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  • Marc Melich-Mautner

The picture dispute of icons

Early Christian people thought quite differently. He refused to make the divine present in the picture. Painters and sculptors should abstain from depicting the divine, it was said at the time. This view may also have its basis in Judaism's hostility to images. The different opinions led to tensions, especially in the populous Byzantium, which sparked a passionate dispute. Conviction stood against conviction; the iconodules, the worshipers of images, fought against the iconoclasts, the opponents of the worship of images. The question of images had been simmering since the 4th century. There were votes for image worship and votes against. The most famous churchmen of the time discussed with each other and commented on it in their writings, for example St. Augustine (354-430) and above all John Chrysostom (344-407). Both show a positive attitude towards the. The creation of images of the time, however, has not yet generally settled with the worship of images apart.

There are three outstanding teachers from the Eastern Church who were ready to affirm Christian image creation because they saw the benefit for the piety of people who were not literate. In addition, depictions of the lives of saints and martyrs could, better and more forcefully than written or spoken words, induce people to be insistent in their beliefs. For example, Basilius the Great (330-379) encouraged the painters to use all their skills to depict the scenes vividly and artistically, dignified the characters and victoriously the new faith. The life of female saints is also depicted, like the Passion of Saint Euphemia, from the torture by the captors to her death in flames, which she endures without pain in the sign of the cross, in the certainty of a blessed life. Like Basilios, Gregory of Nazianzen (330-390) and Gregory of Nyssa (335-394) also expressed themselves. The criterion for the quality of a picture at this time is the statement, the effect of which must be so strong that real piety arises or is promoted in the soul of the viewer. Martyrs and saints are people who partake of the divine because of their pious life and extraordinary deeds. But was that also true of Christ? The question of whether and how he should be represented touched on the then still open basic question of Christianity: Is Christ of the same nature as God? The presbyter Arius in Alexandria (died 336) answered this question in the negative. For him Jesus was a god-like person, the Greek doctor of the church Athanasius (around 293-373) answered it in the affirmative. The church meetings of Nicaea in 325 and Constantinople in 381 affirmed Athanasius and confirmed the identity of Christ and the Father. Nevertheless, among the Germanic tribes who had become Christian, the doctrine of Arius persisted into the 7th century.

But according to both Western Roman and Eastern Roman views, Christ was divine in nature, and the question now arose: Is it permissible to depict the human being of the Lord detached from his divinity in an image? Or can the divine be represented, and how can it be grasped in the picture? Can the real figure of Christ be fixed at all, which, it is reported, appeared differently to different people, who was infinitely changeable by virtue of his divinity?

The solution was found in a compromise. The portraits of that time - frescoes, mosaics and icons - show Christ as a human appearance, but endowed with the dignity and majesty of the heavenly, whose most important symbol is the aurole, the mostly golden halo, they show him as a divine human unity. The most important arguments for the fact that it was not impossible to represent God-human were the incarnation of the Second Trinitarian Person and the passage from Genesis which says that God created man in his own image. But the church had not yet sanctioned this view. It was not until centuries later that she was forced to take a stand.

The friendly attitude towards cultic or religious images according to Greek tradition and Byzantine convictions began to falter in the 8th century.

The Byzantine Emperor Leo III. it was who unleashed the picture controversy in 730 by banning images. How can this sudden change of heart be explained in the otherwise image-friendly Byzantium? The doubts about the legality of artistic activities were never completely silent; they found new nourishment in the conception of Islam, which was now beginning to spread powerfully. The Arabs had been storming the Byzantine Empire and threatening Constantinople for some time. In Islam, the human figure of God or his prophet was only allowed to be indicated as an abstract ornament on pictures. In 720 the caliph Yazid II issued a strict ban on images, which also applied to the Christians in his country. He had all the pictures removed from their churches. The persuasiveness of this young religion, which carried the new message of salvation to the peoples of Asia, Africa and Europe with sword and fire, was not without effect on Christianity, even though Leo III. viewed the defense of Christianity against Islam as its holy war. There was also a political reason for his decision against the pictures: He was striving for the independence of the Eastern Church from the Pope and at the same time wanted to emphasize his power, the power of the emperor, over the church in his empire.

Popes Gregory II and Gregory III. condemned iconoclasm, the ban on images. The Greeks also resisted, and so Byzantium in particular became the scene of this hot and bloody conflict. Imperial troops, supported by an elite Armenian force, fought against multitudes of monks who used underground methods against the well-organized army. The imperial spokesman was overrun and killed by an angry crowd in the street. The answer to this was crowbars and bars that the imperial and the churches and dwellings used to destroy the pictures. Many followers of image worship emigrated to southern Italy and the Crimea and created icon painting reserves here.

The Synod of Hiereia in 754 wanted to end the picture controversy once and for all by prohibiting pictures and ordered the destruction of pictures. But the Pope objected and robbed the law of its ecumenical effectiveness. Nevertheless, a new storm set in on the pictures in the Eastern Roman Empire. There are not many icons that escaped destruction, around 40 to 50 from the extremely creative Justinian epoch (6th - 7th centuries) and the time of the iconoclastic controversy (726-842), in which one had not stopped in secret to paint. From the early days (4th and 5th centuries) no icons have survived.

The picture dispute came to an end for the time being through the Empress Eirene, a staunch supporter of the worship of pictures - she came from Athens - who was responsible for her underage son Constantine VI. ruled and later became sole ruler. The West also took a position on the question of images. The synod in Frankfurt, chaired by Charlemagne in 794, at which Pope Hadrian I was also present, opposed both the veneration of images and the destruction of images.

The 7th Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 787, which Eirene convened together with the Patriarch of Constantinople and to which Pope Hadrian I himself but his legates did not appear, stated: All holy images of Jesus Christ, the Mother of God, the saints may be painted or otherwise designed and set up. Everyone can show them reverence and veneration, but without actually worshiping them, which is only due to God. This veneration does not apply to the picture, but to the person depicted on it.

Once again the dispute seemed to want to decide in favor of the iconoclasts, a synod in 815 revoked the resolutions of Nicaea, but in 843 the dowager empress Theodora finally ended the iconoclasm at a synod in Constantinople. In a solemn procession, icons were carried through the streets, churches and houses were newly decorated. The enthusiasm in Constantinople was boundless, and to this day the "Feast of Orthodoxy", or orthodoxy, is celebrated in the Greek and Russian Churches on February 19 to commemorate this day.

The resolutions of the Synod of Constantinople had even more far-reaching political consequences: They deepened the separation of the Eastern Church from Western Rome, the division of European Christianity. The Eastern Church remained a state church. In 1054 their independence was finally sealed by the Pope. Eminent churchmen had waged the struggle on both sides. Point by point the Abbot Theodor, called Studita, and the Patriarch Nikephorus of Constantinople refuted the thoughts of John of Damascus and based on the statements of the Bible, the arguments of the iconoclasts. Their justification for the creation of images also laid down the meaning and goal of the icons for the next few centuries; they created, so to speak, a theology of icons.

But in addition to their astute arguments, they also found very simple reasons: Human nature is designed to look. The people around Jesus wanted to see their Savior. We want to get an idea of him. And that means not just the simple image that captures the outward appearance, but an image that embraces the whole holy person. And those who look at the picture look not only with their eyes, but also with their hearts.

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