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History of the Byzantine empire
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At the time of Constantine’s accession the European provinces were still devoted to icon worship, while those of Asia Minor had among their population a large number of iconoclasts. Constantine spent the first two years of his reign in constant struggle with his brother-in-law Artavasdus, who was leading a rebellion in defense of images. Artavasdus succeeded in forcing Constantine to leave the capital, and was proclaimed emperor. During his year of rule over the Empire he restored image worship. Constantine succeeded, however, in deposing Artavasdus and he reclaimed the throne and severely punished the instigators of the revolt. Yet the attempt of Artavasdus demonstrated to Constantine that icon worship might be restored without great difficulties, and it forced him to take more decisive steps to strengthen the validity of iconoclastic views in the conscience of the masses.
With this aim in view Constantine decided to convoke a council which would work out the foundations of an iconoclastic policy, sanction its validity, and thus create among the people the conviction that the Emperor’s measures were just. This council, attended by more than three hundred bishops, convened in the palace of Hieria on the Asiatic shore of the Bosphorus facing Constantinople. It gathered in the year 754. The members of the council did not include any patriarchs, for the see of Constantinople was vacant at that time, while Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria refused to participate, and the papal legates also failed to appear at the sessions. In later times these facts were used as a sufficient basis by opponents of this council for claiming that its decisions were invalid. Several months after the opening of the sessions the council was transferred to Constantinople, where the election of a new patriarch had meanwhile taken place.
The decree of the council of 754, which has been preserved in the acts of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (perhaps in parts and in a somewhat modified form), definitely condemned image worship by proclaiming the following:
Supported by the Holy Scriptures and the Fathers, we declare unanimously in the name of the Holy Trinity, that there shall be rejected and removed and cursed out of the Christian Church every likeness which is made out of any material whatever by the evil art of painters. Whoever in the future dares to make such a thing or to venerate it, or set it up in a church or in a private house, or possesses it in secret, shall, if bishop, priest or deacon, be deposed, if monk or layman, anathematised and become liable to be tried by the secular laws as an adversary of God and an enemy of the doctrines handed down by the Fathers.
Besides the general significance of this proclamation for image-worship, this decree is notable also for prescribing that persons guilty of icon worship should be tried by imperial laws, thus placing the iconodules under the jurisdiction of temporal power. This fact was later used by the members of the Seventh Ecumenical Council as an explanation of the extraordinary harshness manifested by some emperors with regard to the church and to the monks. Anathema was proclaimed for any person who “ventures to represent the divine image of the Logos after the incarnation with material colours … and the forms of the saints in lifeless pictures with material colours which are of no value, for this notion is erroneous and introduced by the devil.” The decree ends with the following: “To New Constantine and the most pious, many years! . . . To the most pious and orthodox [empress] many years! You have established the dogmas of the Holy Six Ecumenical Councils. You have destroyed all idolatry…” Anathema was proclaimed against the Patriarch Germanus, the “worshiper of wood,” and Mansur, i.e., John Damascene, “inclined to Muhammedanism, the enemy of the Empire, the teacher of impiety, the perverter of the Scriptures.”
The unanimous decree of the council made a very strong impression upon the people. “Many who had been troubled by a vague impression of the error of the iconoclasts,” said Professor Andreev, “could now grow calm; many who had formerly wavered between the two movements could now, on the basis of the convincing argument of the council decisions, form decisive iconoclastic views,” The mass of the people were required to give oath that they would forsake the worship of images.
The destruction of images, after the council, became ruthlessly severe. Images were broken, burned, painted over, and exposed to many insults. Particularly violent was the persecution of the cultus of the Blessed Virgin. Many image-worshipers were executed, tortured, or imprisoned, and lost their property. Many were banished from the country and exiled to distant provinces. Pictures of trees, birds, animals, or scenes of hunting and racing replaced the sacred images in the churches. According to the Life of Stephen the Younger, the church of the Holy Virgin at Blachernae in Constantinople, deprived of its former magnificence and covered with new paintings, was transformed into a “fruit store and aviary.” In this destruction of painted icons (mosaics and frescoes) and statues many valuable monuments of art have perished. The number of illuminated manuscripts destroyed was also very large.
The destruction of images was accompanied also by the destruction of relics. Time has preserved a satire of the iconoclastic period on the excessive adoration of relics in which the author speaks of ten hands of the martyr Procopius, of fifteen jaws of Theodore, of four heads of George, etc.
Constantine V displayed extreme intolerance toward the monasteries and initiated a crusade against the monks, those “idolaters and lovers of darkness.” His struggle with monachism was so intense that some scholars find the question of a more accurate definition of the reforms of this period somewhat debatable, claiming that it is difficult to determine whether it was a struggle against images or a fight directed against the monks; C. N. Uspensky stated definitely that “historians and theologians have purposely distorted the reality of facts by advancing the ‘iconomachia,’ rather than the ‘monacho-machia,’ of the period.” The persecutions of monks expressed itself in many severe measures. They were forced to put on secular dress, and some were compelled to marry by force or threats. In one instance they were forced to march in file through the hippodrome, each holding a woman by the hand, amid the sneers and insults of the crowd of spectators. The chronicler Theophanes relates that a governor in Asia Minor assembled the monks and nuns of his province at Ephesus and said to them, “Let each who wishes to obey the Emperor and us put on the white dress and take a wife immediately; those who do not do so shall be blinded and exiled to Cyprus,” and he was congratulated by Constantine V, who wrote: “I have found in you a man after my own heart who carries out all my wishes.” Cyprus apparently was one of the emperor’s places of exile for recalcitrant monks. It is recorded that five monks managed to escape from there, reached the territory of the caliphate, and were brought to Bagdad. Monasteries were taken away from the monks and transformed into barracks and arsenals. Monasterial estates were confiscated. Laymen were forbidden to take refuge in the cowl. All these regulations led to a wide migration of monks to districts unaffected by the Emperor’s iconoclastic persecutions. According to some scholars, in the time of Leo and Constantine Italy alone received about 50,000 of these refugees. This event was of enormous significance for the fate of medieval southern Italy, for it upheld there the predominance of the Greek nationality and the Orthodox church. But even southern Italy was apparently not altogether free from iconoclastic troubles. At least there is a very interesting indication that in the ninth century A.D. St. Gregory the Decapolite fell into the hands of an iconoclastic bishop of the south-Italian city of Hydrus (now Otranto). Many monks migrated also to the northern shores of the Euxine (the Black Sea), and to the coast of Syria and Palestine. Among the martyrs who suffered under Constantine V, Stephen the Younger is particularly famous.
During the reign of Leo IV the Khazar (775-80) the internal life of the Empire was calmer than under his father Constantine V. Although Leo, too, was an adherent of iconoclasm, he felt no acute enmity towards the monks, who once more regained a certain amount of influence. In his brief reign he did not manifest himself as a fanatical iconoclast. It is very likely that he was influenced to some extent by his young wife, Irene, an Athenian who was famous for her devotion to image-worship and to whom all image-worshipers of the empire turned hopeful faces. “His moderate attitude in the icon controversy,” Ostrogorsky explained, “was an appropriate transition from the tactics of Constantine V to the restoration of the holy images under the Empress Irene.” With Leo’s death in 780 ended the first period of iconoclasm. Because his son, Constantine VI, was a minor, the rule of the Empire was entrusted to Irene, who was determined to restore image worship.
In spite of her definite leanings toward image-worship, Irene did not undertake any decisive measures in the direction of its official restoration during the first three years of her reign. This postponement was due to the fact that all the forces of the Empire had to be directed to the internal struggle with the pretender to the throne and to the external fight with the Slavs who lived in Greece. Furthermore, the restoration of icon-worship had to be approached with great caution, because the major part of the army was favorably inclined to iconoclasm, and the canons of the iconoclastic council of 754 declared by Constantine as imperial laws continued to exert a certain amount of influence upon many people in the Byzantine Empire. It is quite likely, however, that many members of the higher clergy accepted the decrees of the iconoclastic council by compulsion rather than by conviction; hence they constituted, according to Professor Andreev, “an element which yielded readily to the reformatory operations of the iconoclastic emperors, but which would not form any real opposition to the measures of an opposite tendency.”
In the fourth year of Irene’s reign the see of Constantinople was given to Tarasius, who declared that it was necessary to convoke an ecumenical council for the purpose of restoring image-worship. Pope Hadrian I was invited to attend and to send his legates. The council gathered in the year 786 in the Temple of the Holy Apostles. But the troops of the capital, hostile to icon-worship, rushed into the temple with drawn swords and forced the assembly to disperse. It seemed that the iconoclastic party had triumphed once more, but it was only for a brief period. Irene skillfully replaced the disobedient troops by new soldiers, more loyal to her ideals.
In the following year (787) the council convened in the Bithynian city of Nicaea, where the First Ecumenical Council had been held. Seven meetings of the council, from which the Emperor and Empress were absent, took place in Nicaea. The eighth and last assembly was held in the imperial palace at Constantinople. The number of bishops who came to this council exceeded three hundred. This was the seventh and last ecumenical council in the history of the eastern church.
Image-worship was restored by the decree of this council. The adoration of holy images was confirmed, and those who disagreed with the ruling of the council were anathematized. Excommunication was also proclaimed for those “who called the holy images idols and who asserted that the Christians resort to icons as if the latter were Gods, or that the Catholic church had ever accepted idols.” The bishops of the council acclaimed “a New Constantine and a New Helen.” It was ruled that relics had to be placed in all of the restored temples from which these necessary attributes of an orthodox church were absent. The transformation of monasteries into common dwellings was severely condemned, and orders were issued to restore all the monasteries abolished and secularized by the iconoclasts. The council devoted much of its attention to raising the morality of the clergy by condemning the buying of church offices for money (simony), etc. It also prohibited the existence of mixed monasteries (for both sexes).
The great importance of the Nicene Council does not lie only in the restoration of image-worship. This council created for the iconodules the organization which they had lacked in their early struggle with their opponents; it collected all theological arguments in favor of images, which could later be used by the iconodules in their disputes with the iconoclasts. In brief, the council provided for the iconodule party a weapon which facilitated all future struggles with their antagonists when the second period of the iconoclastic movement set in.
The so-called “iconoclastic” activities of the emperors of the eighth century were only one, and perhaps not the most important, aspect of that period. For most of the data on this period comes from the later one-sided literary tradition of the triumphant icon-worshiping party which destroyed practically all the iconoclastic documents. But owing to some occasional and scattered information which has survived one may conclude that the main energy of Leo III and Constantine V was directed toward the secularization of large monasterial landed property and the limitation of the enormous number of monks, that is to say, against the elements which, by escaping state control and by functioning with almost complete independence, were undermining the vital forces and unity of the Empire.