Monday, March 20, 2006


The Greeks invented iconoclasm, along with everything else. The Great Synaxarion of the Orthodox Church sets out the invention of the said movement/heresy as follows: “Through God’s indulgence Leo the Isaurian, a swineherd and keeper of donkeys, inherited the sceptre of the kingdom. At that time Saint Germanus was at the helm of the Church. Leo sent for him and said, "Since it seems to me that there is no difference between the holy icons and idols, command that they be removed immediately from among us. Although if they are true likenesses of the saints, let them be hung higher on the walls so that we who are wallowing in sins do not defile them by venerating them." But the Patriarch responded thus to the Emperor’s abomination, "O King, we have heard of someone who once raised his hand against the holy icons. He was called Conon. Could you be this man?" The emperor said, "I was so called as a child." And since the Patriarch refused to obey the emperor, he deposed him and installed Anastasius, who sympathized with him. And so at that time began the struggle against the holy icons.”
Depending on which chronicler you believe, iconoclasm was either a) a reaction against excessive religiosity, the hysterical worship of icons which saw icons acting as godparents to children, people licking the paint off them in order to gain their ‘power,’ an intellectual eastern movement that could not see how the Old Testament prohibition against graven images could be circumvented by two dimensional representations, as a method of defeating Islamic criticisms of Christianity, revitalising the army and causing it to defeat the encroaching Arab armies after centuries of defeat or b) a godless prejudice inspired by hatred and ignorance that saw a great many beautiful works of art destroyed and the people’s deeply felt cultural and religious affiliation trampled underfoot.
Eventually of course, after fits and starts, burnings and defacement of icons and intense persecution of iconodules, icons were ‘restored,’ by the empress Theodora in 843 and the anniversary of this date is always celebrated by the Church on 12 March as the ‘Sunday of Orthodoxy.’ As the Synaxarion lyrically states: “The empress rejoiced greatly and requested the Patriarch to assemble all the people with the holy icons and crosses in the great church, so that might be adorned with the holy icons and God’s new miracle could be known by all. And soon when all had gathered in the church holding candles, the empress arrived with her son. And a Litany was served there with the holy icons and the divine and precious wood of the Cross and with the sacred and divine Gospels. And leaving the church, calling out, "Lord, have mercy," they processed the agreed mile. Then they returned to the church, where Divine Liturgy was celebrated. When the holy and precious icons were returned to their place, the holy men mentioned earlier and the pious Orthodox rulers were glorified, and those impious people who did not accept the honour of the holy icons were anathematized and condemned. And from that time these holy confessors appointed the annual commemoration of this solemnity, so that we might never again fall into a similar ignominy.”
The outcomes of this traumatic period of Greek history were threefold. The first was the it caused inspired theologians such as St John (Mansur) of Damascus to delineate church doctrine on icons and they did so brilliantly, stating that: 1. The biblical commandment forbidding images of God had been superseded by the incarnation of Jesus, who, being the second person of the Trinity, is God incarnate in visible matter. Therefore, icons do not depict the invisible God, but God as He appeared in the flesh, 2. Idols depict persons without substance or reality while icons depict real persons. This was considered comparable to the Old Testament practice of only offering burnt sacrifices to God, and not to any other gods. 3. Icons are venerated ie. respect is paid to the person they depict and they are not worshipped.
The second outcome manifested itself amost a thousand years later, when it inspied Protestant followers of Calvin in 1562 to ransack and destroy the tomb of St Eirenaius in Lyons, creating a neo-iconoclast movement that saw churches desecrated and great works of art in the western world totally destroyed. In England, Bishop Joseph Hall of Norwich described the events of 1643 when troops and citizens, encouraged by a Parliamentary ordinance against superstition and idolatry, behaved thus:
“Lord what work was here! What clattering of glasses! What beating down of walls! What tearing up of monuments! What pulling down of seats! What wresting out of irons and brass from the windows! What defacing of arms! What demolishing of curious stonework! What tooting and piping upon organ pipes! And what a hideous triumph in the market-place before all the country, when all the mangled organ pipes, vestments, both copes and surplices, together with the leaden cross which had newly been sawn down from the Green-yard pulpit and the service-books and singing books that could be carried to the fire in the public market-place were heaped together.”
The third outcome of course was the indisputable place that the icon gained within the Greek family. Generations of Greeks prayed fervently to their icons for protection from the vicissitudes of life, poured their hearts out to them and ascribed punishment or delight to the virtue of their intercession. Icons were carried before the armies that liberated Northern Epirus and defended Greece against the Italian invasion in 1940 while a huge icon of Panayia faces occupied Cyprus today, from the free side and it was with trepidation, anguish and at the same time, hope, that our parents and grandparents took down their icons from the walls of their homes, kissed them lovingly and packed them away in their suitcaes, seeking their protection during the long jorney to Australia. These icons therefore, have stood as mute witnesses to our arrival, settlement and integration within Australian society and have been the focal point of that generation’s pininings, longings and ambitions.
During the celebration of Sunday of Orthodoxy, it is customary for the congregation to bring their icons into church and then take part in a procession around the church, where their icons are proudly displayed. This year my parish church was full of such icons and it was fascinating to see their vast array in various styles and states of repair. Quite apart from neohellenic silver icons of questionable taste, I was able to discern quite a few fading and pitted nineteenth century baroque pieces, a few flaking and well-worn icons that seemed to be crude, village impressions of post-Byzantine iconography and even one decidedly and ancient Byzantine piece, though garishly restored in hues of pink. Here then is not only a repository of emotion and devotion but one of history as well. The elderly members of the congregation spoke in hushed and reverent tones about how their icons were miraculously found, saved from monasteries about to be destroyed by the Ottomans, commissoned by wealthy forefathers or taken from Asia Minor Churches during the long trek to the west, and exile. Others, not knowing how their icons came to be in their family, clutched them lovingly and merely related how they had been a source of solace to them during the long and difficult years of their sojourn here.
What a story these time and ethnos-ravaged representations would have to tell. What was especially heartwarming as we proceeded around the church, icons in hand, a microcosmic litany of historic and religious continuity, was not only seeing that the Cypriot Commonwealth Games Athletes had joined us, seeking a blessing for their own efforts ahead and enthusiastically carrying the church icons, but also the considerable proportion of younger members of the congregation taking part. Holding their family icons in their arms and proceeding reverently with their grandparents’ hands on their shoulders, they walked past, one by one cradling an entire slice of their own personal heritage in their hands. And indeed how symbolic it is, to witness at the conclusion of such an ancient procession that others would discount as of marginal importance to the present age where form is so worshippd over substance, to see those same young persons, in whom the hopes and aspirations of the first generation for immortality reside, lovingly lift their remarkably enduring manifest heritage and hand it back to their rightful custodians, for the time being at least. Their turn shall come.

First published in NKEE on 20 March 2006