Beginning in the 4th century, groups of migrating tribes from Northern Europe moved south, taking over much of what was the western half of the Roman Empire, from Italy to the British Isles, from North Africa to modern day Poland.
With this “Barbarian Invasion,” the Roman Empire fell. Europe entered its “Dark Ages,” from which it only began to recover in the 9th century under Charlemagne. Until that renaissance of culture and learning, however, civilization would lie in ruins, with memories of its glorious Roman past preserved in lonely Celtic monasteries, like chrysalises in cocoons.
That, at least, is what our history books say, what we’re taught even in the first year of university. What many of us don’t realize is that the Roman Empire did not actually collapse in the 4th and 5th centuries. While the western half of the Empire did indeed succumb to the northern invaders, the Eastern half of the Empire—encompassing modern Greece, Macedonia, the Balkan states, Turkey, Syria, Armenia, Egypt and Palestine—remained largely intact.
In the early 4th century, the Emperor Constantine moved his capital from Rome to the small town of Byzantium on the Bosphorus. He then proceeded to rename the town after himself—Constantinople—rebuilding it in the image of the old Rome and continuing its Roman way of life in an uninterrupted, if more Christianised, form.
A long line of Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Emperors followed Constantine. One of the most notable is Justinian, who built the great Church of Holy Wisdom (Haghia Sophia) in Constantinople, and took back many western lands lost to the barbarians. Then came the rise of Islam in the 7th century, which Justinian’s successors were unable to withstand. Over the next eight centuries, the Eastern Roman Empire shrank steadily until at last, in 1453, it finally met its end with the Ottoman Turkish conquest of Constantinople.
I mention all these details of history to make the simple point that, while western Europe struggled through its Dark and Middle Ages, the Eastern Roman Empire both lived and thrived as a Christian civilization for over 1100 years. More to the point, this time period also saw the growth and flowering of the spiritual culture of the Eastern Orthodox Church. If we are going to answer the question, what exactly “Orthodox” means, we first need to understand just how much happened outside the borders of our western-European-centred historical experience during that millennium.
Take for instance the Iconoclast controversy, about which most western Christians know very little. You may recall from my last article that Christians had embarked on a project of baptizing the surrounding pagan culture, interpreting ancient pantheistic religions in the light of Christ. A part of this endeavour was the baptism of pagan religious imagery, which Christians appropriated to depict their spiritual experience.
During a period in which little or no significant religious art was produced in western Europe, the Eastern Roman Empire witnessed the highly sophisticated production of religious imagery (known as iconography, or “icon-painting” in Greek). The rise of Islam in the 7th century, however, led to controversy. A dynasty of Syrian Emperors, perhaps influenced by Islam’s strictures against religious imagery and the tendency of Greek philosophy towards abstractions, prohibited the production and veneration of icons.
The gut spiritual reaction of the general Christian populace throughout the Eastern Roman Empire was violent. Riots rocked the cities. Much theological reflection was undertaken, and in time, treatises were written distinguishing between latria (worship), which belonged exclusively to God, and proskynesis (veneration) in which a painted religious images act as “windows into heaven,” a human means to access the divine.
A leading theologian of the day, John of Damascus, argued the case for icons as follows: “But now when God is seen in the flesh conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take His abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter. Never will I cease honouring the matter through which my salvation was wrought!”
After a hundred years of conflict, debate and reflection, the Iconoclast controversy came to an end in the East, with the veneration of icons being upheld as central to the Christian faith in the second council of Nicaea in 787 A.D. Of course, western Europeans knew of nothing of these conflicts, and so ended up rehashing the issue during the Reformation, which took the opposite tack, rejecting the veneration of images as idolatry.
Given our primarily western European experience of history, from which the Iconoclast controversy is missing, it is easy to lose sight of the wider implications and dimensions of the Christian faith. More than merely a fight over pictures, the debate over icons was a serious reflection on what it means to worship God in the flesh. More specifically, it reminds us that our view of “matter” (whether it is the human body or the natural environment) is not limited to a choice between hedonistic idolatry and Puritan denigration; that the created world should be neither worshipped nor rejected, but venerated and honoured as the very medium and instrument in which and through which God came to save us.
For more information on the Eastern Roman Empire and its history, see John Julius Norwich’s A Short History of Byzantium and Timothy Ware’s The Orthodox Church.