By Amir Webb
24 December 2016
We tend to view religion as a set of ideas
that have been set in stone and are both everlasting and never changing. With
this, nothing has been more lasting than the use of icons in Christianity, such
as the use of stained glass windows that create colourful lights that splash
across church walls, or the carvings of Jesus nailed to the cross, gazing in to
the sky, seemingly in search of answers. This has not always been the case as
Christendom has gone through periods of fierce iconoclasm.
The blue eyed, straight haired image of
Jesus was once looked upon as being inherently against Christian values. In
fact, all images were at one point seen as being against Christian values.
During the fourth session of the Nicaean Council, a letter from Patriarch
Germanos to John, Bishop of Synnada was read out loud. In the letter, John
expressed that the use of iconography, in his opinion, was a form of idolatry.
 The ideals behind the iconoclasm ideology comes from the Bible, “But the
hour cometh and now is when the true worshipers shall worship the Gather in
spirit and in truth.” (John 4:23)
There was doubt surrounding how Jesus
looked, thus any representation of Jesus had the strong chance of being false.
Placing incorrect pictures of Jesus in churches was a direct violation in the
views of many church fathers. An even more clear cut damnation of idols comes
from the Ten Commandments and the warning of creating “graven images” in God’s
name. Spiritual worship rejected all forms of material aids including shrines,
altars, and sacrificial victims. The Monophysite sect, which would later be
declared a heretical movement, objected to all images and went as far to reject
the depiction of angels as well. 
The use of icons, especially the portrayal
of Jesus as a human, was insisted to be good practice at the Council of Trullo
in 692.  Pictures were a good method for those who could not read to
understand gospels and scripture; icons simply became an educational tool for
those who were not taught the gospels through conventional means or a formal
education. Despite the love and usefulness of these icons, the Byzantine Empire
went through two phases of iconoclasm,
in the years of 730-787 and 815-843. 
Constantine V, who ruled from the 741-45, preached an iconoclasm that
moved away from the veneration of painted wood. The only image of Christ was
the Eucharist and the most sacred symbol was the cross. 
The military success of Constantine V meant
that he left his son, Leo IV, a vastly stronger empire upon his death in
775. Forty years of iconoclastic policy
under Leo IV ended upon his death and his teenage son, Constantine VI took the
throne. There was one issue: Leo IV’s wife, Irene, was the protector of
Constantine VI and was pro-icons. She would later call an Ecumenical Council
meeting and invite all of the iconophiles that lived in exile under her late
husband and his father’s reign. After the first meeting was broken up by
iconoclastic bishops, they met again in Nicaea in 787 to come to the conclusion
that images can be used in worship, even if worship is reserved for God alone.
 Irene would call for all iconoclastic texts to be destroyed and when her
son tried to rule on his own, she had him blinded. She would be the sole ruler
of the Empire as icons took their place in Christianity.
It is important to understand Leo III and
his anti-icon position and the nuances in the situation: Leo III and Yazid II,
the Umayyad Caliph, both had iconoclastic policies at the same time. Although
many sects in Islam have an anti-icon position, Christians living under Islamic
rule were left alone in terms of iconography; Muslim clerics and rulers during
this time had more issues with the crucifix than with the cross itself as the
cross simply allowed for one to be identified as a Christian. This could come
with various ideologies which Islam may reject, but tolerate, from a
theological stand point.
For example, Arian Christians who did not
believe in the Trinity would still use the cross as a symbol of the Christian
faith. The crucifix, namely the image of Jesus being crucified, is a concept
that Muslims object to with no ambiguity on what the symbol stood for. Leo III
would not need Islam to form a position on iconoclasm, but it is interesting
that both enacted the policy at the same time.
Theophanes, a historian, called Leo II,
“Saracen minded,” or thinking like a Muslim, regarding the use of icons in 725.
 Yazid would go further than his cousin and predecessor, Umar Abd al- Aziz,
in terms of iconoclasm. What we do know is that Umar and Leo were in
correspondence and did in fact; discuss the imagery of the cross. Leo says that
while the cross is a symbol of honour and respect, lesser respect is shown to
pictures. Umar himself did not destroy crosses, but would order that they be
removed from public display in such places like Damascus. 
The public banning of crosses should not be
seen as an Islamic tradition but as an Umayyad policy, which under Yazid II
went a step further to the actual destruction of crosses.
What Does All Of This Mean?
For me, the pictures of a white Jesus with
straight hair and blue eyes, the Jesus that most people are familiar with, was
not always revered and worshipped. Furthermore, I believe that theology is just
as much political as it is spiritual. What we think as “always was” is in fact
as a struggle that impacted both the Islamic and Christian worlds.
 G.E von Grunebaum, Byzantine and the
Influence of the Islamic Environment, (Chicago, University of Chicago, 1962),
 Gruenbaum, Byzantine and the
Influence of Islamic Environment, p. 5
 Judith Herrin, Byzantium: The Surprising
Life of a Medevil Empire, (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 105
 Herrin, Byzantium, p. 106
 Herrin, Byzantium, p. 109
 Herrin, Byzantium, p. 111
 Grunebaum, Byzantine Iconoclasm, p.
 G.R.D. King, Islam, Iconoclasm, and
the Declaration of Doctrine, (London, University of London, 1885), p. 269