Byzantine Iconoclasm was the result of theological oppositions that started in the first years of the empire and continued for centuries. Constantinople had followed the Orthodox view established at the Council of Nicaea, but this later changed.
The Byzantine people were divided into Orthodox and Monophysite sects. These two sides had different interpretations of the nature of Jesus.
While communities with Orthodox faith lived in the west of the empire, there were Monophysites in the east. This division was evident even in the themes that made up the army of the Byzantine Empire.
These two sects, which were divided in every sense, had different views on icons. The Orthodox viewed the icons as part of their religion, while the Monophysites disliked images that reflected the human nature of Jesus.
A Brief History of Byzantine Iconoclasm
In order to better understand the Iconoclastic Controversy that emerged in the Byzantine Empire, it is necessary to rewind a little and examine the period of Emperor Constantine, when the Roman Empire started to become Christian. After all, Byzantine Iconoclasm was the result of events that took place between the 4th and 8th centuries.
1. Constantine the Great
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 the Great 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.
2. Division of the Roman Empire
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 Rome 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.
3. The Rise and Decline of Byzantine Empire
The rise of Byzantine Empire reached its peak under Justinian the Great. 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 stopped 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 late Roman era. 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.
4. Iconoclastic Controversy
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.
Iconoclastic controversy was one of the main incidents that caused Great Schism (break of communion between the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Churches) in 1054.
5. How Did Byzantine Iconoclasm Begin?
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 I, Theodosius I and Justinian I were demolished.
Tough it seems pretty wild; Byzantine Iconoclasm 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, Islamic religion in which depiction was strictly forbidden was an inspiration for the Iconoclasts.
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.
Finally, it should be noted that in the Byzantine Empire, taking refuge in a monastery and becoming a monk was an excuse to avoid military service. The booming population of monasteries weakened the army.
When we examine these arguments, we can see that the reason for the beginning of Byzantine iconoclasm was based on economic and military reasons rather than ideological and religious ones.
6. End of Byzantine Iconoclasm
Early period of Byzantine iconoclasm lasted between 726 and 787 while the second Iconoclast period took place between 814 and 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 is one of the first depictions portrayed to celebrate the end of the Iconoclast movement.
7. 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 “Gul Mosque”. You can visit this artifact and listen its full story on Cibali, Fener and Balat tour with Serhat Engul.
Unfortunately, Byzantine Iconoclasm was a destructive period, although it had its own plausible reasons. Artifacts from the early Byzantine Empire were destroyed by iconoclasts.
To grasp the wealth of works of art lost due to iconoclasm, one must look at Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. Built by Emperor Justinian in the 6th century, this church has magnificent Byzantine mosaics.
The Byzantine Empire did not have Ravenna during the reign of the emperor Leo III. In this way, the mosaics there remained intact. However, the mosaics in and around Constantinople, the heart of the empire, disappeared.
If you visit the Hagia Irene, which was built during the Byzantine Iconoclasm, you can get a partial impression of the plain Byzantine art of the Iconoclasm period. To understand the contribution of mosaics to Byzantine art, it is necessary to visit the Chora Church in Istanbul.
Written by Serhat Engul