ÆA (787)

 Nicaea II

THE Iconoclastic Controversy

(from εκονοκλάστης, ‘iconoclast’, ‘image-breaker’).

THE controversy on the veneration of icons  agitated the Greek Church from c.725 to 842. The origins of Byzantine Iconoclasm are very obscure, though the rise of Islam and the fragile state of the Imperial office before the onslaught of the Arabs were doubtless factors. In 726 the Emp. Leo III, the Isaurian (717–41), published an edict declaring all images idols and ordering their destruction. Very soon serious disturbances throughout the Empire followed. The patriarch Germanus, who appealed to the Pope, was deposed in 730, and a systematic persecution unleashed, esp. against the monks. At the same time St John of Damascus wrote his famous apologies against the iconoclasts and Pope Gregory III held two synods at Rome condemning Leo’s supporters (731).

In 741 Leo was succeeded by his son Constantine V (Copronymus), who, after a quickly suppressed revolt of his brother-in-law, Artabasdus, in favour of the icons, continued his father’s policy. In 753 he called the Synod of Hieria, which neither the patriarchs of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria nor the Pope attended. The synod alleged that, by representing only the humanity of Christ, the icon-worshippers either divided His unity as the Nestorians or confounded the two Natures as the Monophysites; and it further declared that the icons of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of the saints were idols and decreed the destruction of all of them. Resistance to the synod’s decree was met by persecution; it seems, too, that Constantine V attacked monasticism.

An illuminated Psalter depicts the iconoclasts, with their pots of whitewash, as the equivalent of the soldiers who tormented and crucified Christ. Chludov Psalter (c. 850-75)   Moscow, Hist. Mus. MS. D.29 folio 67r

Under Constantine’s son, Leo IV (775–80), the persecution abated, and after his death his wife, the Empress Irene, regent for her young son Constantine, reversed the policy of her predecessors despite the iconoclastic leanings of the army. In 784 Tarasius became Patriarch of Constantinople and, in concert with Irene, opened negotiations with Pope Hadrian I, who sent legates to the Seventh General Council which met at Nicaea in 787. This Council completely undid the work of the Synod of Hieria, defined the degree of veneration to be paid to icons, and decreed their restoration throughout the country.

The Emperor Leo (seated) debates iconoclasm with his clergy, while iconoclasts whitewash an image of Christ: meanwhile, two bishops venerate a sacred image. Theodore Psalter, British Library  B.M. Add. 19.352

Though the decrees of the Council were officially received, Iconoclasm retained a strong following. In 814 the outbreak of the ‘Second Iconoclastic Controversy’ took place under Leo V the Armenian, a general elected Emperor by the army. Leo again began to remove icons from churches and public buildings; the Patr. Nicephorus was deposed (815); St Theodore of Studios, the foremost defender of images among the monks, sent into exile; and others imprisoned and martyred. After Leo’s assassination in 820 his successor, Michael II, continued his iconoclastic policy though in a milder form, whereas his son Theophilus, who succeeded him in 829, returned to the violence of Leo, esp. after the enthronization of the iconoclast patriarch John the Grammarian in 832. The persecution ended only with Theophilus’ death in 842. His widow, Theodora, like Irene, regent for her son, caused the monk Methodius to be elected patriarch in 843, and on the first Sunday of Lent a great feast was celebrated in honour of the icons, since then solemnly kept in the E. Church as the ‘Feast of Orthodoxy’.

Iconodule Emperesses Irene (left) and Theodora (center and right), presiding with her son at the vindication of icon-veneration, the Feast of Orthodoxy. British Museum.

The few repercussions which the controversy had on theology in the W. were mainly caused by the misunderstanding of certain passages from the Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea. A faulty translation of the Acts, sent to Charlemagne by Hadrian I, together with a general dislike of the Greeks and political friction, led to a manifesto against the Council by the Frankish bishops in 790, later expanded and issued as the ‘Libri Carolini’ (Caroline Books). It was reiterated by the Synod of Frankfurt in 794 which formally condemned the Second Council of Nicaea, misunderstanding it to enjoin an adoration of images equal to that due to the Divine Trinity. A similar attitude was taken up by the bishops who met at Paris in 828, who would tolerate pictures only as ornaments. Owing to the authority of the Popes, however, and the influence of theologians such as Walafrid Strabo and Hincmar of Reims, the Frankish bishops gradually accepted the Nicene decrees, opposition to them having virtually ceased in the 10th cent.

The Iconoclastic Controversy, more important for its practical than for its theological results, contributed to the ongoing rift between E. and W. The Papacy, unable to find support from the Byzantine Emperor, whose will it had resisted, but beleaguered by the Lombards, came to seek support from the emerging Carolingian House. The coronation of Charlemagne by the Pope in 800 sealed the Pope’s shift of allegiance from E. to W. and with the development of the temporal power of the Papacy the ground was prepared for the final separation between the independent Church of the W. and the Church of the Byzantine Empire.

L. Bréhier, La Querelle des images: VIIIe–IXe siècles (1904). G. Ostrogorsky, Studien zur Geschichte des byzantinischen Bilderstreites (Historische Untersuchungen, 5; Breslau, 1929). Id., Geschichte des Byzantinischen Staates (Byzantinisches Handbuch, 12. 1. 2; 1940, pp. 97–146; 3rd edn., 1963), pp. 123–75 (Eng. tr., with additional material, Oxford, 1968, pp. 147–209). A. Grabar, L’Iconoclasme byzantin: dossier archéologique (1957). P. J. Alexander, The Patriarch Nicephorus of Constantinople (Oxford, 1958). P. Brown, ‘A Dark-Age crisis: aspects of the Iconoclastic controversy’, EHR 88 (1973), pp. 1–34. S. Gero, Byzantine Iconoclasm during the Reign of Leo III (CSCO, Subsidia, 41; 1973); id., Byzantine Iconoclasm during the Reign of Constantine V (ibid. 52; 1977). A. [A. M.] Bryer and J. Herrin (eds.), Iconoclasm: Papers given at the Ninth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, University of Birmingham, March 1975 (Birmingham, 1977). D. Stein, Der Beginn des byzantinischen Bilderstreits und seine Entwicklung bis in die 40er Jahre des 8. Jahrhunderts (Miscellanea Byzantina Monascensia 25; 1980). H. G. Thümmel, Die Frühgeschichte der Ostkirchlichen Bilderlehre (TU 139; 1992), with primary docs. A. Besançon, L’Image Interdite: Une histoire intellectuelle de l’iconoclasme [1994], esp. pp. 151–200; Eng. tr. (Chicago and London [2000]), pp. 109–48. C. Barber, Figure and Likeness: On the Limits of Representation in Byzantine Iconoclasm (Princeton and Oxford [2002]). J. M. Hussey, The Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire (Oxford History of the Christian Church, 1986), pp. 30–68. H. Leclercq, OSB, in DACL 6 (pt. 1; 1926), cols. 214–302,



Theodore Psalter, British Library flat, long image; British Museum Add. 19.352

folio 67r, Chludov Psalter, c. 850-75. Moscow, Hist. Mus. MS. D.29

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