A term meaning "image breaking," referring to extreme opposition to the representation of the human figure and the veneration of images, the two being held inseparable. Iconoclasm in its Christian context is especially associated with a period in the history of the Byzantine Empire that can be divided into three discernible phases; that of its emergence under emperors Leo (717–741) and constantine v (741–775), and the iconoclast council of 754; its check at the second ecumenical council of Nicaea (787), and its restoration (815–842) and final extinction.
Emergence and Apogee. The exact origin of the movement is obscure. Iconoclasm was based on the First Commandment (Ex 20.4–5) and other biblical passages and iconoclasts were genuinely concerned that increasing devotion to icons would lead to idolatry. They accepted that only the Eucharist, church buildings and the sign of the cross were fully holy as they had been consecrated either by God directly or through a priest. Iconophiles referred to biblical passages that showed approval of images, and claimed that the Commandment was not intended for the Christians, but only for the Jews who were prone to idolatry. They argued that icons and relics were effective vehicles of the holy. Unease about the artistic depiction of sacred figures was present in early Christianity, and in the fourth century Eusebius, following Origen, had denied that Christ's image could be delineated. He in turn was followed later in the fourth century by Epiphanius of Salamis, who claimed that images in churches distracted Christians from the contemplation of purely spiritual matters. However, apart from a short-lived iconoclastic movement in Armenia in the late sixth and early seventh centuries, there was no further discussion of the issue until the eighth century.
In c. 724 two bishops of Asia Minor, Constantine of Nakoleia and Thomas of Claudiopolis, supported by Emperor Leo III and some of his advisers, condemned the veneration of images, citing traditional biblical prohibitions. They were opposed by Patriarch Germanus I, but in 726 the emperor publicly supported the new movement when he ordered the figure of Christ surmounting the Chalke palace gate to be taken down. Finally, pressing Germanus in a solemn audience to sign a decree against images of the saints, he in effect forced the patriarch to resign on Jan. 7, 730. The nature and exact wording of the decree are unknown as is its application. The ensuing destruction of icons, crosses, and storied reliquaries seems to have been concentrated primarily on movable objects that lent themselves to manifestations of devotion (kissing, surrounding with votive lamps, etc.). Destruction was neither general nor equally intense in all places. Leo's alleged hostility to the cult of the cross was a later invention; nor is there any proof that he was opposed per se to the cult of the saints or of relics. The chief opponents of Leo's policy were the monks and members of the civil service of Constantinople. Leo's repressive action against the opposition was limited to exile, confiscation, and at worst, mutilation. There is no certain proof of any martyrdom in this period: the passio of the Chalke martyrs is a worthless document, and the burning of the "university" library, together with its scholars, is a legend. The higher clergy submitted to the emperor, accepting the new Patriarch anastasius (730–741) while applying the imperial directives with greater or lesser zeal. Outside the capital john damascene, spokesman for the patriarch of Jerusalem, wrote three defenses of sacred images, while the papacy, still politically subject to the Byzantine Empire, reacted vigorously against the imperial policy. Popes gregory ii (715–731) and gregory iii (731–741) wrote letters of protest, and the Roman synod of 731 expressed its opposition. Tension was further exacerbated by Leo's decision to remove Illyricum, Sicily and Calabria from the papal jurisdiction. This schism was to drive the papacy into the hand of the Franks.
Historians are divided as to Leo's basic motivation. At this time, there was little theological basis to support iconoclasm. Some claim the influence of Islamic culture; the emperor was aware of Islam's opposition to the human figure in art, and even though he did not imitate his contemporary Caliph Jazid's decree against images, he may have come under its influence. Moreover, in Asia Minor, which was then the main source of army recruits, there were many groups unfavorable to images (heretically or otherwise); the whole of Asia Minor in fact became the main enclave of iconoclasm and the army became its most fanatical agent. Others have suggested political motives, but the emperor's opposition to monasticism was a result, not a cause, of iconoclasm, and there is no foundation for the contention that he had an economic goal in mind; that is, that non-compliance would lead to confiscation of monastic and ecclesiastical property. On theological grounds, it can be noted that Leo III's family came from a monophysite region and that iconoclasm was seen by many as the logical, if extreme conclusion, to monophysite Christianity. However, the most likely reason was that iconoclasm, which began in the eighth century as a small movement, attracted imperial support at a time when Byzantium was suffering a series of disasters. In 726 there was a severe volcanic eruption at Thera, and territory had been lost to the Slavs, Avars and Arabs. The letters of the patriarch Germanos and the chronicles of Theophanes and Nikephorus give testimony to the hypothesis that Leo regarded these setbacks as a sign of God's displeasure at the veneration of images; the purity of Islamic worship which did not allow the depiction of holy images had led to a spectacular success.
Leo III's policy suffered from having no theoretical foundation in theology. To eliminate this handicap, his successor Emperor Constantine V Copronymos sought to have images condemned by the Church and to impose iconoclasm as a duty of conscience as well as the obligation of a citizen. About 752 he elaborated an original theory of images, which he developed into treatises and which he—like his father—defended in public audiences. Two years later he had it ratified in a general council of the Byzantine episcopate held in the suburban palace of Hiereia from February 10 to August 8. Though 338 council fathers attended, the protagonists were three prelates of Asia Minor, in particular the Metropolitan, Theodosius Apsimar of Ephesus (the patriarchal see being vacant). The definition of iconoclasm prepared by this council— which was proclaimed "ecumenical"— has been preserved in the Acta of the seventh council (Nicaea II). The iconoclasts denounced all pictorial representations as idols, and declared that any such representation of Christ was false because it must necessarily either separate the two natures of Christ (which had been the error of Nestorius) and thus create a fourth member of the Trinity, or circumscribe the person of the Word who has no limits (the confusion of the divinity with humanity had been the error of the monophysites). The Eucharist was the only appropriate non-anthropomorphic image of Christ. The iconophiles argued that God had been uncircumscribable, but following the Incarnation when God had revealed Himself in the flesh, it was now possible to make a pictorial representation of Christ. To deny that Christ had assumed a circumscribable form would be to deny the Incarnation, the instrument of man's salvation. Iconoclasts rejected representations of saints for moral reasons; adoration of such images amounted to adoration of dead matter. Iconophiles countered that they adored not the materials, but the subjects represented in the images. The Council of Hiereia, however, did set strict bounds to any extension of its definitions to include a complete negation of the veneration of saints or relics. It based its definitions on Scripture and tradition and ended by anathematizing the Greek champions of images, namely, Germanus, John Damascene and George, a monk of Cyprus.
Artistically these decisions resulted in a substitution of secular decorations for biblical and hagiographic scenes and the replacement of monumental figures in apses by a cross. At first the authorities showed a certain moderation in effecting the anti-image decisions of the emperor and the council; violent repression of the opposition did not occur until a dozen years later. Then in 761 or 762 the monk andrew of crete was executed, and in 756 persecution broke out in full force. A holy recluse, Stephen the Younger, promoted a movement hostile to the Council of Hiereia, some few miles out of Constantinople, and among his followers were many of the elite of Constantinople's society. Patriarch Constantine II himself (754–766) was lukewarm in applying the imperial edicts, and the emperor came more and more to suspect a cabal or even a plot. On Nov. 20, 765, Stephen was killed by the populace; shortly thereafter the emperor imposed a loyalty oath to promote the hostile imperial policy. On his return from the summer campaign of 766 he humiliated all monks by a grotesque parade in the hippodrome; he attacked members of his own entourage and high officials; and finally dismissed the patriarch and had him beheaded the next year. He followed this up by seizing any monastery where he encountered resistance. Simultaneously he placed loyal generals in key command of military areas in Asia Minor, the most famous of whom, Lachanodracon, distinguished himself in the region of Ephesus by dispersing the monks, giving them their choice between marriage, on the one hand, or mutilation and exile, on the other, and by confiscating monastic property. Iconoclasm had thus evolved by force of circumstances into a war on monasticism, although they were two distinct movements. It is not clear whether monks were targeted by Constantine because they resisted his imperial policy more robustly, or whether he saw them as a drain on manpower and economic resources. Emperor Constantine's enemies attributed to him attacks on Mary's divine maternity and on the intercession of the saints, but such accusations were undoubtedly biased and must be handled with caution. According to the Life of St. Stephen the Younger, Constantine replaced the pictures in the Church of the Virgin at Blachernae with mosaics of trees, birds and animals. However, images of Christ and saints remained in the St. Sophia until 768–769 when the patriarch Nicholas I (766–780) had them removed. From this period of persecution noniconoclasts have preserved the names of four martyred monks who are commemorated in liturgical calendars on November 20 or 28: Peter, Stephen (the best known), Andrew and Paul. Eastern patriarchs outside Constantinople were deeply stirred by Constantine's persecutions, for they condemned the Council of Hiereia and advised Pope Paul I (757–767) of their condemnation; Pope Stephen III (IV) (768–772) convened a second Roman synod on the subject in 769.
Temporary Restoration of Images. The accession of Emperor Leo IV (775–780) marked a relaxation of iconoclastic policy that members of the bureaucracy had been waiting for and were able to exploit to the fullest when Empress Irene assumed the regency (780). Assisted by a high palace official, Tarasius, whom she made patriarch of Constantinople (784), she set to work forthwith preparing a reconciliation of the Eastern and Western Churches on the basis of ancient and common custom. The ecumenical Council of Nicaea II was announced and the pope sent two legates. The council convened on Aug. 1, 786, in Constantinople at the church of the Holy Apostles, but the imperial guard, in league with some bishops, dispersed the council fathers attending the first session. Irene maneuvered skillfully to get her own men into the garrison, and the council convened a year later at Nicaea. It lasted 15 days (Sept. 24–Oct. 7, 787) and was entirely dominated by Patriarch Tarasius. As for what to do about the known iconoclasts among the council fathers, the council decided to admit the iconoclastic bishops en bloc after nine iconoclastic metropolitans and two archbishops of Asia Minor had abjured their heresy. The council decree of iconoclasm, generically and moderately phrased, defined the legitimacy, the excellence and the limitation of veneration or "relative" cult of images. Because of political circumstances the council's action was badly received by the Carolingian court in the West, and Pope adrian i had to defend it in a letter to Charlemagne. There was even some dissatisfaction among Western iconophiles who opposed such a complete endorsement of the worship of icons; they believed that images should be used to educate Christians about the virtuous deeds of Christ and the saints. In Byzantium, however, the council ushered in a short period of tranquillity, which the orthodox turned to their profit: Irene showered the monks with endowments, Tarasius improved the standards of the upper clergy, theodore the studite began restoring monastic discipline. Thus the Eastern Church was better prepared for the second wave of iconoclasm.
Renewed Iconoclasm and Final Restoration of Images. The pressure to return to a policy of iconoclasm initially came from the army, who supported the rise of an Armenian governor of the Anatolikon thema to imperial power. Leo V the Armenian (813–820) dismissed Patriarch Nicephorus (806–815), used the Easter Synod of Hagia Sophia (815) to annul the decree of 787 and recognised the ecumenical status of the Council of Hiereia. But times had changed, and this synod made no mention of idolatry in connection with the veneration of images. Further, the enemies of images distinguished between devotional images and educational images and listed real abuses in their use. But orthodox Christians had enlightened spokesmen, such as Nicephorus and Theodore the Studite, and the bishops' opposition to iconoclasm was better organized. Both camps adopted a more refined dialectical technique, although in truth the theology of images did not become more profound. Persecution this time was less cruel. Emperor Michael II (820–829) was even tolerant of individuals. His son Theophilus (829–842), however, under the influence of his teacher, the future patriarch john vii grammaticus (837–843), was more violent in his disapproval of images; Euthymius of Sardis was beaten to death (831); Theodore and Theophanes of Palestine were tattooed on their faces as foreign agitators. But a year after the death of Theophilus, regents Empress theodora (2) and Theocistus restored images. A hastily summoned synod, inspired by methodius, who had become patriarch (834–847), and by Hilarion, Symeon, and Joannicios, the grand survivors of 815 declared in favor of the ecumenical Council of Nicaea II. The churches under the patriarch of Constantinople still celebrate this event every year on the Feast of Orthodoxy, the first Sunday of Lent, by a triumphant procession of images and by the Synodicon of Orthodoxy. The decree of 843 was renewed by more solemn councils in 861, 867, 869, 879. Iconoclasm soon disappeared from Byzantine society though not from all individual consciences.
The policy of the iconoclastic emperors, despite the ruin and abuse it cost, make a positive contribution to the joint development of the Byzantine Church and State since it fostered an increase in the prestige of the patriarch through an awareness of dogmatic autonomy. Meanwhile, the victory of the orthodox brought with it a revival of sacred art, made icons more popular than ever, and entailed a concentration of religious feeling on the humanity of Christ. This long dispute, however, did little to advance theology or to enrich contemplative spirituality. The supporters of image worship seem indeed to have had scarcely any idea of the development of the image in the early Church, and, consequently, of the proper limits on the veneration of images.
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Revd Dr William M. Marshall
After a politically unsettled period the new emperor Leo V (813–20) reasoned that iconoclasm ought to be reinstated, but persecution was in general less severe in this second phase of the controversy. An iconophile patriarch, Methodios, was elected in 843, and a great feast (since kept as the Feast of Orthodoxy) was celebrated on the first Sunday of Lent to mark the victory of the icons.
Iconoclasm then becomes a general word for opposition to, and destruction of, visible representations of the divine, and, more colloquially, for the destruction of that which is traditionally revered.
i·con·o·clasm / īˈkänəˌklazəm/ • n. 1. the action of attacking or assertively rejecting cherished beliefs and institutions or established values and practices. 2. the rejection or destruction of religious images as heretical; the doctrine of iconoclasts.