(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Today we commemorate St. Iakovos, whose account is found in Volume 1 of the series.)
Saint Iakovos (James), Monk and Confessor
There is no telling how many deserving Christians who took a stand against the Iconoclastic movement lie buried in anonymity like unknown soldiers – known only to God. Fortunately, the ninth-century ascetic known to us as Iakovos, monk and confessor, is more than an unidentified religious figure. Scraps of information gleaned from correspondence between prelates shed some light on the courageous life of one Christendom’s staunchest iconophiles.
From the correspondence of St. Theodore and other epistles, we can piece together the picture of a man whose total dedication to the Savior commenced when he was scarcely out of childhood. He was a self-motivated crusader who was well-equipped to make his presence felt wherever there was a just cause. The many achievements of Iakovos are subordinate to his masterful defense of the icons, where he displayed a fiery resolve which parried the thrusts of some of the most powerful figures, up to the emperor himself, who had taken it upon themselves to draw a parallel between the icons and images. They distorted the very real reasons for the veneration, not worship, of men and women, but of the Savior without whom there might very well have been no church in which to worship.
Iakovos’ beginnings appear to have been auspicious enough since he was accepted at the very prestigious Monastery of Studios, where he was privileged to meet the noted St. Gregory, who was to chronicle the details of Iakovos’ life and help perpetuate his memory. Iakovos distinguished himself in a brilliant society devoted to the Savior, an accomplished group who won international renown known as the Studite, with the very capable St. Gregory in the forefront for the preservation of unity and harmony in the Church. These people, in the name of the Church, were forever combatting dissidents who were, for the most part, malcontents who would seize any occasion to sow discord, the most serious of which was the proliferation of Iconoclasm. Causes came and went, but the iconoclasts hovered menacingly for altogether too many years.
Together with Theodore the Studite, who is commemorated on November 11, Iakovos presented the case for the icons wherever and whenever possible, venturing to the royal house in Constantinople but without success. The reasons were twofold: first, the iconoclasts had the ears of the royal household, and secondly, a change in the royal position would have been construed as weakness and vacillation. With this in mind Iakovos was all the more persistent, so much so that he was unceremoniously ushered from the premises and thereafter set upon by ruffians – who by command would assail anyone like a pack of dogs. His persistence was branded as insolence, for which he paid dearly with bruises and lumps, but he was undismayed and simply licked his wounds and started all over again.
St. Gregory looked upon Iakovos with an affection that led him to call his associate “his amiable brother,” but warned against further provocation in the capital, suggesting that both retire to the monastery for a time in order to refresh themselves with rest and prayer in preparation for yet another campaign. After some discussion Gregory returned to the monastery, while Iakovos went on a tour of the churches to preach and to continue his denouncement of the iconoclasts.
Iakovos soon enough realized that the friendly faces he saw in church were not the challenge that would see the end of the iconoclasts. Thus he decided to take to the public forums with the optimistic hope of unifying his brethren under no banner but the symbol of the cross and, of course, in the presence of his precious icons.
At one of these gatherings, where he saw that he was winning misguided Christians to his side, he was dared to present himself to a group of iconoclasts who were at the moment holding a rally in a nearby arena. Iakovos strode into the arena without fear and with his customary optimism and confidence launched into an oration that spelled out the folly of their view. His words fell on deaf ears, and a group of rowdies beat him mercilessly. He died of his wounds on March 21.