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A.A. Vasiliev
History of the Byzantine empire

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Religious controversies and the first period of Iconoclasm.

            The history of the Iconoclastic[63] movement falls into two periods. The first lasted from 726 to 780 and ended officially with the Seventh Ecumenical Council; the second lasted from 813 to 843 and ended in the so-calledrestoration of orthodoxy.”

            The study of the iconoclastic epoch affords great difficulties because of the present condition of sources. All the works of the iconoclasts, the imperial decrees, the acts of the iconoclastic councils of the year 753-54 and 815, the theological treatises of the iconbreakers, etc., were destroyed by the triumphant image-worshipers. Some survivals of iconoclastic literature are known to us only by fragments introduced into the works of the image-worshipers for the purpose of refuting them. Thus, the decree of the iconoclastic council of 753-54 has been preserved in the acts of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, though perhaps not in its complete original form. The decree of the council of 815 has been discovered in one of the treatises of Patriarch Nicephorus, while numerous fragments of iconoclastic literature are found in the polemic and theological treatises of the antagonists of the movement. Particularly interesting in this respect are the three famous Treatises Against Those Who Depreciate the Holy Images of the renowned theologian and hymn-writer, John Damascene (of Damascus), a contemporary of the first two iconoclastic emperors. In order to disseminate their ideas, the iconoclasts sometimes resorted to the writing of spurious works. The surviving sources on iconoclasm, then, are biased by hostility to the movement; hence in later times scholars have differed greatly in their estimate of the iconoclastic period.

            Scholars have turned their attention first of all to the question of the causes for the movement against images, which lasted with some intervals for over one hundred years with very serious consequences to the Empire. Some students of this period have seen in the policy of the iconoclastic emperors religious causes, while others have believed that the causes were chiefly political. It was thought that Leo III determined to destroy images because he hoped that this measure would remove one of the chief obstacles to a closer relationship of the Christians with the Jews and Muhammedans, who disapproved of icons. He is credited with believing that a closer religious kinship with these two denominations would facilitate their subjugation to the Empire. A very thorough study of the iconoclastic period has been made by the well-known Greek historian, Paparrigopoulo, whose biased views with regard to the Ecloga have been pointed out. According to him it is incorrect to apply the termiconoclastic” to this epoch because it does not fully define the period. His belief is that parallel with the religious reform which condemned images, prohibited relics, reduced the number of monasteries, and yet left the basic dogmas of the Christian faith intact, there was also a social and political reform. It was the intention of the iconoclastic emperors to take public education out of the hands of the clergy. These rulers acted, not from personal or dynastic whims, but on the basis of mature and extended deliberations, with a clear understanding of the needs of society and the demands of public opinion. They were supported by the most enlightened element of society, by the majority of the high clergy, and by the army. The final failure of the iconoclastic reforms should be attributed to the fact that there were still many people devotedly attached to the old faith, and hence extremely antagonistic to the new reforms. This group included chiefly the common people, women, and the enormous number of monks. Leo III was apparently unable to educate the people in the new spirit.[64] Such, in brief, are the views of Paparrigopoulo with regard to this epoch; but there is no doubt that he exaggerated when he regarded the reform activities of the emperors of the eighth century as a remarkable attempt at a social, political, and religious revolution. Still, he was the first scholar to point out the complexity and importance of the iconoclastic period, thus inducing others to pay closer attention to it. There were some who believed that the iconoclastic policy of the emperors was prompted by both religious and political considerations, with a decided predominance of the latter; they maintained that Leo III, desirous of being the sole autocratic ruler in all aspects of life, hoped, by prohibiting the worship of images, to liberate the people from the strong influence of the church, which used image-worship as one of its strongest tools in securing the allegiance of the laity, Leo’s final ideal was to attain unlimited power over a religiously united people. The religious life of the Empire was to be regulated by the iconoclastic policy of the emperors, which was intended to aid these rulers in the realization of their political idealssurrounded by the halo of reformatory zeal.”[65] In more recent times some scholars (the Frenchman Lombard, for instance) began to view iconoclasm as a purely religious reform which aimed to arrest “the progress of the revival of paganism” in the form of excessive image-worship, and “restore Christianity to its original purity.” Lombard believed that this religious reform developed parallel with the political changes, but had a history of its own.[66] The French Byzantine scholar, Bréhier, called particular attention to the fact that iconoclasm involves two distinctly different questions; (1) the habitually discussed question of image-worship itself, and (2) the problem of the legality of religious art, i.e., the question as to whether or not it was permissible to resort to art as a means of depicting the supernatural world, and of representing the Saints, the Holy Virgin, and Jesus Christ. In other words, Bréhier brought to the fore the question of the influence of iconoclasm upon Byzantine art.[67] Finally, C. N. Uspensky shifted the emphasis from iconoclasm to the policy of the government against the rise and growth of monasterial landownerslnp. He wrote:


Leo’s administrative measures were basically and essentially directed from the very beginning against the monasteries, which toward the eighth century came to occupy a very unnatural position in the empire. In its fundamental aims the policy of Leo III was not based upon any religious considerations, but the persecuted monastic groups, the defenders of monastic feudalism, found it to their advantage to transfer the dispute to theological grounds in order to be able to claim that the activity of the emperors was atheistic and heretical, thus discrediting the movement: and undermining the confidence of the masses in their emperor. The true nature of the movement was thus skillfully disguised and can be rediscovered only with very great effort.[68]


In view of these varied opinions, it is evident that the iconoclastic movement was an extremely complex phenomenon; and unfortunately the condition of the sources still prevents its clarification.[69]

            In the first place, all the iconoclastic emperors were of eastern origin: Leo III and his dynasty were Isaurians, or perhaps Syrians; the restorers of iconoclasm in the ninth century were Leo V, an Armenian, and Michael II and his son Theophilus, born in the Phrygian province of central Asia Minor. The restorers of image-worship were both women, Irene and Theodora, Irene of Greek descent and Theodora from Paphlagonia in Asia Minor, a province on the coast of the Black Sea bordering Bithynia and at no great distance from, the capital. Neither of them, that is, came from the central parts of the peninsula. The place of origin of the iconoclastic rulers cannot be viewed as accidental. The fact of their eastern birth may aid in reaching a clearer understanding of both their part in the movement and the meaning of the movement itself.

The opposition to image-worship in the eighth and ninth centuries was not an entirely new and unexpected movement. It had already gone through a long period of evolution. Christian art in representing the human figure in mosaics, fresco, sculpture, or carving had for a long time unsettled the minds of many deeply religious people by its resemblance to the practices of forsaken paganism. At the very beginning of the fourth century the Council of Elvira (in Spain) had ruled “that there must be no pictures (picturas) in the church, that the walls should have no images of that which is revered and worshipped” (ne quod colitur et adoratur in parietibus depingatur).[70]

            In the fourth century, when Christianity received legal sanction and later became the state religion, the churches were beginning to be embellished with images. In the fourth and fifth centuries image-worship rose and developed in the Christian church. Confusion with regard to this practice persisted. The church historian of the fourth century, Eusebius of Caesarea, referred to the worship of images of Jesus Christ and the apostles Peter and Paul as “a habit of the Gentiles.”[71] Also in the fourth century Epiphanius of Cyprus related in a letter that he had torn in pieces a church curtain (velum) with the image of Jesus Christ or one of the saints, because it “defiled the church.”[72] In the fifth century a Syrian bishop, before he was ordained to his high post, denounced icons. In the sixth century a serious upheaval in Antioch was directed against the worship of pictures, and in Edessa the rioting soldiers flung stones at the miraculous image of Christ. There were instances of attacks upon images and of the destruction of some icons in the seventh century. In western Europe the bishop of Massilia (Marseilles) at the end of the sixth century ordered that all icons be removed from the churches and destroyed. Pope Gregory I the Great wrote to him praising him for his zeal in advocating that nothing created by human hands should serve as an object of adoration (nequid manufactum adorari posset), but at the same time reprimanding him for the destruction of the images since thereby he had taken away all chance for historical education from people who are ignorant of letters but “could at least read by looking at the walls what they cannot read in books.”[73] In another letter to the same bishop the pope wrote: “In that thou forbadest them to be adored, we altogether praise thee; but we blame thee for having broken them … To adore a picture is one thing (picturam adorare), but to learn through the story of the picture what is to be adored, is another.”[74] In the opinion of Gregory the Great and many others, then, images served as a means of popular education.

            The iconoclastic tendencies of the eastern provinces were somewhat influenced by the Jews, whose faith forbade image-worship, and who at times attacked any form of such worship with great violence. A similar influence began to be exerted from the second half of the seventh century by the Muslims, who, guided by the words of the Koran, “Images are an abomination of the work of Satan” (V. 92), viewed icon-worship as a form of idolatry. It is frequently stated by historians that the Arabian caliph Yazid II issued a decree in his state three years before Leo’s edict by which he prescribed the destruction of images in the churches of his Christian subjects; the authenticity of this story, without much basis for the doubt, is sometimes questioned.[75] In any event, Muhammedan influence upon the eastern provinces should be taken into consideration in any study of the anti-image movement. One chronicler refers to Emperor Leo as “the Saracen-minded” (σαρακηνοφρων),[76] although in reality there is very little basis for claiming that he was directly influenced by Islam. Finally, one of the widely known Eastern medieval sects, the Paulicians, who lived in the east-central part of Asia Minor, was also strongly opposed to image-worship. Briefly, in the eastern Byzantine provinces of Asia Minor there had grown up by the time of Leo III a strong iconoclastic movement. One of the Russian church historians, A. P. Lebedev, wrote: “It may be positively asserted that the number of iconoclasts before the iconoclastic period [in the eighth century] was large, and that they were a force of which the church itself had ample reason to be afraid.”[77] One of the main centers of the iconoclastic movement was Phrygia, one of the central provinces in Asia Minor.

            Meanwhile image-worship had spread very widely and grown very strong. Images of Jesus Christ, the Holy Virgin, and various saints, as well as pictures of scenes from the Old and New Testaments, were used in profusion for decorating Christian temples. The images placed in various churches of this period were either mosaics, frescoes, or carvings in ivory, wood, or bronze — in other words, they were both painted images and statue images, while many small pictures were reproduced in illuminated manuscripts (miniatures). Particularly great was the reverence for the so-calledicons not made by human hands,” which, in the belief of the faithful, were supposed to possess miraculous powers. Images found their way into family life, for icons were sometimes chosen as godfathers for children, and embroidered images of saints decorated the parade dress of the Byzantine aristocracy. The toga of one of the senators bore embroidered pictures representing the history of the entire life of Jesus Christ.

            The image-worshipers sometimes took the adoration of pictures too literally, adoring not the person or the idea represented by the image, but the image itself or the material of which it was made. This fact was a great temptation for many of the faithful, to whom this adoration of inanimate objects appealed because of its kinship with pagan practices. “In the capital,” according to N. P. Kondakov, “there was at the same time a characteristic increase in the number of monasteries, monastic communes, and convents of all kinds which multiplied very rapidly and reached incredible proportions by the end of the eighth century (perhaps, more correctly, toward the eighth century).”[78] In the opinion of I. D. Andreev, the number of Byzantine monks in the iconoclastic period may be estimated without any exaggeration at 100,000. “Remembering,” said this scholar, “that in Russia of today [this is written in 1907], with its 120,000,000 population spread over a vast territory, there are only about 40,000 monks and nuns, it is easy to imagine how dense must have been the net of monasteries covering the comparatively small territory of the Byzantine Empire.”[79]

            And while, on the one hand, the worship of ordinary and miraculous icons and relics confused many people who had grown up under the prevailing influences of the period, the excessive development of monachism and the rapid growth of monasteries, on the other hand, clashed with the secular interests of the Byzantine state. In view of the fact that large numbers of healthy young men embraced the spiritual life, the Empire was losing necessary forces from its army, agriculture, and industry. Monachism and the monasteries frequently served as a refuge for those who wished to escape governmental duties; hence many of the monks were not men who had been prompted to retire from worldly affairs by a sincere desire to follow higher ideals. Two aspects in the ecclesiastical life of the eighth century should be distinguished — the religious and the secular.

            The iconoclastic emperors, born in the East, were well acquainted with the religious views prevalent in the eastern provinces; they grew up with these views and were closely identified with them. Upon ascending the Byzantine throne they brought their views to the capital and made them the basis of their church policy. These emperors were neither infidels nor rationalists, as used to be maintained. On the contrary, they were men of a sincere and convinced faith, and desired to purge religion of those errors which permeated it and diverted it from its true original course.[80] From their point of view, image-worship and the adoration of relics were both survivals of paganism which had to be abolished at all costs in order to restore the Christian faith to its original pure form. “I am emperor and priest,” wrote Leo III to Pope Gregory II.[81] With this claim as a point of departure, Leo III considered it his legal right to make his own religious views compulsory for all his subjects. This attitude cannot be viewed as an innovation. It was the accepted caesaro-papistic view of the Byzantine emperors particularly prevalent in the time of Justinian the Great, who had also considered himself the sole authority in spiritual as well as in temporal matters. Leo III, too, was a convinced representative of the idea of Caesaropapism.

            The first nine years of Leo’s reign, devoted to repelling external enemies and to establishing the security of the throne, were not marked by any measures with regard to images. The ecclesiastical activity of the Emperor during this period was expressed only in his demand that the Jews and the eastern sect of Montanists be baptized.

            Only in the tenth year of his rule, i.e., in the year 726, did the Emperor, according to the chronicler Theophanes, “begin to speak of the destruction of the holy and all-honoured icons.”[82] The majority of contemporary scholars believe that the first edict against images was promulgated in 726 or perhaps 725. Unfortunately the text of this decree is unknown.[83] Soon after the proclamation of the edict Leo ordered the destruction of the venerated statue of Christ situated above one of the doors of the Chalke, as the magnificent entrance to the imperial palace was called. The destruction of this icon caused a riot, in which the main participants were women. The imperial officer delegated to destroy the image was killed, but his murder was avenged by the Emperor’s severe punishment of the defenders of the statue. These victims were the first martyrs of icon worship.

Leo’s hostility toward image worship aroused very strong opposition. The patriarch of Constantinople, Germanus, and Gregory II, the pope of Rome, were strongly opposed to the policy of the Emperor. In Greece and on the islands of the Aegean Sea a revolt broke out in defense of images. Although this was quickly suppressed by Leo’s army, this strong reaction on the part of the population made it impossible for him to undertake further decisive measures.

            Finally, in the year 730, the Emperor convoked a sort of council where another edict against sacred images was promulgated. It is highly probable that this council did not produce a new edict, but merely restored the decree of the year 725 or 726.[84] Germanus, who refused to sign this decree, was deposed and forced to retire to his estate, where he spent the last years of his life peacefully. The patriarchal chair was filled by Anastasius, who willingly signed the edict. Thus, the decree against images was now issued not only on behalf of the Emperor, but also in the name of the church, since it was sanctioned by the signature of the patriarch. This authority was of great value to Leo.

            Concerning the period which followed the proclamation of this edict, namely, the last eleven years of Leo’s reign, sources are silent with regard to the persecution of images. Apparently there were no instances of ill treatment. In any event, systematic persecution of images in the reign of Leo III is out of the question. At most, there were only a few isolated instances of open image destruction. According to one scholar, “In the time of Leo III there was rather a preparation to persecute images and their worshipers than actual persecution.”[85]

            The assertion that the image-breaking movement of the eighth century began, not by the destruction of images, but by hanging them higher up, so as to remove them from the adoration of the faithful, must be disregarded, for the majority of images in Byzantine churches were painted frescoes or mosaics which could not be removed or transferred from the church walls.

Leo’s hostile policy against images has found some reflection in the three famous treatises “Against Those Who Depreciate the Icons,” by John Damascene, who lived in the time of the first iconoclastic emperor within the boundaries of the Arabian caliphate. Two of these treatises were written, in all likelihood, in the time of Leo. The date of the third one cannot be determined with any degree of accuracy.

            Pope Gregory II, who opposed Leo’s policy of image-breaking, was succeeded by Pope Gregory III, who convoked a council in Rome and excluded the iconoclasts from the church. Following this step, middle Italy detached itself from the Byzantine Empire and became completely controlled by papal and western European interests. Southern Italy still remained under Byzantine sway.

            Quite different was the picture in the reign of Constantine V Copronymus (741-75), the successor of Leo III. Educated by his father, Constantine followed a very determined iconoclastic policy and in the last years of his reign, initiated the persecution of monasteries and monks. No other iconoclastic ruler has been subjected to so much slander in the writings of the iconodules as this “many-headed dragon,” “cruel persecutor of the monastic order,” this “Ahab and Herod.” It is very difficult, therefore, to form an unprejudiced opinion of Constantine. It is with some exaggeration that E. Stein called him the boldest and freest thinker of all eastern Roman history.[86]


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