Previous posts called What Makes an Icon Holy? and How not to be an accidental Iconoclast have, hopefully, explained why Icons are given such an exalted place within Orthodoxy. In short, icons are holy when they represent holy things: Christ and His Saints; it is the prototype that causes an image to be holy.
For completeness, if nothing else, this post addresses how religious images not depicting Christ and His Saints were regarded by the Church, using the testimony of her martyrs. Below, is a roughly chronological list of Saints known to have destroyed idols: i.e. the religious images and statues venerated by non-Christians, and considered holy by them. The list is by no means exhaustive.
King Hezekiah (+687 B.C.)
This king of Judah gives a scriptural precedent for the physical destruction of idols (2 Kings 18-20). King Hezekiah is glorified because, in order to restore true worship of God in his kingdom, he “removed the high places and broke the sacred pillars, cut down the wooden image and broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made…”; and as Scripture explains, the righteous king did these things because “he held fast to the Lord; he did not depart from following Him, but kept His commandments, which the Lord had commanded Moses.”
Commemorated Aug 28
King Josiah (+609 B.C.)
In a similar way to King Hezekiah, Josiah also used his royal authority to “clean up” the faith of Israel, and destroyed idols and other objects related to the worship of Baal. Scripture describes his legacy thus: Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the LORD as he did—with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the Law of Moses. (2 Kings 23:25).
Josiah is included in the genealogy of the Evangelist Matthew and so is celebrated on the second Sunday before Christmas.
The Lord Jesus Christ and His Holy Mother (1st Century A.D.)
As part of the Church’s tradition, it is believed that during Christ’s flight into Egypt, statues to the native gods crumbled and fell at His presence; this led to the conversion of some of the inhabitants. This story is enshrined in the Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God, which contains the following stanza addressed to Jesus:
By shining in Egypt the light of truth, Thou didst dispel the darkness of falsehood; for its idols fell, O Saviour, unable to endure Thy strength;
The Apostle Paul (+67 A.D.)
As recounted in the Book of Acts (19:11-20), the miracles of the Apostle Paul led many pagan sorcerers in Ephesus to convert to Christ, whereupon they publicly burned their spell-books. Scripture concludes this episode with the words: So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed.
The Apostle Matthew (+ 1st century A.D.)
Some accounts of the Evangelist’s life state that in the place of his martyrdom the local ruler repented of executing the Saint and was baptized, taking the name Matthew. The newly-illumined king then proceeded to destroy the pagan idols in his temples.
Commemorated November 16 and June 30
The Apostle John (c. +97 A.D.)
Some accounts of the Life of John the Evangelist state that his exile to Patmos was a result of the Apostle causing pagan idols to fall through his prayers. In the Anglo-Saxon homilies from the 10th/11th centuries, there is an explicit mention of the Apostle John turning the idols to dust by the power of God (see here).
Commemorated September 26, May 8, and June 30
These Saints were stonemasons who settled in Ulpiana (in modern-day Kosovo) and were there employed by the Roman prefect in building a pagan temple. The Saints gave away all their salary to the poor. After the temple was complete, Ss Florus and Laurus gathered all the local Christians together, and then proceeded to smash all the statues of the temple before erecting a cross. The local authorities executed 300 Christians for this act, including the Twin-Saints, who were thrown down into a well.
Commemorated August 18.
Abercius of Hieropolis, Equal-to-the-Apostles (+ 167 A.D.)
After praying fervently for the conversion of the pagan-dominated Hierapolis, an angel of the Lord appeared to the bishop, and ordered him to destroy the pagan idols. Having done so, he presented himself to the pagans, who would have murdered him were it not for his miraculous healing of three demon-possessed youths.
Commemorated October 22.
Martyr Julian of Dalmatia (+ 160 A.D.)
This youth was mercilessly tortured over a period of days for not offering sacrifice to the idols. During this time, the temple of Serapis and all the idols within it were destroyed. The pagans attributed the destruction to St Julian’s “magic” and demanded his immediate execution. Of the idols, Julian said boldly: “Listen, accursed ones, do not trust your gods, which you have made with your hands. Know, rather, the God Who out of nothing, has created Heaven and earth.”
Commemorated July 28.
Virgin-Martyr Paraskevi (+ 170 A.D.)
This famous Orthodox saint was arrested for converting many pagans to Christ. After many tortures she meekly let herself be led to the Temple of Apollo to offer sacrifice. However, upon entering the temple, St Paraskevi made the sign of the cross and the statues in the temple were destroyed. The furious pagans ensured the Saint was condemned to death.
Commemorated July 26.
Holy Martyrs Speusippus, Eleusippus, Meleusippus and their grandmother Leonilla (+ 175 A.D.)
Triplets who lived in France, as youths they were converted to the Christian faith by their grandmother, Leonilla, and in their zeal destroyed the pagan idols in the area.
Commemorated January 16.
The daughter of a Roman official in Thrace, she was a secret Christian who was forced to attend a pagan high-festival at the largest temple in the area. During the service, overcome by having to witness the ministering to false idols, she toppled the statue of Jupiter and upbraided the pagans for their folly. For this she was executed. Read more>>
Commemorated May 13
Saint Charalampus (+202 A.D.)
When already 113 years old, St Charalampus was subjected to fierce tortures for refusing to offer sacrifice to the idols. Upon witnessing his steadfast faith, the daughter of the Emperor Severus – called Gallina – converted to the Christian faith and destroyed all her pagan idols.
Great-Martyr Christina of Tyre (+ 3rd Century A.D.)
The daughter of a pagan governor, Christina was instructed in the faith by an angel of the Lord, and afterwards she destroyed all the idols in her room and threw them from the window. When her father discovered the truth he had her cruelly tortured before he died. The next governor finished the job and executed St Christina by the sword.
Commemorated July 24.
Secretly Christian, Tatiana was ordained as a deaconess, captured by the pagan authorities, brought into the sanctuary of Apollo, and forced to offer sacrifice. Through her prayers, the earth shook, toppling the statue of Apollo and causing some of the pagan priests to be crushed. As the statue fell, witnesses saw a demon flee from behind it. St Tatiana was cruelly tortured and beheaded.
Commemorated January 12.
Martyr Polyeuctus of Melitene, in Armenia (+ 255 A.D.)
A Roman soldier who confessed faith in Christ during the persecution by Emperor Valerian (253-259). In zeal he went to the public square and tore up the edict of Decius which required everyone to worship idols. A few moments later, he met a procession carrying twelve idols through the streets of the city. St Polyeuctus dashed the idols to the ground and trampled them underfoot.
Commemorated January 9.
Martyr Agatha of Palermo (+251)
Was also cruelly tortured under the edict of the Emperor Decius (see above) for refusing to offer sacrifice to the idols. During interrogations she openly mocked the idols as “not gods but demons”, and also mocked the city prefect who worshiped them. Before her final execution an earthquake shook the city destroying a number of the pagan temples, attributed to the prayers of St Agatha.
Commemorated February 5
Martyr Heliconis of Thessalonica (+ 3rd Century A.D.)
Suffered under the governor Perinus for refusing to offer sacrifice to the idols. After many tortures the virgin-martyr appeared to relent and so was brought to the temple. After requesting to be alone in the temple, St Heliconis manfully tore down all the idols and smashed them to pieces. On returning, the enraged pagans demanded her execution.
Commemorated May 28
A pious young shepherd who was foretold his martyrdom in a dream. Awaking he headed for the city of Pompeiopolis, where a festival to a golden statue was taking place. Secretly he broke off the hand of the statue and distributed the fragments to the poor. When persecutions began in order to find the culprit, St Sozon immediately presented himself to the emperor Maximian, confessing: “I did this, so that you might see the lack of power of your god, which offered me no resistance. It is not a god, but a deaf and dumb idol. I wanted to smash it all into pieces, so that people would no longer worship the work of men’s hands.” St Sozon gave up his life under pitiless tortures.
Commemorated September 7
Saint Victor of Marseilles (+290 A.D.)
A Roman army officer in Marseilles, who publicly denounced the worship of idols. At the orders of Emperor Maximian he was brought before a statue of Jupiter in order to offer incense before it. Not only did St Victor refuse, he kicked the statue, causing it to fall and shatter. Crushed under a millstone.
Commemorated July 21.
Priest-Martyr Mocius of Amphipolis (+ 295 A.D.)
Overturned the altar during a pagan service to Dionysius (Bacchus) and exhorted those gathered to turn to Christ. Captured and forced to offer sacrifice to false gods, the Saint called upon the name of Jesus Christ and the idols shattered. He was finally brought to Byzantium and executed there.
Commemorated May 11
Sainted-bishop Sisinios and Artemon, Presbyter of Laodicea (+303)
When the Emperor Diocletian ordered a persecution of the Christians in the late 3rd century, St Artemon was already an elderly and long-serving priest of the Church. Saint Sisinios, knowing about the impending arrival in the Laodiceian district of the military-commander Patricius, went together with the priest Artemon into the pagan-temple of the goddess Artemis. There they smashed and burnt the idols. Although arrested and tortured, St Artemon’s life was miraculously spared so that he could go on preaching until 303 A.D., when he was finally seized by pagans and murdered.
Commemorated April 13.
Martyr Blaise of Sebaste (+ 316 A.D.)
An old man living a life of prayer in a secluded cave, the pagans did not forget his earlier life as a zealous bishop for the Christians. Dragging him back to the city to face trial, St Sebaste fearlessly mocked the idols (as shown in this detail from a Russian icon) for which he was savagely beaten and eventually executed along with pagan women who had been converted by his words and miracles.
Commemorated February 11
Great-Martyr Theodore Stratelates, or “the General” (+ 319 A.D.)
Was appointed military-commander in the city of Heraclea Pontica, during the time the emperor Licinius began a fierce persecution of Christians. Theodore himself invited Licinius to Heraclea, having promised to offer a sacrifice to the pagan gods. He requested that all the gold and silver statues of the gods which they had in Heraclea be gathered up at his house. Theodore then smashed them into pieces which he then distributed to the poor. After tortures, St Theodore was beheaded
Commemorated February 8.
Martyr Acacius of Apamea (+ early 4th century)
Holy Martyr Acacius was brought to trial for his belief in Christ. Sent from city to city enduring tortures along the way, the Saint publicly caused the toppling of pagan idols through his prayers… twice!
Commemorated July 28.
Saint George the Victory-Bearer (+ 303 A.D.)
Among the many stories relating to this great Saint, is one relating to the smashing of idols (and shown in the picture at the very top of this post). After being offered great riches and power, the Holy George was brought to the temple of Apollo to give sacrifice. St George made the sign of the Cross approaching an idol and turned towards it, as though it were alive: “You wishest to receive from me sacrifice befitting God?” The demon inhabiting the idol cried out: “I am not God and none of those like me are God. The One-Only God is He Whom thou preachest. We are of those servant-angels of His, which became apostate, and in the grips of jealousy we do tempt people.” “How dare ye to be here, when hither have come I, the servant of the True God?” – asked the saint. Then was heard a crash and wailing, and the idols fell down and were shattered.
Commemorated April 23.
Priestly-Martyr Erasmus of Ohrid (+ 303)
Born in Antioch and after living a life of prayer on Mt Lebanon, he was ordained bishop and sent into Ohrid to preach the Gospel. Through miracles and preaching he converted many pagans in Ohrid, and overturned their altars. Brought before Emperor Maximian, Erasmus was commanded to worship a copper statue of Zeus. St Erasmus through prayer caused a terrible-looking dragon to appear from behing the idol and, again through prayer, caused it to wither and die. Through this sign the demonic nature of idol-worship was revealed, and the power of Christ to overcome it, converting 20,000 pagan souls. St Erasmus was beaten and imprisoned, but later was released and died in peace.
Commemorated June 2 (read his life here)
The pious Christian mother of Constantine the Great, Empress Helena is best remembered in the Orthodox Church for finding the Holy Cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. On the site of the finding she erected the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Less well-known perhaps, but no less significant, is that a temple to the goddess Aphrodite (Venus) needed to be flattened for the church to be built. St Helena probably also ordered the destruction of a temple to Zeus (Jupiter) in order to build a church dedicated to St. Cyrus and St. John.
Commemorated, with St Constantine, on May 21.
The finding of the true Cross is commemorated on September 14, and is one of the Great Feasts of the Church.
A native of Cappadocia, the Saint Nino is called “Equal-to-the-Apostles” for her evangelism of Georgia in the 4th century. One time, St Nino was traveling to Mtskheta with a group of Georgian pilgrims on their way to venerate the god Armazi. There she watched with great sadness as the Georgian people trembled before the idols, and prayed: “O Lord, send down Thy mercy upon this nation …that all nations may glorify Thee alone, the One True God, through Thy Son, Jesus Christ.” A violent wind began to blow and hail fell from the sky, shattering the pagan statues.
Commemorated January 14.
Achillius of Larisa (+ 330 A.D.)
The earliest recorded bishop of Larisa, St Achillius was present at the first Ecumenical Council, where he defending the Orthodox faith. In his city, the miracle-working Achillius embodied well the fuller Orthodox understanding of “religious images”: he was renowned for both tearing down pagan temples and adorning the Christian churches with icons. Reposed peacefully.
Commemorated May 15.
Nicholas the Wonder-Worker of Myra (+ 345 A.D.)
One of the most celebrated Saints of the Orthodox Church worldwide, the wonderful feats of this miracle-working bishop abound. Among these acts is the destruction of all the temple of Diana and other pagan shrines in his city of Myra, after he was reinstated as bishop there during Constantine’s reign. Much of the demolition was carried out by his own hand, though he also had to struggle in prayer to overcome the demons that inhabited the temples. That this act of Nicholas is celebrated is evidenced in later church frescoes showing the event, and this account taken from his biography.
Commemorated December 6, May 9, and July 29.
Martyr Mark, Bishop of Arethusa, in Syria (suffered 360 A.D.)
Under Constantine the Great St Mark, with the help of his deacon Cyril, had tore down a pagan temple and built a church in its place. When Julian the Apostate became emperor, idol-worship again grew, and the pagans wished to take revenge upon the now elderly bishop. Beaten, slashed with knives, his ears sliced off with linen, and with his hair pulled out, St Mark steadfastly refused to offer up any money in order to rebuild the pagan temple he had demolished. Even after the pagans kept lowering the price, St Mark refused to pay a single coin. Exhausted, and seeing that people were converted to Christ through his endurance, the torturers let St Mark go!
St Gregory the Theologian writes highly of St Mark, and uses his example in his writings against Julian the Apostate.
Commemorated March 29.
Saint Emilian of Thrace (+ 362 A.D.)
A servant of the governor of Dorostolon, in Thrace, during the reign of Julian the Apostate. When an imperial delegate arrived in Dorostolon to kill the Christians, he did not find a single one there. Delighted by this, he ordered a great feast in honour of the idols to take place the next day. That night, Emilian went throughout the town and smashed all the idols with a hammer. The next day, the outraged citizens grabbed a man, supposing him to be the culprit. Emilian said within himself: ‘If I conceal my action, what sort of use has it been? Shall I not stand before God as the slayer of an innocent man?’ He therefore confessed everything before the governor, explaining: ‘God and my soul commanded me to destroy those dead pillars that you call gods.’ The enraged governor ordered St Emilian to be flogged and burned.
Commemorated July 18.
A shepherd who gave all his wealth to the poor, St Spyridon was made bishop of Tremithus after the death of his wife, under the reign of Constantine the Great. All the Lives of the saint speak of the amazing simplicity and the gift of wonder-working granted him by God. Through a word of the saint the dead were awakened, the elements of nature tamed, the idols smashed. At one point, a Council had been convened at Alexandria by the Patriarch to discuss what to do about the idols and pagan temples there. Through the prayers of the Fathers of the Council all the idols fell down except one, which was very much revered. It was revealed to the Patriarch in a vision that this idol had to be shattered by St Spyridon of Tremithus. Invited by the Council, the saint set sail on a ship, and at the moment the ship touched shore and the saint stepped out on land, the idol in Alexandria with all its offerings turned to dust, which then was reported to the Patriarch and all the bishops.
Commemorated December 12
Great-Martyr Irene of Thessalonica (+ 4th century A.D.)
Born in Persia, Irene was the daughter of the pagan king Licinius, and her parents named her Penelope. Locked in a tower to keep her away from Christian influence, Penelope received instruction from her tutor, Apellian, who was secretly Christian. Baptized by a priest named Timothy, she took the name Irene (meaning “peace”), and then smashed all her father’s idols, urging her parents to be Christians.
Commemorated May 5.
Emperor Theodosius the Great (+ 395 A.D.)
As ruler of the western and eastern Roman Empires, St Theodosius was zealous in upholding the Orthodox confession of the Holy Trinity, and is honored with the epitaph: “Right-Believing”. He ordered the destruction of many pagan temples, outlawed the old Olympic Games, and successfully defeated numerous armed, pagan rebellions, which sought to re-establish worship of the pagan gods.
Commemorated January 17.
Julius the Presbyter and Julian the Deacon (+ 5th Century A.D.)
Natives of Myrmidonia, these two brothers visited many outlying lands of the Byzantine Empire in order to win converts to Christ. To this end, they obtained permission from the Emperor Theodosius the Younger (+450) to build churches over the sites of dismantled pagan shrines. The grave of St Julius, which lay within a church built by Julius himself, dedicated to the Twelve Holy Apostles, became a site of healing.
Commemorated June 21.
After many years as a monk, St Porphyry was elected Bishop of Gaza, a city where the Christian population numbered less than three-hundred, and idolatry was wide-spread. Discriminated against by the pagans, St Porphyry went to Constantinople and gained the support of Emperor Arcadius and the Archbishop, St John Chrysostom, to close down the idolatrous temples. Officials sent to close down the pagan shrines of Gaza were often bribed, and so after much labouring, St Porphyry undertook the destruction of the temples personally with his flock of Christians. Many temples were destroyed, including those dedicated to Aphrodite, Hecate, the Sun, Apollo, Kore (Persephone), Tychaion, the shrine of a hero, and the Marneion, dedicated to Zeus. In their place, Christian churches were erected. The pagan idols were burnt, and the marble from their temples were used to pave the way to the new Christian churches, so that all Christians on their way to worship would trample upon the remains of idolatry. These acts, along with much preaching, prayer, and humiliations suffered by St Porphyry, won the entire city of Gaza over to the Christian faith.
The Life of St Porphyry, recounting his struggles against the pagans, was written by the deacon Mark.
Commemorated February 26.
Saint Gregory the Great (+ 604 A.D.)
A Holy Father among the Saints, St Gregory is also known for sending, as the Bishop of Rome, the missionary St. Augustine of Canterbury to evangelize the English in the late 6th century. In a letter to Abbot Melitus, St Gregory writes:
Tell [Bishop Augustine] that I have decided after long deliberation about the English people, namely that the idol temples of that race should not be destroyed, but only the idols in them. Let blessed water be prepared, and sprinkled in these temples, and altars constructed, and relics deposited. For if these temples are well built, it is essential that they should be transferred from the worship of devils to the service of the true God.
We can be confident that St Augustine of Canterbury carried out faithfully the orders of St Gregory, and can also be counted among the list of those Saints which have destroyed pagan religious artifacts.
In another letter to Aethelbert, the first Christian king of England, St Gregory gives further exhortations to destroy the idols:
Almighty God raises up certain good men to be rulers over nations in order that he may by their means bestow the gift of righteousness upon all those over whom they are set… So, my most illustrious son, watch carefully over the grace you have received from God and hasten to extend the Christian faith among the people subject to you. Increase your zeal for their conversion; suppress the worship of idols; overthrow their buildings and shrines…
It should be noted that King Aethelbert is also revered by the Orthodox Church, even if he is not outrightly proclaimed as a Saint. Both these letters are found in full in St Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English people (Book I).
St Gregory commemorated March 12 and September 3.
St Augustine commemorated May 26.
Edwin of Northumbria, King and Martyr (+ 633 A.D.)
A thoughtful king who took many years before finally accepting baptism by the hand of St Paulinius, despite his wife already being a pious Christian. After much deliberation, it was a miracle which finally convinced the king of Christ’s power, and upon making the decision to convert, his loyal lords and pagan priests were convinced too by his firmness of confession. The first thing St Edwin did, before even being baptized, was to order the “profaning” (according to Bede’s history) of the pagan altars and shrines. The chief-priest, Coffi, volunteered to do this, riding on horseback to the main pagan temple and throwing a spear at the altar, before tearing the whole edifice down (this happened not far from York, UK).
Commemorated October 12.
Saint Romanus (also Godard) of Rouen (+ 640 A.D.)
A sainted bishop of Rouen, before his consecration the faithful of the city asked Romanus to do something about the Temple of Venus in the Gallo-Roman amphitheatre. St Romanus entered the temple and tore the dedication from the altar, causing the temple to miraculously crumble and collapse.
Commemorated October 23.
Saint Boniface (+ 754 A.D.)
Born Wynfrith in Devonshire, England, St Boniface went on to spread the Gospel throughout the German lands. One of his most famous evangelic feats was the felling by his own hand of a sacred Oak dedicated to Thor, using the timber to build a chapel on the site where today stands the cathedral of Fritzlar.
Commemorated June 5.
Saint Michael, first Metropolitan of Kiev (+ 992 A.D.)
Possibly a native of Syria, St Michael was sent by St Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople to be the first Metropolitan (head-Bishop) of Kiev, after that nation’s ruler, Prince Vladimir, accepted baptism. Saint Michael spent the rest of his days tirelessly traveling the Kievan lands preaching, shepherding the faithful, establishing churches, and overturning the pagan shrines.
Commemorated September 30 and July 15.
Holy Prince Vladimir, Equal-to-the-Apostles (+ 1015 A.D.)
Previously a war-monger, fanatic idol-worshiper, and polygamist, the change in Prince Vladimir after his baptism in the year 988 cannot be more dramatic. Immediately after his baptism, the newly-illumined ruler also had his twelve sons baptized, along with many boyars. Prince Vladimir then went on to have the wooden idols he had erected, torn down and hacked to pieces, with a statue of the chief pagan God, Perun, cast into the River Dnieper. These acts of Prince Vladimir had such far-reaching consequences that they later became known as the Baptism of Rus’. Prince Vladimir spent the rest of his twenty-eight years establishing churches and Christian schools throughout his lands, supported in his efforts by Sainted Metropolitan Michael (see above).
Commemorated July 15, also the day designated to celebrate the Baptism of Rus.
Saint Abraham of Rostov (+ 1077 A.D.)
A pagan convert who became a monk and dwelt in the areas around Rostov, in Russia. St. Abraham prayed fervently before an icon of Christ that he may be able to topple the idol of the local’s chief god: Veles. In answer to his prayers, the Apostle John appeared to the monk, and gave him a staff. With this, St. Abraham went to the shrine of Veles and toppled the statue of him, smashing it into pieces. Abraham founded the monastery of the Theophany in Rostov, as well two parish churches.
Commemorated October 29.
Some of the saints listed above are chiefly remembered for their fearless acts of destroying idols, though the majority are not. However, all the saints listed above are, among their other works, openly celebrated by the Church for their destruction of non-Christian temples, shrines, and statues.
What to take from this all? As with other miraculous deeds of the Saints, the destruction of the idols can be understood symbolically as the victory of right-believing Christians over all other idols, whether they be demons pretending to be gods or man-made constructs that lead our minds from the contemplation of God. This can be done without denying the historical fact of the Church’s Saints physically destroying non-Christian religious images. Of course, when considering other deeds of the Saints, we try to use their acts as an example for our own conduct. In the case of idol-smashing, most Christians today would shy away from literally following the Saints’ example, even though non-Christian idols abound. Perhaps this is wise, though the courage of these idol-smashing Saints is certainly something worthy of imitation. In striving for this, we can pray to Christ that we may emulate the martyr’s strength:
Thy Martyr, O Lord, in his courageous contest for Thee
Received the prize of the crowns of incorruption
And life from Thee, our immortal God.
For since he possessed Thy strength, he cast down the tyrants
And wholly destroyed the demons’ strengthless presumption.
O Christ God, by his prayers, save our souls,
Since Thou art merciful.
(General Apolytikion to a Martyr)