Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Iconoclasts and Iconodules: Religious Controversy in the 8th and 9th Century Eastern Roman Empire

The Emperor Leo III ascended to the Eastern Roman Empire in 717. His reign was marked by several notable events including the end of the Twenty Years' Anarchy- a period which saw a high rate of Imperial succession- and the last Arab siege of Constantinople being fought off with the use of Greek Fire. However, the most prominent feature of Leo the Isaurian's reign was the beginning of the Iconoclastic Controversy. In 726 an Imperial edict was issued condemning the veneration of icons, this was essentially the banning of natural figures in religious art and the removal of all images of Christ, the Saints and Old Testament scenes from places of worship.This caused widespread divisions in the Empire and would continue to cause problems intermittently until the mid 9th century.

                                A solidus based on Leo III that was minted in Rome.

There is much debate on the origins of this Imperially sponsored attack on the veneration of icons. Firstly, one could draw from an already established line of Christian thinking that frowned down upon the use of images. Bishop Epiphanius of Salamis (d.403) criticised the use of icons in an era which saw the development of distinct Christian art style, during which the standard imagery of Christ, the Angels, the Apostles and Biblical scenes was set. The centuries preceding the Iconoclastic era also saw an intensification of the practice of image veneration. Icons were often believed to provide special access to the who it depicted. This development was very similar to the later emergence of relic cults in the Carolingian Empire. Due to their perceived spiritual nature, relics were believed to have practical impact, therefore during the Second Arab Siege of Constantinople by the Umayyad Caliphate, the Hodegetria, an icon of the Virgin Mary, was regarded as the reason why the siege was eventually lifted. This increased veneration of icons likely stirred up counter-currents, with  fears that such devotion represented idolatry.

There are also Jewish and Muslim influences to consider when explaining the emergence of iconoclasm in the Empire. The Umayyad Caliph Yazid II (720-724) may have forbid the Christian veneration of icons in the territory under his control, but the existence of this edict is debated. Instead, it may have been a fabrication by Iconodules (the supporters of icon veneration) in order to portray the Iconoclasts in a light similar to Islam, which was still seen to some degree as a particularly heretical form of Christianity. Fears of deviation from practice may have been aroused by the large-scale territorial losses of the Empire from the 7th century onward by the rapid expansion of Islam, this coincided with a rise in apocalyptic and Old Testament based beliefs. Therefore, iconoclasm may have been part of a growing sentiment of fear regarding divergence from correct religious practices.

 A Bulgarian depiction of the Second Arab Siege of Constantinople in a translation of  the Manasses Chronicle 

There are some problems with evidence while discussing the supposed implementation of iconoclasm under Leo III.  Firstly,there are only a few textual documents that deal with this early period of persecution, many of them dating decades after the death of Leo III. For example, one of the sources, Theophanes' Chronographia dates from between 810-14, whereas the Apologeticus Minor by Nikephoros dates from 780.  A further problem arises with the sources for this period, Haldon and Brubaker have suggested that opposition to iconoclasm under Leo III may have been exaggerated due to a perceived bias of the later writers, many of who were iconodules. For example, Theophanes states that a rebellion of the Helladic army in 726/727 was a direct response to Leo III's policies and yet there is no contemporary evidence that suggests this. The refusal of Pope Gregory II to deliver revenues from the provinces of Sicily and Italy has likewise been associated with the Iconoclastic Controversy, but an alternative explanation could be the fact that Leo imposed a capitation tax on 1/3 of the populace of Sicily and Calabria (around 724/725). This included Papal lands that had previously been exempt. Therefore, working out what was a response to iconoclasm or a response to another political action provides difficult.

9th century iconoclasm as portrayed in the Chludov Psalter 

However, under Constantine V (741-775) it appears that the ideology of iconoclasm became more prominent. In 754, Constantine called a ecumenical council at Hieria, this was attended by 333 bishops and endorsed the Imperial stance on icons. Further, evidence of this 'state' endorsement can be seen in the refurbishment of religious sites. Furthermore, the Hagia Eirene had been damaged by an earthquake in 740, yet when Constantine ordered his masons to rebuild it the only symbolism present was that of the cross. Other iconography was noticeably absent, for iconoclasts, only the indirect images of the cross and the Eucharist were acceptable ways to represent Christ. A restoration of the Hagia Sophia in 768/769, saw portraits of the saints in  mosaic medallions being replaced by crosses. Furthermore, according to the vita of the iconodule Stephen the Martyr,  Constantine replaced all the Christian frescoes in a church in Blachernai with secular scenes in 754. These actions were part of a much larger and general Imperial building project undertook in Constantinople, which  included the restoration of the walls and the water system. Nevertheless, it is clear that under Constantine, iconoclasm had increased in importance as a doctrine.

With the succession of Leo IV in 776, Imperial policy towards icons drastically changed. Rather than carrying on his father's policy of replacement or destruction, Leo sought to mediate between both factions within the Empire. This can be seen in his appointment of Paul as Patriarch in 780, coming from a lower clerical status and a known 'neutral' in the controversy, his appointment can be seen as an attempt to avoid taking an official stance on the veneration of icons. This appointment also meant that factionalism would not hamper Leo's ability to use to the Patriarchy for political advantage.

                                             Leo V (813-820) is proclaimed Emperor

State-endorsement of iconoclasm only reappeared during the reign of Leo V the Armenian (813-820). One of the explanations for this official revival of iconoclasm, is that Leo V was seeking an explanation for the defeats the Empire had suffered under the hands of the Bulgars. During the early years of Leo's reign, the Bulghar Khan Krum had devastated the districts of Macedonia and northern Thrace, even planning an attack on Constantinople. Despite, being saved by the Khan's untimely death in May 814, Leo still needed a justification for these events in order to maintain popular support and reinforce his authority and legitimacy, iconoclasm provided this. Popular support for iconoclasm can be in seen in the attempt of ex-soldiers raiding the tomb of Constantine V in June 813, with the hope of him 'returning' to save Constantinople. Leo sought to take advantage of this popular support, by explaining military defeat in terms of the failure of recent emperors to pursue an iconoclastic policy. By reviving an official anti-veneration stance, Leo secured his position politically by putting the blame elsewhere.

Upon the succession of Michael II in 820, iconoclasm remained an official part of Imperial policy. This could be partially explained by the increased degree of uniformity enforced by Leo V. Theodore of Stoudion, writing under Leo V, remarked that the whole Constantinopolitain clergy now conformed to Imperial policy, whereas the monastic opposition which was found during the reign of Constantine V was nowhere to be found now. Therefore, any radical shift in official religious policy could have been unnecessarily destabilising to Michael II after he assumed the title of Emperor. Nevertheless, continued official Imperial endorsement of the iconoclastic viewpoint, did not mean that Michael II himself was not more lenient than his predecessor to iconodules. His recall of exiles who had been banished by Leo for refusing to share communion with iconoclasts, suggests he was willing to be more meditative between the two factions, even if the official stance on the debate remained the same.

Theophilos (829-842) was the last iconoclastic Emperor and took a more severe approach to iconoclasm than his father, Michael II. In 830, he banished a number of iconodules, such as John of Katharoi and Makarios of Pelekte. Furthermore, in 833, he ordered the seizure of the property of anyone who collaborated or sheltered anyone with iconodules. This sudden intensification of policy, could be possibly explained by the personal beliefs of Theophilos. During his youth, he was tutored by the iconoclastic John the Grammarian, who he later appointed as Patriarch in 837.  It is a distinct possibility, that Theophilos was influenced by his former tutor's teaching. However, this period of increased iconoclasm had a limited impact , as the Emperor's death in 842 quickly saw the return to orthodoxy for the final time. Theodora, regent for Michael III called an ecumenical council in 843. This council saw the final lifting of a ban on image veneration and the end of Imperially sponsored iconoclasm and therefore the end of the Second Iconoclastic Period.

                                          Theophilos, the last iconoclastic Emperor

 To conclude, official support of iconoclastic policies can be most closely related to the individual policies of different rulers and their circumstances.  In the instance of Leo V, endorsement of iconoclasm made political sense as a means of legitimisation, whereas under Michael II ensuring dogmatic continuity prevented large-scale destabilisation. Imperial adoption of iconoclastic views, could perhaps also be explained by personal belief (Theophilos) and as a response to a growing debate on the nature and uses of icons (Leo III). Regardless, it is clear that in all these instances, official support of iconoclasm was  situational and highly dependent on the Emperor. This is not to deny the existence of a movement outside of the Imperial court, far from it, but to suggest that adoption of iconoclasm as official policy by the Emperor was highly dependent on their personal and political circumstances. Because of this, Imperial support of iconoclasm could only have a highly limited impact, a lack of a sustained policy prevented religious policy under the iconoclasts from having  any long-term impact on the Empire as a whole.


Brubaker, Leslie and John F. Haldon. Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era c. 680-850 : a History.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Collins, Roger. Early Medieval Europe, 300-1000. History of Europe. 2nd ed.  New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Image Credit goes to WikiCommons

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