‘Iconodules,’ Brave Defenders of Sacred Images, are Needed Once More

How can a civilization of love be fostered by iconoclasm?

Pietà of Michelangelo
Pietà of Michelangelo (photo: Wikimedia Commons / Wikimedia Commons)

A new iconoclasm has erupted. The urge to tear down and smash images, the literal definition of iconoclasm, is currently extending into the destruction of Christian imagery. But in the time-honored iconography of Christianity, images exist for one reason only: because Jesus Christ, to whom “every knee should bend” (Philippians 2:10), is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). The Incarnation — the Son of God becoming man — was itself an image, that of the Second Person of the Trinity taking on human visage. “We have come to see Jesus,” some Greeks expressed to Philip (John 12:20-22). Later, Jesus insists to Philip, “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

In the exchange with Philip, there is more here than a particular group wanting to set eyes on the Messiah; it is the desire to gaze upon the human face of God. Veterans of World Youth Day 2005, in Cologne, might recall Pope Benedict XVI’s exhortation to those gathered to help their peers “rediscover the authentic face of God, who revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ.” While other motives may appear to be the reason for today’s destruction of sacred imagery, we need only look back in church history to see such action has a deeper objective; namely, a denial of God.


The Iconoclast Controversy

An explosive theological war over the question of religious images in the Byzantine Empire, the Iconoclast Controversy is now no longer relegated to the dusty pages of history. Byzantine Emperor Leo III, who saw venerating images as idolatrous, first banned the practice of such devotion in 730. But if it was Leo III who set the ban, it was Leo’s son, Constantine V, who violently put Leo’s edict into action, spearheading the smashing of images and the hunting down of “the venerators of icons,” known as iconodules. Glorious churches were destroyed, precious art and architecture forever crushed into smithereens. Prelates and faithful who refused to submit to the stripping were condemned and put to the sword.

After the death of Constantine V, his son Leo IV took a milder stance against iconoclasm, allowing for the return of exiled monks, for instance. But it was Leo’s wife, Empress Irene, who sustained the practice of venerating images in her secret devotions during the suppression. Following Leo’s death, the empress led the restoration of relics and icons in churches and re-established communion with Rome, which had condemned iconoclasm as a heresy. Eventually, in 843, the Iconoclast Controversy was settled, due in large part to another empress supporting images, Empress Theodora. The end of iconoclasm, known as the Triumph of Orthodoxy, is a feast celebrated on the first Sunday of Great Lent.

Pope Benedict XVI identified that the bottom line for the defense of images was nothing less than the Incarnation. In speaking of Saint Theodore the Studite, the pontiff remarked that this defender of images “realized that the issue of the veneration of icons was calling into question the truth of the Incarnation itself.” This is reflected centuries later as an aggressive sense of atheism, which by its definition rejects the Incarnation, hovers in our time.


An “Enlightened”  Revolution

A new iconoclasm exploded in Paris in 1789 in the French Revolution, an event that on both sides of the Atlantic was a welcomed embrace of democracy and Enlightenment. Yet this was also the same revolution that saw the public beheading of the French Catholic monarch, King Louis XVI, and his wife, Marie Antoinette. Churches, their reliquaries, and liturgical items were destroyed without a second thought. Archives and ancient treasures were forever discarded; dioceses and cathedrals were shuttered; monasteries, the lifeblood of France’s ardent faith, were plundered, property confiscated, and wiped from the map.

A “de-Christianization” permeated throughout France. At the center was nothing less than a wholesale suppression of Catholicism as it had been known since Charlemagne, and in many ways that goal was achieved. Priests were either forced to assent to the Civil Constitution that demanded religious men and women obey not Rome but the French state, or face certain death if found. This was known as Gallicanism, the idea that civil authority was preferable than the rule of the Pope.

The great Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris was reappropriated as a Temple of Reason. In the suppression of Christianity, the atheistic regime under Maximilian Robespierre and his Reign of Terror replaced the liturgy with their own type of worship, known as the Cult of the Supreme Being. Instead of worshipping the Holy Trinity, their gods were liberté, égalité, fraternité — the revolution motto, “liberty, equality, fraternity.” In Notre-Dame, as in other cathedrals, the “Goddess of Liberty” replaced images and statues of the Blessed Mother. Stunning high altars were dismantled. Feasts, festivals and homilies honoring “liberty” replaced the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and reflections on the Gospels. Those who kept the faith bided time underground, and when the storm of revolution inevitably passed, the faith remained in France. But it was never the same as before the revolution.

All this does not mean that aspects of the French church were entirely innocent in the time leading up to the Storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. We turn again to Pope Benedict, who called the spirit of the revolution a “false progressivism,” one that also affected Church clerics. “[A] bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain.” We also see mirrored in those heady days a rampant desire to erase and rewrite history, invariably one with no place for the God of Jesus Christ.


“Love will always be victorious”

In one of his few Angelus messages before his untimely death at age 65 in 1978, Pope John Paul I related a story about sixteen martyred Carmelites in the French Revolution. When the sisters learned they were to be condemned to death for the crime of “fanaticism,” one of them asked, “Your Honor, what does fanaticism mean?” The judge answered, “It is your foolish membership of religion.” To which the sister turned to the others and exclaimed, “Oh, sisters, did you hear, we are condemned for our attachment to faith. What happiness to die for Jesus Christ!”

Later, when at the guillotine, the condemned sisters sang “Veni, Creator Spiritus.” John Paul I tells us, “The song, however, became weaker and weaker, as the heads of the poor Sisters fell, one by one, under the guillotine.” He went on, “The Prioress, Sister Theresa of St. Augustine, was the last, and her last words were the following: ‘Love will always be victorious, love can do everything.’ That was the right word,” the pope concluded. “Not violence, but love, can do everything.”

Once again, the barque of Saint Peter finds itself in stormy weather. Yet again and again we are given hopeful signs that God’s revolution is one of peace, of conversion. How can a civilization of love be fostered by iconoclasm, of image smashing? Brave iconodules, courageous defenders of the veneration of sacred images, are again summoned. In these last few years we have seen regular attempts to trample and obscure the outlook of faith throughout the world, such as the beheadings of the 21 Coptic Christians at the hands of ISIL in 2015 or the slaying of Fr. Jacques Hamel in France in 2016, to name only two horrific examples. Yet such martyrs follow the witness of countless throughout the history of the Church, like the 16 Carmelites, punished to death by oppressive regimes who want nothing more than eradication of the faith. How can one completely rule over hearts and minds knowing some owe their whole being to a king “not of this world” (John 18:36)?


Mary, the Great Iconodule

No sooner does Mary learn of her role in salvation history at the Annunciation than she expresses, “My soul magnifies the Lord” (Luke 1:46). Here it is clear that her very self, her own soul, was a window to God. Indeed, an icon’s original purpose was to be a “window to the divine.” The Blessed Mother is thus the great iconodule, the greatest patroness of sacred images, because it was through her the Incarnation became a living, breathing reality. That Saint Luke, chronicler of Jesus’s infancy narratives, is traditionally credited as the first painter of icons accentuates this motif.

In this way, we see how the Virgin populates sacred art throughout history, both in pietà — the mourning, collapsing Mother of God — to the plethora of Madonna with Child portraits and depictions, like Our Lady of Częstochowa, the Black Madonna, or the Virgin of Montserrat. At times, Our Lady, after whom nearly every great Gothic cathedral is named, is depicted in the way she appeared in apparitions, as in Our Lady of La Vang, dressed in the áo dài, the traditional Vietnamese dress, to her mestizo-complexion as the Virgin of Guadalupe. She whose soul magnified the Lord appears throughout the world uniting diverse people and cultures. To heal a world at war with itself, the Prince of Peace sends his mother as his ambassador of peace, to inspire a new generation of iconodules who will preserve their venerable Catholic heritage instead of ousting it.

Amid the chaos, we are reminded of the Virgin’s gentle command to Saint Juan Diego: “Now my dearest son, you have heard my breath, my word; go now and put forth your best effort.”

James Day is the Operations Manager at EWTN in Orange County, California.