In the 8th-century A.D., the veneration of images of Christ and His Saints was restored by the Byzantine Emperor, after being previously outlawed. This Triumph of Orthodoxy not only defended the veneration of icons as “permissible”, but actively confessed the practice as integral to the Orthodox Faith.
The defeated Iconoclasts are often depicted today as philistines who mindlessly destroyed ancient religious (Christian) art out of misplaced, puritanical zeal. From this modern perspective their acts are compared with Protestant reformers, communist ideologues, and Islamic fanatics, all of whom have a history of destroying religious images. A famous example of modern “iconoclasm” (Greek for “image-smashers”) is the dynamiting of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, in Afghanistan, by the Taliban government in 2001.
Orthodox Christians will most likely condemn the acts of both Emperor Leo III the Isaurian, and Mullah Mohammed Omar, of the Taliban: the former for ordering the destruction of Holy Images, the latter for ordering the destruction of ancient Buddha statues. Both acts are deplorable, but not necessarily for the same reason. For there is an idea, that seems to captivate people especially in recent times, that the crime of the Iconoclasts are of the same spirit as 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”) 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.
Here, the argument goes, the “sin” of the Iconoclasts is their desire to destroy religious images, for religious reasons. By this definition, the Taliban’s dynamiting of the Buddha statues was the same “sin” as that of the Byzantine Iconoclasts: both destroying religious objects for religious reasons (the Buddha statues were declared idols by the Muslim government). Yet this cannot be the whole story, because standing against this admittedly compelling theory, is the testimony of many Saints who themselves destroyed ancient non-Christians religious objects.
What is the difference between these numerous Saints and the Iconoclasts?
Some of the Saints restricted their idol-smashing to their own property, forcefully and visibly renouncing their former pagan faith. Yet the majority of Saints who threw down idols were not destroying their own property, but the statues of practicing pagans – so this cannot be the difference.
Many of the martyrs who threw down idols, were casting down the idols of the pagan Roman Empire, defiantly opposing the might of the earthly ruling powers and therefore confessing the sovereignty of Christ. Conversely, the Iconoclast Emperor Leo used his earthly authority to impose the destruction of holy images on an unwilling public by decree. Is this the difference between the Saints and Iconoclasts? The answer must again be no, because among the congregation of Saints we have King Hezekiah and King Josiah from the Old Testament, the Emperor Theodosius, and Holy Prince Vladimir, Equal-to-the-Apostles, who all used their authority as rulers to destroy pagan temples.
It is true that some of the Saints broke up golden idols to distribute to the poor, but they are in a minority: the most well-remembered example being St Theodore Stratelates. Most Saints who destroyed idols did not do so to feed the poor specifically, preferring instead to completely destroy the idols.
Many of the Saints who destroyed idols did so in a very public manner: the Martyr Polyeuctus smashed the idols during a public procession! And in their destruction, the Saints were not adverse to openly scorning these pagan “gods” as Hieromartyr Blaise did. Therefore, it is not discretion which separates the Saints from the Iconoclasts, as the latter also conspicuously destroyed images.
Within the lives of the Saints miracles abound, and so it is not surprising to read idols being cast down by their prayers alone, as St Nino did in Georgia. Nevertheless, other Saints, whilst displaying inhuman, God-given, courage and strength during their martyrdom, did not destroy idols in a particularly miraculous way. It did not take a miracle for Saint Sozon to cut off the golden hand of Artemis and distribute it to the poor; the miracle came through his bold confession before the governor of his deed, and the tortures he subsequently endured with patience. Therefore, miraculous signs or wonders during the casting down of idols are not the definitive difference between the Saints and the Iconoclasts.
Finally, there is the disposition of the heart. Of course we can confidently say that the Saints did not find pleasure in destruction, nor in offending pagans, and that is was by the Holy Spirit they felt moved to behave in the way they did. We can also point to the murders committed by the Iconoclasts as a sign that their own hearts were filled with malice rather than love for the Truth. However, it is far beyond us to judge the heart of every person who has took it upon themselves to destroy a religious image. Many might well find perverse pleasure in smashing up objects, but no doubt some of those who destroyed holy images were doing it out of nothing but misplaced zeal: zeal not according to knowledge, as the Apostle Paul puts it.
This, then, leaves one difference between Iconoclasts and the Saints who cast down idols, the only difference that effectively separates every Iconoclast from every Saint. From the Orthodox point of view, the sin of the Iconoclasts was that they destroyed, dishonoured, and defiled images of the true God and Saviour, Jesus Christ. The Saints are celebrated for doing exactly the same to images of false gods. The difference is in the subject, or prototype, of the image.
In casting down idols, the Saints confess the power of images more strongly than if they just left them alone. Images have the power to inspire or captivate, leading to the necessity of both venerating images that point towards holiness, and challenging those which depict evil. The Saints, with discernment, were able to do both: honouring the images of Christ and His Saints, whilst casting down images of false deities that lead us away from God. May God grant us such discernment too in this overwhelmingly visual world!