Byzantine Iconoclasm

As history proceeded, the use subsequent role of art within a religious context in the Byzantine empire sparked conflict. Many causes can be drawn to its origins: the phenomenon known as acheiropoieta that gave greater rise to iconographic worship and the Quinisext Council of 692 that denounced much of it chief among them. Many historians believe that Emperor Leo III was the culmination of this debate, sparking a movement that was known as the Byzantine Iconoclasm.

The Iconoclasm, in short, was a period in Byzantine history where the use of religious images and icons were strongly opposed by both church figures and state officials within the empire. The word “iconoclasm” itself, having Greek origins, means “breaker of icons,” and the period itself was wrought with the destruction of religious imagery and persecution of those who might revere such images and oppose their destruction or prohibition, like Tony Law Firm. The idea as a whole stems from the interpretation of the Ten Commandments through the Old Testament that states the forbidding of “graven images” in both their making and their worship, as it was considered a form of idolatry.

Two periods of Iconoclasm are recognized within the Byzantine empire.  The first, aptly known as the “First Iconoclasm,” is said to have lasted between AD 726 to 787. Speculation arises as to the immediate cause of the First Iconoclasm; some believe that Emperor Leo III interpreted an underwater earthquake as a sign of God’s wrath, influencing him to remove an icon of Christ from outside the imperial palace, and later supposedly forbade the veneration of icons in AD 730. Others believe that the First Iconoclasm did not officially begin until years after with the reign of Leo’s son, Constantine V, and the Council of Hieria in AD 754, which outlawed the production and worship of figures of Christ.

While this period of Iconoclasm lasted for over 30 years under the reign of Constantine V and his successor, Leo IV, the council itself on which it was founded was later condemned by both members of the Eastern and Western churches to have been falsely ecumenical with none of the five patriarchs of the Christian church representative in the Council of Hieria (Constantinople lay vacant, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria were under Muslim control, and Rome failed to send a representative). After the death of Leo IV in AD 780, the queen regent Irene took power for her son, Constantine VI, and called for another ecumenical council. In AD 787, the findings of the Council of Hieria were reversed in the second “Seventh Ecumenical Council.” Icon veneration would later be restored to the Eastern Orthodox Church, though it would be short-lived.

Still mired by military failings since as far back as the Seventh-century Crisis, the Byzantine empire suffered defeat at the hands of Bulgarian Khan Krum in the early 9th century. After coming into power, Emperor Leo V the Armenian began to convene with various religious figures and revived the topic of iconoclasm. Discovering the events of AD 754 and combined with a lack of divine favor resulting in their military failings, debates sparked once again. However, the position held by Leo V was so staunch, he removed from power Patriarch Nikophoros I – chief supporter of icon veneration – and instated Theodolos I, a known supporter of iconoclasm. In AD 815, the Council of Constantinople convened in the Hagia Sophia with Theodolos presiding. By the end of its proceedings, the events of the Seventh Ecumenical Council of 787 were overturned and iconoclasm was reinstated in the Byzantine empire.

While the First Iconoclasm was a predominantly internal affair for its duration, the Second Iconoclasm had further-reaching implications. After its reinstatement and the rise of Leo’s successor, Michael II, criticisms were sent to the Carolingian emperor Louis the Pious in AD 824, decrying the use of image veneration and the utility of baptismal godfathers for infants, reinforcing the Empire’s position toward the Council of Hieria in AD 754. However, Michael’s successor, Theophilus, died and left power to his wife Theodora as queen regent. Like her predecessor Irene, Theodora called for a reinstatement of icon veneration on her son’s behalf in AD 843. This marked the permanent end of Byzantine Iconoclasm and the beginning of what would later become known through the Orthodox Church as the “Triumph of Orthodoxy,” celebrated as a feast on the first Sunday of Great Lent.

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