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Remembering the Fathers of Nicaea II

In the Greek tradition of the Orthodox Church, the Sunday that falls on or after the 11th of October, is dedicated to the 7th Ecumenical Council. This Council, also known as Nicaea II, was convened in 787 under Patriarch Tarasius, during the reign of the Empress Irene and her son, Constantine Porphyrogenitus. The Council addressed the Iconoclast Controversy.

There were two phases of Iconoclasm. The first phase began around 726 and lasted until 787 when the Council convened. Between 726-729, Emperor Leo III (Isaurian) issued a series of edicts against the veneration of icons. Throughout the Byzantine Empire, icons were being removed from churches and other buildings.

The controversy was over the veneration of icons. Those who believed it was a form of idolatry and a violation of the 2nd Commandment (Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image) were known as the Iconoclasts (Εικονομάχοι) which means icon-fighters. Those in favor of the veneration of icons were known as the Iconodules (Εικονοδούλοι), friends of icons. 

Many believed that Iconoclasm originated from paganism or the rise of Islam.  The Council of Hieria in 754, held by the Emperor Constantine V (Copronymus), banned the veneration of icons. However, this was not an Ecumenical Council since it lacked representation from the five major Patriarchates. So, the controversy continued until Nicaea II was convened in 787. 

At Nicaea II, it was affirmed that icons are very important because they connect us to the person or event they portray. We do not worship icons, worship (λατρεία) is to God alone. Instead, we venerate (προσκυνούμεν) icons, as well as the Theotokos and all the Saints. The Council had seven sessions and at the last one, the Council issued a declaration of faith concerning the veneration of holy images:

We define that the holy icons, whether in color, mosaic, or some other material, should be exhibited in the holy churches of God, on the sacred vessels and liturgical vestments, on the walls, furnishings, and in houses and along the roads, namely the icons of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, that of our Lady the Theotokos, those of the venerable angels and those of all saintly people. Whenever these representations are contemplated, they will cause those who look at them to commemorate and love their prototype. We define also that they should be kissed and that they are an object of veneration and honor, but not of real worship, which is reserved for Him Who is the subject of our faith and is proper for the divine nature, ... which is in effect transmitted to the prototype; he who venerates the icon, venerated in it the reality for which it stands.

Icons are two-dimensional images, serving as a window into Heaven. It was Christ's Incarnation, taking on flesh which makes the veneration of icons possible. Christ, the Divine Logos took on flesh, a material substance in order to dwell among us and for us to see Him face to face. 

The very first icon was the Icon made without hands (Αχειροποίητος). This was a towel or sheet that had the imprint of Christ's face on it. We celebrate this Icon on August 16th.  So, by way of a material substance, flesh, Christ communicated with us. Likewise, through the material substances of the icon, wood and paint, we can communicate with Him.

The Iconoclasts had it wrong that icons were a violation of the Second Commandment. Christ told us: do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill (Mt 5:17). Christ fulfills the Mosaic Law in His Incarnation and it is by His Incarnation that we are given the blessing to venerate icons.

Icons represent those who gave their life for the True Faith, from the prophets to contemporary saints. The icons that cover the walls of Orthodox Churches are not for decoration but rather a reminder that we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses (Heb 12:1).

Although Nicaea II condemned Iconoclasm as a heresy, the controversy was halted only temporarily. The second phase of Iconoclasm commenced in 815 when the veneration of icons was once again banned, this time by Emperor Leo V. 

The second phase of Iconoclasm would last until 843 AD when the Emperor Theodosius who was an Iconoclast died. His wife Theodora, however, supported the veneration of icons and collaborated with Patriarch Methodius to convene a council. This became known as the Synod of Constantinople which restored all the holy icons and officially ended Iconoclasm. 

On March 11, 843 which was the 1st Sunday of Great Lent that year, there was a procession with all the clergy and lay people. At the end of the first session of the Synod, they triumphantly marched from the Church of Blachernae to Άγια Σοφία, restoring the holy icons to the Church. It became a tradition thereafter which is held to this day to commemorate this astonishing event annually on the 1st Sunday of Great Lent. It is called the Restoration (Αναστήλωση) of the Holy Icons.

Nicaea II is the 7th and last Ecumenical Council to date. It is somewhat intriguing that what was established at Nicaea I over four hundred years prior would be decisive at Nicaea II in 787. It was at the 1st Ecumenical Council in 325 that the doctrine of the Incarnation of Christ was instituted. Saint Athanasius was the champion at this 1st Council with his treatise On the Incarnation. He said: God became man so that man might become God. All the seven Councils addressed who and what Christ is. The last occurred where the first was, to signify what was already established is being reaffirmed.  

The all-compassionate God, ever desiring to arouse us to a perfect remembrance of His incarnation, delivered this principle to humanity to depict the venerable figure by the painting of icons, that beholding this figure with our sight, we may believe what we have heard in word, clearly recognizing the acts and the names, the appearance and the struggles of holy men and Christ, the giver of laurels, who bestows crowns upon His holy athletes and martyrs, through whom the Church, now more manifestly holding the true Faith, salutes the image of Christ’s incarnation (Festal Oikos of Matins). 

May we all seek the intercessions before the Lord of these great Holy Fathers!

-John Athanasatos 

A graduate of Long Island University, College of Pharmacy, and Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, John works to share the richness and beauty of the Orthodox Faith with the wider community.

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