The worship of images, as well as other Pagan practices, introduced into the church during the fourth and fifth centuries, were prevailing in the east as much as in the west; and I have mentioned, that the monks, particularly those of Egypt, had greatly contributed to the introduction of anthropomorphism into the Christian church. A great blow to image-worship was given in the east by the rise and rapid progress of Mahometanism, whose followers, considering it as idolatry, destroyed many objects to which certain miraculous virtues had been ascribed, and they constantly taunted the Christians with their belief in such superstitions. The Jews addressed the same reproaches to the Christians; yet, as Gibbon has justly observed, their servitude might curb their zeal and depreciate their authority; but the triumphant Mussulman, who reigned at Damascus, and threatened Constantinople, cast into the scale of reproach the accumulated weight of truth and victory. And, indeed, there could not be a stronger argument against the efficacy of images than the rapid conquest by the Mahometans of many Christian cities which relied upon a miraculous defence by some images preserved in their churches. This circumstance could not but produce, in the minds of many thinking Christians, a conviction of the absurdity of image-worship, and the spread of such opinions must have been promoted by congregations who had preserved the purity of primitive worship, and of whom it appears that there were several still extant in the eighth century, as well as by the influence of Armenia, a country with which the eastern empire had frequent intercourse of a political and commercial nature, and whose church rejected at that time the worship of images. This party wanted only a leader and favourable circumstances in order publicly to assert their condemnation of the prevailing practice, which they considered as sinful idolatry. The accession of Leo III., the Isaurian, in 717, who, from an inferior condition, rose by his talents and military prowess to the imperial throne, gave to that party what they required, for he shared their opinions, and was a man of great energy and ability. The troubles of the state, which the valour and political wisdom of Leo saved from impending ruin, occupied too much the first years of that emperor’s reign to allow him to undertake a reform of the church. But in 727 he assembled a council of senators and bishops, and decided, with their consent, that all the images should be removed in the churches from the sanctuary and the altar, to a height where they might be seen, but not worshipped, by the congregation. It was, however, impossible to follow long this middle course, as the adherents of the images contrived to worship them in spite of their elevation, while their opponents taxed the emperor with want of zeal, holding out to him the example of the Jewish monarch, who had caused the brazen serpent to be broken. Leo therefore ordered all kinds of images to be destroyed; and though his edict met with some opposition, it was put into execution throughout the whole empire, with the exception of the Italian provinces, which, instigated by Pope Gregory II., a zealous defender of images, revolted against the emperor, and resisted all his efforts to regain his dominion over them. This monarch died in 741, after a not inglorious reign of twenty-four years, and was succeeded on the throne by his son Constantine V., surnamed Copronymus. All the information which we possess about this monarch, as well as the other iconoclast emperors, is derived from historians violently opposed to their religious views. These writers represent Constantine V. as one of the greatest monsters that ever disgraced humanity, stained by every imaginable vice; and having exhausted all the usual terms of opprobrium, they invent some such ridiculous expressions as a leopard generated by a lion, an aspic born from the seeds of a serpent, a flying dragon, &c.; but they do not adduce in confirmation of these epithets any of those criminal acts which have disgraced the reigns of many Byzantine emperors, whose piety is extolled by the same writers. We know, moreover, by the evidence of those very historians who have bespattered with all those opprobrious terms the memory of Constantine, that he was a brave and skilful leader, who defeated the Arabs, the most formidable enemies of the empire, and restored several of its lost provinces, and that the country was prosperous under his reign of thirty-four years—741 to 775.
The beginning of Constantine’s reign was disturbed by his own brother-in-law, Artabasdes, who, supported by the adherents of the images, competed for the imperial throne, but was defeated, and his party crushed. Constantine, desiring to abolish the abuse, which he regarded as idolatry, by a solemn decision of the church declared, in 753, his intention to convoke for this object a general council; and in order that the question at issue should be thoroughly sifted, he enjoined all the bishops of the empire to assemble local synods, and to examine the subject, previously to its being debated by the general council. This council, composed of three hundred and thirty-eight bishops, met at Constantinople in 754, and, after having deliberated for six months, decided that, conformably to Holy Writ and the testimony of the fathers, all images were to be removed from the churches, and whoever would dare to make an image, in order to place it in a church, to worship it, or to keep it concealed in his house, was, if a clerk, to be deposed, if a layman, to be anathematised. The council added, that those who adhered to the images were to be punished by the imperial authorities as enemies of the doctrine of the fathers, and breakers of the law of God. This decision was pronounced by the assembled bishops unanimously, and without a single dissentient voice, which had never been the case before. This assembly took the title of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, and the emperor ordered its decision to be put into execution throughout all his dominions. The images were removed from the churches, and those which were painted on the walls covered with whitewash. The principal opposition to the imperial order was offered by the monks, who were always the chief promoters of image-worship; and Constantine is accused of having repressed this opposition with a violence common to that barbarous age. He is said to have entertained the greatest hatred against these monks, calling them idolaters, and their dresses the dress of darkness—an opinion with which many persons will be found to chime, I think, even in our own time. Constantine died in 775, and was followed on the throne by his son, Leo IV., who inherited the religious views of his father; whilst his wife, Irene, a beautiful and talented, but ambitious and unprincipled woman, was a secret worshipper of images. Leo, who was of a weak constitution, died after a reign of five years, appointing Irene the guardian of his minor son Constantine, who was then ten years old. Irene governed the empire with great ability, but was too fond of power to surrender it to her son at his coming of age, and he tried to obtain by force what was due to him by right. The party of Irene proved, however, the stronger; and young Constantine was taken prisoner, and his mother caused him to be deprived of sight. Irene’s orders were executed in such an atrocious manner, that the unfortunate prince died in consequence. Irene governed the empire with great splendour, but her first object was to restore the worship of images; and the machinations by which she accomplished this object have been so well related by Gibbon, that I cannot do better than copy his account of them:—
Under the reign of Constantine V., the union of the civil and ecclesiastical power had overthrown the tree, without extirpating the root of superstition. The idols, for such they were now held, were secretly cherished by the order and the sex most prone to devotion; and the fond alliance of the monks and females obtained a final victory over the reason and authority of man. Leo IV. maintained with less rigour the religion of his father and grandfather, but his wife, the fair and ambitious Irene, had imbibed the zeal of the Athenians, the heirs of the idolatry rather than philosophy of their ancestors. During the life of her husband, these sentiments were inflamed by danger and dissimulation, and she could only labour to protect and promote some favourite monks, whom she drew from their caverns, and seated on the metropolitan thrones of the east. But as soon as she reigned in her own name, and in that of her son, Irene more seriously undertook the ruin of the iconoclasts, and the first step of her future persecution was a general edict for liberty of conscience. In the restoration of the monks, a thousand images were exposed to the public veneration; a thousand legends were invented of their sufferings and miracles. By the opportunities of death and removal, the episcopal seats were judiciously filled; the most eager competitors for celestial or earthly favour anticipated and flattered the judgment of their sovereign; and the promotion of her secretary Tarasius gave Irene the patriarch of Constantinople, and the command of the Oriental church. But the decrees of a general council could only be repealed by a similar assembly; the iconoclasts, whom she convened, were bold in possession, and averse to debate; and the feeble voice of the bishops was re-echoed by the more formidable clamour of the soldiers and the people of Constantinople. The delay and intrigues of a year, the separation of the disaffected troops, and the choice of Nice for a second orthodox synod, removed these obstacles; and the episcopal conscience was again, after the Greek fashion, in the hands of the prince.—Gibbon’s Roman Empire, chap. xlix. This council, held in 786, restored the worship of images by the unanimous sentence of three hundred and fifty bishops. The acts of this synod have been preserved, and they are stated by Gibbon to be a curious monument of superstition and ignorance, of falsehood and folly. I am afraid that there is but too much truth in this severe judgment of Gibbon; and the following passage relating to the same council, which I have extracted, not from Gibbon, or any writer of the school to which he belonged, but from the celebrated Roman Catholic historian of the church, Abbé Fleury, will enable the reader to form his own judgment on this subject.
After describing the confession of faith signed by that council, which declared that the images of the saints are to be worshipped, because they remind us of those whom they represent, and make us participators in their merits, he says:—
The last passages showed that God was making miracles by means of images; and in order to confirm it, a discourse, ascribed to St Athanasius, was read. It contained the account of a pretended miracle, which happened at Beryt, with an image of Christ, which, having been pierced by the Jews, emitted blood, which healed many sick persons. The fathers of the council were so much moved by this account that they shed tears. It is, however, certain, that this discourse is not by St Athanasius, and it is even very doubtful whether the story which it contains is true. Thus it appears that amongst all the bishops present at this council, there was not a single one versed in the science of criticism, because many other false documents were produced in that assembly. This proves nothing against the decision of the council, because it is sufficiently supported by true documents. It only proves the ignorance of the times, as well as the necessity of knowing history, chronology, the difference of manners and styles, in order to discern real documents from spurious ones.
Thus, according to the authority of one of the most eminent writers of the Roman Catholic Church, the second Council of Nice, the first synod which has given an explicit and solemn sanction to one of the most important tenets of the Western and the Eastern churches, was composed of such ignorant and silly prelates, that an absurd fable, contained in a forged paper, could sway their minds and hearts in such a manner as to make them shed tears of emotion, and that there was not a single individual amongst these venerable fathers sufficiently informed to be able to discover a fabrication so gross that it did not escape the attention of scholars who lived many centuries afterwards.
Irene rigorously enforced the decrees of this council against the opponents of images; and that woman, guilty of the death of her own son, and suspected of that of her husband, is extolled by ecclesiastical writers as a most pious princess. A contemporary Greek writer, and a zealous defender of image-worship, the monk Theodore Studites, places her above Moses, and says that she had delivered the people from the Egyptian bondage of impiety; and the historian of the Roman Catholic Church, Baronius, justifies her conduct by the following argument: that the hands of the fathers were raised by a just command of God against their children, who followed strange gods, and that Moses had ordered them to consecrate themselves to the Lord, even every man upon his son, and upon his brother, Exodus 32:29, so that it was a high degree of piety to be cruel to one’s own son; consequently Irene deserved on this account the first crown of paradise; and that if she had committed the murder of her son from motives of ambition, she would be worse than Agrippina, mother of Nero; but if she did it through zeal for religion, as it appears by the encomium which she had received from very holy men who lived at that time, she deserves to be praised for her piety.
Irene’s piety, shown by the restoration of images, and the persecution of their opponents, was indeed so much appreciated by the church, that she received a place amongst the saints of the Greek calendar. She was, however, less fortunate in her worldly affairs; because she was deposed in 802 by Nicephorus, who occupied the imperial throne, and exiled to Lesbos, where she died in great poverty. He did not abolish the images, nor allow the persecution of their opponents; and the ecclesiastical writers represent him, on account of this liberal policy, as a perfect monster. Nicephorus perished in a battle against the Bulgarians in 811, and his successor Michael, who persecuted the iconoclasts, unable to maintain himself on the throne, retired into a convent, after a reign of about two years, and the imperial crown was assumed by Leo V., a native of Armenia, and one of the most eminent leaders of the army, which elevated him to this dignity. Though all that we know about Leo V. is derived from authors zealously opposed to his religious views, yet, notwithstanding all their odium theologicum, they are obliged to admit that he was gallant in the field, and just and careful in the administration of civil affairs. Being the native of a country whose church still resisted the introduction of images, he was naturally adverse to their worship, and the manner in which he abolished it in his empire deserves a particular notice; because, though related by his enemies, it proves that he was a sincere scriptural Christian.
According to their relation, Leo believed that the victories obtained by the barbarians, and other calamities to which the empire was exposed, were a visitation of God in punishment of the worship of images; that he demanded that a precept for adoring the images should be shown to him in the gospels, and as the thing was impossible, he rejected them as idols condemned by the Word of God. They also say, that the attention of Leo being once drawn to this passage of the prophet Isaiah, To whom then will you liken God? or what likeness will you compare unto him? The workman melteth a graven image, and the goldsmith spreadeth it over with gold and casteth silver chains, (Isaiah 40:18, 19,) this circumstance irritated him more than any thing else against the images. He communicated his sentiments to the patriarch, and requested him either to remove the images, or to show a reason why they were worshipped, since the Scriptures did not order it. The patriarch, who was an adherent of the images, tried to elude this demand by various sophisms, which, not having satisfied the emperor, he ordered divines of both parties to assemble in his palace, and represented to them that Moses, who had received the law, written with the hand of God, condemned, in the most explicit terms, those who adored the works of men’s hands; that it was idolatry to worship them, and great folly to attempt to confine the Infinite in a picture of the size of an ell. It is said that the defenders of the images refused to speak for the three following reasons:—1. That the canons prohibited to doubt what had been determined by the second Council of Nice; 2. That the clergy could not deliberate upon such matters in the imperial palace, but in a church; and, 3. That the emperor was not a competent judge on this occasion, because he was resolved to abolish the images. The emperor deposed the patriarch, who defended the images, replacing him by another who shared his own sentiments, and convened a council, which, with the exception of a few of its members, decided for the abolition of the images. The emperor ordered their removal, and sent several of their defenders into exile; he soon, however, allowed them to return, and only some few of the most zealous of them died in exile. The most celebrated of these sufferers was Theodore Studites; and as he has obtained on this account the honour of saintship, his opinions on the nature of images deserve a particular notice. He maintained that as the shadow cannot be separated from the body, as the rays of the sun are inseparable from that planet, so the images are inseparable from the subjects which they represent. He pretended that an image of Christ should be treated as if it were Christ himself, saying, The image is nothing else than Christ himself, except the difference of their essence; therefore, the worship of the image is the worship of Jesus Christ. He considered those who were removing images as destroyers of the incarnation of Christ, because he does not exist if he cannot be painted. We renounce Christ if we reject his image; and refuse to worship him, if we refuse to adore his image.
This defence of image-worship is, I think, a faithful exposition of the anthropomorphistic ideas, which, as I have mentioned before, had been chiefly generated by the morbid imagination of the Egyptian monks, and were supported by that numerous class, which formed the most zealous and efficient defenders of the images. Leo V. was murdered in a church in 820; and Michael II., surnamed the Stammerer, whom the conspirators placed on the throne, did not allow the images to be restored, though he was moderate in his religious views. He recalled the defenders of the images from exile, and seemed to steer a middle course between the enemies and the defenders of images, though he shared the opinions of the former. He was succeeded in 829 by his son, Theophilus,—a most decided opponent of images,—and whose valour and love of justice are acknowledged by his religious adversaries. He died in 841, leaving a minor son, Michael III., under the regency of his wife, Theodora. This princess, whose personal character was irreproachable, governed the empire during thirteen years, with considerable wisdom; but being an adherent of images, she restored their worship, which has since that time continued in the Greek Church in perhaps even a more exaggerated form than in the Roman Catholic one, and which can be without any impropriety called iconolatry, since idolatry may be perhaps considered as an expression too strong for ears polite.
The struggle between the iconoclasts and the iconolaters, of which I have given a mere outline, but which agitated the Eastern empire for nearly a century and a half, ending in the complete triumph of the latter, deserves the particular attention of all thinking Protestants; because it is virtually the same contest that has been waged for more than three centuries between Protestantism and Rome, and which seems now to assume a new phasis. I do not think that the ignorance of those times may be considered as the principal cause of the triumph of the iconolatric party, and that the spread of knowledge in our own day is a sufficient safeguard against the recurrence of a similar contingency. There was in the eighth and ninth centuries a considerable amount of learning at Constantinople, where the treasures of classical literature, many of which have since been lost, were preserved and studied. The Greeks of that time, though no doubt greatly inferior to the modern Europeans in physical science, were not so in metaphysics and letters, whilst the gospel could be read by all the educated classes in its original tongue, which was the official, literary, and ecclesiastical language of the Eastern empire. The Byzantine art was, moreover, very inferior to that of modern Europe, and could not produce, except on some coarse and rustic intellects, that bewitching effect, which the works of great modern painters and sculptors often produce upon many refined and imaginative minds. It has been justly remarked, by an accomplished writer of our day, that the all-emancipating press is occasionally neutralised by the soul-subduing miracles of art. The Roman Catholic Church perfectly understands this soul-subduing power of art, and the following is the exposition of her views on this subject by one of her own writers, whom I have already quoted on a similar subject. .
That pictures and images in churches are particularly serviceable in informing the minds of the humbler classes, and for such a purpose possess a superiority over words themselves, is certain.
Segnius irritant animos demissa per aurem,
Quam quæ sunt oculis subjecta fldelibus et quæ
Ipse sibi tradit spectator.
Horace de Arte Poetica, v. 180
What’s through the ear conveyed will never find
Its way with so much quickness to the mind,
As that, when faithful eyes are messengers,
Unto himself the fixed spectator bears
The remark of a heathen poet is corroborated by the observations of the most celebrated amongst ancient and modern Christian writers. So persuaded was St Paulinus of Nola, fourteen hundred years ago, of the efficacy possessed by paintings for conveying useful lessons of instruction, that he adorned with a variety of sacred subjects the walls of a church which he erected, and dedicated to God in honour of St Felix.
Prudentius assures us how much his devotion was enkindled, as he gazed upon the sufferings of martyrs, so feelingly depicted around their tombs and in their churches. On his way to Rome, about the year 405, the poet paid a visit to the shrine of St Cassianus, at Forum Cornelii, the modern Imola, where the body of that Christian hero reposed, under a splendid altar, over which were represented, in an expressive picture, all the sufferings of his cruel martyrdom. So moved was Prudentius, that he threw himself upon the pavement, kissed the altar with religious reverence, and numbering up with many a tear those wounds that sin had inflicted upon his soul, concluded by exhorting every one to unite with himself in intrusting their petitions for the divine clemency to the solicitude of the holy martyr Cassianus, who will not only hear our request, but will afford us the benefit of his patronage.
The anecdote of Prudentius evidently proves that what originally had been intended for the instruction of the people, may very easily become an object of their adoration. If a man of a superior education, like Prudentius, could be carried away by his feelings in such a manner as to address his prayers to a dead man, how much greater must be the effect of images upon less cultivated minds! and I have related, on the authority of the great Roman Catholic historian, Fleury, that the fathers of the second Council of Nice, who, according to the same authority, were a very ignorant set, shed tears at the sight of an image represented in an absurd and fictitious story.
Such are the effects produced in teaching religion by means of images. There can be no doubt about the truth of the observations contained in the lines of Horace, which the author of Hierurgia quotes in defence of images; but these observations refer to the theatre, and it appears to me that the application of purely scenic precepts to the house of God is something very like converting divine service into a comedy.
The limits of this essay allow me not to discuss the chances of an iconolatric reaction in our days. I shall only observe, that in several countries where the iconoclasts of the Reformation had gained a predominant position, they were entirely crushed by the iconolatric reaction, and that a fond alliance of females and monks, supported by the ruling powers of the state, achieved in these parts as great a victory as that which it obtained in the east under Irene and Theodora, not only over the reason of man, but even over the authority of the Word of God; and I believe that the only human means of preventing similar contingencies are free institutions, which allow the fullest liberty of discussion in regard to all religious opinions.
I have said before, that the Pope opposed the abolition of images proclaimed by the Emperor Leo III., and that this opposition was shared by the imperial provinces of Italy, which revolted on that occasion against their sovereign, and separated from the Byzantine empire. It was therefore natural that the second Council of Nice, which restored the worship of images, should obtain the approbation of Pope Hadrian I.; but his desire to impose the enactments of that council upon the churches of the West met with a decided opposition on the part of Charlemagne. This great monarch, who is so celebrated by his efforts to convert the Pagan Saxons, prosecuted with all the barbarity of his age, and whom the church has placed amongst her saints, was so offended by the enactments of the second Council of Nice in favour of the worship of images, that he composed, or what is more probable, ordered to be composed in his name, a book against that worship, and sent it to Pope Hadrian I., as an exposition of his own sentiments, as well as of those of his bishops, on the subject in question. This work, though written in violent language, contains many very rational views about images, and unanswerable arguments against all kinds of adoration offered to them. The substance of this celebrated protest is as follows:—
Charlemagne says, that there is no harm in having images in a church, provided they are not worshipped; and that the Greeks had fallen into two extremes, one of which was to destroy the images, as had been ordained by the Council of Constantinople, under Constantine Copronymus, and the other to worship them, as was decided by the second Council of Nice under Irene. He censures much more severely this latter extreme than the former, because those who destroyed images had merely acted with levity and ignorance, whilst it was a wicked and profane action to worship them. He compared the first to such as mix water with wine, and the others to those who infuse a deadly poison into it; in short, there could be no comparison between the two cases. He marks, with great precision, the different kinds of worship offered to the images, rejecting all of them. The second Council of Nice decided that this worship should consist of kisses and genuflexions, as well as of burning incense and wax candles before them. All these practices are condemned by Charlemagne, as so many acts of worship offered to a created being. He addresses the defenders of the worship of images in the following manner:—
You who establish the purity of your faith upon images, go, if you like, and fall upon your knees and burn incense before them; but with regard to ourselves we shall seek the precepts of God in his Holy Writ. Light luminaries before your pictures, whilst we shall read the Scriptures. Venerate, if you like, colours; but we shall worship divine mysteries. Enjoy the agreeable sight of your pictures; but we shall find our delight in the Word of God. Seek after figures which cannot either see, or hear, or taste; but we shall diligently seek after the law of God, which is irreprehensible. He further says:—I see images which have such inscriptions, as for instance St Paul, and I ask, therefore, those who are involved in this great error, why they do call images holy (sanctus), and why they do not say, conformably to the tradition of the fathers, that these are images of the saints? Let them say in what consists the sanctity of the images? Is it in the wood which had been brought from a forest in order to make them? Is it in the colours with which they are painted, and which are often composed of impure substances? Is it in the wax, which gets dirty? He taunts the worshippers of images, pointing out an abuse which even now is as inevitable as it was then. If, says he, two pictures perfectly alike, but of which one is meant for the Virgin and the other for Venus, are presented to you, you will inquire which of them is the image of the Virgin and which is that of Venus, because you cannot distinguish them. The painter will call one of these pictures the image of the Virgin, and it will be immediately put up in a high place, honoured, and kissed; whilst the other, representing Venus, will be thrown away with horror. These two pictures are, however, made by the same hand, with the same brush, with the same colours; they have the same features, and the whole difference between them lies in their inscriptions. Why is the one received and the other rejected? It is not on account of the sanctity which one of them has, and the other has not; it is, then, on account of its inscription; and yet certain letters attached to a picture cannot give it a sanctity which it otherwise had not.
This work was published for the first time in 1549, by Tillet, Roman Catholic bishop of Meaux in France, though under an assumed name, and it has been reprinted several times. Its authenticity, which had been at first impugned by some Roman Catholic writers, was finally established beyond every dispute, and acknowledged by the most eminent writers of the Roman Catholic Church, such as Mabillon, Sirmond, &c. It is a very remarkable production, for it most positively rejects every kind of worship offered to images, without making any difference between Latria and Dulia, and I think that its republication might be of considerable service at the present time.
The Pope sent a long letter in answer to the protest of Charlemagne, which did not, however, satisfy that monarch, because he convened in 794 a council at Frankfort, at which he presided himself. This synod, composed of three hundred bishops of France, Germany, and Spain, and at which two legates of the Pope were present, condemned the enactment of the second Council of Nice respecting the worship of images. This decree of the Council of Frankfort is very important, because it not only condemned the worship of images, but it virtually rejected the infallibility of the Popes, as well as of the General Councils, since it condemned what they had established.
The opposition to the worship of images continued amongst the Western churches for some time after the death of Charlemagne. Thus an assembly of the French clergy, held at Paris in 825, condemned the decree of the second Council of Nice as decidedly as it was done by the work of Charlemagne and the Council of Frankfort. Claudius, bishop of Turin, who lived about that time, opposed the worship of images, which he removed from his churches, calling those idolaters who adhered to this practice; he also condemned the adoration of relics, of the figure of the cross, &c.; and he was not inaptly called, on this account, by the Jesuit historian Maimbourg, the first Protestant minister.
There are other traces of a similar opposition during the ninth century, but it seems to have entirely disappeared in the tenth, and it was again renewed by the Albigenses in the eleventh century. Their history, however, is foreign to the object of the present essay; and I shall endeavour to give in my next chapter a short sketch of the legends of the saints, composed during the middle ages.