Patriarch of Constantinople, modern Istanbul, Methodius was born in Syracuse, Sicily, and built a monastery on the Greek island of Chios. He played a key role in the final resolution of the violent split in the Eastern Church over iconoclasm, the bitter dispute as to whether the veneration of icons—images of God and his saints—was heretical.
Iconoclasm had begun in the eighth century, when the Byzantine emperor, Leo III, the Isaurian, sided with those who regarded icons as sinful, namely the iconoclast (a person who attacks settled beliefs or institutions and/or destroys religious images or opposes their veneration). This movement, the “breaking of images,” was inspired partly by Monophysite denial of the separate human nature of Christ, partly by Gnostic belief that all matter was evil, and partly by the Islamic ban on portrayal of human images. Leo III saw the use of images as an obstacle to the conversion of Jews and Muslims and published an edict declaring that all images were idols and must be destroyed. He persecuted monks, who were the main defenders of images. John Damascene wrote “apologies” for sacred images, and Pope Gregory III held two synods in Rome condemning Leo. Nevertheless, during this time of intense iconoclasm, many monks were martyred.
In 821, Methodius, an iconodule, (one who supports or is in favor of using religious images, specifically icons), argued that statues and pictures were part of the Church’s tradition and an aid to devotion for many of the church congregation who were illiterate. Already an abbot and returning from a mission to Rome, Methodius was arrested for his beliefs and outspokenness on the issue of iconoclasm and exiled by the new emperor Michael II. Michael’s successor, Theophilos, an even more determined iconoclast, initially released Methodius, before in turn re-arresting, torturing, and imprisoning him.
On Theophilos’s death in 842, Methodius was released on the orders of the Empress Theodora, mother of the new emperor, the two-year-old Michael III. Theodora was a fervent iconodule, like Methodius, and arranged for his election as patriarch of Constantinople. In this office, he convened a council and promoted orthodoxy and the veneration of icons after the long years of Iconoclasticism. He symbolically restored the icons to the great church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.
The unity that appeared to have been achieved at Methodius’ accession was not to last, however. Rivalry between emperors and popes, exacerbated by theological misunderstandings, prolonged the Iconoclast Controversy as the final stage of the quarrels between the Churches of West and East that led to their separation in 1054.
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