Saints for Our Times: St. Methodius brought back icons, sacred images
By Mary Lou Gibson
Religious art adorns many of our churches and inspires much devotion and veneration from the faithful. But it was not always so. In parts of Europe in the eighth and ninth centuries, there was a multi-focused effort by many to remove human images from churches.
Richard McBrien writes in "Lives of the Saints" that this movement was known as iconoclasm. It rejected the use of icons, the Greek word for images, and other sacred imagery as well as veneration of the saints. The "breaking of images" was supported in the eighth century by the Eastern Emperor Leo III and again in the ninth by Leo V. Paul Burns writes in "Butler’s Lives of the Saints" that Leo III saw the use of images as an obstacle to conversion of Jews and Muslims. Both groups had rules against artistic representation of people and animals. In 726, Leo published an edict declaring all images be destroyed.
He persecuted monks who were the main defenders of images. His son, Constantine V, continued his father’s policy and many monks were martyred. A compromise of sorts was reached in 787 when Constantine and the pope convened the Seventh Council of Nicaea. It defined the degree of veneration to be paid to images and ordered their restoration.
But the conflict broke out again when Leo V became emperor. According to McBrien, Leo V revived the attacks on icons and sacred images partially in response to pressure from a growing population of Muslims, who forbade any representation of images or sacred objects.
This is when St. Methodius became involved. Born in Sicily around the beginning of the ninth century, he received an excellent education at Syracuse. He then went to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) to gain a position at court, but instead decided to enter the religious life. He became a monk and built a monastery on the Greek island of Chios.
Methodius was called back to Constantinople by the patriarch when the iconoclastic movement was revived. Methodius defended the cult of sacred images and believed that religious statues and paintings assisted devotion and were a vital part of the church’s tradition. Editor Bernard Bangley writes in "Butler’s Lives of the Saints" that Methodius believed a picture could help illiterate Christians understand and visualize religious ideas and events. Because of his firm stand against the movement, Methodius was put in prison for seven years in horrific and inhumane conditions.
Bangley writes that Methodius was not put in a stone dungeon or an iron barred cage, but rather in a cave. Two thieves were locked in with him and one of them died. The decaying corpse was never removed, but left beside the two other living persons.
Methodius emerged from this prison nightmare skeletal and bald. His skin was blanched from years in the darkness. When yet another emperor, Theophilus, resumed an attack on the veneration of images, Methodius asked him, "If an image is so worthless in your eyes, how is it that when you condemn the images of Christ, you do not also condemn the veneration paid to representations of yourself?" Methodius was flogged and thrown back into prison with his jaw broken.
However, this time friends rescued him that same night. Theophilus died soon after. His widow, Theodora, succeeded to the throne and immediately reversed the work of the iconoclasts. Exiled clergy were recalled and sacred images were replaced in the churches of Constantinople.
Theodora appointed Methodius Patriarch of Constantinople, a post he held for four years. He convoked a council which reaffirmed the lawfulness of the veneration of sacred images. The Orthodox Church throughout the world annually celebrates this event as the "Sunday of Orthodoxy" on the first Sunday of Lent. Methodius is greatly venerated in the East because of his role in defeating iconoclasm. He is often called "the Confessor" and "the Great." He died on June 14, 847. His feast is not on the General Roman Calendar but is celebrated by the Russian Orthodox Church.
Remnants of the iconoclast controversy bubbled up for years after Methodius’ death. Burns noted that the final stage of these divisive views between the churches of West and East led to their separation in 1054.