Many early Christian martyrs were executed by pagan emperors because they refused to offer sacrifice to pagan “gods”. In the eighth century certain Christian emperors executed other Christians for even venerating images of Christ and the saints. What brought about this topsy-turvy persecution? It was the heresy called iconoclasm.
Iconoclasm means “imagebreaking”. Although early Christians knew that the first commandment had forbidden the false worship of “graven images,” they found that images of Christ and the saints were very helpful in reminding us of heaven. So long, therefore, that they did not give to such images or icons the type of adoration due to God himself, they generally agreed that honor paid to holy images was praiseworthy.
In the eighth century, however, there was in the Eastern Roman Empire a movement rejecting the Christian use of sacred images. Emperor Leo III and some of his successors, as well as some Eastern bishops, launched a movement to stamp out the already traditional Christian practice. This they did despite the disapproval voiced by the Church outside the East. During the struggle that ensued, iconoclastic decrees were issued and enforced by persecution, even to the point of executing some defenders of icons.
Whatever prompted this string of emperors to turn back the clock? Historians are not at all agreed. What does seem true is that the rulers were motivated more by political and administrative than by theological considerations. There were, for instances, many Jews and Muslims in the Eastern Empire, and both of these influential religious bodies were traditionally opposed to the use of religious images. There were also certain Mideast sects that were opposed to all religious depictions. It is probably significant that these sects were strongest in those parts of Asia Minor that sent most recruits to the imperial army.
We are going to tell the story of one of the victims of this persecution, hence the necessarily long introduction. His name was Stephen the Younger, and he was born in Byzantium (Constantinople) early in the eighth century.
When Stephen was 15, his father (Stephen the Older?) sent him to a monastery in the district, presumably for schooling. While he lived there, the youth was assigned the community task of fetching the monks’ daily foodstuffs.
Before long, however, young Stephen was convinced that he himself was called to be a monk. After the death of his father, therefore, he returned to Constantinople, sold his portion of the family estate and gave the price to the poor. Then he and his mother and an unmarried sister set out for a certain monastic foundation in the nearby province of Bithynia. Apparently the monks there knew of his plans, and were ready to make arrangements for not only the new candidate but his kin.
The Bithynian monastery was very primitive. Its monks occupied a number of small cells scattered along the flank of a mountain. The Abbot, named John, presided from a cave on the top of the mountain. Here Stephen was inducted into monastic routine of prayer and manual labor. The manual tasks assigned to the newcomer were making nets and copying manuscripts.
Stephen was a quick and earnest learner. As a matter of fact, when Abbot John died not long afterward, the monks chose him as their new abbot, although he was only 30 years old. Stephen held the position for 21 years.
Then he resigned in order to live apart as a hermit.
Iconclasm had lifted its ugly head around 725. Emperor Constantine V Copronymus (741-775) promoted the destruction of sacred images with great vigor, and sought especially to convert monks to his way of thinking. He harassed Stephen in particular; and when Stephen stood his ground, he sent him into exile on the Island of Proconnesus in the Sea of Marmara, meanwhile launching a campaign to defame the venerable hermit.
After two years, the tenacious ruler had the monk transferred to a prison in Constantinople. Still intent on breaking Stephen’s will, he had him brought into the imperial presence. He asked him this question: “Does a person who tramples on an image of Christ trample on Christ himself?” Of course not, Stephen replied. But then he drew out a coin bearing the image of Copronymus. “How should a person be treated who trampled on this image?” Constantine, furious at the thought, showed that he considered such an action criminal. “Well, then,” the monk replied, “if treading under foot the imperial image is such a crime, would not the treading under foot of the image of Christ be criminal, too?”
For that reply, Constantine ordered that Stephen be scourged. Such was his fury that he seems actually to have hoped the beating would be fatal. When Stephen survived, Copronymus was heard to say, “Won’t anybody rid me of this monk?”
Some of those who heard the ruler took him at his word. They sought out Stephen at once, and dragged him through the city by his feet. Then a mob gathered around the monk, pelted him with stones, and finally beat him to death with clubs.
In 787, 23 years after the lynching of St. Stephen the Younger, and in an era in which the Church was freer to counter the political heresy of image-breaking, the Second Ecumenical Council of Nicaea assembled in that eastern city. In this ecumenical council, the gathered Fathers issued a dogmatic definition on the whole issue.
They agreed that it was sinful to give to any religious image the direct adoration that was due only to God. But it was permissible, they said, to venerate such images of Christ and the saints, and indeed, very helpful to do so, in that such images reminded the Christian of those depicted, and prayers addressed to them passed on to the heavenly persons themselves. This official definition has been called the “magna carta” of Christian art, in that it contains the doctrinal foundation on which all the glories of Christian art are based.
St. Stephen the Younger had died defending this legitimate and fruitful Christian practice. It can be said, in fact, that every statue or painting in our churches, and every medal we wear or rosary we recite, owes a debt to his blood.
–Father Robert F. McNamara