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A Hstory Of The Councils Of The Church Volumes 1 to 5 by Charles Joseph Hefele D.D.

IN one sense the second Council of Nicæa put an end to the controversy respecting the veneration of images. This Council was intended to be Œcumenical, and was generally received as such; but the controversy by no means came to an end with the promulgation of its decrees, and it seems proper that some information should here be given respecting the subsequent history of the controversy, and that something should also be said on the earlier history of the conflict beyond what Bishop Hefele has given in this volume.

As a rule, the editor has abstained from criticising or annotating the statements of this history further than by an occasional suggestion, especially as the author is almost always scrupulously accurate in his statement of facts. It can hardly be said to be otherwise in his account of the battle between the iconoclasts and the iconolators; and yet there are few, outside the boundaries of the Greek and Latin Churches, who will read this portion of the history with complete satisfaction, or who will not feel that it has received a certain colouring from the views of the writer which diminishes its value as mere history. On this point it may suffice to recommend to the reader the article on “Images,” by the late Mr. Scudamore, in the Dictionary of Christian Antiquities, in which the whole subject is handled with equal objective accuracy, but from a different point of view.

The controversy respecting images naturally points back to the Second Commandment, with its prohibition of the making of graven images or other likenesses for the purpose of worship. The question has been raised as to whether the commandment did not prohibit the making of likenesses for any purpose whatever. But the later Jewish beliefs on this subject—that all painting and sculpture of every kind were forbidden—are opposed to the simple facts of Hebrew history and institutions. It may be admitted, Kalisch remarks, that the prohibition has “exercised a retarding influence upon the progress and development of the plastic arts among the Hebrews; for plastic art, in its beginnings, generally stands in the service of religion, and advances by the stimulus it affords. But it is an incomprehensible mistake, if it is believed that the plastic arts in general, sculpture and painting, are forbidden in our text.… Such a barbarous and irrational law could not possibly emanate from a legislator who commanded and erected a holy tent furnished with all the adornments of art and beauty, who even ordered two cherubims to be placed in the Holy of Holy (Ex. 25:18–20; cf. 25:34, 26:32; Num. 21:8, 9). In the first temple, as well as in the second, was an abundance of plastic works, which nobody has found at variance with the spirit of Mosaism. We mention, further, the ‘serpent of brass’ which Moses erected (Num. 21:9); the golden figures which the Philistines offered for the holy tabernacle (1 Sam. 6:17).… A limited and shortsighted interpretation of the letter of the holy text has, in other passages also, led to the most perverse and almost ridiculous results. For the purpose of religious worship, no images were to be made; more than this does our text not forbid” (Kalisch, Comm. on Exodus, in loc. p. 347; cf. also Speaker’s Commen. in loc. p. 331).

In later times the Second Commandment was understood by the Jews as forbidding not merely the worshipping of images, but even the making of them; and this feeling was certainly deepened by the doings of Antiochus Epiphanes, who set up “groves and chapels of idols” in the cities of Judah (1 Macc. 1:47). Later on, in the days of Herod the Great, when the trophies of victory which he displayed were supposed to cover the effigy of a man, the Jews declared that they would never “endure images of men in the city, for it was not their country’s custom” (Josephus, Antiq. xv. 8. 1, 2). And Origen (A.D. 230) declares of the Jews, that “there was no maker of images among their citizens; neither painter nor sculptor was in their State” (Contra Celsum. iv. 31).

It is quite intelligible, therefore, that there should be the strongest opposition to the veneration or making of images or likenesses in the early Church. First, there were the converts from Judaism, who brought with them the strongest repugnance to such objects. Next, there were the converts from heathenism, who had themselves to a large extent been idolaters, and who saw the danger, to themselves and others, of a relapse into their previous degrading customs. In later times, also, there were the Mahometans among them and around them, who cherished a fierce hatred against all making of images as being a violation of the law of the Prophet.

Bishop Hefele has given a fairly complete account of the origin of these controversies in the Church—of the introduction, in the first instance, of symbolical representations of sacred things, as the Lamb and the Dove, leading to such pictures as that of the Good Shepherd, and so advancing to representations standing for our Lord Himself and His saints. There are several ways of viewing these things. On the one hand, it could hardly be denied that they might be, and actually were, vehicles for the instruction of the ignorant; as in later times, for example, Dr. Doddridge, when a child, was taught Scripture history by his mother from the Dutch tiles round the fireplace. This was the view of Gregory I., when a bishop of Marseilles of that period destroyed images which had been used for idolatrous purposes. “We praise you,” said Gregory, “for being zealous lest aught made by the hand should be worshipped; but we think that you ought not to have broken the said images. For painting is used in churches, that they who are ignorant of letters may at least read on the walls by seeing there what they cannot read in books” (Ep. vii. 111).

The Pope acted on the well-known principle, “Abusus non tollit usum”; on the other hand, the iconoclasts might have quoted the example of Hezekiah, who broke in pieces the serpent of brass, although it had been fashioned by divine command, because it had been used to foster idolatry. Both positions are quite intelligible, and even reasonable. And if zeal for a spiritual religion should pass into fanaticism, such as condemns the application of every kind of art (painting, sculpture, music, poetry) in the service of religion, we cannot altogether wonder, although there comes a point when we must disapprove and condemn, in the interests of civilisation and religion alike. If, again, there should come a reaction against such fanaticism, and the defence of sacred art should lead to superstition, we might also be prepared for such results. These principles are abundantly illustrated in the iconoclastic controversy; and it is not necessary that they should be here further discussed. What remains for us is to give a brief sketch of the events connected with images which followed the second Council of Nicæa.—It may be here noted, in passing, that the “images” to which reference is so often made, were (almost certainly) not sculptures, but either mosaics or what is known in the Eastern Church as icons, which may be described as pictures with generally a kind of gold mount, sometimes adorned with jewels.

As we see in the history, it was not until after many controversies that the second Council of Nicæa decided (A.D. 787) in favour of the images; but this was far from ending the dispute. It is hardly too much to say that the Emperors of the East had always exercised a large influence on the decisions of the Councils and the subsequent reception of their decrees by the Church. Their intervention in the iconoclastic controversy did not come to an end with the Synod of Nicæa. Some subsequent Emperors were favourable to the Council, but a determined opponent was found in Leo V., the Armenian (A.D. 813–826), whose soldiers destroyed images in all directions. Michael II., who succeeded him, tolerated the worshipping of images (820–829). But his son Theophilus (820–842) not only did his utmost to root out image-worship during his lifetime, but, at his death, exacted an oath from his widow, Theodora, that she would not restore the icons or the worship of them. So far was Theodora from giving effect to her promise, that she did her utmost to bring back the cultus of the icons, and even procured the holding of a Council at Constantinople in the same year (842), at which the decrees of the second Council of Nicæa were reaffirmed. The day of the synodal decision (February 19) was appointed to be kept as a festival.

It has sometimes been said that from this time all opposition ceased; but this is not quite exact, since we find the Patriarch Photius (c. A.D. 860) proposing to Pope Nicholas that another Council should be held to complete the suppression of the “heresy of the Iconomachi.” The Council met (861) and pronounced the deposition of Ignatius, who had been supplanted by Photius, but there is no record of its decision in respect to the images. In 869 another Synod “denounced the iconoclasts, upheld pictures as useful in the instruction of the people, and declared that we ‘ought to worship them with the same honour as the book of the Holy Gospels.’ Here the history of the struggle closes in the East” (Dict. Antiq. s.v. “Images”).

Turning to the Western Church, we find that, on the occasion of an embassy of the Emperor Constantine Copronymus to Pipin the Short, a Synod was held (A.D. 767) at Gentiliacum (= Gentilly) on the subject of the images; but we have no record of the proceedings (cf. sec. 341 in this volume of the History). In 790, Hadrian I. sent to Charles the Great the Acts of the second Synod of Nicæa. The Emperor, who did not appreciate the acceptance by the Western Church of the decrees of an Oriental Synod, and, moreover, disagreeing with the conclusions at which they had arrived, put forth a manifesto, written in his name, entitled Libri Carolini, directed against the practices sanctioned by the Council and the Pope. He censured. the proceedings of the Synod in strong terms, refuted its Acts, denounced every form of image-worship as idolatry, without allowing the doings of the iconoclasts,—taking, in fact, the line adopted by Gregory the Great, that images were useful in quickening devotion, instructing the people, and providing suitable decoration for holy places. At the same time, veneration of saints, relics, and the cross is permitted.

This manifesto was sent to the Pope, and was answered by him without producing any effect on the Emperor. Soon afterwards (792), by means of Alcuin, he took the opportunity of disseminating his views in Britain, and of procuring the presence of English bishops at the great Synod which he convoked, and which met at Frankfort, A.D. 794—a Synod which “rejected with contempt, and unanimously condemned, the adoration and service” which, the Greeks said, should be rendered to images. And so the question remained under the great Emperor.

At a Synod held in Paris, under Lewis the Pious (825), the bishops, referring to a letter from Pope Hadrian I. to Irene, declared that the Pope “justly reproved those who rashly presumed to break the images of the saints, but acted indiscreetly in commanding to give them superstitious worship.” Down to the tenth century no recognition was given in the Frankish kingdom to the second Synod of Nicæa, and official opposition to image-worship was continued. Among those who wrote strongly against the practice may be mentioned Agobard of Lyons (c. 840) and Claudius of Turin, soon after the Council of Paris. The latter was answered by Dungal, a monk of S. Denys of Paris, in a somewhat violent fashion, who charged Claudius to defend himself before the Emperor. The latter called upon Bishop Jonas of Orleans to reply, but his answer appeared after the death of Claudius. It would appear that Agobard’s Liber de Picturis et Imaginibus was the last clear testimony against the images. Hincmar, archbishop of Reims (A.D. 845), wrote a treatise to explain “in what manner the images of our Lord and His saints are to be venerated,” in which he speaks contemptuously of the Greek practice, and rejects the second Council of Nicæa. Perhaps it may be said that Jonas of Orleans most nearly expresses the result at which the Western Church arrived, in his De Cultu Imaginum, where he says that images are to be set up in churches solummodo ad instruendas nescientium mentes.

To this conclusion the Latin Church has held fast, teaching in the Tridentine decrees (Sessio xxv. De invocatione Sanctorum, etc.), that images are to be used for the instruction of the people, and for inciting to the imitation of the saints, but holding that a certain veneration was to be paid to the images (debitum honorem et venerationem impertiendam). But this is to be rendered, “not as though any divine power was supposed to be in them, on account of which they were honoured, or as though anything should be asked of them or any confidence should be reposed in them, … but because the honour which is shown to them is referred to the originals which are represented by the images,—so that we, by means of the images which we kiss, and before which we uncover our heads and kneel, worship Christ and reverence the saints, who are represented to us in them.” The Synod, in thus testifying, appeals to the decree of the second Nicene Council.—How far these distinctions are valid for the people at large we need not here inquire.

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