The Holy See Search




1. Introduction

For Christmas 2004, the Vatican Press has offered us a splendid three-volume edition of the Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea:  Atti del Concilio Niceno Secondo Ecumenico Settimo.  I heartily congratulate the Press for issuing this important publication, which not only advances our historical and theological knowledge of the proceedings of this Ecumenical Council, but also provides deeper insight into one particular aspect of Christian worship, namely, the veneration of icons.

I also congratulate Fr. Piergiorgio M. Di Domenico, OSM., both for his translation of the Acts from the original Greek and for his interesting introduction, which presents the complex subject of the veneration of icons with great rigor and clarity.

I also thank Mgr Crispino Valenziano, who urged the publication of the Acts of the Council with such enthusiasm and such tenacity; without him, we would not have benefitted from this work today.

It is surprising that until now the Acts of the Seventh Ecumenical Council were not available in a complete edition in a modern language.  This Council, which made important decisions in a number of areas – religious, artistic, political – is still of great interest after thirteen centuries, and not only for historical reasons; these pages are quite significant for the life of the Church today.  The Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, in 1987, writing on the occasion of the twelfth centenary of the Council, recalled “the theological importance and the ecumenical significance of the seventh and last Council fully recognised by both the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. The doctrine defined by this Council concerning the lawfulness of the veneration of icons also merits special attention, not only for the wealth of its spiritual implications, but also for the demands that it imposes on the whole of sacred art” (Apostolic Letter Duodecimum Saeculum, No. 1).

With regard to the ecumenical significance of the Council, the Holy Father states that “the importance given by Nicaea II to the argument of tradition, and more specifically the unwritten tradition, constitutes for us Catholics, as well as for our Orthodox brethren, an invitation to travel again together the road of the undivided Church and in her light to re-examine the differences between us that the centuries of separation have accentuated, in order to rediscover that for which Jesus prayed to the Father, full communion in visible unity.” (ibid.).

Nicaea II is even more timely today, because of the renewed interest in the West for the theology and spirituality of icons and, more generally, of the importance of non-verbal language in the Liturgy.  In a world in which images are everywhere present, in the icon the Christian contemplates the face of Christ, true image of the Father (cfr Col 1:15) and the face of the Saints, who let themselves be transfigured in the image and likeness of Jesus Christ through the working of the Spirit. Unfortunately, icons have occasionally been reduced to objects of commerce, as Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios I has stated with deep regret (Encyclical for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, 15 September 1987, Nos. 31-32).

In a word, Nicaea II is important because it transmits the heritage of the Christian tradition in the theological, artistic and liturgical spheres.  To speak of the veneration of icons is to speak of prayer, and liturgical prayer in particular; consequently, it is to speak about “being in the presence of the Lord,” that we ourselves might be transformed into living icons.


2. The iconoclast crisis

The Second Council of Nicaea marked the end of a long process of reflection on the meaning and place of images in the life of the Church.

Before the beginning of the third century, there were few images in the Church.  This was due to the danger of idolatrous practices widespread in the pagan world, which had already been at the basis of the Old Testament legislation forbidding the fashioning of images.

The peace of the Church at the time of Constantine had decisive consequences. As the number of baptised Christians increased, exterior signs of Christian devotion multiplied, the cult of the martyrs grew, people began to make pilgrimages, and everywhere new churches and basilicas were built. Christian art ceased to be mainly funeral iconography, unintelligible to the uninitiated, and was used to further the evangelisation of the growing numbers of Christians.

In the fourth century, for the first time in the history of the Church, voices were raised in opposition to religious images on the basis of the prohibitions contained in the Old Testament (cfr Ex 20:4; Dt 4:15-18).  Canon 36 of the Council of Elvira, (ca. 300 AD.), a Council of which we know relatively little, decreed that “images may not be exposed in Church;” while iconoclast statements are found in the letter from Eusebius of Caesarea to the Empress Constantia and the writings of Epiphanius of Salamis.  According to scholars, this first form of aversion to icons was a limited and restricted phenomenon, perhaps somewhat coloured by Arianism; there would seem to be a connection between the Arian insistence on God’s transcendence and the banning of images.  However iconoclast views persisted as the centuries passed, and so other voices were raised in defence of icons.  Gregory the Great (540-604) wrote that “it is not without reason that in the older Churches the lives of the saints were depicted in paintings... what Scripture is for the literate, so the image is for the illiterate... images are the books of those who do not know the Scriptures” (Letters, IX, 209).

The use of icons became more widespread in the sixth and seventh centuries, encouraged by popular faith, legends and miracles.  Yet it did not spread evenly throughout Christendom; because of their cultural background, the Syrians and Armenians, for example, were much less inclined to use images.  Significant, the emperors who encouraged iconoclasm were of Isaurian or Armenian origin.  In 692 the Council in Trullo stated that: “in certain sacred images the Precursor is portrayed pointing to the lamb. This portrayal was used as a symbol of grace. It was a hidden figure of the true lamb, that is Christ our God, revealed to us according to the law. Having therefore accepted these figures and shadows as symbols of the truth handed down by the Church, today we prefer grace and truth themselves as the fullness of this law.  Therefore to expose by means of painting that which is perfect we decree that henceforth Christ, our God, shall be represented in his human form and not in the old form of the lamb” (Can 82).  Already for the Fathers of the Council in Trullo, the image of Christ implied a confession of profound faith in the incarnation.

One factor which contributed to a hardening of positions for or against the use of icons was the advance of Islam, which claimed to be the highest and purest revelation of God, and accused the Church of polytheism and idolatry in her veneration of images.  The eighth century saw the rise of heated disputes. The opening act of the first stage of the iconoclast conflict was an order, issued in 726 by the Byzantine emperor Leo III ‘the Isaurian,’ to destroy the image of Christ over the bronze gates of the imperial palace in Constantinople; the image was replaced with a cross beneath which the emperor placed the following inscription: “Since God cannot bear for Christ to be portrayed in an image without word or life and made of corruptible matter despised by Scripture, Leo and his son the new Constantine, engraved the sign of the cross, the glory of believers, on the palace gates.”  That act was followed by the official promulgation of measures against images and their veneration, as well as by acts of violence directed against icons and those who venerated them.  It should be recalled that these iconoclastic measures begun by Leo III came only a few years after the edict of Caliph Yedzid II to destroy images in every Christian province he conquered and attacks on Christian worship by Jews.  The emperor sought a cultural compromise aimed at enabling Arabs, Christians and Jews to live in harmony by eliminating elements of conflict.  Reasons of state were more important than the rights of the faith.  Pope Gregory III reacted in 731 by excommunicating those opposed to icons and their cult.  In the East it was mainly Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople, George of Cyprus and John Damascene who defended the veneration of icons.  Germanus stated that to reject icons was to reject the Incarnation; for in the icon “we depict the image of [Christ’s] human aspect in the flesh, not that of his incomprehensible and invisible divinity, because we feel the need to represent that in which we believe, in order to demonstrate that God did not embrace our nature only in appearance, as a shadow, but that he became truly man” (Letter to John of Synnada).  John Damascene fought the iconoclasts at various levels.  He countered the accusation that in icons a piece of wood was adored, saying: “It is not matter which I venerate, but rather the Creator of matter who became matter for me” (Discourses, I, 16), and added that icons are “the books of the illiterate” (Discourses, II, 10).  However the most important argument was theological; the dogmatic foundation for the cult of icons is the Incarnation.  The Word became flesh: Jesus is the human face of God and therefore we may represent Him (Discourses, I, 22).  The Old Testament forbade images; in the Old Covenant God had revealed himself only by word.  In the New Testament, the Word becomes an image.  Psalm 47:9 was often used to defend icons: “What we have heard, we have seen.”  John Damascene makes a clear distinction between the icon and the prototype which it represents.  The image is the object of veneration, not adoration; the latter is reserved for God alone.

In 754 a Synod convoked at Hieria on the Bosporus at the initiative of the emperor Constantine V gave normative status to the decisions of the iconoclasts.  About 388 Bishops took part, but none from the Sees of Rome, Alexandria, Antioch or Jerusalem. The Synod declared the emperors equal to the Apostles, filled with wisdom through the working of the Holy Spirit, and charged them with leading the faithful back to the right path and instructing them; it also condemned the making and the cult of icons.  It insisted on the distance between the icon, a material object, and that which it claimed to make visible.  It considered the Eucharist the only true image.  In this way, iconoclasm, hitherto supported by an imperial edict alone, became a dogma of the whole Church.

In the two decades that followed, the monks, the chief promoters of icons, were violently persecuted; numerous monasteries were confiscated, their monks were forced to join the imperial army, and some were tortured.  In 769 Pope Stephen convoked a Synod at the Lateran which anathematised the Synod at Hieria; the Patriarchs of the East, Theodore of Jerusalem, Theodore of Antioch and Cosmas of Alexandria also rejected the decisions made at Hieria.


3. The Second Council of Nicaea

With the coming to the imperial throne of the Empress Irene, a fervent supporter of the cult of images, the iconoclast crisis reached a turning point.  The Empress decided to convoke a Council and Pope Hadrian I gave his approval.  After a difficult beginning, due to sabotage attempts on the part of the iconoclast faction, the assembly of Bishops gathered in Nicaea in 787.  First, they defined the basic criteria for establishing the ecumenical nature of a Council.  These criteria are of great interest because it was the only time that a Council decided to define the conditions necessary for a synodal  assembly to be considered ecumenical.  A Council, to be considered ecumenical, would have to include the participation of the Pope and the four Apostolic Patriarchates, or at least that of their respective representatives; it would have to profess a doctrine consistent with that of previous ecumenical Councils; it would have to be acknowledged by the faithful. On the basis of these criteria the ecumenical nature of the Synod held in Hieria in 754 was denied and its decisions were annulled; the veneration of images was declared legitimate and twenty-two disciplinary canons were approved, including canons forbidding the interference of secular rulers in the election of bishops and the participation of Bishops in commercial activity and establishing the obligation of convoking an annual diocesan Synod.  These norms were destined to exert considerable influence on medieval Church legislation.

The Council’s doctrine on images was defined during the sixth session.  The definition was as follows: “Stepping out as though on the royal highway, following as we are the God-spoken teaching of our holy Fathers and the tradition of the Catholic Church -  for we recognise that this tradition comes from the Holy Spirit who dwells in her, we decree with full precision and care that, like the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, the revered and holy images, whether painted or made of mosaic or of other suitable material, are to be exposed in the holy Churches of God, on sacred instruments and vestments, on walls and panels, in houses and by public ways; these are the images of our Lord, God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, and of our Lady without blemish, the holy God-bearer, and of the revered angels and of any of the saintly holy men.  The more frequently they are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as their models, and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration.  Certainly this is not the full adoration (latria) which, in accordance with our faith, is properly paid only to the divine nature, but it resembles that given to the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, and also to the holy books of the gospels and to other sacred cult objects.  Further, people are drawn to honour these images with the offering of incense and lights, as was piously established by ancient custom.  Indeed, the honour paid to an image traverses it, reaching the model, and he who venerates the image, venerates the person represented in that image” (Second Council of Nicaea, Definition).

Despite the solemn declarations of the Council of Nicaea the iconoclast conflict was not settled.  The ecumenical nature of the Council itself was denied, in the West by Charlemagne at the Synod of Frankfurt in 794; while in the East Emperor Leo V (813-820) inaugurated the second stage of the iconoclast struggle and persecution of those who venerated icons.  It was only in March 843 that a Synod convoked by the Empress Theodora and the Patriarch of Constantinople Methodius reintroduced definitively the cult of images and in commemoration of this event instituted the “Feast of Orthodoxy,” still celebrated in the Church of the East on the first Sunday of Lent.  The feast celebrates the triumph of the veneration of images and the definitive confirmation of the Christology developed in the first six ecumenical Councils, the doctrine which underlies the veneration of icons.


4. Icons in theology and in the liturgy

United in the same tradition, the East and the West joined in rising up against those who suppressed the cult of images, since in the rejection of icons they saw the rejection of the mystery of the Incarnation itself.  By defending the image of God made man, the Council of Nicaea also sought to defend the divine image present in the human person.  In addition to the icon of Christ there are icons of the saints, those who, according to the spirituality of the East, reflect the image of God and in synergy with the Holy Spirit take on the likeness of Christ.  The saints are those “greatest in likeness;” they are living icons, transparent witnesses of the presence of the Kingdom on this earth.  “It is symptomatic” – writes Pavel Evdokimov – “that iconoclasm, at its height, struck out at once against icons, the monastic life, the cult of the saints and the divine maternity of the Theotokos (La teologia della bellezza, trans. G. Vetralla, Rome, 1971, p. 196).  “It is not against icons that you are fighting, but against the saints,” wrote John Damascene to the Emperor Leo III (Discourses on Images, II, 10).  And Nicaea II states that “through both the contemplation of Scripture and the representation of icons¼ we call to mind all the prototypes and are introduced into their presence.”  To contemplate an icon is not an matter of aesthetics, but rather a spiritual event. The icon represents a call to conversion, an invitation to consent to the process of transfiguration to which Paul refers in II Corinthians 3:18: “All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit.”

The iconoclast controversy concluded with an official Church teaching on images.  The icon found a place in the homes of the faithful; even today the sacred image, before which a small lamp burns, watches from on high over those who live in the house.  Rules were laid down for the liturgical use of images; an icon of a saint could never be placed at the same rank as an icon of Christ or the Blessed Virgin Mary; only the saint to whom the Church was dedicated was entitled to a special place.  The ancient sanctuary screen which separated the altar from the rest of the Church was filled with icons after Nicaea II, and gradually was transformed into the present-day iconostasis.  The custom of setting the icon of the feast of the day on a pulpit for the veneration of the faithful was adopted, and is still in use today. From the seventh century onwards we have testimony of the custom of kissing icons; once the iconoclast crisis was settled, the kissing of icons was gradually introduced in the liturgy as well.

But even the actual “writing” of icons – graphein in Greek means both writing and painting – was regulated by conciliar canons.  The Church keeps watch over the authenticity of her iconography, which is the creation of a spiritual work accompanied by prayer and ascetic self-discipline, not simply the creation of a work of art.  The “different” use of perspective, size, the proportions of bodies, buildings and objects, the symbolism of colours, the gilded background and skilful play of light and shadow all make the icon a window onto the world of the Divine.  The icon of a saint is never a portrait; its purpose is to propose for contemplation by the faithful “the hidden person of the heart” (1 Pet 3:4), the image of God concealed in the depths of their being which the Saints reveal in their lives.

However the icon is not the exclusive patrimony of the Churches of the East.  In Rome from quite early times there existed an icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary, painted according to legend by Saint Luke and an icon of Christ “not painted by human hands.”  During the eighth century, Italy served as a haven for eastern icons rescued from iconoclast fury.  Patriarch Germanus tells how an icon of Mary once fled to Rome, sailing over the seas; later the icon became known as “Maria Romana.”  The icon of Christ was kept in the Pope’s private chapel in the Lateran Residence; on the occasion of the Feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, August fifteenth, the icon was taken in solemn procession to the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, where the icon painted by Saint Luke was preserved.  Pope Hadrian I (772-795) made a gift of two groups of three large icons to Saint Peter’s Basilica.  In Rome itself there developed a remarkable art of decoration in mosaic, which can be admired today in Basilicas like Santa Cecilia, San Marco in Piazza Venezia and Santa Prassede.

In the West, as in the East, rules were laid down for the use of icons in the Liturgy.  In later centuries the West, while remaining inspired by eastern icons, began to produce its own style of iconography.



East and West were united in the struggle to defend images.  Today, centuries later, the West has rediscovered the icon and its profound theological and liturgical significance.  The Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium makes explicit mention of the Second Council of Nicaea and refers to its decrees on icons (No. 51); paragraph 67 of the Constitution states: “Let those decrees, given in the early days regarding the cult of images of Christ, the Blessed Virgin and the saints, be religiously observed.”  The icon “lives” in personal and liturgical prayer.  Pope John Paul II  has observed that “art for art’s sake, which only refers to the author, without establishing a relationship with the divine world, does not have its place in the Christian concept of the icon.  No matter what style is adopted, all sacred art must express the faith and hope of the Church.  The tradition of the icon shows that the artist must be conscious of fulfilling a mission of service to the Church” (Duodecimum Saeculum, No. 11).  And Patriarch Dimitrios I has stated that “the presence of icons in Churches, as the priests celebrate and the faithful pray, is the realization of that moment when the mystery of the communion of saints in adoration of the Trinitarian God will be accomplished: the communion of all who were pleasing to God and who form the praying Church of today and of centuries to come.  And the veneration of icons in the worship of the Church is of even greater importance, because it draws the faithful who venerate them closer to God, to the hypostatic presence of the persons portrayed and to the sacramental gestures celebrated in the fear of the Lord” (Encyclical, 15 September 1987, No. 30).

Images of Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints placed in Churches frequently become icons of the ecclesial space they occupy.  What is more, very often the liturgical space is occupied not only by faces, but also by a narration of the history of salvation.  The representation of God’s revelation in the past comes to be fully realised in the present and in the future.  Iconography has found its proper setting, the Church, and its proper time, the calendar of liturgical feasts.   The Liturgy has become the context and the official reference point for images.

In the Redemptoris Mater Chapel in the Apostolic Palace, decorated with mosaics at the wish of the Holy Father in the years 1996-99, the mosaic iconography was planned in relation to the places of celebration – the chair, the lectern, the altar, in order to underline the two movements in the history of salvation celebrated in the Liturgy.  The side walls illustrate the descending movement, God’s descent into humanity, and the ascending movement, the divinisation of mankind.  The chair is set near the entrance wall of the Chapel and portrays the Christ of the parousia, who comes to celebrate the final Eucharist with humanity. The lectern is at the centre of the Chapel, corresponding to the Christ Pantocrator who dominates the ceiling. The altar is located close to the back wall, which portrays the nuptial banquet in the heavenly Jerusalem, dominated by the Most Holy Trinity and at whose centre is the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Iconography ought to reveal the human and yet be a transparent image of the divine.  There is a need to rediscover the synergy existing between celebration, architecture and iconography.  Apart from this synergy, there can be no genuine liturgical art, but only generic sacred art.

We need to return to the tradition of the holy Fathers, and to let icons come alive in their appropriate context: that of personal prayer and liturgical celebration.  The Liturgy enables the mystery of Christ to become the mystery of the Church, so that Christians may become, in the eloquent expression of Irenaeus of Lyons, “the Son of God himself,” (Adv. Haer., III, 19,1): icons are a precious help along the way of our assimilation to Christ.


Vatican City, 20 January 2005

Archbishop Piero Marini