For many in the West today, Orthodox devotion to icons seems odd, especially the practice of kissing them. And when we learn that for a hundred-plus years in the early Middle Ages arguments raged over pictures of Jesus, causing one of the greatest political, cultural and religious upheavals in Christian History—well, we just don't understand it.

What is it about icons that created such a stir, and what do they represent to the Orthodox?

A little bloody history

By the 700s, icons were a regular feature of Orthodox spiritual life all over the Byzantine Empire. And it was about that time that a movement against icons emerged. Iconoclasm (the movement to "smash icons") started from within the church itself. A few iconoclastic bishops in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) believed the Bible, particularly Exodus 20:4, forbade such images:

"You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them . …"

Byzantine Emperor Leo III (reigned 717-741), convinced by such reasoning, tried at first to persuade his subjects to abandon icons. A dramatic act of nature reinforced his campaign: a violent underwater volcano suddenly erupted in the Aegean Sea; tidal waves surged over land, and a cloud of volcanic ash darkened the sky. The entire city of Constantinople was shaken. Leo interpreted it as a sign from heaven: the empire was in grave danger of incurring the divine wrath. So he preached a series of sermons against the use of icons.

In 726 (or 731; the date is uncertain), Leo stepped up the campaign. He ordered his soldiers to go to the palace gate called Chalke and destroy the icon of Christ painted over the entrance archway. When the ...

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