The Seventh Ecumenical Council is a bit mysterious to me. First, it’s the only council most Protestants do not accept. Eight hundred or so years or so before the Reformation, throughout the Byzantine Empire a controversy raged concerning whether images could be used in the churches; it lasted nearly a hundred years, and many people died or were exiled because of it. The Sunday during Lent when we commemorate it (as we also do today) is known as the day of “the triumph of Orthodoxy” – an almost disturbingly strong affirmation of the goodness of icons; it’s the crown of the councils, likened in hymnography to the seventh day of Creation.
I tend to think of icons aesthetically; they do of course show theological themes, but a church without an icon is merely rather dull, not deeply wrong. When the reformers broke the statues and slashed the religious paintings of Europe, I think it’s a shame, mostly because a lot of interesting art was lost. Yet when Orthodox priests talk about what was decided at the 7th council, they use phrases like “if the iconoclasts were true it would mean that it is impossible for man to be restored to the full image and likeness of God.” Fr. John said that and some other equally shocking and perplexing things at Vespers, and he’s not given to exaggeration. In Orthodox theology icons aren’t really art, but rather theology in paint; and apparently not only of the event depicted, but in their very existence – and it’s evidently a piece of theology that people are strongly passionate about. Fr John mentioned that all the other councils were primarily about who Christ is; the Seventh is the only one that’s fundamentally about humanity: what does it mean to be a human?
I’m pretty dreadful at research, so I’ll try to ask Fr. John to explain himself further when I can – perhaps tomorrow. But I just wanted to write a brief note now, because the intensity of the Orthodox defense of icons is also a little unnerving.