”

  18. Niphon Avatar


    I think there can be times when this is a prudential concern. One of the historical antecedents to the original Iconoclast controversy was well-nigh idolization of icons – having an icon stand as godparent for example, or eating the paint off an icon. I honestly don’t know too much about this, although it comes from a well-informed source. It does put things in some (historical) perspective. Not that it detracts from Father Stephen’s main point.

  19. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    If we refused to do things because of the extreme misuse of them or the possibility of such misuse, we would do nothing. That is in fact the position of many of the Christian iconoclasts, i.e, because some folks turn icons into idols, no one should have icons(I know no one here is saying that). However, such muddleheaded reductionist egalitarianism is just more of the darkness seeping in.

  20. Pepe Perez Palotes Avatar

    Interesting post, thankyou.

    Complaint : One set of details, which in no way negate your post nor it’s illustrative examples:”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.”Unquote
    Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans are one of my pet hates.They overshadow their forebears.
    But Henry VIII s men killed as they smashed stuff aplenty. St Thomas More mentions whole villages laid waste – we could easily be in the region of 70 to 100 thousand martyrs in England alone, , according to some postWWII catholic historical studies (inferences from masses of Parish registers and the like).The shrines of saints and martyrs were broken to bits, their remains despoiled, Most noticeably St Thomas Becket’s in Canterbury, but there were thousands more.Reliquaries were broken up of sold or just smahed, their contents , mostly remains, despoiled. No monastery but that went, which includes down to valuable town site chapels ……. Churches murals were whitewashed over. Libraries were burnt wholesale: the new start had to create its own history. It was not until the few years of Henry’s poor enfeebled son’s nominal regn that they got round to Burning the Oxford university Library – which was one of the reasons for oxford being at oxford in the first place, , the saxon-foundation nuns at oxford had a well-endowed libray which attracted scholars…
    They didn’t do away with evrylast feast day, like the later Puritans, but certainly there’s quite list, like St nicolas on 6th Dec.

  21. fatherstephen Avatar

    Henry VIII was a butcher. The monastery at Walsingham (for example) was dissolved, the buildings destroyed and the monks drawn and quartered. This was not isolated. He was an enemy of the Christian Church.

    I can think of no example of a popular iconoclasm. As far as I can think, every example has been initiated by a political power in the name of God. It has almost always been resisted by the populace at some level. Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars is a devastatingly well-done historical look at the Anglican reformation. Its inherently iconoclastic nature has often been overlooked in standard Anglican treatments of their own history. Current Anglican reforms continue to be imposed from on high (Academia and Ecclesiastical Cabals) and continue the swath of iconoclastic destruction.

    You were correct to point out my lacunae. Thank you.

  22. simmmo Avatar

    N.T. Wright, the eminent Anglican scholar, wrote somewhere (can’t remember which book) that iconography sometimes leads to idolatry (Orthodox would probably disagree with this), but iconoclasm leads to dualism. By dualism I think he means a kind otherworldly religion – there’s the evil material world, then there’s the more spiritual place called heaven, for which we hope to be saved to. Perhaps something like the 2 story cosmos Father Stephen speaks of – heaven and earth are seen as very far apart. We must surely have to escape this wicked world and go to heaven. So salvation is escape from this world, rather than the affirmation of the goodness of creation and the unification of heaven and earth in the new creation.

    It’s interesting to see the eschatolgy of escape and rapture developed amongst the ultra puritanical groups. These, of course, were/are extreme iconoclasts. They were very suspicious of the use of material elements in worship and use of the body in worship – some Puritans even discouraged kneeling.

  23. fatherstephen Avatar

    I cannot help thinking about N.T. Wright’s musing that there are two things that lead to two bad things, as typical of Anglicans who always imagine themselves as the middle way (which is not true, of course). But it brought a smile to me.

  24. Philip Jude Avatar
    Philip Jude


    You were picked up by a popular blog that collects the finest posts from across the Catholic blogosphere. I guess you’ve been drafted to our side. 😉

  25. fatherstephen Avatar

    Very kind of them. 🙂 It added about 500 views – always appreciated.

  26. simmmo Avatar

    Yes, sometimes I get the feeling with Wright that although he clearly picks apart the problems with Reformed theology, he nevertheless feels the need pander to their sensitivities if he hits them too hard on certain issues. The above statement is a prime example of this. Although, personally, I think Wright doesn’t have too many concerns about iconography. He’s got icons on the cover of some of his books.

    I do think his point about iconoclasm and dualism is a good one though. By the way, I found where the quote was taken from. It’s from an essay on worship that can be found here:

  27. Drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    A wonderful post, as usual. I fully agree with your treatment of iconoclasm; the practice seems to carry only hate and destruction at its core. I can’t think of an instance that actually reminds me of Jesus and the money changers in the temple.

    However, I would ask that you consider reflecting (in a future post) on the other side of the coin. How ought we to look at reverence? I’m not asking for a “redline” that would “call out the vigilant church police” when observed in others.

    How can I understand the object of my reverence? How do I treat them, relate to them? To what in this life can I draw a reference for my relationship? How do I use icons rightly – or at least well?

    I’ve you’ve covered this in a previous post, I apologize. In that case, would someone mind pointing me to it? Because this topic is a stumbling block to this Gentile.

  28. Steven Clark Avatar
    Steven Clark

    One of the things that was destroyed were manuscripts that were illumined. And the scholars wonder why the older manuscripts are at variance with the received text.

  29. simmmo Avatar

    One of the highlights of the Olympics for me was the female 5000m final when the Ethiopian athlete Meseret Defar won the gold medal. When she crossed the line first, she pulled out an icon of the Theotokos with the baby Jesus and displayed it to the cameras. The commentators didn’t know what to say. “There’s obviously a message in that” they said. Indeed there was. The icon didn’t need any words to accompany it (that is, afterall, the whole point about icons – they convey a message that words simply cannot). But it was amusing to see the awkwardness of the commentators having been confronted with that image.

    Similarly, when the Dominican 400m hurdler won the gold, he pulled out a picture of his recently deceased grandmother and was kissing it with tears after he had crossed the line. Images convey something that words cannot. How hopeless would life be without images of our loved ones – particularly those who are sleeping? How hateful are those that destroy these images?

  30. fatherstephen Avatar

    These images of heartfelt piety obviously fit outside the media-defined image of in-your-face American Christianity. These are Third-World, devout Christians. I don’t doubt that it stuns some in the media. Much of our world has gone secular, but the strength of authentic faith is much deeper than many imagine. I found such demonstrations (and the icons and crosses of the Russians as well) to be encouraging. Perhaps the landscape will shift in a manner that my own battle-hardened heart does not anticipate. By the mercies of God…

  31. simmmo Avatar

    Who can forget the great sprinter Usain Bolt crossing himself before each race and before stepping onto the podium? The Russians, Ukrainians and Serbs also. For me those remarkable Ethiopian distance runners were the most inspirational. What a fitting metaphor they emobody of the difference between Eastern Christianity and Western Protestantism (turned secularism). Life in Eastern Christianity and especially for Ethipians is like a marathon. Toiling, peservering over the whole length of the course and then receiving your medal at the end – having run the whole race faithfully. How different to the hurly burly Western world of wanting everything right now. In the words of that great poet, Ice Cube (!), “Life ain’t a track meet, it’s a marathon…”

  32. […] the crimes of others who also destroyed religious monuments. I believe, the following quote, from Fr Stephen’s excellent blog, sums up the idea well: There is a strange spirit of iconoclasm (the Greek for “icon smashing”) […]

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