Byzantine Iconoclasm and the Triumph of Orthodoxy
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?
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 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 ….”
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
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.
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.