One of the Byzantine Emperor Leo III the Isaurian’s lasting legacies was his imperial policy of iconoclasm or the rejection and destruction of religious icons—a policy that became so controversial it later earned him a threat of excommunication from the Pope and some violent riots in Byzantine cities. This was later restored by the Second Council of Nicaea during 787 AD according to the Bible Timeline with World History.
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Emperor Leo III instituted iconoclasm because of three primary reasons:
- He was familiar with the second commandment laid out in the Old Testament which forbade the worship of images. Perhaps he was also influenced by Islam’s prohibition of the worship of images since he grew up in a region with a sizable Muslim population.
- The inhabitants of Constantinople credited the Virgin Mary (or particularly, her icon) as the one who helped repel the Arabs during the Siege of Constantinople.
- Leo took the earthquake that occurred near the island of Thera as a sign that God was angry with him and his people for their worship of icons, so he commanded his soldiers to remove the icons in his domain.
The Second Council of Nicaea
His son and successor, Constantine V, followed in his father’s footsteps and punished those who continued to worship icons. When Constantine died, his last wife and empress consort Irene of Athens stepped in to served as regent for her young stepson Leo IV. Constantinople still seethed from the iconoclastic controversy during her reign. In 786 she assembled a council in the city to settle the argument once and for all. But then a group of iconoclastic soldiers broke the council up, so she was forced to assemble the meeting in 787 in the city of Nicaea.
Up to 300 bishops and high-ranking clergymen attended the Second Council of Nicaea (the Pope sent his own representatives or legates). They met in eight sessions for more than one month. The council clearly drew the line between what was allowed and what was not when dealing with religious images. Pictorial representations of God, Jesus, the Virgin, and saints were allowed. However, these images should only be venerated, not honored with adoration, which was reserved only for God. The council also condemned the iconoclasts and issued twenty-two canons which the Frankish Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne rejected (he then convoked his own Synod of Frankfurt in 794). The Byzantine emperors who succeeded Irene continued the policy of iconoclasm despite the ruling of the Second Council of Nicaea.
Picture By ByzantineEmpire717+extrainfo+themes.PNG: User:Amonixinatorderivative work: Hoodinski (talk) – ByzantineEmpire717+extrainfo+themes.PNG, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17633268
Douglas, J. D., and Earle E. Cairns, eds. The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub., 1974.
“General Audience of 29 April 2009: Germanus of Constantinople | BENEDICT XVI.” The Holy See. Accessed September 21, 2016. https://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/audiences/2009/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20090429.html.
Noble, Thomas F. X., and Julia M.H. Smith, eds. The Cambridge History of Christianity. Early Medieval Christianities, C. 600 – C. 1100. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008.
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