Iconoclasm and Icon Veneration

The falsely called ‘icon’ neither has its existence in the tradition of Christ or the Apostles or the Fathers, nor is there any prayer of consecration to transpose it from the state of being common to the state of being sacred. Instead, it remains common and worthless, as the painter made it.

Definition of the Iconoclast Council of 754

The making and worship of icons is no new invention, but the ancient tradition of the church… It is impossible for us to think without using physical images… by bodily sight we reach spiritual contemplation. For this reason Christ assumed both soul and body, since man is fashioned from both.

St John of Damascus, eighth century

Iconoclasm, literally ‘the breaking of icons’, is one of the few Byzantine words still in English and European use. This itself is testimony to the lasting power of the conflict which it names: the fight over the dangers and powers of religious images. In Byzantium, iconoclasm was inspired by the Second Commandment of the Law of Moses, which states: ‘Thou shalt make no graven images nor shalt thou worship them.’ The recapitulation of this law in the Book of Deuteronomy is even more severe:

Thou shalt not make thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters beneath the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God…

But it was neither the Judaic nor the Christian tradition that brought Byzantine iconoclasm to the fore. It was the Islamic observation of this commandment against idolatry which laid down the challenge to the role of images within imperial Christendom.

In Byzantium, people had become deeply attached to icons of holy persons, as we have seen, and images of Christ circulated throughout the empire on imperial coinage. In 692, when the Council in Trullo insisted that Christ be portrayed in his human form, it argued that the Incarnation justified a personal Christian art which was more instructive than symbolic representations of the Lamb of God. Scribes of early Christian manuscripts regularly illustrated biblical scenes, indicating their belief in the power of images to teach scripture. In this they followed the advice given by Pope Gregory I to western bishops: pictures could teach those who could not read. This notion that paintings were ‘Bibles of the illiterate’ encouraged a narrative art which followed the Gospel stories rather than the portrait-style devotional icon. Both were highly developed in Byzantium by the early eighth century.

Since the Byzantines cherished their religious art and icons, why did they turn against them? The phenomenon of iconoclasm, when people destroyed the images they had previously honoured, demands explanation. Theories abound, from the claim that it was all due to Leo III (717–41) to a recent interpretation that few people were actually involved – most were indifferent to the issue. Yet iconoclasm was one of the great ideological disputes in recorded history. For over a century, battle was joined; two distinct periods of icon destruction in Byzantium are documented, from 730 to 787 and again from 815 to 843, and several deaths and martyrdoms are recorded. As for the appeal of icons to popular sentiment, perhaps this was best understood by local Soviet commanders in the 1930s: when they were ordered to campaign against the influence of the Church, they were known to line up icons, sentence them to death and then shoot them.

In order to understand the introduction of iconoclasm, it is essential to recapitulate the military problems of early eighth-century Byzantium. Leo III was the last of a string of mainly unqualified emperors imposed by troops attached to the provincial government of the themes (themata) who marched on the capital and disposed of rulers with impunity. In the twenty-two years between 695 and 717, there had been six changes of ruler. The resulting instability prevented any serious attention to the dangerous expansion of Arabs into Asia Minor and Bulgars in the Balkans. By the time of Anastasios II (713–15), the Arabs were clearly preparing a major assault on the capital, and the emperor could only react by repairing the walls and getting in supplies. Another revolt by troops of the Opsikion theme, with naval support, set up a provincial tax collector as an unwilling emperor (Theodosios III, 715–17). This provoked the Anatolikon and Armeniakon theme armies to try to end the constant upheavals by establishing a competent military ruler.

In March 717, Leo, general of the Anatolikon forces, negotiated with Theodosios III and Patriarch Germanos to take control, and was crowned emperor on the condition that he would not disturb the Church and that his predecessor should be allowed to retire from public life as a monk. Once recognized as ruler, Leo III immediately prepared the city to withstand the expected siege. Knowing that for decades the Arabs had intended to make the Byzantine capital their own, he reinforced the measures already taken, storing extra food supplies, preparing the navy and strengthening the city’s fortifications. During the twelve-month siege of 717/18, Leo’s vigorous defence, achieved with skilful use of ‘Greek fire’, Bulgarian aid and the intercession of the Virgin, constituted a great victory over the Arabs. It reflected both his military experience as well as popular belief in the city’s divine protection, and was commemorated annually thereafter.

To prevent further Arab attacks by sea, Leo III paid special attention to naval forces, strengthening the theme of Thrakesion along the west coast of Asia Minor, promoting the Kibyrraioton to theme status, and establishing new naval commands in the Aegean Sea and on Crete (see map 3). He also suppressed a revolt in Sicily and reinforced imperial control in southern Italy. He displayed his orthodoxy by attempting to force conversion on Jews and heretical Christians, called Montanists (followers of the second-century ADprophet Montanus from Phrygia). And, by crowning his one-year-old son Constantine as co-emperor, he revealed his intention to establish a new imperial dynasty that would rule for generations. New coins were struck to spread this message. But the provinces of Asia Minor continued to suffer repeated raids, which theme forces were unable to check despite Leo’s efforts. Since the Byzantines knew that God granted victory in battle, and had in the past assisted them in defeating the historic empire of Persia, they had to question why He now gave triumphs to the Arabs. Being a God-fearing people, they sought an explanation for divine disapproval in their own human failings.

Then in 726, from the depths of the Aegean, a great volcanic eruption forced boiling lava and pumice stones ‘as big as hills’ into the air, which darkened the sky for days and then floated up on the shores of Asia Minor, Greece and the islands. A new island emerged between Thera (Santorini) and Therasia. When Leo wondered what this divine sign meant, his advisers interpreted it as a warning against idolatry, and advised him to ban icons from churches and public places. It is not clear if he knew that Bishop Constantine of Nakoleia in Asia Minor had already noticed the failure of icons to protect cities besieged by the Arabs, or that some wonder-working icons had ceased to perform their expected miracles, but Constantine is later identified as an adviser to Leo. When the emperor learnt that divine favour was being withheld because of the excessive veneration of icons, which was tantamount to idolatry, he ‘began to speak against the holy icons’, as the chronicler Theophanes states. Theophanes also cites the instance of Caliph Yezid ordering the destruction of Christian art in 722/3, and claims that Leo was inspired by the same idea and was ‘Saracen-minded’. For Leo, however, it was necessary to secure God’s support in battle against the Arabs, and if this meant imposing iconoclasm, then iconoclasm must be imposed. It was instituted as a way of regaining divine support at a critical time for the survival of Byzantium. Leo’s motives may have been spelled out in theological terms, but they expressed his understanding of the Muslims’ methods of ensuring discipline and effectiveness.

The first phase of iconoclasm began in 730 when Leo III ordered church leaders to remove icons. When Patriarch Germanos refused to agree, he was dismissed by a judicial tribunal of senators and civilian officials. Anastasios, previously his assistant, was appointed to direct the new iconoclast Church. In Rome, however, Pope Gregory II (715–31) and his successor Gregory III (731–41) reacted with hostility to the official letter about the dangers of icons. Their antagonism was also fuelled by disputes over taxation in Italy, which had increased as a result of a new imperial census of the population. Apart from the removal of a prominent icon displayed on the imperial palace, very little specific destruction is recorded, as if the change in religious practice needed a fuller and firmer theological basis. Leo’s son, Constantine V, later provided this in his own writings and the associated campaign to impose iconoclasm.

After a long reign of twenty-four years, Leo III died peacefully in 741. His notable achievements included a decisive defeat of the Arabs the previous year at Akroinon; a new law code, the Ekloga, which insisted that provincial judges receive a salary in order to avoid corruption, among other reforms designed to strengthen the legal system; and the transfer of the ecclesiastical diocese of East Illyricum from Roman control to Constantinople. This brought the Greek-speaking regions of southern Italy, Sicily, the Balkans and Greece, and their revenues, back into the orbit of the Byzantine capital and was naturally opposed by the Roman bishops. In 731, Pope Gregory III also held a local council to condemn iconoclasm, which opened a religious schism between Rome and Constantinople. His successors continued to lay claim to the territories of Illyricum. Nonetheless, the reign of Leo brought stability to the empire, consolidated imperial defences and checked Muslim expansion. Iconoclasm appeared to have succeeded in its primary aim of regaining divine favour in battle, without as yet a wholesale destruction of icons.

The century between 743 and 843 was dominated by the battle over religious images. Following a short but violent civil war, Constantine V (741–75) assumed control over the capital and began to develop his own theory of iconoclasm, arguing for a spiritual form of worship which avoided any idolatrous veneration of painted wood. This theology of Christian belief without icons was elaborated in his Peuseis (Enquiries), which stressed that the Eucharist was the true image of Christ and the Cross the most powerful symbol of the Christian. In preparation for holding an oecumenical council to consolidate iconoclast belief and practice, Constantine V organized a series of debates to counter iconophile opposition and to make sure that all bishops supported the correct theology. When they eventually met at Hiereia in 754, the iconoclast bishops denounced icon veneration as idolatry, citing scriptural texts, and emphasized that Christians should worship without base material objects such as wooden, painted images:

Because the catholic church of us Christians stands in the middle between Judaism and paganism, she walks the new path of piety and worship… without acknowledging the bloody sacrifices… of Judaism; despising also the entire practice of making and worshipping idols, of which abominable art paganism is the leader and inventor.

Rome did not participate in the Council and rejected its decisions. Although the records of the proceedings were later destroyed, apart from the Definition, which was preserved and denounced in 787, it is clear that Constantine took a leading role. The persecution and death of persistent icon venerators followed, mainly monks who both painted religious images and encouraged their cult. St Stephen the Younger was one of the most prominent.

After a recurrence of bubonic plague in the 740s, Constantine attracted workers to the capital to repair its major aqueduct, as well as to restore monuments damaged in a serious earthquake. The church of St Irene, a foundation of Justinian, was rebuilt in iconoclast style, with a mosaic cross in its apse, and can still be admired as an impressive example of the symbolic art then in favour. Of course, the Cross was also revered by iconophiles as the most potent symbol of Christ’s power; it was used in blessing, protecting, curing and exorcizing demons by iconoclasts and iconophiles alike. In 751, however, the iconoclast emperor was unable to save Ravenna from the Lombards; no military aid was sent to the West (as noted in chapter 6). This was partly due to Constantine V’s almost constant campaigns against the Arabs, Slavs and Bulgars, which were highly successful. As a result of his military triumphs, the idea of imperial victory became elided with the religious policy of iconoclasm, and those who fought in the wars often became its fervent supporters. At his death in 775 Constantine V bequeathed a much stronger empire to his son, Leo IV (775–80), whom he had married to Irene, a girl from Athens.

Despite forty-five years of iconoclast policy, when Empress Irene was widowed in 780 on the death of her husband Leo IV, she decided to reverse it, a daring and surprising shift which was supported by exiled iconophiles, especially monks. In the name of her sixteen-year-old son Constantine VI, she summoned another oecumenical meeting to Constantinople. Pope Hadrian I and the three eastern patriarchs were all invited and sent their representatives to the Council, which was presided over by a newly appointed patriarch. Irene had promoted Tarasios, leader of her civilian government, to the post. After a disastrous first meeting in 786, which was disrupted by bishops loyal to iconoclasm, the Council reconvened in Nicaea in 787 and denounced iconoclasm as an innovation in Church tradition. Icon veneration, justified by citing miracles recorded mainly in the lives of saints, was restored and twenty-one canons were issued to ensure that no new churches were built without relics and icons of the saints. The iconophiles’ chief argument was that the Incarnation of the Son of God permitted a depiction of Christ as He had been seen on earth. That image could be venerated with relative honour (proskynesis), even if actual worship (latreia) was reserved for God alone:

The holy Church of God which confesses rightly that there is one hypostasis of Christ in two natures, has been instructed by God to represent Him in icons, in order for her to remember His redemptive dispensation. (Sixth session of the Council of 787)

They ordered all iconoclast texts to be destroyed.

Empress Irene undoubtedly exploited the divisions generated by half a century of iconoclasm and seized the opportunity to lead Byzantium back to the veneration of icons because it afforded her greater control. Her urge to restore the graven images was hardly pious. For when Constantine VI broke free of her influence and tried to rule alone, she had him blinded in the same purple chamber where she had given birth to him twenty-six years earlier. From 797 to 802, she replaced him and ruled as emperor, issuing laws and negotiating with Caliph Harun al-Rashid and Charlemagne. Her portrait is found on both sides of the gold coinage issued in her name, a unique style, which neglects any Christian image or symbol (plate 11c). When her finance minister overthrew her in a palace coup d’état, she had ruled longer than her husband, Leo IV.

In 815, Emperor Leo V initiated the second phase of iconoclasm, a resumption intimately connected with the promise of military success. This was now firmly associated with Constantine V. In a staged event, soldiers loyal to his memory broke into the imperial tombs at the mausoleum attached to the Holy Apostles and called on their hero to lead them to victory. Under Leo V (813–20) and Michael II (820–29), iconoclast forces engaged the Bulgars with some success, and Patriarch John, called the Grammarian (grammatikos) because of his profound learning, developed new justifications for the destruction of icons. During the reign of Emperor Theophilos (829–42), these were accompanied by a more vigorous persecution of those who persisted in painting or venerating icons.

On the death of Theophilos, however, his widow Theodora assumed imperial power for her young son, Michael III. Despite the challenges posed by several military officials and her own male relatives, she succeeded in making a firm alliance with the court hierarchy, led by the chief eunuch Theoktistos, and previously exiled iconophile monks, and again an empress reversed iconoclasm. Theodora chose Methodios, who had been tortured and imprisoned, as patriarch and commissioned him to write a new liturgy (theSynodikon of Orthodoxy) to mark the return to correct belief. Reaffirming the Council of 787, the veneration of icons was restored on 10 March 843. The destruction of all iconoclast texts was again ordered. Theodora also insisted that the Church should grant her husband Theophilos a posthumous pardon for his iconoclasm, so that young Prince Michael would not suffer from any association with heresy. The Synodikon was chanted with the names of iconoclasts Leo III and Constantine V, but not Theophilos, among a long list of condemned heretics; it is still performed in Orthodox churches on the first Sunday in Lent.

The ‘Triumph of Orthodoxy’, as the event became known, was commemorated in icons, although none survive from the ninth century. A fourteenth-century copy, now in the British Museum, portrays the empress with Michael III and Patriarch Methodios venerating an icon of the Virgin and Child above a row of iconophile martyrs, several monks and one (fictitious) nun, Theodosia (plate 27). Illuminated psalters also reflect the resumption of figural art with numerous pictures in the margins, which often illustrate the iconoclast controversy (e.g. Patriarch John the Grammarian trampled underfoot by iconophiles; plate 15). Three manuscripts of this type, including the famous Khludov Psalter, date from the period immediately after 843 and served as models for later ones. In monuments, on the other hand, symbolic iconoclast art remained in place for several years: no iconophile could possibly object to the cross. Only in 866 was the apse decoration of St Sophia in Constantinople renewed with a mosaic of the enthroned Virgin and Child. Patriarch Photios inaugurated it on Easter Sunday with a sermon describing its significance, and it remains in place to be revered. Elsewhere, figural paintings and mosaics which had been whitewashed over or covered up were restored. In miraculous fashion, lightning revealed the original Vision of Ezekiel mosaic in the church of Hosios David in Thessalonike. Although the patriarch feared the return of iconoclasm, the Triumph of Orthodoxy had secured the veneration of icons. Their honoured position was never again challenged.

From this overview of iconoclasm, it must be clear that all modern reconstructions of its impact are based on inadequate documentation. This is because the victorious icon-lovers insisted on the destruction of their opponents’ arguments. As we have seen, in 787 and again in 843, they demanded the total obliteration of iconoclast theology by burning all the texts. This systematic destruction removed most of the evidence for what the icon-breakers were trying to achieve. The full text of the Peuseis, written by Constantine V, the acts of the Iconoclast Councils of 754 and 815, and the theological writings of John Grammatikos are all lost. We know the basic Definition of Belief issued by iconoclast theologians in 754 only because it was read out in 787, when it was denounced sentence by sentence. Several apse mosaics featuring monumental crosses put up by iconoclasts were eventually replaced by images of the Virgin and Child, leaving a shadowy outline. And much secular art of the iconoclast period, for example scenes of chariot and horse racing, was removed as irreverent.

Iconoclasm by its very nature involves destruction. But how many icons or paintings, frescoes or illuminated manuscripts were actually consigned to flames, overpainted or effaced is unknown. Modern estimates vary. To document the losses and to reconstruct what art might have been in existence is of course impossible. But iconoclast destruction is recorded: in the Patriarchate of Constantinople, holy figures previously decorating rooms were replaced by crosses, though not till the 760s. Surviving manuscripts from the periods of iconoclasm now lack images which had been cut out, and psalters produced immediately after 843 have representations of iconoclasts painting over icons.

The only way that we can understand this century of iconoclast debate is by setting it in its broadest context. The Byzantines turned against their holy images between 730 and 843 in a major upheaval sparked by the challenge posed by Islamic conquest, the loss of empire and expectations of the end of the world. As Byzantium came to terms with its new shape and gained confidence in its capacity to survive, it returned to the icons – first in 787 and again in 843, when Empresses Irene and Theodora took the lead. When it felt threatened, as in the early ninth century, Byzantium adopted the policy that was intimately associated with military victory, with soldiers taking the lead. The second phase of iconoclasm from 815 to 843 is only explicable as a reflection of Byzantium’s reaction to a further devastating military challenge to its existence.

If we look more closely at the arguments that were used by both sides, we can see how directly these related to the threat of Islam. The iconoclasts claimed that religious images were dangerous and led people into idolatry, a sin for which they would be punished. They also pointed to the fact that the icons were no longer effective and had lost their power to defend and cure true Christian believers. Both arguments were used in 730, when Leo III introduced iconoclasm as the official policy. Against this, iconophiles developed sophisticated arguments based on the Incarnation, which permitted artists to depict the human Christ. St John of Damascus and others believed that Christians could be led up to a higher awareness of the divine through the veneration of icons.

In the course of the debate over icons, Byzantium set up its holy images as intercessors to define its art against the influence of the iconoclast Arabs. The Byzantines knew about Islam’s claims to superiority over God’s previous revelations to the Jews and the Christians, which were emblazoned on Muslim coins and monuments like the Dome of the Rock. Suras from the Qur’an repeated the message that Jesus was just another prophet, not the Son of God. Christian artists countered this by depicting the Crucifixion, to emphasize their belief in the Resurrection. In the monastery on Mount Sinai, completely surrounded by Muslims who denied that Christ had risen from the dead, icons dating from the period of iconoclasm display the dead Christ on the Cross. They make the point that Jesus died, was buried and returned to life before his ascension into heaven. Debate over which divine revelation was true extended to all regions and is reflected in all aspects of political propaganda, as well as buildings and icons.

Iconoclasm also affected many levels of society, especially the icon painters themselves, chiefly monks, who were prosecuted for continuing to produce icons, and monastic communities which resisted iconoclasm – for instance Stoudios and Chora, both in the capital. Iconophile monks were exiled to various locations; others who embraced the change to iconoclasm were installed at these and other previously iconophile centres. Similarly, all those who continued to venerate icons at home, notably women, ran the risk of prison or worse. When St Stephen and his companions were incarcerated on Constantine V’s orders, the wife of the prison officer is said to have brought her own icons to them in secret, so that they could maintain their venerations. Clerics on both sides, who stood by their theology and refused to compromise, were affected: iconophile Patriarchs Germanos and Nikephoros were forced to retire; Paul abdicated (something very unusual in Byzantium); the iconoclast bishops who disrupted the Council of 786 were punished, and Patriarch John the Grammarian, who refused to resign in 843, was sent into exile.

But probably the most significant sector affected was the military, such as the soldiers who became convinced iconoclasts under Constantine V, when he led them to major victories over both Arabs and Bulgars in the mid-eighth century. In their eyes, correct iconoclast theology brought military triumphs over the external enemies of Byzantium. Outside the empire, reactions recorded in other Christian centres indicate how seriously icon veneration was taken. In his monastery near Jerusalem, St John of Damascus (c. 675–753/4) elaborated a defence of the holy icons. In Rome, iconoclast theology was seen as another eastern heresy, like Monotheletism, and was firmly opposed. Farther north, however, Frankish theologians were shocked at the idolatrous aspects of iconophile justifications, when they learnt about them in a faulty translation of the acts of the 787 Council. Even beyond the imperial frontiers, the arguments and consequences of iconoclasm were considered significant.

Perhaps the most telling sign that iconoclasm had profound repercussions lies in the efforts made by iconophiles to efface all knowledge of it. For several decades after 843, Patriarch Photios feared a revival and wrote about the dangers of iconoclasm, suggesting that the policy retained power and force even when condemned. He was proved wrong. But the destruction of iconoclast theology was not completely successful, for during the European Reformation those Protestants critical of religious imagery cited precisely the same texts and concepts derived from the Byzantine experience. Comparison with the later experience of iconoclasm also confirms the underlying causes of Christian anxiety about religious images: icons had a similar function to representations of the old pagan gods. All the ancient practices were reproduced in the veneration of icons: they were kissed and adored; candles and lamps with incense were burned in front of them; and prayers were addressed to the holy persons represented. The iconoclasts condemned such behaviour as a new form of pagan idolatry, which generated a superstitious belief that the painted wood could respond. Muslims had also noticed the similarity and claimed that it made Christianity ‘like the religion of the people of the idols’. Hence the iconophiles’ determination to distinguish Christian from pagan icons, and veneration from true worship, which is reserved for God alone. This is still a sensitive issue in some orthodox circles today.

To claim that iconoclasm had a fundamental importance does not reduce the significance of other achievements of the period. Most inhabitants of the greatly reduced empire experienced the eighth and ninth centuries as a period of heightened military threat. By defeating Arab and Bulgarian forces, Leo III and Constantine V guaranteed the empire’s survival. Provincial inhabitants of both the eastern and western frontiers were not exposed to the same regular devastation. Although Constantinople would be besieged again, it withstood all later attacks until 1204. Legal reforms, the consolidation of theme military government, the restoration of dynastic rule and the reestablishment of Constantinople as a major market in the eastern Mediterranean were more important to the life of Byzantium than iconoclasm. The intimate connection between military victory and iconoclasm forged by Constantine V and imitated by his successors must be held responsible for the systematic destruction of figural art – barely a single Christian icon made before 730 survives from Constantinople – while iconophile artists and monks were persecuted, tortured and killed.

The iconoclast battles also draw attention to a fascinating contrast between male support for iconoclasm and female opposition, embodied in Empresses Irene and Theodora, who successfully reversed it. The two women seem to have acted from political considerations rather than from personal belief. Irene in particular set a telling precedent when she assumed imperial authority in 780, summoned the Seventh Council and later dispensed with her son’s rule. Of course, this was not accepted in all quarters. Some western observers refused to believe that Irene could rule as emperor. They used the argument that the imperial position was vacant to promote the superior authority of Charles, king of the Franks. On Christmas Day 800, when he went to pray at the tomb of St Peter, Pope Leo III improvised Charles’s coronation and he was acclaimed as ‘emperor of the Romans’. The pope knew that Irene was ruling and that the new title would not be acceptable in Byzantium. Charles himself tried to overcome the breach in relations caused by this ceremony by responding favourably to Irene’s negotiations for a marriage of convenience, which would have allowed them both to use the imperial title in their respective political spheres. This was the event that provoked the revolt against her. Nonetheless, her example was followed not only by Theodora but also by later empresses. In Byzantium, widowed imperial mothers continued to act as regents for their young sons, as Irene and Theodora had done.

In developing its own cult of icons, Byzantine Christianity broke away from the established interpretation of what was a graven image. All later Byzantine art was based on principles forged at this time. The reliance on icons was celebrated in impressive displays of public art, such as the mosaics in Hagia Sophia of Constantine and Justinian flanking the Virgin, or of Christ over the main entrance, as well as in a domestic setting. Periods of iconoclasm probably strengthened this focus, encouraging women such as the wife of a prison official to preserve their own icons in spite of the official policy of the Church. It is therefore ironic that Irene and Theodora, who reversed Byzantine iconoclasm, did so as much out of their love of power as of their peity. Perhaps inadvertently, they also encouraged artistic traditions which led to the great flowering of icon painting, ivory carving, manuscript illumination, mosaics and frescoes that have become the hallmark of Byzantine art. If the iconoclast emperors saved Byzantium from the Arabs, the iconophile empresses ensured glorious representations of Christian holy people for six hundred years – and much longer outside the empire.

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