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Byzantine Iconoclasm and the Triumph of Orthodoxy

an article by Dr. Evan Freeman posted on

Smarthistory:  The Center for Public Art History

The Iconoclastic Controversy over religious images was a defining moment in the history of the Eastern Roman “Byzantine” Empire.  Centered in Byzantium’s capital of Constantinople (modern Istanbul) from the 700’s-843, imperial and church authorities debated whether religious images should be used in Christian worship or banned.   Who were the players and what was the Controversy all about?

Key Terms

Icons (Greek for “images”) refers to the religious images of Byzantium, made from a variety of media, which depict holy figures and events.

Iconoclasm refers to any destruction of images, including the Byzantine Iconoclastic Controversy of the eighth and ninth centuries, although the Byzantines themselves did not use this term.

Iconomachy (Greek for “image struggle”) was the term the Byzantines used to describe the Iconoclastic Controversy.

Iconoclasts (Greek for “breakers of images”) refers to those who opposed icons.

Iconophiles (Greek for “lovers of images”), also known as “Iconodules” (Greek for “servants of images”), refers to those who supported the use of religious images.

What was the big deal?

Debating  for over a century whether religious images should or should not be allowed may puzzle us today.  But in Byzantium, religious images were bound up in religious belief and practice. In a society with no concept of separation of church and state, religious orthodoxy  (right belief) was believed to impact not only the salvation of individual souls, but also the fate of the entire Empire.  Viewed from this perspective, it is possible to understand how debates over images could entangle both Church leaders and emperors.

The arguments

The iconophiles and iconoclasts developed sophisticated theological and philosophical arguments to argue for and against religious images.  Here is a quick summary of some of their main points:

The iconoclasts noted that the Bible often prohibited images, notably in the Second Commandment:

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth or beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them ….” [Exodus 20.4-5].

The iconophiles countered that while the Bible prohibited images in some passages, God also mandated the creation of images in other instances, for example God commanded that cherubim should adorn the Ark of the Covenant:  “You shall make two cherubim of gold; you shall make them of hammered work, at the two ends of the mercy seat” [Exodus 25.18].

The iconoclasts argued that God was invisible and infinite, and therefore beyond human ability to depict in images.  Since Jesus was both human and divine, the iconoclasts argued that artist could not depict him in images.  The iconophiles agreed that God could not be represented in images, but argued  that when Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was born as a human being with a physical  body, he allowed himself to be seen and depicted.   Since some icons were believed to date from the time of Christ, icons were understood to offer a kind of proof that the Son of God entered the world as a human being, died on the cross, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven – all for the salvation of humankind.

The iconoclasts also objected to practices of honoring icons with candles and incense, and by bowing before and kissing them, in which worshippers seemed to worship created matter (the icon itself) rather than the Creator.   But the iconophiles asserted that when Christians honored images of Christ and the saints like this, they did not worship the artwork as such, but honored the holy person represented in the image.

The first phase of Iconoclasm: 720s-787

Historical texts suggest the struggle over images began in the early 720s.  According to traditional accounts, Iconoclasm was prompted by Emperor Leo III removing an icon of Christ from the Chalke Gate of the imperial palace in Constantinople in 726 or 730, sparking a widespread destruction of images and a persecution of those who defended images.   But more recently, scholars have noted a lack of evidence supporting this traditional narrative, and believe that iconophiles probably  exaggerated the offenses of the iconoclasts for rhetorical effect after the Controversy.

Historical evidence firmly identifies Leo’s son, Emperor Constantine V, as an iconoclast.  Constantine publicly argued against icons and convened a Church council that rejected religious images at the palace in the Constantinople suburb of Hieria in 754.  Probably as a result of this council, iconoclasts replaced images of the saints with crosses in the audience hall between the patriarchal palace and Constantinople’s great cathedral, Hagia Sophia, in the 760s.

787 iconophile Council of Nicaea II

In 787, the Empress Irene convened a pro-image Church council, which negated  the Iconoclast council held in Hieria in 754 and affirmed the use of religious images.   The council drew on the pro-image writings of a Syrian monk, Saint John of Damascus, who lived c. 675-749.

The second phase of Iconoclasm:  815-843

Emperor Leo V, who reigned from 813-820, banned images once again in 815, beginning what is often referred to as a second phase of Byzantine Iconoclasm.  Leo’s ban on images followed significant Byzantine miliary losses to the Bulgars in Macedonia and Thrace, which Leo may have viewed as a sign of God’s displeasure with icons.  Theodore, Abbot of the Stoudios Monastery in Constantinople, wrote in defense of the icons during this time.  Evidence suggests this second phase of iconoclasm was more mild than the first.

The Triumph of Orthodoxy

The iconoclastic  Emperor Theophilos died in 842.  His son, Michael III, was too young to rule alone, so Empress Theodora (Michael’s mother}, and the eunuch Theoktistos (an official), ruled as Regents until Michael III came of age.   Later sources describe Theodora as  a secret iconophile during her husband’s iconoclastic reign, although there is a lack of evidence to support this.   For reasons not entirely clear, Theodora and Theoktistos installed the iconophile Patriarch Methodios, and once again affirmed  religious images in 843, definitively ending Byzantine iconoclasm.

Imperial and Church leaders marked this restoration of images with a triumphant procession through the city of Constantinople, culminating with a celebration of the Divine Liturgy in Hagia Sophia.  The Church acclaimed the restoration of images as the “Triumph of Orthodoxy,” which continues to be commemorated annually on the first Sunday of Lent in the Eastern Orthodox Churches to this day.