The Iconoclasts

Iconoclast:  One who attacks and seeks to overthrow traditional or popular ideas or institutions.

Well the above definition is the modern secular version of the word.  Originally it derives from the Greek eikonoklastēs, formed from the elements eikōn, “image, likeness,” and -klastēs, “breaker.  An “image breaker.”

Among the Ten Commandments found in the Bible is the following: “Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”

It is the year 720 In Constantinople and the Emperor Leo III is on the throne.  It is almost 250 years since the last Roman Emperors in the west had been deposed by the Goths.  In the East however Constantine’s capital city of the empire survived and reached new heights under Justinian and Theodora.   Justinian was now just a memory.  The empire had slowly declined until the coming of Leo.

Leo had dealt crushing defeats to the upstart Islamic Saracens in the east as well as the Bulgarian and Slavic tribes in the Balkans.  He had re-established the eastern Roman armies into the finest military in the known world, codified Justinian’s law into Greek (Latin was now virtually extinct east of Italy) and built the finest administrative system seen in centuries.  Leo’s reign ensured the dominance of Constantinople from the Adriatic through the Balkans, Greece, Asia Minor and Syria for the next 300 years.

But something was troubling the Emperor – gross superstitions which had been growing among the religious for more than a century.  Christianity had come to be permeated by what the Emperor considered to be strange fantasies which would have been inexplicable to the old Roman mind of centuries earlier.

A rich crop of legends, rites and observances had grown up around what Leo considered to be the central truths of religion.  These seemed to him to be unnoticed and unguarded against by theologians and clergy who seemed to devote all their energies to such controversies as to whether or not Christ, with a human and divine nature, had a human and divine will as well or only a divine will indistinguishable from the will of the Father.

“Meanwhile mage and relic worship had developed with a strange rapidity bordering on fetishism, particularly among the lower classes.  Every ancient picture was now announced as miraculously produced and embued with miraculous powers. These wonder working pictures and statues were much adored as things in themselves.  The  possession of one of these objects made a fortune for a church or monastery and the object seemed to be regarded with as much respect as the saint whose memory it recalled.

Image worship had become unusually grotesque.  It was not unusual to select a picture as the god father of a child in baptism and scrape off a bit of its paint and produce it at the ceremony.  Or to believe that a great military victory by some general was the result of carrying a picture of the virgin which fell from heaven on his person.

All of these beliefs were inculcated by the clergy and eagerly believed by the mob and were repulsive to educated laymen of the higher classes.”

Byzantine gold coin with Christ on the obverse; from the reign of Justinian II

And then came Islam.  Muslims have a strict tenet against creating images of the divine or of the Prophet.  The Caliph Abd-el-Malik ceased using Roman gold coin when an image of Christ appeared on the obverse; he began his own coinage system.

“For a hundred years the inhabitants of the Asian provinces of the empire had been in touch with a religion of which the noblest feature was its emphatic denunciation of idolatry in every shape and form. An eastern Roman could only wince when taunted by a neighbor for clinging to a corrupt religion which had embraced idolatry.  There was too much ground for the accusation when he looked about at the daily practice of his countrymen.”

This reaction was much more prevalent among the laity than the clergy and much more prevalent in the east than in Europe.   In Leo III it found an enthusiastic home.

Leo commenced his attack on “superstition”  pinpointing the worship of images and the ascription of divine honors to saints, especially the worship of the Virgin.  He began the suppression of monasticism as he found the monks the most ardent defender of images.

His efforts went no further than an attempt to suppress image worship.  His son Constantine V Copronymus (the shit!) went much further.  In 725 he ordered the removal of all images in the capital.  Rioting broke out at once and the officials who were taking down the great figure of Christ Crucified over the palace gate were torn to pieces by the mob.

The Emperor responded with a series of executions and carried out his policy all over the empire by aid of armed force. In the European provinces monks led the populace in bitter resistance, circulating the wildest rumors.  It was a Jewish plot; the Emperor had secretly converted to Islam.  (Sounds familiar!)

Neither Leo nor Constantine had any objection to the cross as symbol; both however objected to the image of Christ on the cross – the crucifix.  Both were accused to trying to undermine the foundations of Christianity.

Dangerous fighting broke out in Greece and Italy which was not put down without great struggle.  Indeed the imperial authority was shaken to its core in Italy and never firmly re-established.

The Popes consistently opposed the iconoclastic movement and by doing so placed themselves at the head of the anti-imperial parties, cooperating with the Lombards in northern Italy striving to drive the east Roman garrisons from Ravenna and Naples.

Constantine was a persecutor of first rank when it came to carrying out his father’s program although he lost Ravenna and all the east empire’s possessions in central Italy.  When the Lombards attacked the Papacy, Pope Stephen appealed to Pipin the Frank rather than the Emperor.  From this time onward the papacy was for all practical purposes dependent on the Franks and not the empire.

Constantine collected a Council of 338 bishops at Constantinople at which image worship was declared contrary to Christian teachings and after obtaining this condemnation attacked it everywhere, not merely as superstition, but as heresy.  Monks were exiled by the hundreds to Cyprus, fogged or murdered.  This action of course made the monks martyrs and image worship grew more popular with the masses.

Constantine died in 775 leaving the throne to his son Leo IV who though taking a milder tone than his father, lived only four years.  His heir was Constantine VI, a child of ten.  We know what happens when Regency occurs.

His mother, the Empress Dowager Irene became sole Regent.  She ceased the persecution of the image worshippers, currying the favor of the clergy and local populace.  She filled administrative positions with her own supporters and ruled for ten years until her son,  now in his early twenties rebelled at her Regency and took his position at Court.

He began again the persecution.  His mother Irene, counting on the support of the populace, had him seized, blinded and sent off to a monastery where he lived to a ripe old age surviving 5 of his successors.

Irene reigned 5 years.  She was right.  Her religious orthodoxy seemed to atone for the monstrous crime she committed against her son.  Eventually she was deposed by her Court Treasurer who exiled her to a convent on an island far away from the capital.  No one lfited a sword to defend her.

During Irene’s reign in the year 800 the Pope named a new “Roman Emperor” of the west, Karl, King of the Franks transferring the nominal allegiance he had previously paid to Constantinople to the Franks.  The breach between east and  west was complete.  The Pope used the reason that a woman on the throne of the east was an “abomination.”

From this point on the east is usually referred to as Byzantium, the original name of the little village chosen by Constantine to be the site of his new capital city.

The iconoclast controversy raged back and forth for another 50 years.  Emperors from the Asian provinces tended to be iconoclastic; Emperors from Europe iconodules, image worshippers.  It didn’t end until Emperor Michael II Amorium.

His family belonged to the Judeo-Christian sect of the Athinganoi, whose members were Cappadocians and had adopted the Jewish faith and rituals. The Athinganoi were numerous in Anatolia and together with the Greeks and Armenians formed the backbone of the Byzantine army of that era.

“The Triumph of Orthodoxy over Iconoclasm” = 15th century

Michael was an iconoclast but encouraged reconciliation and allowed the monks to return from exile.  Eventually he allowed everyone to exercise free will and obey their own conscious over the issue.  The clergy weren’t happy with him and neither were strict iconoclasts.  Within twenty years the throne would pass to Macedonian dynasty which, taking the European position, abandoned iconoclasm and brought the icons back to the Orthodox church.

Centuries later, Protestant reformers in particular Zwingli and Calvin urged removal of religious images, invoking the ten commandments.  The iconoclastic belief caused havoc throughout Europe. In 1523, a vast number of Zwingli’s followers viewed themselves as being involved in a spiritual community that in matters of faith should obey neither the visible Church nor lay authorities.

And so it goes on.  Conservative Protestant churches and Muslims abhor religious images and statues while Catholic churches and Orthodox revel in religious iconography.

Its been 1,200 years.




About toritto

I was born during year four of the reign of Emperor Tiberius Claudius on the outskirts of the empire in Brooklyn. I married my high school sweetheart, the girl I took to the prom and we were together for forty years until her passing in 2004. We had four kids together and buried two together. I had a successful career in Corporate America (never got rich but made a living) and traveled the world. I am currently retired in the Tampa Bay metro area and live alone. One of my daughters is close by and one within a morning’s drive. They call their pops everyday. I try to write poetry (not very well), and about family. Occasionally I will try a historical piece relating to politics. :-)
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1 Response to The Iconoclasts

  1. beetleypete says:

    I don’t mind a little statuary and icons now and again. I think it gives us a sense of the history
    behind it all.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

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