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Byzantine Iconoclasts (726-787 CE) McMichael, A.L.


Byzantine iconoclasts (image breakers) were not always a homogenized group, but we now use the term to represent the interlocutors who codified the social, political, and religious conflict with iconophiles (lovers of images) into law. The first period of Iconoclasm (image breaking) in Byzantium is usually attributed to the 720s CE. Textual sources report that a prominent icon (portrait) of Christ was removed from public view in Constantinople in 726. This led to subsequent debates over whether and how it was appropriate to depict holy figures in art. The controversy oscillated until a church council in 754 forbade the use of icons, a mandate that lasted until 787. The process of iconomachy (image struggle) emerged alongside Christianity in late antiquity. As the religion spread from its origins in Jerusalem toward Rome, Constantinople, and nearby regions, practitioners of the new religion developed a visual vocabulary and artistic practices. By the sixth century, Christian icons depicting holy figures and narratives were used in churches and on domestic items. Christians also venerated holy relics, the material remains of holy people who had died and were thought to be heavenly intercessors for the living. Christians differentiated their use of icons and relics from the use of pagan idols by interpreting holy images as providing access to the divine. Periods of Byzantine iconomachy occurred because there were Christians who, for various reasons, had an aversion to figural religious images. A gathering of bishops at the Quinisext Council in 691-692 attempted to codify the respectful use of religious images. For example, they insisted on depicting Christ as a man rather than symbolically as a lamb. The council’s careful attention to image use points to the emerging controversy among Orthodox Christians about whether and how it was appropriate to depict holy figures in material icons. In contrast to the visual culture of iconophiles, iconoclasts argued that earthly matter was inadequate for depicting the divine. Some took the biblical second commandment forbidding the worship of idols (Exodus 20:4-5) as a mandate against use of religious images that could be construed as idolatry. This was in keeping with existing Jewish practices in late antiquity. Many others, including Monophysite Christians in eastern provinces, preferred aniconic (non-figural) images or symbolic representations of Christ such as a cross or the celebration of the Eucharist (bread and wine commemorating Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection). Some sources attribute the spread of iconomachy to increasing familiarity with aniconic Muslim practice, which criticized the Christian use of figural imagery. Byzantines knew these beliefs primarily through military encounters during the Islamic conquests by the seventh century. Iconoclasm as imperial policy is often associated with Emperor Leo III (r. 717-741), who had risen to power through a military career. He was credited with the removal of the Christ icon from the Chalke Gate, a prominent entrance to the imperial palace in 726. Another event during his reign was the dismissal of iconophile Germanos I from his position as Patriarch of Constantinople in 730. It is important to note, however, that Leo’s iconoclastic tendencies were only recorded in texts written by later iconophiles. Leo’s son and successor, Constantine V (r. 741-775), was a documented iconoclast. In 754 he called a church synod (assembly of bishops) that forbade the creation of holy portraits in material form. The synod also rejected the use of icon veneration in domestic, personal settings, although it made a point to honor Christ as well as the Virgin and saints through aniconic means. Notably, the effects of iconomachy were primarily in Constantinople. It is not clear whether many images were actually destroyed due to the ban or how stringently the ban was implemented outside the capital. It is possible that the controversy was primarily a philosophical and legal debate rather than a period of widespread material destruction of existing icons. The first period of Byzantine Iconoclasm ended with the Iconophile Interlude (787-802). Empress Irene (regent from 780-797) called a new church council that ruled in favor of religious portraits in 787, saying that the honor paid to the image is transferred to its holy prototype. The Iconophile interlude was followed by a second period of Iconoclasm from 815-842. The debates were at the heart of a long struggle during which Orthodox Christians in the Byzantine Empire and beyond were forced to articulate acceptable image use within the context of theology and politics.

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