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The place, function, and importance of religious images in the Byzantine Empire were a subject of concern for both the secular Emperor rulers and the religious leaders. Byzantine Iconoclasm concerns the banning of the veneration of religious icons within the Empire.
The point of contention amongst the proponents of iconoclasm (iconoclasts) and those in support of the veneration of these images (iconophiles) lay in the analysis of whether the reverence of these images alienated the divine Christ or not.
The need to ensure that the actions and beliefs of the people of the Byzantine Empire were acceptable to Christ, and drew favor from the heavens, was born out of the prevalent belief of the time that the fortunes of the kingdom were designed by the Christian savior Jesus Christ. Christianity was the dominant religion of the Byzantine Empire, and the Emperors were particularly keen to act in accordance with the designs and providence of the Christian God.
The growth, power, and influence of the Byzantine Empire coincided with the belief in the power of religious images, especially those portraying Christ, in exercising divine influence on the fortunes of the Empire and its political and religious leaders.
Therefore, Byzantine Iconoclasm was born of a desire by the Emperors of various eras in the Byzantine history to align the fortunes of the Empire, according to what they believed was the will of God. Byzantine Iconoclasm occurred in two different historical times, the first being in the Eighth Century AD ( in the period 730-787 AD), and the second in the Ninth Century (In the period 814-842)1.
In both periods of Iconoclasm, emperors that were fearful of the wrath of God for the collective sin of idolatry within the Byzantine Empire banned the presence of these images in churches or their use as substitutes for the divine Christ. Naturally, such decrees, besides causing inevitable rifts with the religious leaders, also led to a dearth of artistic images in the places of worship within the Empire during the Iconoclastic periods.
The First Iconoclastic Period (730-787 AD)
During the reign of Emperor Leo III in the Eighth Century, the Byzantine Empire suffered several military defeats at the hands of Muslims. The losses in battle would not have been significant in the eyes of the Emperor had they been experienced at the hands of enemies who subscribed to the Christian faith.
In Emperor Leo III’s estimation, the loss to Muslims had military/political as well as religious significance. The emperor believed that the Empire was experiencing the wrath of God for the sin of idolatry undertaken via the worship of images of Christ in many churches and places of worship within the Empire2.
Other events that occurred during this period heightened his belief that the wrath of God was upon the Empire, for instance a volcanic eruption in the island of Thera. Leo III subsequently issued an edict that forbade the worship of religious images in an attempt to reverse the fortunes of the Empire both in a militaristic and religious sense.
Emperor Leo III’s son Constantine V, upon ascending to the throne of Emperor after his father’s death pursued the same iconoclastic ideals of his father, but with much more zeal. Constantine V targeted Monks – who were fervent opponents of iconoclasm – and attacked their monasteries with a view to disorganizing them in order to ensure their iconophile views did not spread much around the Empire.
Constantine V also purged civil servants who were opponents of iconoclasm from the civil service and the military.
The Second Iconoclastic period (814-842)
Iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire ended briefly during the reign of Irene (as regent), from 978 AD. However, during the reign of Leo V, Iconoclasm was reinstated throughout the Empire. Emperor Leo V, like Emperor Leo III before him, experienced military defeats that forced him into retrospection.
The Emperor concluded that the military defeats of the Byzantine Empire at the hands of Khan Krum the ruler of Bulgaria were a punishment from God for the continued worship of images. Emperor Leo V thus similarly issued an edict banning the worship of images depicting Christ in places of worship, allowing only crosses as symbols in places of worship.
The personal conviction of Emperor Leo V that God’s wrath was upon the Empire can be seen in his analysis on the fortunes of his predecessors. Emperor Leo postulated that, all the Emperors, before him, that had allowed the worship of images, were deposed. Conversely, those who had forbidden the practice had reigned in relative peace and died natural deaths.
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The Theological Debate
During both Iconoclastic periods, the edicts by Emperors Leo III and Leo V banning the worship of images depicting Christ were met with resistance from both religious leaders and the masses.
The point of contention lay in the assertion that the veneration of images and likenesses of Christ obviates the need for the divine Christ and thus substitutes the divine for the tangible. According to Mathews, religious artistic images when beheld by worshippers transform the worshippers into oneness with the image,3 and thus act as substitutes for the divine Christ.
Barber’s argument counters Matthews’ assertion, stating that images and icons are signifiers of the absence of the divine, and are thus elementary ‘sites of desire’ and not transformation4. Icons as objects to be worshipped traverse various ceremonial and liturgical practices of Christianity, both presently and during Byzantine times.
The most significant liturgical practice is the Eucharist, where the bread and wine symbolize the body and blood of Christ respectively. For the Iconoclasts in the Byzantine Empire, the gifts (bread and wine) of the Eucharist were the only permissible entities that could be used as symbols of Christ.
The legitimacy of the gifts of the Eucharist as permissible symbols by Iconoclasts draws from their recommendation by the Gospels and the Eucharistic invocation of the Holy Spirit.
The transformative nature of icons – and thus their susceptibility to be used as substitutes for the divine Christ – can be seen through the artistic analysis of Byzantine worshippers insofar as images are concerned. When Patriarch Photos beholds the recently decorated and painted Church of the Virgin Pharos in the Great Palace at Constantinople, he describes his oneness with the icons painted on the church walls.
To him, the experience of beholding the icons and paintings was akin to experiencing heaven itself5. Similarly, the actions of many worshippers in the Byzantine Empire in relation to statues and images of Christ allude to a substitution of the divine Christ for a physical one represented in the icons and statues. The images and statues in many places of worship, in the Byzantine Empire, became earthly substitutes of the divine and heavenly Christ.
The increased veneration of Icons of Christ led to increased contact with these images. Worshippers would place miniature images of Christ on the hands of various icons in order to establish some form of spiritual connection with Christ, which is manifested and symbolized by such physical contact. Many citizens even resorted to identifying specified icons as the godfathers of their children during baptism6.
Furthermore, increased veneration of images led to worshippers offering prayers and songs directed at the icons, which in a sense mirrors idolatry7. The act of burning incense for the images, and lighting of lamps within various statues to signify the guiding ability of the statues over the worshippers, also served to assert the iconoclasts’ belief that the images had substituted the divine
Christ in the eyes of the worshippers. Priests would also scrap the paint from various icons and use the obtained material to make holy drinks for worshippers.
Therefore, the theological, and artistic, point of contention lay in whether such acts constituted idolatry, as asserted by Emperor Leo III and Leo V who issued edicts banning such practices, believing them to be idolatry. According to Iconoclasts, the divinity of Christ pre-empts any attempts at creating his representation through statues and icons. By virtue of his divine nature, Christ as the son of God, and through the Trinity, as God, cannot be represented.
Any image attempting to portray Christ must thus portray him in both the physical and the divine state – an artistic impossibility. If Christ was to be represented in any image, he must thus inhabit the image, and if he does so, he forfeits his divine (heavenly) status.
Additionally, the transformative nature of artistic and religious images for Byzantines lends support to the notion that the images create a transformation for the viewer to the extent that the viewer experiences oneness with the represented image of Christ, to a degree that the beholder becomes like Christ himself. In the Byzantine Empire, images, particularly religious images, were valued for their ability to create both spiritual and physical transformation in the viewer.
Iconoclast led by both Emperors Leo III and Leo V believed that only the cross was permissible as a symbol of Christ, and during both Iconoclastic periods, it was the only symbol depicted in places of worship. Particularly, the act of coming into contact with the statues and images of Christ created a concern for the emperors, who were willing to allow statues as long as they were hoisted high beyond physical effortless human reach.
The View of Iconophiles
The brief Iconoclastic periods in the Eighth and Ninth Centuries where the statues and icons of Christ were not to be used as objects of worship and veneration are, however, contrasted by longer periods in Byzantine history when such images acted as symbols of Christ.
Byzantine art forms are not transformative nature, but purely artistic in nature; they are objects of desire. According to Barber, Byzantine Empire images and icons are sites of desire –they signify the absence of the divine Christ, not the presence, thus creating a spiritual longing for him8.
Additionally, those who did not support iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire – Iconophiles – similarly viewed the images and symbols of Christ as manifestations of his physical presence as a human. Having appeared in the flesh on earth, iconophiles viewed the icons and statues as symbols of his earthly sojourn and subsequent resurrection, and thus manifestations of his divinity through affirming his resurrection9.
The claims of idolatry through the directing of worship and prayer towards the icons are countered by iconophiles using Bible passages. Quoting passages in the book of Exodus, iconophiles believed that their actions were validated through the actions of the Israelites, who viewed the Ark of the Covenant, as the representation of God.
Furthermore, Iconophiles argued that veneration of icons that depicted images of persons within the Christian faith should not be viewed as idolatry since they represented real and honorable pioneers of the faith. Therefore, images of Christ, The Virgin Mary or any of the Saints were, in the estimation of Iconophiles, worthy of veneration.
Iconophiles believed that their veneration of such icons would only qualify as idolatry in the instance that the images or statues portrayed persons extraneous to the Christian faith.
Ultimately, Iconophiles also believed that an edict banning the veneration of icons was of significance import, both in the social and religious spheres of the Byzantine Empire, and as such should be made in consultation with religious leaders. Indeed, the Iconoclastic periods were the result of the personal opinions of the Emperors Leo III and Leo V.
The two Iconoclastic periods represent a pivotal study in the political, religious, and artistic history of the Byzantine Empire. The veneration of icons by citizens of the Byzantine Empire is of both artistic and religious significance. When the icons are considered from a transformative artistic view as advocated by Mathews, they afford a deeper artistic analysis of the icons that enables religious veneration.
When viewed from the point of advocacy of Barber – as signifiers – they gain religious significance due to their tendency to create a desire for the divine entity portrayed therein. Historically, Byzantine Iconoclasm marks the periods during the existence of the Byzantine Empire when its Emperors tried to reverse the loss of territories and influence of the Empire sustained in battle losses to its enemies.
Both Emperors Leo III and Leo V believed that the veneration of images was idolatry, and the defeat of the Empire’s army in battle was God’s punishment for the prevalence of idolatry in the Empire.
Byzantine Iconoclasm was thus a period of historical, artistic and religious significance, and the effects of the decisions made by the political and religious leaders during the Iconoclastic periods have influenced the art, political practices, and religious rituals of many other emergent nations long after the demise of the Byzantine Empire, well into contemporary times.
Barber, Charles. From Transformation to Desire: Art and Worship after Byzantine Iconoclasm. Art Bulletin 75, no. 1 (March 1993): 7-16
Bremmer, Jan. “Iconoclast, Iconoclastic, and Iconoclasm: Notes towards a Genealogy.” Church History & Religious Culture 88, no. 1 (January 2008): 1-17
Brubaker, Leslie, and John Haldon. Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era (C. 680-850): The Sources: An Annotated Survey. England, Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2001.
Cormack, Robin. Byzantine Art. Oxford: Oxford University press, 2000.
Grunebaum, G. E. Von. “Byzantine Iconoclasm and the Influence of the Islamic Environment.” History of Religions 2, no. 1(April/May 1962): 1-10.
Mathews, Thomas F. “Psychological Dimensions in the Art of Eastern Christendom.” Art and Religion: Faith, Form, and Religion 12, no. 2 (September 1986): 1-21.
Parry, Kenneth. Depicting The Word: Byzantine Iconophile Thought Of The Eighth And Ninth Centuries. New York: E.J. Brill, 1996.
1 Cormack, Robin. Byzantine Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
2 Bremmer, Jan. “Iconoclast, Iconoclastic, and Iconoclasm: Notes towards a Genealogy.” Church History & Religious Culture 88, no. 1 (January 2008): 1-17.
3 Mathews, Thomas F. “Psychological Dimensions in the Art of Eastern Christendom.” Art and Religion: Faith. Form and Religion 12, no. 2 (September 1986): 1-21.
4 Barber, Charles. “From Transformation to Desire: Art and Worship after Byzantine Iconoclasm.” Art Bulletin 75, no.1 (March 1993): 7-16.
5 Barber, Transformation to Desire, 11.
6 Brubaker, Leslie, and John Haldon. Byzantium in the iconoclast era (c. 680-850): The sources: an annotated survey. England: Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2001.
7 Grunebaum G. E. Von. “Byzantine Iconoclasm and the Influence of the Islamic Environment.” History of Religions 2, no. 1 (April/May 1964): 1-10.
8 Barber, Transformation to Desire, 15
9 Parry, Kenneth. Depicting The Word: Byzantine Iconophile Thought Of The Eighth and Ninth Centuries. New York: E.J. Brill, 1996.