The Restoration of the Icons (1) : By the early eighth century, sacred art was thriving in newly-Christian England, but in the East seeds of doubt and confusion had been sown.
The Restoration of the Icons
Part one

Based on ‘First Homily on the Holy Images’ by St John of Damascus (646-749), and ‘The Lives of the Abbots of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow’, by St Bede of Jarrow.

Although we associate icons with Eastern Christianity, many churches in Britain prior to the Reformation, and especially in the Anglo-Saxon era before the Conquest of 1066, were wall-to-wall, floor-to-roof, a patchwork of frescoes of saints, Biblical scenes, flowers and animals. Indeed, it was in the East that doubts about sacred art first arose.

WHEN St Augustine preached Christianity to King Ethelbert of Kent in 597, he carried a silver cross and a painted icon of Christ. A century later, icons were putting a human face to the spoken word up in Bede’s Northumbria, from church walls to the pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels.*

But in 730, Roman Emperor Leo III was faring badly against the Muslim caliph in Syria, and some among his counsellors put the blame on icons. Did not God always abandon the Kings of Israel when they made images and bowed down to them? Even as Bede sang unmolested before the icons in Ceolwulf’s Northumbria, in Leo’s Constantinople soldiers were raiding churches and private homes, tearing down icons and scrubbing away frescoes, punishing resistance with the sword.*

It was John of Damascus, a monk of the St Sabbas monastery near Jerusalem, who led the fightback.* John’s mastery of music, science and Scripture rivalled even Bede’s, and as Jerusalem was in Muslim hands, Leo could not touch him.

* Bede’s own account of the coming of icons to Northumbria can be read in our post How St Benedict Biscop brought Byzantium to Britain. The ‘Lindisfarne Gospels’ is an illuminated book of the Four Gospels in Latin, produced by Bede’s contemporary St Eadfrith during his tenure as Bishop of Lindisfarne (698-721). You can see many of the pages at the website of The British Library. In the 10th century, the Latin was supplemented with a translation into Old English between the lines, making this book the oldest surviving English translation of the Gospels.

* For a remarkable story about just such a raid, see our post The Keeper of the Gate.

* For more on St Bede’s contemporary and likeness in so many ways, see our post St John of Damascus.

Based on ‘First Homily on the Holy Images’ by St John of Damascus (646-749), and ‘The Lives of the Abbots of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow’, by St Bede of Jarrow.

More like this

Lives of the Saints (97) History (413) Anglo-Saxon History (45) History of Icons (6) St John of Damascus (1) Northumbrian Enlightenment (30) Constantinople (10) Bible and Saints (112)

Picture: From the British Library, via Wikimedia Commons. Licence: CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. View original
A page from the Lindisfarne Gospels, made by Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne (r. 698-721) in the lifetime of St Bede (?672-735). It takes the form of an icon of St Matthew writing his Gospel; above him is an angel sounding his trumpet, to the right is an unidentified eavesdropping saint – not the only example of Geordie whimsy found in this book. Intriguingly, the lettering is a mixture of Latin and Greek words, ‘o Agios’ being Greek for ‘the Saint’, and ‘Mattheus’ being Latin for Matthew. It reveals the degree to which Northumbrian Christianity was a healthy mixture of English, Roman and Eastern culture; some of the pigments are believed to have been sourced in Constantinople.

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