According to historians, the Iconoclast Controversy, was a dispute over the use of religious images (icons) in the Byzantine Empire from 726-842. Some say that the controversy was a result of the interaction of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Christianity and Judaism share the ten commandments where the second commandment is:

4 You shall not make for yourself a carved image any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; 5you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, 6but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.? (Exodus 20.4-6 NKJV)

In the design of the tabernacle and later the temple in Jerusalem there were statues of lions and seraphim. There were plants depicted in the curtains. Today, while there is often art in a synagogue, it generally does not depict the form of humans or animals. There are some emblems that are used in Orthodox Synagogues; the interlacing triangles (star of David), the lion of Judah, flowers and fruit. There is a perpetual lamp hangs in front of the Ark; the tables of the Law surmount it. (The Ark contains the Torah scrolls.) The seven-branched candlestick, or menorah, may be placed at the sides. Occasionally the shofar (ram's horn), and even the lulav (a closed frond of the date palm tree), may be utilized in the design. Hebrew inscriptions are sparingly or seldom used. Clearly there is a distinction between decorative art, images and idolatry. The Rabbis teach that the sin of the Golden Calf (Exedus 32) was not so much idolatry as it was making an image to represent God.

Islam is staunchly against images of any kind as we see today in the actions of various Islamic groups destroying images around the world. As near as I can tell the Qur'an does not prohibit images but it does condemn idolatry and making an image of God (see Islam in the 10 commandments.) As to the influence of Islam on the imperial court, or society generally we can note that Islam began with Muhammad around 610. The Umayyad Caliphate, the largest of the Muslim empires, is dated from 661-750 which encompasses much of this time. It is not until 1453 that Constantinople falls to the Muslims but the Muslims had been chipping away at the Byzantine Empire for some time before that happened. It is indeed possible that they had some influence on the Imperial court.

From the Christian perspective we see echos of the issues surrounding images, if not the actual controversy, reverberate through the reformation and even to this day. The main issue is "when does an image become an idol?"

Our word icon is from the Greek εἰκών (eikōn) which can mean "image," "painting" or "resemblance." Today we use the word "icon" to refer to different things: For example, we use the word for the small graphic symbols in our software or a powerful cultural figure. These are connected to the word's original meaning and the subject of the use of icons in worship in that the Icon is more than it would at first appear. Clicking the icon in a program causes something to happen. Cultural icons can represent a movement or at least more than just the individual person. Many Orthodox believe that the Icon connects them to the saint represented by the icon in a mysterious and powerful way. Today in the Orthodox and Catholic Churches Icons (although the word Icon is usually not used for the images in the Roman Catholic Church) still figure prominently. For the Orthodox, an Icon is a religious image generally on a wooden panel used for prayer and devotion. These sorts of Icons came to typify the art of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church. While this controversy was largely an Eastern church thing, during the Iconoclast Controversy the use of images was supported by the popes Gregory II (r. 715-731) and Gregory III (r. 731-741).

The clast part of Iconoclast comes from κλαστός (klastós), "broken." The Iconoclasts were those who rejected the use of images generally. So severe was their objection that they often destroyed, or broke, the icons. Because of the decision of at the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787), Icons are accepted as tools of worship today. At least that is what was meant to happen. The decision of that council did not settle the issue as we will see but that decision, or perhaps the decision of the local council a Constantinople in 843, is celebrated by the Orthodox as the Feast of Orthodoxy; the first Sunday of Great Lent (six Sundays before Pascha). (Pascha is what we call Easter in the English-speaking Christian west see the word Easter.)

On the other side of the controversy were the Iconophiles or the Iconodules; those that supported the use of Icons. The two words seem to be interchangeable with Iconodule being the preferred word among Orthodox. Another vocabulary word we need is Iconolatry, which is someone who worships Icons; I am not sure if anyone claimed to be an iconolate, if that is even a word. The reason for the three words is that the Iconophiles/Iconodules insisted that they were not worshiping the icons, but venerating the saint that is represented by the icon. Those words are sliced and diced in the table below:

Term Origin Definition
Iconoclast κλαστός (klastós), "broken." a person who destroys religious images or opposes their veneration
Iconophile φίλος (phílos), "dear, beloved" This is the word that I had understood meant someone who was in favor of the use of Icons. The word litterally means icon lover. It seems to be more common than Iconondule in achademic works.
Iconodule δοῦλος (dulos), "slave", or the respect a slave should have for his master This word is used for one who venerates icons and defends their devotional use. This seems to be the prefered word today but it was new to me when I started this page. It does more easily contrast the notions of latria and dulia discussed below.
Iconolatry λατρεία (latreia), "worship or adoration" The worship of images or icons. This is what is to be avoided and everyone agrees on that.


The distinction between latria and dulia is important. Dulia is not worship (latria) which is what makes the veneration (dulia) of icons acceptable. This is in essence the saying to the Seventh Ecumenical Council. When I tried to discuss this wigh an Orthodox priest onece, he quickly changed the subject. In current practice, upon entering an Orthodox Church it is customary to venerate (dulia) an Icon. Some Icons are located in the narthex, where you enter, but most are displayed on the Iconostasis. The Iconostasis is a feature of an Orthodox church and it is usually a free-standing screen for the purpose of displaying Icons. The Iconostasis divides the nave (where the congregation worships) from the sanctuary (where alter is and the priests minister).

The Iconoclasts objected to icon veneration primarily because of the Old Testament prohibition against images in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20.4). (With Images there is the possibility of idolatry.) The defenders of the use of icons insisted on the symbolic nature of images and the dignity of matter, that after all was created by God, made them acceptable. This might well put the rabbis into the Iconoclast category. Our Puritan fore-bearers would likely have been Iconoclasts as well had they lived in these times, but our inheritance from the puritans is the starkness of many of our protestant churches.

There were actually two Iconoclastic periods separated by a bit of a reprieve. We must also observe that the Emperor had much to say in the form of worship in his realm and with the transfer of power came the change in the attitude toward Icons. In the west we have the separation of Church and state largely because of the Reformation, it is hard to separate the Eastern Church from what we in the west call the Byzantine Empire. Some say the the Byzantine empire was the first Christian Empire with many of the Emperors revered as Saints by the Church (see Byzantine Emperors).

The Eastern Orthodox Church holds that Luke, the author of a gospel and The Acts of the Apostles was the first Iconographer as he is said to have produce portraits of Mary (Theotokus) holding the Christ child. Stories of this sort are thought to have originated during the Iconoclast Controversy, possibly with Theodor Studite, abbot of the Stoudios Monastery in Constantinople. Many painters have depicted this scene by placing St. Luke in front of an easel, painting a portrait of the Blessed Mother holdng the Child Jesus. The earliest known version of this theme in Byzantine art is a 13th-century miniature in a Greek psalter preserved in the Saint Catherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai. The theme appears in Western art in the second half of the 14th century (miniature in the Evangeliary of Johannes von Troppau, now in Vienna) and will be fhrequently represented in Italian and Early Netherlandish art of the 15th century. (wikipedia)

Tradition is that the actual Icon(s) "written" by Luke have been lost but copies exist in what are called Hodgetra. One ancient account explains how during the 5th century a Byzantine Empress brought an icon attributed to St. Luke from Jerusalem to Constantinople. The Hodegon Monastery was built to enshrine it. Most believe the original image was lost during the Middle Ages. (

It should be noted that no Christian prior to the late second or early third century is ever described as having images in any worship services, or even wearing a cross (though some started to advocate crosses in the second and third centuries). Arguements from silence are generally considered weak but the use of Icons seems to have been a developing tradition, and also rather localized. The use of icons steadily gained in popularity, especially in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire.

Here, then is a brief timeline of the historical Iconoclast controversy:


Date Event
726-787 First Iconoclast Period
726 Byzantine emperor Leo III ordered the removal of the image of Christ above the Chalke Gate of the imperial palace in Constantinople thereby taking a public stand against the perceived worship of icons.

In 730 Leo banned the use of icons of Jesus, Mary, and the saints and commanded the destruction of these images.

Some historians believe that by prohibiting icons, the Emperor was trying to more fully integrate the Muslim and Jewish populations.

Both Muslims and Jews perceived Christian images as idols.

741-775 Persecution of icon venerators under Leo's successor, Constantine V.
754 Council of Hieria forbids Icons
787 Eempress Irene convoked the Seventh Ecumenical Council at Nicaea at which Iconoclasm was condemned and the use of images was reestablished.
814-843 The Second Iconoclast Period

The Iconoclasts regained power in 814 after Leo V's accession, and the use of icons was again forbidden at a Council of Constantinople in 815.

The two emperors Iconoclast emperors followed Leo V.

820 - 829 Michael II the Amorian

829 - 842 Theophilus I

This period ended ended with the death of the emperor Theophilus I in 842.

843 Theodora, widow of Theophilus and regent for Michael III, Theophilus' successor, called a council to restore peace to the Church. The Synod of Constantinople in 843 restored icon veneration, an event still celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox Church as the Feast of Orthodoxy. 1/8/19 1/8/19 1/8/19 1/8/19 1/8/19  1/8/19 1/8/19 1/8/19 3/14/19 3/14/19