Byzantine Iconoclasm – Iconoclastic Controversy


What is Byzantine Iconoclasm?

What is Byzantine Iconoclasm – Reasons of Iconoclastic Controversy

It took 300 years for Roman Empire to accept Christianity as a legitimate religion. Roman Empire underestimated the process which began with Jesus spreading his teaching around Jerusalem. However, the fact that Saint Paul and Saint Peter, two important apostles of Jesus, went even to Rome, the heart of the Roman Empire, and Christianity started to spread irrepressibly prompted Roman Empire to take serious precautions.

Some Emperors imposed oppression policies against Christians and thousands of them were killed. As practicing polytheistic religions, Romans saw this new monotheistic religion a threat to their own existence. But their perspective started to change by 300s under Constantine the Great period.

Constantine the Great considered that Roman Empire needed major reforms. Therefore, he allowed Christians to practice their religions freely within the Roman Empire with the agreement called Edict of Milan in 315. Soon afterwards, he convened the First Council of Nicaea and established Christian doctrines. He also left Rome, embodiment of pagan religion, and moved the capital to Constantinople, called as “New Rome”.

Christianity became the life style of Romans in a very short time. It took just 66 years from Constantine the Great calling a halt to the oppression of Christians to Christians starting to oppress pagans in 381. In Theodosius I period, Christianity became the official state religion and Constantinople, the city Constantine the Great founded on the new religion, became one of the most sacred centers of the empire.

Roman Empire Divided into Halves

Roman Empire divided into halves with the death of Emperor Theodosius I in 395. While the Rome was the capital of the Western Roman Empire, Constantinople was the capital of Eastern Roman Empire. Western Roman Empire collapsed because of barbarian invasions (mainly Goths and Germans) in 476. Eastern Roman Empire, also called as Byzantine Empire in modern history, survived until 1453.

Iconoclastic Controversy in Byzantium

Division Of The Roman Empire As East And West

The Rise and Decline of Byzantine Empire

The rise of Byzantine Empire reached its peak under Justinian I period. However, Empire, as already exceeding its potential borders, started to decline right after Emperor Justinian. Even though period of decline started in 6th century was prevented by Emperor Heraclius temporarily, attempts to save the empire from declining were insufficient.

Byzantine Empire inherited the continues wars against barbarian tribes (Germans and Goths) in the west and Persian Empire in the east from Roman Empire. Yet, in the 7th century, there were also new enemies to Byzantine Empire such as Slavs, Avars and Arabs. Empire suffered heavy losses and shrank extensively and, as a result, after ascending the throne, Isaurian dynasty started Iconoclasm period in Byzantine Empire.

Iconoclastic Controversy in the Byzantine Empire

The existence of icons (mosaics, murals etc.) was always at issue in Byzantine Empire. While some devotes thought that icons were credendum, others argued that icons led to idolatry. After Leo III commanded that icons were to be destroyed; Iconoclasm became a government policy.

The decision of destroying all kinds of icons within the boundaries of Byzantine Empire was a deadlock for Western-Eastern relations which was already in a poor condition. There was a continuous dispute between the Pope, most important religious official in the west (Rome) and the Patriarch in the east (Constantinople) but Pope was a higher authority in Christian world and he used his political power by condemning Iconoclasm movement.

Iconoclasm movement was one of the main incidents that caused Great Schism (break of communion between the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Churches) in 1054.

What is Iconoclasm?

The first Iconoclast period that started with Leo III “The Isaurian” in 726 and lasted until 787 damaged Byzantine art greatly. All kinds of religious images were destroyed within the boundaries of Byzantine Empire and the legacy of great emperors such as Constantine the Great, Theodosius I and Justinian I were demolished.

Tough it seems pretty wild; Iconoclast movement had its own reasons. The first reason was the continuous losses on the battlefield. Emperors thought that God turned away from them and favored Muslims over them. According to some historians, Islam religion in which depiction was strictly forbidden was an inspiration for them.

The second reason was church becoming too rich and starting to overshadow the authority of emperors. Accustomed to military mindset, Isaurian Dynasty aimed to break the political power of clergymen and seize their properties. For this reason, churches and monasteries were sacked and valuable items such as gold and silver were transferred to public purse. Monks who were thought to exploited state property were exiled.

End of Byzantine Iconoclasm

Iconoclast movement began between 726-787 at first while the second Iconoclast period took place between 814-843. The oppressive attitude of the emperors, who destroyed the icons, also created a great opposition.

Stoudios Monastery, one of the most established religious institutions of Constantinople, was the head of those who wanted the icons to come back. Theodore the Studite, the abbot of Stoudios Monastery, was the leader of the opponents of Iconoclasm.

Iconoclasm caused a huge deal of destruction of culture and art and the restoration period started with Macedonian Dynasty. The mosaic of The Virgin Mary and Jesus (depicted as a child) on top of the altar of Hagia Sophia Museum is one of the first depictions portrayed to celebrate the end of the Iconoclast movement.

End of Iconoclastic Controversy in Byzantium

Byzantine Iconoclasm

Virgin Mary and Jesus Mosaic

Hagia Theodosia Church

One of the historical artifacts that you can see on Fener Balat walking tour is based on Iconoclast period. Rumor has it that, after Iconoclast period began, a huge Jesus mosaic, in front of the Great Palace in modern-day Sultanahmet, was ordered to be removed and a devout woman gave her life trying to oppose the soldiers. Called Theodosia, she was recognized as a martyr and saint after Iconoclast period was over.

The church, devoted to Saint Theodosia who was believed to heal people, was turned into a mosque after the capture of Constantinople and was named “Gül Mosque”. You can visit this artifact and listen its full story on Cibali, Fener and Balat tour with Serhat Engul.

The Basilica of San Vitale located in Ravenna was built at the early period of Byzantine Empire. There were mosaics of Justinian I who built Hagia Sophia and his wife Theodora in it. Artifacts such as San Vitale which was not within the boundaries of empire under Leo III. the Isaurian period were lucky enough not to face the damages Iconoclast period caused.

Summary of Byzantine Iconoclasm by Serhat Engul


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