Early Medieval Christianity in the East

views updated

Early Medieval Christianity in the East

The Problem of Iconoclasm.

Although Rome had remained the center of Western Christianity after the disintegration of the empire in the fifth century, the center of Eastern Christianity—that is, Christianity as it was practiced in Asia Minor, the Balkan peninsula, Greece, and certain other Mediterranean regions—was in Constantinople, the city that Constantine the Great had chosen in 330 to serve as the capital of the Roman Empire of the East. Known as Byzantium, this area maintained a high level of social organization at a time when conditions in Western Europe had seriously deteriorated, and thus the Byzantine church was highly influential in the development of not only Western (or Latin) Christianity, but Western art and architecture as well. One of the more pressing issues facing the early ninth-century medieval Eastern Christian church was the revival of iconoclastic practices—that is, the smashing of statues and icons—under the emperor Leo V (813–820). A number of opponents of the use of statues and images in the churches had returned to old eighth-century prohibitions against idol worship, which, at that time, had culminated in the practice of Christian icons being defaced and destroyed. It had been perceived by some—particularly those tied to the imperial court—that the extensive use of icons in Eastern Christian churches was one of the major obstacles to the conversion of Muslims and Jews throughout the Byzantine Empire. In 815, a council at Constantinople reiterated that the practice of venerating religious images was idolatrous. Probably the hardest hit by the iconoclastic movements were the monasteries where, in the previous centuries, Byzantine monks had ardently opposed the iconoclastic movement. Many monasteries had become great repositories of religious artwork. Images in countless Eastern Christian monasteries and churches were once again destroyed by the iconoclasts.

Power Struggles.

Because they were such strong supporters of the use of religious images and were not under the direct control of the bishops, monks became caught up in the emperor's struggle to become the highest authority in the Byzantine church. Byzantine emperors began to see the independence of the monasteries as a threat to their control over the church. What began as an eighth-century theological controversy developed into a power struggle between church leaders, who felt best equipped to direct religious practice, and a secular power that wished to exert control over the church through imperial policy. During the late eighth century, Theodore the Abbot of Studius at Constantinople led a resurgence of Greek monastic life. He was also on hand at Constantinople in 815 to protest the iconoclastic revival. Soon after, Theodore was sent into exile. Emperors Michael II and Theophilus continued to support the iconoclastic position. It would not be until the regency of the Empress Theodora (wife of Theophilus) in 843 and the elevation of Methodius as patriarch (a bishop in Eastern Orthodox sees) of Constantinople that icons would once again be allowed in the worship life of Byzantine Christians, a change that is celebrated in an excerpt from a homily at Hagia Sophia given by the patriarch of Constantinople two decades after the restoration of the icons. After 843, the monks were again viewed with greater respect as they regained their former influence. Some monks were even allowed to go on to serve the church as bishops. In 862 the emperor Michael sent Bishop Methodius and his brother Cyril to Moravia where they taught Christianity in the vernacular language. Cyril is credited with assembling a Slavic alphabet and producing a Slavonic translation of the scriptures. Missionary work continued on the eastern borders of the Byzantine Empire. Cyril and Methodius also went to Bulgaria where they converted and baptized the khan (ruler), Boris, in 865. As the Latin church also began to send missionaries to Bulgaria, the eastern borderlands became contested territories of potential conversion between East and West.

The Photian Schism.

The Moravian and Bulgarian churches continued to grow throughout the late ninth century but became the focus of a controversy when the lay bishop Photius of Constantinople attempted to exert his authority over these sees. The Latin church had protested the legitimacy of his election as patriarch of Constantinople, which allowed him to claim jurisdiction over the eastern border areas. Photius, an extremely learned scholar and theologian (but not a priest), was elected by the imperial administration to replace the rather conservative Bishop Ignatius in 858. Pope Nicholas I attempted to have Photius deposed in a bid to exert primacy—the idea that the bishop of Rome had a primary place over all other bishops—over Constantinople and Eastern Christianity. In 863 Photius was excommunicated by Rome. In a similar move, Photius attempted to excommunicate Nicholas for supporting what he believed was a heretical position on the doctrine of filioque, an argument as to whether or not the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father or emanates from both the Father and the Son, which had been previously debated at the Council of Nicea (325). This medieval disagreement, sometimes called the Photian Schism, would signal continuing unrest between Eastern and Western Christianity over issues of doctrine and the primacy of bishops—controversies that have separated the churches up to the present day. As a compromise, Photius, for a time, was forced by the new Byzantine emperor to relinquish his see at Constantinople, thus creating easier relations with the Latin church. The Photian Schism was finally healed by certain changes in imperial and papal administration and compromises at the Council of Constantinople in 870. Photius returned to power from 877 to 895. His Treatise on the Holy Ghost, which outlines the major Eastern objections to Latin filioque theology, remained an important work used by theologians throughout the Middle Ages to support the Eastern viewpoint on the relationship between the Holy Spirit and God the Father.


introduction: This homily was delivered by Photius, the Byzantine Patriarch, on Holy Saturday, March 29, 867, at the great basilica Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. It celebrates the gradual return of icons to the Byzantine churches and public spaces following the Iconoclastic Contest. Present at this service were the Emperors Michael III (of the Amorian Dynasty) and Basil I (of the Macedonian Dynasty).

But the cause of the celebration, whereby today's feast is conspicuously adorned, is, as we have already said, the following: splendid piety erecting trophies against belief hostile to Christ; impiety lying low, stripped of her very last hopes; and the ungodly ideas of those half-barbarous and bastard clans which had crept into the Roman government (who were an insult and a disgrace to the emperors) being exposed to everyone as an object of hatred and aversion. Yea, and as for us, beloved pair of pious Emperors, shining forth from the purple, connected with the dearest names of father and son, and not allowing the name to belie the relationship, but striving to set in all other aspects also an example of superhuman love, whose preoccupation is Orthodoxy rather than pride in the imperial diadem—it is in these things that the deed which is before our eyes instigates us to take pride. With such a welcome does the representation of the Virgin's form cheer us, inviting us to draw not from a bowl of wine, but from a fair spectacle, by which the rational part of our soul, being watered through our bodily eyes, and given eyesight in its growth towards the divine love of Orthodoxy, puts forth in the way of fruit the most exact vision of truth. Thus, even in her images does the Virgin's grace delight, comfort and strengthen us! A virgin mother carrying in her pure arms, for the common salvation of our kind, the common Creator reclining as an infant—that great and ineffable mystery of Dispensation! A virgin mother, with a virgin's and a mother's gaze, diving in indivisible form her temperament between both capacities, yet belittling neither by its incompleteness. With such exactitude has the art of painting, which is a reflection of inspiration from above, set up a lifelike imitation. For, as it were, she fondly turns her eyes on her begotten Child in the affection of her heart, yet assumes the expression of a detached and imperturbable mood at the passionless and wondrous nature of her offspring, and composes her gaze accordingly. You might think her not incapable of speaking, even if one were to ask her, "How didst thou give birth and remainest a virgin?" To such an extent have the lips been made flesh by the colours, that they appear merely to be pressed together and stilled as in the mysteries, yet their silence is not at all inert, neither is the fairness of her form derivatory, but rather is it the real archetype.

source: Photius, "Homily xvii," in The Homilies of Photius Patriarch of Constantinople. Trans. Cyril Mango (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958); reprinted in The Early Middle Ages 500–1000. Ed. Robert Brentano (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1964): 281–282.

Extensions of Eastern Influence.

Byzantine missionary efforts continued in the East as Bulgarian, Serbian, and Russian converts to Christianity continued to follow Greek practice. In 927 the Bulgarian church was even given its own patriarch. Vladimir, the prince of Russia, converted to Christianity in 998 when he married the princess of Byzantium, and bishops were sent to Russia from Constantinople to guide the development of Christianity in the region. By the eleventh century, Mount Athos in the northern part of Greece was becoming a major center of monastic spirituality. Orthodox Christians from the Greek mainland, Serbia, Bulgaria, Russia, and Georgia established communities in this secluded area, located on a peninsula that juts into the Aegean Sea and ends on an imposing mountain. Access to the mountain was quite limited—indeed, visitors were raised up in baskets attached to a rope and windlass, and women were never allowed entry at all. Thus, the solitude of the monastic groups was ensured

Catholic and Eastern Orthodox: Some Modern Differences

The disputes between the Eastern (Byzantine) and Western (Roman) branches of Christianity in the Middle

Latin Catholic Christianity

Theology is more scholastic, philosophical, doctrinal

Emphasis is more juridical (influenced by medieval canon law)

Leadership is more monarchial (authoritative pope assisted by teaching tradition of church, cardinals, and bishops)

Clergy are celibate (influenced by medieval directives toward universal practice); more pronounced distinction between lay and clergy

Religious orders include many distinct orders of religious (Benedictine, Franciscan, Cistercian, etc.)

Seven distinct sacraments

Baptism by sprinkling/pouring

Still supports doctrine of purgatory

Fasting is much less significant (especially after Vatican II)

Divorce discouraged (no sacramental re-marriage without annulment)

Domed, cruciform, and contemporary worship spaces all in use

Rood screen removed after Middle Ages; communion rails removed after Vatican II

Statues, paintings, crucifixes (no restrictions)

Vernacular used in Mass (not Latin, as it was until the 1960s)

Less elaborate Mass since Vatican II (elaborate liturgy reserved for special occasions)

Daily Mass

Ages, including the Photian Schism of the ninth century and later tensions over the Latin Church's assertion of primacy, have kept the two churches under separate leadership for over a thousand years, allowing each to become distinctive in a number of different ways. Presented below is an overview of the modern remnants of the medieval East-West division in Christianity.

Greek Orthodox Christianity

Theology is more liturgized, spiritualized, monastic, and patristic (directed by the church fathers)

Emphasis is more mystical (influenced by monastic and Hesychastic traditions)

Leadership more conciliar and episcopal (relies on authority of councils and bishops)

Clergy are married (except bishops and monks)

No defined religious orders

No First Communion or Confirmation (communion and confirmation at Baptism)

Baptism by immersion

No purgatory

Rigorous fasting by both clergy and laity

Divorce allowed (up to three times)

Most churches (even the newer ones) follow traditional dome-shaped design

Iconostasis (icon screen) still persists, separating the sanctuary from the laity

Icons (mosaics and paintings) but no statues; religious art is two-dimensional

Greek, plus vernacular, used in liturgy

Longer, more dramatic Mass: many songs, much incense, use of bells

Daily Mass only in monasteries

Eucharist not consecrated every day

in a system somewhat different from the Benedictine way of life as it developed in the West. Many Western monastic houses, although controlled by vows of stability and the rule of enclosure, began to develop limited ties with various secular entities that surrounded their communities, and so had connections to outside society that were more integral to their existence than those in the East.

Continuing Tensions.

In 1053 a dispute between the patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, and Pope Leo IX of Rome caused a schism which resulted in the East and West once again attempting to excommunicate one another. Cerularius wanted Constantinople to have equal status with Rome and to be able to operate independently in the Eastern sphere. To show his opposition to Rome's position, Michael closed all of the Latin rite churches in Constantinople. He also solicited other bishops to write letters in support of the traditional theological objections that had long divided the two rites. This time one of the major objections was the use of unleavened bread by the Armenian and Latin church. Churches in Russia, Serbia, and Bulgaria, and even the Melkites in Egypt, sided with the Greek church and initiated a break with Rome. Tensions were further exacerbated during the Crusades as Latin armies en route to the Holy Land pillaged the countryside in order to feed the troops. In 1204 Western crusaders even succeeded in taking military control of the city of Constantinople, which was followed by three days of looting. An attempt at reconciliation and reunification between the Greek and Latin churches was made at the Second Council of Lyon in 1274 by Pope Gregory X (1272–1276) and efforts continued throughout the following centuries. A rather unexpected concord came at an ecumenical council in 1439, with Greek acceptance of the Roman pontiff's primal place as successor to the apostle Peter as head of the Roman church. The most significant outcome of this agreement was the notion of the unity of faith and diversity of rite (ritualistic practice), a principle that is still respected between Eastern and Western Christians today.


Francis Dvornik, The Photian Schism (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1970).

Joan Hussey, ed., The Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire (Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1986).

John Meyendorff, The Orthodox Church: Its Past and Its Role in the World Today (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1981).

George Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State (Rutgers, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1986).

Steven Runciman, The Eastern Schism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955).

About this article

Early Medieval Christianity in the East

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article


Early Medieval Christianity in the East