Every now and again critics have accused Christians of “idol-worship” because they venerate sacred statues and pictures. At first glance, those who criticize seem to have a point. Does not the First Commandment say, “You shall not carve idols for yourself. You shall not bow down before them or worship them.” (Exodus, 20:4,5)? Yet you and I hold images of Jesus, the saints, the cross, etc. in traditional reverence.
There will always be a possibility that some Christians, in using sacred images, will fall into idolatrous notions, or at least superstitious ones. In the earliest centuries of Christianity, Church leaders were careful not to emphasize image use for this reason. But as the ancient world became more Christian, the danger lessened. Even the Old Testament did not totally forbid images, nor did Jesus renew, in the New Testament, the strict condemnations of the Old Law. By the fourth and fifth centuries, Christians were already accustomed to using images for illustrative purposes (the cross, Scripture scenes, for instance, in the wall decorations of churches and the catacombs). They were also beginning to use images for veneration (praying before them, surrounding them with lights, etc.). It was the eighth-century heresy called iconoclasm (“destruction of ikons”) that brought forth a defense of Christian image use. St. Joannicius, as we shall see, was a symbolic figure in this strange controversy.
By the eighth century, especially in Asia Minor, there were people, especially in the Mideast, who still criticized this image devotion. Jews, Muslims, and some Christian heretics were among them. Emperor Leo the Isaurian, though a Christian, took a strong dislike to images, for puzzling reasons; and in 726 issued an edict forbidding their use. Because of the decree, there was an international reaction against him, but he stuck by his meddlesome decision even though it produced armed revolts.
Meanwhile, the monk St. John of Damascus replied with three treatises explaining why it is permissible to venerate images. Praising them as tools for instruction, as reminders of holy things, and as incentives to holy deeds, he pointed out that in venerating an image, we do not adore it; in its presence we simply address the person it represents.
Emperor Leo died in 740. His son Constantine V wickedly picked up the tyrannous battle for iconoclasm, and convoked a phony church council at Hieria in 753, which completely outlawed the use of images. He was even bent on abolishing the veneration of relics and the invocation of Our Lady and the saints.
The job of enforcing his decrees was put into the harsh hands of his soldiers. Thus, several Christians who upheld the true doctrine were martyred. The ikon war lasted until 842. But the official answer of the church came under Empress Irene. In 787 she summoned the Second Ecumenical Council of Nicaea. Representing the pope and all the bishops East and West, this council defended the use of images, and said that the honor we pay to them and relics is not idolatrous, but passes over to the holy person whom they represent or symbolize. These decrees became the Magna Carta of Christian art.
Now for St. Joannicius: an iconoclast and sinner who turned saint. A native of Asia Minor, he joined the army of Emperor Constantine V, became a rowdy, and played his part as a soldier in violently imposing iconoclasm. But finally he met a holy monk who instructed him in correct Catholic belief and won him back to decent behavior. When this soldier left the army at 40, he became a hermit noted for strict life, wise counsel, miracles and prophecies. Joannicius eventually joined a monastery at Eraste. Eastern monks were in the vanguard of those who fought iconoclasm; and our saint, who had once upheld it, defended orthodoxy staunchly against the iconoclastic Emperor Leo V. He likewise strongly rebuked Emperor Theophilus, who had ordered that the word “holy” no longer be used of saints. Eventually, as Joannicius had foretold, the widow of Theophilus, Empress Theodora, restored images to the Church. Sacred images thus retain to this day their just position in both Eastern and Western orthodox Christianity.
St. Joannicius died at 92. In later years he had more than made up for his false doctrines and evil ways. Let us thank him for helping us to retain those holy images that lift up our hearts to holy things.
–Father Robert F. McNamara