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Byzantine Iconoclasm

A/N: Supervision essay on Byzantine iconoclasm (Part I: paper 13) from Easter term 2008. I was supervised by Dr. Sarris at Trinity. 

Byzantine Iconcoclasm

Account for the rise and demise of Byzantine Iconoclasm 

Iconoclasm, literally the smashing of images, refers to the forbidding of the veneration or making of images of God or the saints. Traditionally Byzantine iconoclasm was thought to be the result of Islamic influence as the Arabs moved ever closer to the Byzantine frontiers, crushing the Sasanian state in the 650s. However more recent research has shown that the caliphate did not forbid figural images until the late seventh century, complicating the origins of Byzantine iconoclasm which began not long after in the 720s. Contemporary opponents to the movement such as the patriarch Germanos were quick to point the finger of blame at the Arabs and the Jews who claimed Christian veneration of icons went against the second commandment. Yet within 70 years an oecumenical council had condemned iconoclasm as heresy, only for this ruling to be overturned two decades later. Iconoclasm was finally removed in 843 and the historians of the day were quick to declare the whole affair as an interlude of madness in the history of the empire. What was the truth of the matter; was iconoclasm a theological affair or were there other, more powerful, forces at play?

 History is, inevitably, a story of the victors; this creates problems when using contemporary sources. Although there are a number of surviving sources, such as the letters of the Patriarch Germanos, numerous saints’ lives and the writings of the Nicephorus and Theophanes, they all prove, in some way, problematic. Photius, writing after the restoration of icons, describes iconoclasm as “Jewish folly” and Theophanes refers to the emperor Constantine V as “the precursor of the Anti-Christ” although the earlier Life of St. Anthusa shows Constantine V was actually a generous patron of a large Anatolian monastery. Clearly such derogatory descriptions of iconoclastic emperors were only safe to commit to paper under an iconodule, that is a pro-icon, emperor. Such politically aware writing distorts the realities of the history they are describing; the Historian must be continually aware of such bias in order to look past it and uncover what was really happening.

It makes sense to split the discussion of Byzantine iconoclasm into what has come to be known as the first and the second iconoclasms covering the periods 726 to 787 and 815 to 843 respectively. First, then, looking at the iconoclasm of the eighth century it is by no means clear that a move against icons was inevitable. Although the Christian church of the sixth century had been against the veneration of icons as it reflected the ignorance of the masses, by the dawn of the eighth century its position was very different; icons were believed to be imbued with the power to cure the sick, help the needy and even defeat enemies. In the seventh century the monk John Maschos claimed for example that a pious woman in Apanea only struck water in her well after sending for a likeness of the monk Theodosios of Skopelos. Brown argues that the icon offered a portable and highly personal alternative to the holy man as an intercessor between the common man and “the awesomely distant loving-kindness of God.” Islam had no provision for intercession between the human and the holy making religious icons unnecessary, yet there is no evidence of the caliphate being violently opposed to figural imagery until the late seventh century, when they adopted a preference for scriptal decoration to mark them out from the Christians. They used it on the mock Byzantine coinage produced under Abd Al-Malik following the emperor’s decision to depict the cross on the real thing in 692. Ostrogorsky argues that it was the iconoclastic influence of the Arabs and the Jews that inspired the iconoclast Christian bishops in the Eastern provinces but, aside from the actual short lived history of Arab iconoclasm and the lack of regard for Jewish belief, Constantinople remained the cultural capital of the Byzantine Empire. There is no reason why this alone would make such beliefs be taken on board.

This leads us to the real origin of the first Byzantine iconoclasm: political expediency. The Arabs had not only set their eye on the former Persian state, increasingly they were pressing into Byzantine territory; in 717 the Arabs besieged the imperial capital of Constantinople and in 727 they were closing in to besiege Nicaea – important because of its location, the first church council having been held there – and were only defeated, later stories claimed, when one of the townspeople threw a stone at an icon of the Virgin Mary. Arab military expansion coincided with struggles for the imperial throne and natural disasters such as the volcanic eruption of 726 which blew apart the Aegean island of Thera. Increasingly there appeared to be only two explanations for Byzantine’s misfortune; either the Byzantine Empire was weak and doomed to collapse, or such events were an expression of God’s displeasure in direct relation to the idolatrous nature of icon veneration within the empire. Unsurprisingly the latter was a more attractive prospect, especially as the icons were deemed to be failing the populace by allowing defeat anyway. Leo III and his son Constantine V accordingly adopted an iconoclastic policy which at a stroke served to validate their postion as emperor and unify Byzantines as a “chosen” people, marked out from the Western Christian kingdoms by their rejection of icons. That the change was more political than religious can be seen in the lack of enthusiastic opposition, there are no named martyrs for Leo’s reign for example, and that the doctrine was not confirmed by church council until 754. People generally were happy to subscribe to the policy in the hope of military success as their own icons failed to protect them, and the familiarity of local icons was swept away with the displacement caused by Arab invasion; the secular clergy too were happy to lend their support to the emperor as iconoclasm promised to improve their standing at the expense of the monks. The humiliation of the monks at the hippodrome in 766, parading them in a mock marriage ceremony, is less about religion than it is about giving out a clear message as to who holds the power in this new Byzantine: the emperor and his chosen clergy.

Why then was iconoclasm abandoned in 787? The policy had proved successful for its instigators; Leo III had fought off contenders to the imperial throne after seizing it in 717 and Constantine V had succeeded in pushing the Arabs out of Asia Minor in 740 with victories like that at the battle of Akroinos in Western Anatolia. Constantinople was never besieged by them again. The real issue then was more complex than iconoclasm “failing” to deliver. In 780 Leo IV died leaving his wife Irene as regent for the 9 year old emperor Constantine. Irene was however highly ambitious, incapacitating her five brothers-in-law, all of whom would have made more obvious choices for the imperial power. Proclaiming a return to icon veneration Irene had the perfect excuse to remove hostile officials and the Tagmata, the military forces who threatened to turn against her. In 787 a church council at Nicaea condemned iconoclasm as heresy, the iconodules argued that although, as the iconoclasts claimed only consecrated items could be holy (ie. The eucharist, the church building and the symbol of the cross), icons were consecrated by tradition as St. Luke had given portraits as well as the gospel and, in any case, it was what the image represented, rather than the image itself that was being worshipped. Whilst the theological issues surrounding iconoclasm were hotly debated and led to a schism with Rome as the Pope turned to the Franks for help to defeat the Lombards, eventually going so far as to crown Charlemagne Roman emperor in 800, politics was what underlay both the rise and demise of the first Byzantine iconoclasm. Irene wanted power for herself and saw the restoration of icons as the best way to consolidate her support. Demanding the army swear allegiance to her instead of the emperor Constantine, Irene even had her son blinded as part of her ongoing pursuit of power; Theophanes glosses over her violence and treachery to glorify her religious policy but even this can do little to conceal her selfish political motives.

Now turning to consider the second Byzantine iconoclasm of 815 to 843 a familiar pattern quickly emerges. Despite allegedly fulfilling God’s desire by restoring icons, God’s favour was failing to shine upon the Byzantine Empire, something which continued after Nikephoros’ successful coup against Irene in 802. Under Harun al Rashid the Arabs occupied Tyana and captured important fortresses, forcing Nikephorus to seek peace and pay 3 gold pieces per annum as a humiliating poll tax to the caliphate. At the same time the Bulgars under Krum were causing problems in the Balkans, having recently been freed of the threat of Avar invasion by the Franks. In July 811 Nikephorus’ son Staurakios was badly injured in a battle with the Bulgars; the emperor himself met his end, his skull being turned into a drinking cup for the Bulgar qaghan according to Theophanes. Respite came only with the deaths of Harun al Rashid and Krum in 809 and 814 respectively. Icons once again were blamed for the empire’s misfortune and in 815 a church council reversed the decision of its predecessor, marking a return to iconoclastic rule. That this policy was again more to do with politics than religion can be seen in the persecution of monks. Far from heavily enforcing iconoclasm they were told that if they communed just once with Theodotos (patriarch 815-21) then they could go back to their monastery with the freedom to keep their own beliefs.

Ostrogorsky claims iconoclasm was on its “deathbed” by the time the 16 year old Theopolis succeeded to the imperial throne in 829. This is something of an exaggeration – under the patriarch John the Grammarian, who came to office in 837, harsh persecution of iconodules became the norm – it is true to say that iconoclasm’s days were numbered. The increased emphasis on classical learning under Theopolis gave intellectuals the basis to form arguments against iconoclasm, to back up those of John of Damascus. Angold argues that Nicephorus and Theophanes used Aristotlian logic to form their case that the iconoclast refusal to depict Christ in images went directly against the teachings of Chalcedon, namely that Christ was both man and God; to forbid icons of Christ’s humanity was to deny his dual nature. As seen previously, more important were the continual military defeats Byzantine suffered in this period. For example the Arabs invaded Sicily and Crete, bringing Arab sea power to the northern Mediterranean for the first time in the 820s, and in 838 Theopolis was lucky to make it out alive after a battle against them. Then in January 842 Theopolis died, leaving his wife Theodora as regent to their son Michael, just as Irene had been in 780. Theodora was in a better position than Irene however, Michael was still a baby (whereas Constantine had been only a few years short of his majority) and iconoclasm was becoming ever more firmly linked with military defeat in the common mindset. In March 843 the iconoclast patriarch John the Grammarian was deposed in favour of the Sicilian Methodios, and a few days later iconoclasm was denounced as heresy by a church council. To bolster support behind her Theodora restored icons and very quickly her subjects followed suit, contemporary chroniclers going so far as to claim that Theodora had always been a closet iconodule.

The restoration of icons was not immediate, even after iconoclasm had been condemned as heresy. The reason for this was most likely a mixture between a, by then, lengthy history of iconoclasm and having to acquire the necessary funds and expertise to create new icons and replace the non-figurative decoration of the iconoclast period. In some places the icons had merely been hidden or whitewashed over as with the mosaic of Christ in the Church of Latomos, so could simply be restored. New icons did not appear in large numbers until the 860s however. Under Michael III and Basil I new churches were built and figural mosaics were put up, such as the one of Christ in the church of St. Mary of the Pharos described by Photius in 864. The icon of Christ above the Chalke Gate was restored and from Theodora onwards Byzantine coins always in some form showed Christ, the virgin or a saint. Mango points out however that although new churches were being built they were smaller, private and in decoration it was a time “not of invention, but imitation, contraction and standardisation.” It would seem then that iconoclasm whilst advantageous for emperors in military terms had stagnated the Empire in terms of art.

In conclusion Byzantine iconoclasm was not the major upheaval of theological thinking that was once assumed. Although the religious issues were fought out and theologians like John of Damascus worked hard to justify their position, the real issue was political support. Just as Christianity had become the official state religion through Constantine’s search for support so the iconoclastic emperors sought to unify their subjects behind the movement. Demetrius tells us how the bishops at the 787 council of Nicaea bemoaned the burning of books and destruction of other valuable icons by the polity; whilst at face value this would seem to back up the idea that the general population indeed believed that icon veneration was idolatrous and that icons must be destroyed to remove the temptation to sin, the truth was less selfless. People felt betrayed by their icons for abandoning them to the military might of the Arabs and were happy to inflict the damage, to accept the imperial propaganda that their rejection of images was marking Constantinople out as the new Jerusalem and the Byzantines as the new chosen people. Such a viewpoint was not sustainable; the constant pressure of war weakened Byzantium, allowing for the growth in status and position of the Western Christian kingdoms, in particular the Franks who had jurisdiction over Rome and, therefore, the pope by the ninth century. Closer to home iconoclasm in turn failed to deliver against the Arab military threat and by the time of Theodora it was an easily justifiable move to switch back to an iconodule policy. The story of iconoclasm is then one of how Byzantium sought to explain its loss of status and how its emperors hoped to rally support to remove military threats.

  • C. Mango and R. Scott (trs.) The Chronicle of Theophanes (p554-end) 
  • C. Mango (ed/tr.) The Homilies of the Patriarch Photius (homilies 10 and 17) 
  • C. Mango The Art of the Byzantine Empire (p149-215) 
  • G. Ostrogorsky A History of the Byzantine State (chapter 3) 
  • Peter Brown. A Dark-Age Crisis. Aspects of the Iconoclastic Controversy (in Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity) 
  • Mark Whittow The Making of Orthodox Byzantium (chapters 1-6) 
  • Michael Angold Byzantium – The Bridge From Antiquity to the Middle Ages (chapters 3-5) -J. Herrin The Formation of Christendom Art and Culture 
  • C. Mango Byzantine Architecture (chapters 6 and 7) 
  • J. Lowden Early Christian and Byzantine Art (chapters 4-7) 
  • C. Mango (ed.) The Oxford History of Byzantium (essay by P. Karlin-Hayter)


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