Russian Churches are Filled with Paintings of Christ and the Saints. Here's Why

Over a thousand years ago, Russians faithfully received the Christian Faith as it was taught to them. And the Faith they learned includes the use of sacred paintings. They also adopted the history of the Church. Everything the Early Church had experienced, Russian Christians received as their own

The Church in Russia is famous for is beautiful iconography — religious paintings inside churches. But for some westerners, this practice may seem unusual. Why make paintings of saints? Why hang these paintings in homes and churches? 

The short answer is easy enough: A thousand years ago, the Greek Church brought the Christian Faith to Russia. The Greek Church has icons of saints in their churches, and so Russia continued the same practice.

For a more detailed answer, it is necessary to go back in time, to the centuries before Russia became Christian. How early did the Christian Church have religious paintings of Christ and the saints? Who eventually showed resistance to the presence of icons in churches? And how did the Church respond to this resistance?

Ancient Jewish Icons

Ancient Jewish synagogues were filled with icons. While Scripture required the inside of the Jerusalem Temple to display icons of angels, the icons in Jewish synagogues depicted numerous scenes from Scripture, including:

Dura Europos Synagogue ~ 244 A.D.
Dura Europos Synagogue ~ 244 A.D.

Icons in the Early Church

The Early Church emerged from Israel, and inherited Israel’s ancient love for icons. Like the early Jewish synagogues, the catacombs and the most ancient Christian Churches were filled with holy icons.

Various Early Church writings and traditions have preserved memories of early Christian iconography. In an article about Iconography in Ancient House Churches, Gabriel Martini makes the following observation:

From the standpoint of popular traditions, most are aware of the “Icon Made Without Hands” that the Lord imprinted into a cloth and gave to King Abgar of Edessa (reigned A.D. 13–50) of the Osroene Kingdom. There is also the tradition of Luke the Physician painting the first icon of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary) and the infant Jesus (the Hodegetria, which is currently enshrined at a church on Mount Athos). Eusebius of Cæsarea even wrote about the existence of icons and statues of Christ, which had existed well before his time (A.D. 263-329): “Eusebius tells of a statue said to be that of Christ which existed in Palestine, and did not think it strange. He had heard too of portraits of Peter and Paul” (The Orthodox Liturgy, p. 23).

Speaking of the portraits of saints, Martini provides a couple quotes from Church historian, Hugh Wybrew:

It is quite probable that Christians began painting portraits of distinguished and venerated members of the Church very early on. . . . [Early writings] tell of a portrait of the Apostle which one of his disciples, Lycomedes, commissioned from an artist friend. Lycomedes put it in his bedroom, and adorned it with flowers.

. . . perhaps as early as the third century, Christian images were venerated by being garlanded with flowers and having lights burnt in front of them.

Martini continues:

The Christian “house church” (and synagogue) discovered at Dura Europos (ca. A.D. 235) are about as explicit as can be when it comes to demonstrating—in an historical and archaeological manner—the existence of iconography within both Jewish and Christian architecture of the post-resurrection era; and importantly, in both cases being in the context of places of worship.

The village of Dura Europos was destroyed in 256. Thankfully, we have a glimpse into their world through the discovery of these relatively well-preserved archaeological digs. These sites drew fervent interest in 1921, when a number of religious frescoes were uncovered

Thus, for several hundred years, the early Church was a rich source of religious iconography. Faithful Christians made images of Christ, saints, and angels, and placed these images in both homes and church buildings. For the Early Church, the default position was in favor of icons and religious paintings. Only later would certain people make an attempt to change the Church's understanding of icons.

The Rise and Fall of Iconoclasm

Coin showing Emperor Leo III
with his wife ~ 740 A.D.

The imperial leader of the initial iconoclastic outbreak was the Roman (Byzantine) Emperor, Leo III, who put forth a series of official decrees in opposition to icons. Officially, it was in the year 726 that “Leo III introduced iconoclasm” (Andrew Louth, Greek East and Latin West,   p. 82). Leo, however, was not a theological trailblazer. While he was a political official who propagated iconoclasm throughout the empire, he was not the formulator of iconoclastic ideology. To identify the sources of the iconoclastic outbreak, we must look a little deeper.

The ideology of iconoclasm may be likened to a number of isolated muddy streams, converging into a river of heresy. Iconoclasm sprang from multiple anti-Christian sources, and found their nexus in the person of Emperor Leo.

In the 8th century, the religion of Islam supplied one of the major forces in favor of iconoclasm. A notable example of this pressure came from the caliph Iezid II (720-724), who “ordered the destruction of all pictures in Christian churches within his dominions” (Edward James Martin, A History of the Iconoclastic Controversy, p. 23). Considering the warring relations consistently endured by nations bordering the Muslims, it is not difficult to imagine why an unscrupulous state official (such as the Emperor) might think it advantageous to proactively destroy certain elements likely to cause friction with neighboring aggressors.

A second source of iconoclastic heresy was of Monophysite origin. As early as the 5th century, a Monophysite bishop of Hierapolis had forbidden his diocese to have images of either saints or angels. And in the late 6th century, the case of Serenus of Marseilles provided examples of icon-destruction which fueled the controversy-to-come over a century later.

A third bastion of pre-Leo iconoclasm was the Nestorian church, though their relative exclusion from the Roman (Byzantine) Empire make them unlikely candidates for influencing Leo.

Perhaps one of the strongest sources of Leo’s iconoclasm was the Paulician sect, a strongly iconoclastic group which flourished “in the very region of South-Eastern Asia Minor from which Leo’s family sprung” (Martin, p. 24).

An additional source of iconoclastic tendencies was found within a puritanical section of the Orthodox Church itself, among clergy who anticipated the iconoclastic controversy’s second-commandment objection against icons-as-idols. Episcopal examples of this iconoclastic tendency were Constantine of Nacolia in Phrygia, and Thomas, bishop of Claudiopolis, both of whom were reprimanded by the Patriarch in the early 8th century.

This puritanical section of the Church exemplified a thread of thinking which had various adherents ever since early Christianity had severed its ties with Judaism. Even though Jewish synagogues were covered with icons of saints and angels, they denied the Incarnation of Christ, and they were therefore opposed to making any images of the Deity. This strand of thought did find some traction among pre-Nicea-II Orthodox clergy. As Dr. Martin suggests, “What the Emperor [Leo] did in 725 was to make a public declaration of policy on a question which had long been agitated” (Martin, p. 26).

All of these influences, whether Muslim, Monophysite, Nestorian, Paulician or puritanical, to a greater or lesser extent, coalesced to form a heretical underground zeitgeist which eventually came to a head in the infamous Isaurian Emperor, Leo III.

In 726, Emperor Leo III made a public declaration of his opposition to icons. “He followed this action with the symbolic gesture of destroying an image of Christ” (Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church, p. 231). This action provoked outrage and rioting, as well as condemnation from the Patriarch Germanus of Constantinople. Leo responded to the rioting harshly, though “none were executed” among this initial iconophile resistance (Martin, p. 32).

The Orthodox Church's
definitive exposition on
the theology of icons

Over the remainder of Leo’s reign, the theological polemic matured on both sides. This development was significant, because prior to the 8th century, “the Christological argument for and against icons was not really developed” (J.M. Hussey, The Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire, p. 34). Initially, the iconoclast’s arguments predominantly centered on iconophiles’ alleged violation of the second commandment. The Orthodox position, on the other hand, was multifaceted, and was preeminently articulated by St. John of Damascus. Around the years 726, 730, and 732, he composed a series of three treatises “On The Divine Images”. St. John presented the Orthodox position so clearly and thoroughly that “every subsequent writer repeated his arguments and authorities” (Martin, p. 35). In fact, the question of idolatrous worship “is examined by St. John of Damascus so thoroughly and so finally that the argument about idolatry was felt by the Iconoclasts themselves to lack conviction and was practically replaced by a new one based on Christology” (Martin, p. 116). This is a point often overlooked by iconoclastic Protestants, who too quickly assume that their reservations regarding the second commandment were shared by most 8th/9th century Iconoclasts … when in fact even many Iconoclasts largely bent under the force of St. John’s arguments. Not only throughout the iconoclastic controversy, but even down to the present day, St. John’s Three Treatises remains a definitive work.

Emperor Constantine V

Leo’s son, Emperor Constantine V Copronymus, carried iconoclasm to a new level. He circulated among the bishops a number of theological papers called “Inquiries” or “Peuseis” (Louth, p. 55). Constantine argued against icons both negatively (claiming that they were a violation of the second commandment), and positively (suggesting that the Eucharist served as a true image of Christ, as an alternative to icons). After this initial iconoclastic propaganda storm, a synod was called in 754, in the palace of Hiereia. This synod anathematized the veneration of icons, and deemed itself an “Ecumenical Council”, despite the fact that the synod was neither attended nor ratified by a single patriarchal see. “The see of Constantinople was vacant,” and the patriarchs from Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Rome were “not present either in person or by deputy” (Martin, p. 46). Reminiscent of the heretical Second Council of Ephesus held in 449, Hieria’s claims to ecumenicity were groundless assertions lacking any substantial evidence. Notably, many of the bishops in attendance at the synod of Hieria later recanted, and supported Nicea II.

Constantine’s iconoclastic theology was fueled by his defective view of the Incarnation. As Dr. Martin notes, “[Constantine’s] Christology . . . is Monophysite, sublimating Christ” (Martin, p. 43). Additional evidence of Constantine’s faulty Christology is his rejection of the word “Theotokos” (Martin. p. 49). Indeed, it was rampantly faulty Christology which necessitated the calling of the first Six General Councils. And the same issue raged in the Church’s anticipation of the Seventh. As Dr. Martin has noted, “We may, indeed, go so far as to trace the whole Iconoclastic movement at least indirectly to Monophysite influences” (Martin, p. 127).

St. Stephen the New
of Mount Auxentius

During the controversy, the monasteries proved to be particularly strong bastions of Orthodoxy, and their heavy resistance incited Constantine’s wrath upon monks. Beginning with the martyrdom of Stephen of Mount Auxentius, a concerted persecution of the iconodule monks proceeded for a full decade, only coming to an end upon the death of Constantine V.

In 775, Constantine V’s throne was succeeded by his son, Leo IV. Leo continued the iconoclastic policies of his father.  Five years later, Leo IV died, leaving behind the young child Constantine VI, under the regency of Empress Irene.

Empress Irene

With Irene the first wave of iconoclasm ended. “In the first year of her regency she restored the images and the monks” (Martin, p. 86). Her pinnacle came in 787, with the convocation of the Seventh Ecumenical Council in the city of Nicea. The Patriarch Paul had abdicated, and had suggested an Ecumenical Council was needed to heal the iconoclastic rift. The Empress Irene “wrote to the Pope requesting a General Council” (Martin. p. 88), and she chose a layman named Tarasius—the chief Imperial secretary—to succeed Paul. He became Patriarch on Christmas day, 784. He corresponded with the bishop ofRome, and with the three eastern Patriarchates of Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem, calling for a Seventh General Council.

Icon of Nicea II —
The 7th Ecumenical Council

The Second Council of Nicea was held in 787, and was presided over by Patriarch Tarasius. Two Eastern monks were in attendance as delegates of Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem. And Rome had two delegates in attendance as well.  Thus the Seventh Ecumenical Council was far removed from the synod of Hieria, which had enjoyed no Patriarchal support whatsoever. Nicea-II officially anathematized iconoclasm, and directly employed many of the same Scriptural proofs and historical arguments which St. John of Damascus had penned in his Three Treatises. Among the chief declarations of the Council was that icon veneration involved no idolatry, because the honor paid to the image is passed on to the original. The Council determined that icon veneration was not merely permissible, but was in fact mandated for all. The Council’s definition was approved and signed by 309 episcopal delegates, and the session “closed with the traditional applause” (Martin. p. 104). Orthodox Christology had won the day. The Seventh Council was “the logical sequel to Chalcedon” (Martin. p. 108).

In 802, the Empress Irene was “deposed by a court coup” and was replaced by Nikephoros, who “did not turn out to be much of an improvement” (Louth, p. 119). In 811, Nikephoros was killed in the Bulgar campaign. In 812, Michael acceded to the throne, only to be deposed the following year by Leo V “the Armenian”. In 815, the second wave of iconoclasm struck the Empire, when Leo V reintroduced iconoclasm as imperial policy.

Emperor Leo V

 Initially, Emperor Leo V did not utterly ban the use of all images. He proposed to “remove the pictures in positions low enough to permit gross acts of adoration, accepting those in higher positions as useful illustrations of Christianity” (Martin, p. 165). The Patriarch Nicephorus, however, stood firm and would not budge. After encountering consistent resistance from the iconodules, the Emperor forbade the monks to meet together, and he ordered them to stop preaching. Leo V eventually deposed the Patriarch, as well. He replaced him with a married layman named Theodotus, who inaugurated his Patriarchate with “games, laughter, quips, and buffoonery”, and also with a banquet where he encouraged bishops and monks to violate the canons by consuming flesh meat (Martin, p. 170).

Theodotus was so odious to the clergy that he was soon deposed. After his replacement was enthroned, a new local church council was called.  A number of monastic leaders were invited, but they protested any attempt to reverse the decision of Nicea II.

As iconoclastic resolutions go, the decision of this council was of the mild variety. While affirming iconoclastic sentiments and practices, the council’s definition conceded, “We refrain from speaking of them [icons] as idols” (Martin, p. 173). The charge of idolatry, as well as the utter prohibition of images, had been discarded.

For the most part, the theological acumen of the Iconoclasts was vastly lower during the second wave of iconoclasm, than it had been during the first wave. The notable exception was John the Grammarian, who was an avid iconoclastic apologist. From a theological perspective, “The doctrine of the Incarnation continued on both sides to be the central subject of the controversy” (Martin, p. 189). The iconodules espoused Orthodox Christology, while the iconoclasts frequently displayed a Monophysite bent.

Empress Theodora and
the Triumph of Orthodoxy
843 A.D.

 In 820, Leo V was assassinated, and Michael II ascended the throne.  Nine years later, Michael was succeeded by Theophilus. After years of iconoclastic decline, the Emperor Theophilus died in 842, leaving behind his three-year-old son, Michael. Theodora, the Empress-mother, acceded the throne. She had been a fervent iconodule for years, and had taught all of her children accordingly.  Over the next year, she set the stage for another local council, which overturned iconoclasm for good, and upheld the decision of Nicea II. On the first Sunday in Lent, 843, the restoration of Orthodoxy was celebrated. To this day, we celebrate this “Sunday of Orthodoxy” every year, in remembrance of Orthodoxy’s triumph over the iconoclastic heresy.

Icons in the Russian Church Today

The Early Church had baptism, communion, bishops, priests, and definitive statements of faith such as the Nicene Creed. Russian Christians faithfully received all of these things when they received the Christian Faith itself. Likewise, they also received the ancient practice of painting holy images.

Russians did not invent a new religion. Over a thousand years ago, they faithfully received the Christian Faith as it was taught to them. And the Faith they learned includes the use of holy icons. In addition to adopting the teachings and the practices of the Church, they also adopted the history of the Church. Everything that the Early Church had learned over a thousand years, Russian Christians received as their own.

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