Byzantine Iconoclasm

Iconoclasm is the deliberate destruction within a culture of the culture's own religious icons and other symbols or monuments, usually for religious or political motives. It is a frequent component of major political or religious changes. It is thus generally distinguished from the destruction by one culture of the images of another, for example by the Spanish in their American conquests. The term is also not generally used of the specific destruction of images of a ruler after his death or overthrow (damnatio memoriae), for example Akhenaten in Ancient Egypt.

People who engage in or support iconoclasm are called iconoclasts, a term that has come to be applied figuratively to any person who breaks or disdains established dogmata or conventions. Conversely, people who revere or venerate religious images are called iconodules in a Byzantine context, or iconophiles.

Iconoclasm may be carried out by people of a different religion, but is often the result of sectarian disputes between factions of the same religion. The two Byzantine outbreaks during the 8th and 9th centuries were unusual in that the use of images was the main issue in the dispute, rather than a by-product of wider concerns. In Christianity, iconoclasm has generally been motivated by a literal interpretation of the Ten Commandments, which forbid the making and worshipping of "graven images".

Major periods of iconoclasm

  • In the Roman Empire, pagan images were destroyed during the process of Christianisation.
  • In the world of Islam, there have been various periods of iconclasm against images of other religions and those produced within Islam itself.
  • In the Eastern Orthodox Church in the Byzantine period, of its own religious imagery.
  • In Europe during the Reformation and the religious conflicts following there were several outbreaks, with Protestants destroying Catholic or sometimes Protestant imagery.
  • During the French Revolution, there was destruction of religious and secular imagery.
  • During and after the Russian Revolution, there was widespread destruction of religious and secular imagery.
  • During and after the Communist takeover of China, especially in the Cultural Revolution there was widespread destruction of religious and secular imagery in China and Tibet.
  • There have been many other episodes, some as part of peasant revolts or similar uprisings, others encouraged by central government.

Byzantine Iconoclasm


A thorough understanding of the Iconoclastic Period in Byzantium is complicated by the fact that most of the surviving sources were written by the ultimate victors in the controversy, the iconodules. It is thus difficult to obtain a complete, objective, balanced, and reliably accurate account of events and various aspects of the controversy.[2]

Major historical sources for the period include the chronicles of Theophanes the Confessor [3] and the Patriarch Nikephoros[4], both of whom were ardent iconodules. Many historians have also drawn on hagiography, most notably the Life of St. Stephen the Younger,[5] which includes a detailed, but highly biased, account of persecutions during the reign of Constantine V. No account of the period in question written by an iconoclast has been preserved, although certain saints' lives do seem to preserve elements of the iconoclast worldview.[6]

Council of Nicaea, 787, from a Greek Testament miniature, 9th century

Major theological sources include the writings of John of Damascus,[7] Theodore the Studite,[8] and the Patriarch Nikephoros, all of them iconodules. The theological arguments of the iconoclasts survive only in the form of selective quotations embedded in iconodule documents, most notably the Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea and the Antirrhetics of Nikephoros.[9]

As with other doctrinal issues in the Byzantine period, the controversy was by no means restricted to the clergy, or to arguments from theology. The continuing cultural confrontation with, and military threat from, Islam probably had a bearing on the attitudes of both sides. Iconoclasm seems to have been supported by many from the East of the Empire, and refugees from the provinces taken over by the Muslims. It has been suggested that their strength in the army at the start of the period, and the growing influence of Balkan forces in the army (generally considered to lack strong iconoclast feelings) over the period may have been important factors in both beginning and ending imperial support for iconoclasm.

The use of images had probably been increasing in the years leading up to the outbreak of iconoclasm. One notable change came in 695, when Justinian II put a full-face image of Christ on the obverse of his gold coins. The effect on iconoclast opinion is unknown, but the change certainly caused Caliph Abd al-Malik to break permanently with his previous adoption of Byzantine coin types to start a purely Islamic coinage with lettering only.[10] A letter by the patriarch Germanus written before 726 to two Iconoclast bishops says that "now whole towns and multitudes of people are in considerable agitation over this matter" but we have very little evidence as to the growth of the debate.[11]

This page of the Iconodule Chludov Psalter, illustrates the line "They gave me gall to eat; and when I was thirsty they gave me vinegar to drink" with a picture of a soldier offering Christ vinegar on a sponge attached to a pole. Below is a picture of the last Iconoclast Patriarch of Constantinople, John the Grammarian rubbing out a painting of Christ with a similar sponge attached to a pole. John is caricatured, here as on other pages, with untidy straight hair sticking out in all directions, which was considered ridiculous by the elegant Byzantines.

The first iconoclastic period: 730-787

Sometime between 726-730 the Byzantine Emperor Leo III the Isaurian ordered the removal of an image of Jesus prominently placed over the Chalke gate, the ceremonial entrance to the Great Palace of Constantinople, and its replacement with a cross. Some of those who were assigned to the task were murdered by a band of iconodules. [12] Writings suggest that at least part of the reason for the removal may have been military reversals against the Muslims and the eruption of the volcanic island of Thera,[13] which Leo possibly viewed as evidence of the wrath of God brought on by image veneration in the Church.[14] Leo is said to have described image veneration as "a craft of idolatry." He apparently forbade the worship of religious images in a 730 edict, which did not apply to other forms of art, including the image of the emperor, or religious symbols such as the cross. "He saw no need to consult the church, and he appears to have been surprised by the depth of the popular opposition he encountered".[15]

Germanus I of Constantinople, the iconodule Patriarch of Constantinople, either resigned or was deposed following the ban. Surviving letters Germanus wrote at the time say little of theology. According to Patricia Karlin-Hayter, what worried Germanus was that the ban of icons would prove that the Church had been in error for a long time and therefore play into the hands of Jews and Muslims.[16] In the West, Pope Gregory III held two synods at Rome and condemned Leo's actions, and in response Leo seized some papal lands. During this initial period, concern on both sides seems to have had little to do with theology and more with practical evidence and effects. Icon veneration was forbidden simply because Leo saw it as a violation of the biblical commandment forbidding the manufacture and veneration of images. There was initially no church council, and no prominent patriarchs or bishops called for the removal or destruction of icons. In the process of destroying or obscuring images, Leo "confiscated valuable church plate, altar cloths, and reliquaries decorated with religious figures", [15] but took no severe action against the former patriarch or iconophile bishops.

Leo died in 740, but his ban on icons was confirmed and established as dogma under his son Constantine V (741-775), who summoned a council in Hieria in 754 ("the Iconoclast Council") in which some 330 to 340 bishops participated. This council became known as a robber council, i.e. as uncanonical. Edward J. Martin writes, [17] "On the ecumenical character of the Council there are graver doubts. Its president was Theodosius, archbishop of Ephesus, son of the Emperor Apsimar. He was supported by Sisinnius, bishop of Perga, also known as Pastillas, and by Basil of Antioch in Pisidia, styled Tricaccabus. Not a single Patriarch was present. The see of Constantinople was vacant. Whether the Pope and the Patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem were invited or not is unknown. They were not present either in person or by deputy. The Council of Nicaea [II] considered this was a serious flaw in the legitimacy of the Council. 'It had not the co-operation of the Roman Pope of the period nor of his clergy, either by representative or by encyclical letter, as the law of Councils requires.' [18] The Life of Stephen borrows this objection from the Acts and embroiders it to suit the spirit of the age of Theodore. It had not the approval of the Pope of Rome, although there is a canon that no ecclesiastical measures may be passed without the Pope.' [19] The absence of the other Patriarchs is then noticed." [18]

The Iconoclast Council of Hieria was not the end of the matter, however. In this period complex theological arguments appeared, both for and against the use of icons. The monasteries were strongholds of icon veneration, and an underground network of iconodules was organized among monks. John of Damascus, a Syrian monk living outside of Byzantine territory, became the major opponent of iconoclasm through his theological writings. Another, Theodore the Studite, wrote a letter against the emperor to Pope Paschal, an act with strong political implications. In a response recalling the later Protestant Reformation, Constantine moved against the monasteries, had relics thrown into the sea, and stopped the invocation of saints. Monks were apparently forced to parade in the Hippodrome, each hand-in-hand with a woman, in violation of their vows. In 765 Saint Stephen the Younger was killed, apparently a martyr to the Iconodule cause. A number of large monasteries in Constantinople were secularised, and many monks fled to areas beyond effective imperial control on the fringes of the Empire.[10]

Constantine's son, Leo IV (775-80) was less rigorous, and for a time tried to mediate between the factions. Towards the end of his life, however, Leo took severe measures against images and would have banned his wife Irene, who was reputed to venerate icons in secret. He died before achieving this, and Irene took power as regent for her son, Constantine VI (780-97). With Irene's ascension as regent, the first Iconoclastic Period came to an end.

Irene initiated a new ecumenical council, ultimately called the Second Council of Nicaea, which first met in Constantinople in 786 but was disrupted by military units faithful to the iconoclast legacy. The council convened again at Nicea in 787 and reversed the decrees of the previous iconoclast council held at Constantinople and Hieria, and appropriated its title as Seventh Ecumenical Council. Thus there were two councils called the "Seventh Ecumenical Council," the first supporting iconoclasm, the second supporting icon veneration and negating the first. Unlike the iconoclast council, the iconodule council included papal representatives, and its decrees were approved by the papacy. Eastern Orthodoxy today considers it the last genuine ecumenical council. Icon veneration lasted through the reign of Empress Irene's successor, Nicephorus I (reigned 802-811), and the two brief reigns after his.

The second iconoclastic period: 814-842

Emperor Leo V the Armenian instituted a second period of Iconoclasm in 813, again possibly motivated in part by military failures seen as indicators of divine displeasure. Once again the icon of Christ over the Chalke gate was replaced with a cross. Leo was succeeded by Michael II, who in an 824 letter to the Carolingian emperor Louis the Pious lamented the appearance of image veneration in the church and such practices as making icons baptismal godfathers to infants. He confirmed the decrees of the Iconoclast Council of 754.

Michael was succeeded by his son, Theophilus. Theophilus died leaving his wife Theodora regent for his minor heir, Michael III. Like Irene 50 years before her, Theodora mobilized the iconodules and proclaimed the restoration of icons in 843, on the condition that Theophilus not be condemned. Since that time the first Sunday of Lent has been celebrated in the Orthodox Church as the feast of the "Triumph of Orthodoxy".

Issues in Byzantine Iconoclasm

What accounts of iconoclast arguments remain are largely found in iconodule writings. To understand iconoclastic arguments, one must note the main points:

  1. Iconoclasm condemned the making of any lifeless image (e.g. painting or statue) that was intended to represent Jesus or one of the saints. The Epitome of the Definition of the Iconoclastic Conciliabulum held in 754 declared:
    "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 one of the Christian Church every likeness which is made out of any material and colour whatever by the evil art of painters.... If anyone ventures to represent the divine image (χαρακτήρ, charaktēr) of the Word after the Incarnation with material colours, let him be anathema! .... If anyone shall endeavour to represent the forms of the Saints in lifeless pictures with material colours which are of no value (for this notion is vain and introduced by the devil), and does not rather represent their virtues as living images in himself, let him be anathema!"

  2. For iconoclasts, the only real religious image must be an exact likeness of the prototype -of the same substance- which they considered impossible, seeing wood and paint as empty of spirit and life. Thus for iconoclasts the only true (and permitted) "icon" of Jesus was the Eucharist, which was believed to be his actual body and blood.
  3. Any true image of Jesus must be able to represent both his divine nature (which is impossible because it cannot be seen nor encompassed) and his human nature (which is possible). But by making an icon of Jesus, one is separating his human and divine natures, since only the human can be depicted (separating the natures was considered nestorianism), or else confusing the human and divine natures, considering them one (union of the human and divine natures was considered monophysitism).
  4. Icon use for religious purposes was viewed as an innovation in the Church, a Satanic misleading of Christians to return to pagan practice.

"Satan misled men, so that they worshipped the creature instead of the Creator. The Law of Moses and the Prophets cooperated to remove this ruin...But the previously mentioned demiurge of evil...gradually brought back idolatry under the appearance of Christianity." [20]

It was also seen as a departure from ancient church tradition, of which there was a written record opposing religious images.

The chief theological opponents of iconoclasm were the monks Mansur (John of Damascus), who, living in Muslim territory as advisor to the Caliph of Damascus, was far enough away from the Byzantine emperor to evade retribution, and Theodore the Studite, abbot of the Stoudios monastery in Constantinople.

John declared that he did not venerate matter, "but rather the creator of matter." However he also declared, "But I also venerate the matter through which salvation came to me, as if filled with divine energy and grace." He includes in this latter category the ink in which the gospels were written as well as the paint of images, the wood of the Cross, and the body and blood of Jesus.

The iconodule response to iconoclasm included:

  1. Assertion that the biblical commandment forbidding images of God had been superseded by the incarnation of Jesus, who, being the second person of the Trinity, is God incarnate in visible matter. Therefore, they were not depicting the invisible God, but God as He appeared in the flesh. This became an attempt to shift the issue of the incarnation in their favor, whereas the iconoclasts had used the issue of the incarnation against them.
  2. Further, in their view idols depicted persons without substance or reality while icons depicted real persons. Essentially the argument was "all religious images not of our faith are idols; all images of our faith are icons to be venerated." This was considered comparable to the Old Testament practice of only offering burnt sacrifices to God, and not to any other gods.
  3. Regarding the written tradition opposing the making and veneration of images, they asserted that icons were part of unrecorded oral tradition (parádosis, sanctioned in Orthodoxy as authoritative in doctrine by reference to 2 Thessalonians 2:15, Basil the Great, etc.).
  4. Arguments were drawn from the miraculous Acheiropoieta, the supposed icon of the Virgin painted with her approval by St Luke, and other miraculous occurrences around icons, that demonstrated divine approval of Iconodule practices.
  5. Iconodules further argued that decisions such as whether icons ought to be venerated were properly made by the church assembled in council, not imposed on the church by an emperor. Thus the argument also involved the issue of the proper relationship between church and state. Related to this was the observation that it was foolish to deny to God the same honor that was freely given to the human emperor.

Emperors had always intervened in ecclesiastical matters since the time of Constantine I. As Cyril Mango writes,

"The legacy of Nicaea, the first universal council of the Church, was to bind the emperor to something that was not his concern, namely the definition and imposition of orthodoxy, if need be by force" [16]

That practice continued from beginning to end of the Iconoclastic controversy and beyond, with some emperors enforcing iconoclasm, and two empresses regent enforcing the re-establishment of icon veneration. One distinction between the iconoclastic emperors and Constantine I is that the latter did not dictate the conclusion of the First Council of Nicaea before summoning it, whereas Leo III began enforcing a policy of iconoclasm more than twenty years before the Council of Hieria would endorse it.


References and notes

  1. ---
  2. ^ L. Brubaker and J. Haldon, Byzantium in the iconoclast era (ca. 680-850): the sources (Birmingham, 2001).
  3. ^ C. Mango and R. Scott, trs., The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor (Oxford, 1997).
  4. ^ C. Mango, ed. and tr., The short history of Nikephoros (Washington, 1990).
  5. ^ M.-F. Auzépy, tr., La vie d’Étienne le jeune par Étienne le Diacre (Aldershot, 1997).
  6. ^ I. Ševčenko, "Hagiography in the iconoclast period," in A. Bryer and J. Herrin, eds., Iconoclasm (Birmingham, 1977), 113-31.
  7. ^ A. Louth, tr., Three treatises on the divine images (Crestwood, 2003).
  8. ^ C.P. Roth, tr., On the holy icons (Crestwood, 1981).
  9. ^ M.-J. Mondzain, tr., Discours contre les iconoclastes (Paris, 1989).
  10. ^ a b Robin Cormack, Writing in Gold, Byzantine Society and its Icons, 1985, George Philip, London, ISBN 054001085-5
  11. ^ C Mango, "Historical Introduction," in Bryer & Herrin, eds., Iconoclasm, pp. 2-3., 1977, Centre for Byzantine Studies, University of Birmingham, ISBN 0704402262
  12. ^ see Theophanes, Chronographia
  13. ^ Volcanism on Santorini / eruptive history at
  14. ^ According to accounts by Patriarch Nikephoros and the chronicler Theophanes
  15. ^ a b Warren Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, Stanford University Press, 1997
  16. ^ a b The Oxford History of Byzantium: Iconoclasm, Patricia Karlin-Hayter, Oxford University Press, 2002.
  17. ^ Edward J. Martin, A History of the Iconoclastic Controversy , p.46
  18. ^ a b citing J. D. Mansi, XIII, 207d
  19. ^ citing Vit Steph, 1144c
  20. ^ Epitome, Iconoclast Council at Hieria, 754



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