The Church has always understood that there is no greater witness to the Faith than to lie down one’s life for the Truth. Therefore, in the tumultus later centuries of the first millennium, when self-confessed Christians fought self-confessed Christians, it is those martyrs who died for their confession of faith which point us towards true Orthodoxy. This is the story of one Saint, celebrated today, who died for his veneration of Holy Images.
Euthymius was chosen Bishop of Sardis during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitos and the empress Irene (late 8th century) because of the Saint’s virtuous life. He was also present at the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787), at which he denounced the Iconoclast heresy. This is the heresy that taught the veneration of images of Christ and His saints was wrong, and that Icons – already used by Christians for many centuries – should be destroyed (“iconoclast” literally means “icon-smasher”).
When the Iconoclast emperor Nicephorus I (802-811) came to rule, St Euthymius and other Orthodox hierarchs were banished to the island of Patalareia, where they languished for a long time. Recalled from exile by the emperor Leo V (813-820), the bishop boldly denounced the Iconoclast heresy, and they sent him into exile to the city of Assia. The next emperor, Michael II (820-829), attempted to make him renounce icon-veneration, but without success.
Then the holy martyr was flogged and banished to the island of Crete. Michael was succeeded on the throne by the Iconoclast emperor Theophilus (829-842), on whose order St Euthymius was subjected to cruel tortures: they stretched him on four poles and beat him with ox thongs. St Euthymius fell asleep in the Lord several days after the torture.
(Source: OCA Lives of the Saints)
Thousands upon thousands of words were written in defence of Holy Icons, and these words helped in the fight against self-confessed Christians who, nevertheless, acted contrary to the Gospel and the practice of the Church. Some of these words came from the mouth of St. Euthymius himself, when denouncing the fearsomely powerful emperors who opposed veneration of Christ’s image. However, the “vita Icon”* of St. Euthymius above, which was produced 1000 years after the martyrdom of the bishop, is perhaps a more beautifully concise statement of the ultimate victory of the Orthodox veneration of icons over the heresy of iconoclasm.
*a “vita Icon” is an icon of a Saint which has small panels depicting scenes from his/her life around the border (vita is Latin for “life”).