The destruction of images. The great Iconoclastic Controversy over the nature and function of religious images convulsed Byzantine Christianity from the 720s until 843. It accentuated the division between the Eastern and Western halves of Christendom and contributed to a deterioration of relations with the papacy that led ultimately to the alliance of the papacy with the Franks and the secession of Italy from Byzantium.
During the period of 550 to 700, the cult of images had been infiltrated by abuses, the tendency of some believers to venerate icons of saints more than the saints themselves. In 726 Emperor Leo III issued the first edict against the use of images. According to the ninth-century historian Theophanes, Leo combined iconoclasm with a disbelief in the intercession of the Virgin and saints and a hatred of martyrs’ relics.
Iconoclasm reached its peak in the middle of the eighth century. Emperor Constantine V was a noted theologian, who was inclined toward MONOPHYSITISM. He won resounding victories over the Arabs and Bulgars and left a dynasty firmly established on the Byzantine throne. In 754 he summoned a synod at the Hieria palace, which pronounced itself against images. Consequently, Constantine moved vigorously against image worshipers, destroying religious art and replacing it with imperial art. The monks were a special target and were persecuted without mercy—one of the most notable of the martyrs was Saint Stephen the Younger, whose body was mutilated by a mob. In 775, Constantine was succeeded by his son Leo IV the Khazar, who, although more favorable toward the monks, continued to support iconoclastic measures.
The cult of images was re-established by Leo’s successor, Empress Irene, and sanctioned by the Seventh Ecumenical Council, held at Nicaea in 787. Irene’s reign benefited the monks and the monasteries. After many intrigues, in 797 Irene blinded and deposed her son, Constantine VI, who was in league with iconoclasts in the army.
In 802 Irene was overthrown by Nicephorus, who gave only a lukewarm support for images. The controversy continued fitfully until the death of Emperor Leo V the Armenian in 820. Orthodoxy was restored in 843 at a formal council held in Constantinople, which “confirmed the seven ecumenical councils and restored the sacred images to the veneration that was formerly their due.” This event was formally celebrated on the first Sunday in Lent, 11 March 843, and is still observed in the Orthodox world. Iconoclasm was never again an issue within Byzantine Christianity.
Iconoclasm, like most great issues in history, was exceedingly complex. It involved the whole Byzantine population—emperors, bishops, monks, theologians, court officials, civil servants—as well as the populace of the great cities of the Byzantine world.
The precise reasons for the outbreak of iconoclasm are obscure. The following have been suggested: (1) Islamic influence, which was opposed to images of living things, mediated through a circle close to Leo III; (2) a desire on the part of the iconoclast emperors to purify the people morally and intellectually after the disastrous encounters with the Muslims in the seventh century; (3) a reaction against abuses of the cult of images; (4) a desire to enforce the power of the state over the church, that is, caesaropapism; (5) the influence of monophysitism, which had long been opposed to the rulings of the Council of CHALCEDON; (6) the sullen hostility of a provincial culture toward an alien iconodule piety of Constantinople; and (7) the influence of various Christian sects. It seems probable that the main influences were internal to Byzantine Christianity.
The position of the emperor was important in Byzantium, and it may be that Leo III associated the military weakness of the empire in the seventh century with idolatry. In opening a campaign against images he may have been returning to a traditional view of the dominant place of the emperor in the Christian schema, which went back to the fourth century. Other groups involved in the controversy no doubt had other motives—the doctrinal issue was important for ecclesiastics. Yet in the last resort, neither side in the controversy clung to its religious opinions with the pertinacity shown earlier by the Monophysites. The iconoclast emperors throughout underestimated the hold of the icons on the Byzantine population and, in particular, the deep-seated belief that the Virgin Mary, THEOTOKOS, was the guardian, savior, and protector of the imperial city of Constantinople.
- Alexander, P. J. The Patriarch Nicephorus of Constantinople. Oxford, 1958.
- Barnard, L. W. The Graeco-Roman and Oriental Background of the Iconoclastic Controversy. Leiden, 1974.
- Brown, P. R. L. “A Dark Age Crisis: Aspects of the Iconoclast Controversy.” English Historical Review 88 (1973):1-34. Bryer, A., and J. Herrin, eds. Iconoclasm. Birmingham, 1977.
- Gero, S. Byzantine Iconoclasm During the Reign of Leo III. Louvain, 1973.
- Martin, E. J. A History of the Iconoclastic Controversy. London, 1930.
LESLIE W. BARNARD