Acheiropoeitas; "icon not made by human hands"

[adapted from Walker, 3.11, 4.1-4.2, Logan, 3; Chadwick, ch. 18, “Worship and Art”, pp. 277-284.

[15.1]. Missions in the British Islands; [15.2]. Continental Missions and Papal Growth;
[15.3] The Transmission of Learning; [15.4] Art and Iconoclasm







The spread of Arianism among the Germanic tribes, the conversion of the Franks to the Roman faith, and the gradual acceptance of Catholic orthodoxy by the  Germanic invaders have already been noted. Much, however, remained to be done. There is no more striking proof of the vitality of the church in the collapsing empire and the opening Middle Ages than the vigor and success with which it undertook the extension of Christianity.

 Ireland and Scotland

    Christianity had some foothold in the British Isles before the conversion of Constantine. Bishops of York, London, and probably Lincoln, were present at the Council of Arles in 314. Yet it survived the downfall of the Roman Empire but feebly among the Celtic population, while much of the soil of southern and eastern England was won for heathenism by the Anglo- Saxon invaders. Some slight Christian beginnings were to be found chiefly in the south of Ireland before the time of Patrick; but he so advanced the cause of the Gospel in that island and so organized its Christian institutions, that he deserves the title of the Apostle of Ireland.

    Born about 389, possibly in southern Wales, Patrick was the son of a deacon and the grandson of a priest. His training was therefore Christian. Seized in a raid about 405, he was for six years a slave in Ireland. Escaped to the Continent, Patrick was for a considerable time an inmate of the monastery of Lérins, off the southern coast of France. In 432 he was ordained a missionary bishop by Bishop Germanus of Auxerre, and began the work in Ireland which ended with his death in 461. Most of Patrick’s missionary labors were in northeastern Ireland, though not without some efforts in the south and wilder west. Few facts survive; but of his zeal there can be no question, and as little of his conspicuous abilities as an organizer under whom the hitherto scattered Christianity of Ireland was systematized and made great advance. He brought the island in some measure into association with the Continent and with Rome.

    It seems certain that Patrick introduced the diocesan episcopate into Ireland; but that institution was soon modified by the clan system of the island, so that there were, instead, many monastic and tribal bishops. Monasticism was favored by Patrick; but the great developer of the peculiar Irish monasticism was Finian of Clonard (470?-548), under whose leadership a strongly missionary and, for the time, a notably learned group of Irish monasteries came into being. The monastic schools of Ireland were justly famous in the sixth and seventh centuries. The glory of this Irish monasticism was its missionary achievement.

    The beginnings of Christianity in Scotland are very obscure. Ninian is said to have labored there in the fourth century and the early years of the fifth, but of his date and real work little can be said. Kentigern, or Mungo (527?-612?), who spread Christianity in the neighborhood of Glasgow, is almost as dim a figure. It would seem probable that the northern Irish settlers who founded, about 490, the kingdom of Dalriada, embracing the modern Argyleshire, came as Christians. The great missionary to Scotland was Columba (521-597), a man closely related with some of the most powerful tribal families of Ireland, and a pupil of Finian of Clonard. Distinguished already as a monk and a founder of monasteries in Ireland, he transferred his labors, in 563, to Scotland, establishing himself with twelve companions on the island of Iona or Hy, under the protection of his fellow countryman and relative, the King of Dalriada. There Columba developed a most flourishing monastery, and thence he went forth for missionary labors among the Picts, who occupied the northern two-thirds of Scotland. By Columba and his associates the kingdom of the Picts was won for the Gospel. As in Ireland, Christian institutions were largely monastic. There were no dioceses, and even the bishops were under the authority, save in ordination, of Columba, who was a presbyter, and of his successors as abbots of lona.

  Missionaries on the Continent

    These Irish missionary efforts were carried to northern England, among the Anglo-Saxons of Northumbria. There, on the island of Lindisfarne, off the extreme northeastern coast of England, a new Iona was established by Aidan, a monk from lona, in 634. Thence Christianity was “widely spread in the region by him till his death in 651, and afterward by his associates. Nor was the missionary zeal of these Celtic monks by any means confined to the British Islands. Columbanus, or Columba the Younger (543?-615), became a monk of the celebrated Irish monastery of Bangor, which was founded in 558 by Comgall, a leader in learning and missionary zeal. From Bangor, Columbanus set forth, about 585, with twelve monastic companions, and settled in Anegray, in Burgundy, near which he planted the monastery of Luxeuil. Driven forth about 610, in consequence of his prophet-like rebuke of King Theuderich II and the King’s grandmother, Brunhilda, Columbanus worked for a brief time in northern Switzerland, where his Irish companion and disciple, Callus, was to live as an anchorite, and to give his name to, rather than to found, the later monastery of St. Gall. Columbanus made his way to northern Italy, and there established in 614, in the Appenines, the monastery of Bobbio, in which he died a year later.

    Columbanus was only one of the earlier of a number of Irish monks who labored on the Continent—many of them in what is now central and southern Germany. Thus, Kilian wrought in Würzburg and Virgil in Salzburg. One modification of Christian practice, of great later importance, was introduced on the Continent by these Irish monks, notably by Columbanus. The entrance of thousands into the church when Christianity was accepted by the state had largely broken down the old public discipline. There had grown up the custom of private confession among the monks of East and West. Basil had strongly favored it in the East. Nowhere had it more hearty support than among the Irish monks, and by them it was extended to the laity, as was indeed the case, to some extent, by the monks of the East. The Irish on the Continent were the introducers of private lay confession. In Ireland, also, grew up the first extensive penitential books, in which appropriate satisfactions were assessed for specific gins—though these books had their antecedents in earlier canons of councils. These penitential treatises the Irish monks made familiar on the Continent.

  Roman Missionaries in England

    Meanwhile, a work of the utmost significance for the religious history of Britain and the papacy had been undertaken by Pope Gregory the Great. Moved by a missionary impulse which he had long felt, and taking advantage of the favorable situation afforded by the marriage of Æthelberht, “King” of Kent and overlord of much of southeastern England, to a Frankish Christian princess, Berhta, Gregory sent a Roman friend, Augustine, the prior of his beloved monastery on the Cælian hill, with a number of monastic companions, to attempt the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons. The expedition left Rome in 596, but its courage was small, and all the persuasive power of Gregory was required to induce it to proceed. It was not till the spring of 597 that the party, reinforced by Frankish assistants, reached Canterbury. Æthelberht and many of his followers soon accepted Christianity. Gregory looked upon the struggle as already won. Augustine received episcopal consecration from Vergilius of Arles in November, 597, and, by 601, Gregory appointed Augustine metropolitan with authority to establish twelve bishops under his jurisdiction. When northern England should be converted a similar metropolitanate was to be established in York. London and York were to be the ecclesiastical capitals. The British bishops, over whom Gregory had no recognized jurisdiction, the Pope committed to the superintendency of Augustine.[1] The task in reality was to prove much more arduous than it seemed to Gregory’s sanguine vision, and the greater part of a century was to pass, before Christianity was to be dominant in England. Yet the movement, thus inaugurated, was vastly to strengthen the papacy. The Anglo-Saxons owed their conversion chiefly to the direct efforts of Rome, and they in turn displayed a devotion to the papacy not characteristic of the older lands, like France and Spain, where Christianity had been otherwise introduced. Anglo-Saxon Christianity was to produce, moreover, some of the most energetic of missionaries by whom the Gospel and papal obedience were alike to be advanced on the Continent.

    England was not brought to the acceptance of Christianity without much vicissitude. The hegemony of Kent was waning before the death of Ethelberht, and with it the first Christian triumphs were eclipsed. Northumbria gradually gained leadership. It was a success when Edwin, King of Northumbria, was converted through the work of Paulinus, soon to be bishop of York, in 627. The heathen King, Penda of Mercia, however, defeated and slew Edwin in 633, and a heathen reaction followed in Northumbria. Under King Oswald, who had become a Christian when an exile in lona, Christianity was re-established in Northumbria, chiefly through the aid of Aidan (ante, p. 197). It was of the Irish, or as it is often called, the “Old British” type. Penda once more attacked, and in 642 Oswald was killed in battle.

Whitby Bishops, Abbots,  and King

Oswald’s brother, Oswy, like him a convert of lona, after much struggle secured all of Northumbria by 651, and a widely recognized overlordship besides. English Christianity was becoming firmly established.

  Roman Authority Triumphs

    From the first coming of the Roman missionaries there had been controversy between them and their Irish or Old British fellow Christians. The points of difference seem of minor importance. An older system of reckoning, discarded in Rome, resulted in diversity as to the date of Easter. The forms of tonsure were unlike. Some variations, not now recoverable, existed in the administration of baptism. Furthermore, as has been pointed out, Roman Christianity was firmly organized and diocesan, while that of the Old British Church was monastic and tribal. While the Old British missionaries looked upon the Pope as the highest dignitary in Christendom, the Roman representatives ascribed to him a judicial authority which the Old British did not fully admit. Southern Ireland accepted the Roman authority about 630. In England the decision came at a synod held under King Oswy at Whitby in 664. There Bishop Colman of Lindisfarne defended the Old British usages, while Wilfrid, once of Lindisfarne, but won for Rome on a pilgrimage, and soon to be bishop of York, opposed. The Roman custom regarding Easter was approved, and with it the Roman cause in England won the day. By 703 northern Ireland had followed the same path, and by 718, Scotland. In Wales the process of accommodation was much slower, and was not completed till the twelfth century. In England this strengthening of the Roman connection was much furthered by the appointment, in 668, by Pope Vitalian, of a Roman monk, Theodore, a native of Tarsus in Cilicia, as archbishop of Canterbury. An organizer of ability, he did much to make permanent the work begun by his predecessors.

    The two streams of missionary effort combined to the advantage of English Christianity. If that from Rome contributed order, the Old British gave missionary zeal and love of learning. The scholarship of the Irish monasteries was transplanted to England, and was there strengthened by frequent Anglo- Saxon pilgrimages to Rome. Of this intellectual movement a conspicuous illustration was Bede, generally called the “Venerable” (672?-735). An almost life-long member of the joint monastery of Wearmouth and Jarrow in Northumbria, his learning, like that of Isidore of Seville, a century earlier, embraced the full round of knowledge of his age, and made him a teacher of generations to come. He wrote on chronology, natural phenomena, the Scriptures, and theology. Above all, he is remembered for his Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, a work of great merit and the chief source of information regarding the Christianization of the British Islands.







  Frankish Church and Rulers

    With the conversion of Clovis to orthodox Christianity (496), a close relationship of church and state began in the Frankish dominions. To a large extent it was true that Frankish conquest and Christianization were two sides of the same shield.

Baptism of Clovis (Amiens, 9th cent) Baptism of Clovis (14th cent)

Under the descendants of Clovis—the Merovingian Kings—the internal condition of the Frankish church sank, however, to a low ebb. Bishops and abbots were appointed for political considerations, much church land was confiscated or put in secular hands. Even the efforts of Gregory I to gain more effective papal control in France and to effect reform had little lasting result.

    The political collapse of the Merovingians, led to the rise to power of the Carolingian house, originally “mayors of the palace,” which was accomplished when Pippin, called, not wholly correctly, of Heristal, won the battle of Tertry in 687. The Merovingian Kings continued in name, but the real authority was exercised by Pippin as “duke of the Franks.” After his death in 714, his illegitimate son Charles Martel (715-741) exercised all the powers of a King. By him the Mohammedan advance in western Europe was permanently stayed, by the great battle between Tours and Poitiers in 732. He saw the advantage of churchly aid, and supported missionary effort in western Germany and the Netherlands, where he wished to ex tend his political control. Yet neither Pippin “of Heristal” nor Charles Martel were more helpful to the church of their own territories than the Merovingians. They exploited it for political reasons, secularized its lands, and did little to check its disorders. Nevertheless, under Charles Martel a great missionary and reformatory work was initiated that was to Christianize large sections of western Germany, reform the Frankish church, and bring the papacy and the Franks into relations of the utmost consequence to both.

  Boniface as a Missionary


   Boniface as Missionary



Willibrord (657?-739), a Northumbrian, began missionary work in Frisia with the support of Pippin of Heristal, and, in 695, was consecrated a missionary bishop by Pope Sergius I— an action which resulted in the establishment of the see of Utrecht. His work had scanty success, and was taken up by one of the ablest and most remarkable men of the period— Winfrid or Boniface (680?-754). An Anglo-Saxon of Devonshire by birth, Winfrid became a monk of Nursling [Nutcell] near Winchester. In 716, he began missionary labors in Frisia, but with such ill success that he returned to England. In 718 and 719, he was in Rome, where he received from Pope Gregory II (715-731) appointment to labor in Germany. From 719 to 722, he worked in Frisia and Hesse, going once more to Rome in the year last named, and receiving consecration as a missionary bishop, swearing allegiance to the Pope.[2]

Life of Boniface   (Göttingen, 975)

The next ten years witnessed a great success in Hesse and Thuringia. Not only were heathen converted, but the Irish monks were brought largely into obedience to Rome. Gregory III (731-741) made Boniface an archbishop in 732, with authority to found new sees. After a third journey to.Rome, in 738, he thus organized the church of Bavaria, and a little later that of Thuringia. In 744, he aided his disciple, Sturm, in the foundation of the great Benedictine monastery of Fulda, destined to be a centre of learning and priestly education for all western-central Germany. Between 746 and 748, Boniface was made archbishop of Mainz, which thus became the leading German see. In all this Boniface strengthened the causes of order and discipline and increased papal authority. His work was greatly aided by the considerable numbers of men and women who came as fellow workers from his native England, and for whom he found place in monastic and other Christian service.

  Boniface’s Reforms

    The death of Charles Martel in 741 saw his authority divided between his sons Carloman (741-747), and Pippin the Short (741-768). Both were far more churchly than their father, and Carloman ultimately retired from power to become a monk. While neither would abandon authority over the Frankish church, both supported Boniface in the abolition of its worst irregularities and abuses, and in a closer connection with Rome. In a series of synods held under Boniface’s leadership, beginning in 742, the worldliness of the clergy was attacked, wandering bishops censured, priestly marriage condemned, and stricter clerical discipline enforced. At a synod held in 747 the bishops assembled recognized the jurisdiction of the papacy, though, as the civil rulers were not present, these conclusions lacked the force of Frankish law. The Frankish church, thanks to the work of Boniface, was vastly bettered in organization, character, and discipline, while, what was equally valued by him, the authority of the papacy therein was very decidedly increased, even though that of the mayor of the palace continued the more potent.

    As Boniface drew toward old age his thoughts turned toward the mission work in Frisia, with which he had begun. He secured the appointment of his Anglo-Saxon disciple, Lull, as his successor in the see of Mainz. In 754 he went to Frisia, and there was murdered by the heathen, thus crowning his active and widely influential life with a death of witness to his faith. His work had been one for order, discipline, and consolidation, as well as Christian advancement, and these were the chief needs of the age.







[adapted from Walker, 4]

In 782, Charlemagne, king of the Franks and soon to be ‘emperor’, invited to join his court and to advise him on educational matters the deacon Alcuin from York in the far-away English kingdom of Northumbria at the edge of the known world. Why did Charlemagne turn to Northumbria? What events lay behind this extraordinary selection? How to explain that, within two hundred years of the advent of Christianity among the English, their school at York helped to reintroduce learning to the European mainland?

When Augustine arrived at Canterbury in 597, he came as a missionary of the Christian gospel, not as a scholar intent on establishing a school. He and his fellow monks brought very few books with them, and these almost certainly were liturgical books needed to conduct ceremonies of Christian worship: Mass books, psalters, etc. His mission, it is widely agreed, was purely evangelical in nature and did not advance the cause of learning. From where did the learning of the West come to the English?

There were two distinct streams meeting to make England one of the foremost centres of scholarly learning in eighth-century Europe, although we may not be able with precision to weigh their relative contributions. Both were significant, and the diminution of one or the other imperils our historical understanding. One stream came from Ireland, the other from the Continent, particularly from Rome. Together they produced a vibrant intellectual climate that fostered serious learning, making England, particularly Northumbria, arguably the pre-eminent centre of scholarship in Western Europe and creating a decisive moment in the history of the Christian church. The details need to be seen.

  Theodore and Benedict Biscop

The most obvious line of development came from Rome to Canterbury and thence to Northumbria. In 669, the new archbishop of Canterbury, Theodore of Tarsus, a Greek biblical scholar, arrived from Rome, with the learned Hadrian, a North African abbot, who like Theodore had long lived in Italy, and the Northumbrian noble Benedict Biscop, who had been a monk on the island of Lerins off the south coast of Gaul. A school in the sense of a centre of learning was quickly established at Canterbury. No inventory of books survives for any of the English centres of learning tracing their descent from Theodore’s Canterbury, but the library at Canterbury must have contained the Bible, works of grammar and rhetoric as well as epitomes of classical and patristic learning. Aldhelm, one of his students at Canterbury, complained that, as a student, he had not enough time to learn everything he wanted to learn: law, prose and poetic literature, music, arithmetic and the mysteries of the heavens. He described Theodore ‘like an angry boar surrounded by a pack of smirking hounds’. More measuredly, Bede wrote of the school of Theodore and Hadrian at Canterbury:

They were both extremely learned in both secular and sacred literature and thus attracted a crowd of students into whose minds they daily poured the streams of wholesome learning. They gave their hearers instruction not only in the books of Holy Scripture but also in the art of metre, astronomy and ecclesiastical computation. As evidence of this, some of their students still survive who know Latin and Greek just as well as they know their native tongue.
   (Bede, Ecclesiastical History, bk 4, ch. 2)

Erudite teachers, a broad curriculum, eager students and learned books provide the essentials of any school, and these were all present at Canterbury in the last decades of the seventh century.

His name ‘Biscop’ might suggest that Benedict Biscop was of a priestly family, but, in any case, he was certainly from a noble, wealthy Northumbrian family. During the course of his life he travelled six times to Rome, the latter four journeys while he was involved with establishing new English schools. Among the founders of the school at Canterbury in 669, Biscop, after perhaps three winters there, undertook a journey to Rome: it was to set in motion events of far-reaching significance. Unlike his previous journeys, this was a journey in search of books, pictures and relics, but mostly books. At Rome he acquired a substantial number of books and, on his return journey, he collected a large number of books at Vienne, which he had asked friends to collect for him. His intentions seem clear: to return to England and establish a new monastery with relics for its altar, pictures for devotion and books for learning and liturgy. It was to his native Northumbria, from which he had been absent for twenty years, that Biscop went to found his monastery on land given him by the king of Northumbria on the north banks of the Wear River near its mouth. The Wearmouth foundation, in 673, was followed by a foundation, in 681, at Jarrow, overlooking the mud flats where the Don enters the Tyne, only a few miles from Wearmouth. Dedicated to SS. Peter and Paul and for some time a single community under one abbot, Wearmouth and Jarrow became key centres of learning in Western Europe, producing in the first generation the Venerable Bede, considered the most learned man of his times.


Often forgotten in this run of events from Biscop to Bede was the great figure of Ceolfrid, who became first abbot of the combined monasteries in 688. Ten years earlier he had accompanied Biscop on the latter s last trip to Rome. During his abbotship the library collection was doubled, and the number of monks, almost incredibly, rose to over 600. It was a long abbotship of twenty-eight years and ended not with Ceolfrid’s death but with his retirement in June 716, when, laden with gifts, he left for Rome, never to see his native land again. He never arrived in Rome. Age and a difficulty journey combined to weaken his physical strength, and in Burgundy on 25 September 716 Ceolfrid died. Some of his companions continued their way to Rome, where they presented Pope Gregory II with their gifts from Tyneside. Among them was a truly exceptional book: the Codex Amiatinus, so-called from the monastery of Monte Amiata, where it resided in the early modern period before finding its present home in the Laurentian Library in Florence. It is considered one of the most important manuscripts surviving from early medieval Europe. To the paleographer, who studies handwriting, it may provide links between the scriptoria of southern Italy and northern England, but to the cultural historian it is more: it is the earliest surviving complete Latin Bible and a clear window into the age in which it was made. The dedication reveals much. It is a poem in praise of the Petrine headship of the church written by Ceolfrid, this abbot from remotest Northumbria. He called himself ‘Ceolfridus Anglorum extremis de fmibus abbas’ (‘Ceolfrid, abbot, from the outermost parts of the English’). An enormous book (or codex) for its time and, indeed, for most times, it has over 1,000 folios (i.e., leaves), and each folio measures about 20 inches high by about 13 inches wide. Some consider that this book represents the greatest achievement of Northumbrian learning.

The other towering achievement of Northumbrian scriptoria, the Lindisfarne Gospels, was a very near contemporary of the Codex Amiatinus. There may be some doubt whether this book of the gospels was produced at the island monastery of Lindisfarne, yet its Northumbrian origin is assured. It rivals the later Book of Kells for the splendour of its artistic decoration. Each of the four gospels is preceded by a ‘carpet page’ (a full page of decoration, carpet-like, fashioned largely of skilfully interlaced coloured ribbons) and a page with a portrait of the evangelist. Besides, virtually every page has decorated initial letters and border designs, and many pages contain miniatures, so called not because they are small but because they are coloured (from miniare, to colour). The Lindisfarne Gospels is now on permanent display at the British Library in London.

  Bede the Venerable

While these two great books were being fashioned, the north of England produced the greatest scholar of the age. Bede (c.672-735) was born on the estates of Wearmouth and at age seven was presented by his parents to the monastic community. When Jarrow was founded in 681, he went there, and there he remained for the rest of his life, using the library developed by Biscop and Ceolfrid. Travelling little if at all outside his monastery, Bede composed a flood of works: twenty books of scriptural exegesis and six works on chronology as well as homilies, saints’ lives, histories, hymns, prayers, letters and much more. In short, he was a genius. The great twentieth-century historian Sir Richard Southern observed that Bede was ‘the first scientific intellect produced by the German peoples of Europe’ and that in Bede’s lifetime Jarrow had become ‘the chief centre of Roman civilization in Europe’. Bede is best known—perhaps unfairly to his other works—for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Its preface has almost a modern ring to it, as he describes there his efforts to get reliable evidence for his historical account. For him history is not the retelling of old stories, the passing along of traditional accounts. For Bede history is the attempt to recount the past as accurately as possible, acknowledging that to do so is the essential task of the historian.

The line which we are tracing from Theodore and Hadrian and Biscop and Ceolfrid does not end with Bede. Among Bede’s students was the son of the Northumbrian royal family, Egbert, who about 732 became archbishop of York. There at York he established a school, which would surpass even the school of his own training. To it would come the sons of the great northern families and books and even more books. Under Aethelbert (c.766-79), Egberts successor, the school at York had probably the best library in Western Europe. Also under Aethelbert the school had its greatest student, Alcuin. Hence, it was in light of these events of a century or more in England that we should see Charlemagne in 781 inviting Alcuin from York in the north of England to the royal palace at Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen).

This line of descent, just described, from the coming of Theodore to Canterbury in 669 to the going of Alcuin to the Frankish court in 783 might seem clear enough and might even be drawn as follows:

Theodore/Hadrian Benedict Biscop Ceolfrid Bede
  Aegbert Ethelbert Alcuin.

  Irish Learning

Yet such a straight, unambiguous line gives an inaccurate picture, for it tells only part of the story and assumes (wrongly) a single line of cultural transmission. There was another line that originated in Ireland, which is overlooked at the peril of historical distortion. From the early days of Christianity in Ireland an emphasis was placed on the value of learning, and great efforts were made to introduce biblical, patristic and even secular works into Irish monasteries. The influence of the Irish foundation at Lindisfarne in 635 continued long after the withdrawal of Colman in 664. The foundation at (Old) Melrose by Eata, a pupil of Aidan, was Irish in culture, and it was there that Cuthbert entered as a novice. When, in 664, Eata came to replace Colman as abbot of Lindisfarne, he brought with him Cuthbert as his prior. There they continued the Irish monastic traditions of Aidan and Colman. In a curious twist, when Colman left Lindisfarne after the ‘Synod’ of Whitby, thirty English monks went with him and soon established their own monastery on an island off the west coast of Ireland, which, when Bede wrote his Ecclesiastical History (731), was a flourishing community of English monks following the Irish ways. Yet they were not the first English monks to make such a journey. A large number (multi) of English monks in search of learning and an ascetical life had already gone to Irish monasteries, where, in Bede s words, ‘they were most gladly welcomed by the Irish and given food, books and instruction without any payment’. Bede names eleven of these; other sources name still others. There was, for example, the young Northumbrian noble Aethelwine, who after studying in Ireland returned to England and became a bishop. A brother of the great Abbot Ceolfrid of Wearmouth-Jar row went to Ireland to study the scriptures, and he was among the many English monks in Ireland who fell victim to the plague of 664. Other English monks formed a community at Clonmelsh (in modern Co. Carlow), from which the successful mission of Willibrord to the Frisians set out.

Moreover, Irish influences were not limited to Northumbria. In East Anglia (c.630), the Irish monk Fursey established a monastery, again in Bede s words, ‘in order to devote himself more freely to sacred studies’. In Wessex, Aldhelm, whom we have already met at Canterbury, had been taught by the Irish masters at Malmesbury, where he later (c.675) became abbot. Sir Frank Stenton has called him ‘the most learned and ingenious western scholar of the late seventh century’. At about the same time that Aldhelm was studying at Malmesbury, there came to Wessex Agilbert, who, although born in Gaul, had studied the scriptures in Ireland; he soon became bishop. And, again, in the 650s, Diuma, an Irish monk from Lindisfarne, became the first bishop of the Mercians. His successor was Irish born and trained. His successor, in turn, was English but Irish-trained. There, among the Mercians, in three generations the process of assimilation can be seen taking place.

The Irish line, in all this, is clearly unmistakable. The historical reality reveals that the glory of late seventh-and eighth-century English learning derived from two sources: one continental and one Irish. The two combined like the interlacing in the manuscript illuminations, the two so closely interwoven that one attempts to separate them at one s peril. The historian, faced with this complexity, should perhaps be content to describe this culture and learning as ‘insular’, thus giving credit to undoubted Irish and continental influences and to native English genius. The further danger is that the historian, trying to separate these strands, might lose sight of what truly happened in England in the seventh and eighth centuries: the civilizing of the barbarian English by reason of their conversion to the Christian religion. It was the Christian missionaries, whatever their origins, who brought literacy, book learning, scholarship—the framework for a civilized society—to England. As it was to be elsewhere, Christianity was in England the means of introducing barbarian peoples to the civilizing effects of learning.







Chadwick, ch. 18, “Worship and Art”, pp. 277-284; Walker, 3.11, pp. 162-164

  Images and Theology

The second of the Ten Commandments forbade the making of any graven image. Both Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria regarded this prohibition as absolute and binding on Christians. Images and cultic statues belonged to the demonic world of paganism. In fact, the only second-century Christians known to have had images of Christ were radical Gnostics, the followers of the licentious Carpocrates. If the emperor Alexander Severus actually had a private chapel with statues of Orpheus, Abraham, Apollonius and Christ, as he is uncertainly reported to have done  it must have given a bitter-sweet gratification to his Christian subjects. Yet before the end of the second century Christians were freely. expressing their faith in artistic terms. Tertullian mentions cups on which there were representations of the Good Shepherd carrying his sheep. Clement of Alexandria gives instruction about the picture appropriate for a Christian’s signet ring. In antiquity signet rings were not a luxury, but indispensable for correspondence. Clement recommends that Christians should use seals with representations that, without being specifically Christian, are readily capable of a Christian interpretation, such as a dove, a fish, a ship, a lyre, or an anchor. They should avoid seals with symbols suggesting idolatry or drink or erotic passion. It is noteworthy that Clement’s suggestions for appropriate seals are all types that a pagan might use; that is, they are neutral from a religious or moral point of view, and either pagans or Christians could happily use them. Likewise the Good Shepherd carrying his sheep was a conventional pagan symbol of humanitarian concern, philanthropia. The Christians were taking a common type and investing it with a new meaning possibly with reference to Christ the good shepherd of his sheep (John x). Another conventional type which the Christians soon began to use was the ‘Orans’, the figure with hands uplifted in prayer.

It was the same story with church buildings. The first Christian churches were ordinary private houses, and remained so until the time of Constantine. When the time came for the church building to acquire a ‘ public’ character, the architects used existing forms, such as the rectangular basilica with an apse. The conventional form was so filled with new content that an optical illusion was created that the basilica, or the Good Shepherd, or the Orans type was distinctively Christian. But this was not at first the case at all.

Early Christian paintings first appear not in churches but as funerary decoration in the Roman catacombs. The style of painting is not dissimilar to that found on many ordinary pagan houses at Pompeii. Human beings are in nothing so conservative as in funeral customs, and in the decoration of tombs and sarcophagi many of the conventions of the pagan workshop were simply continued. It would be extremely surprising if anything else had happened. Catacomb art is full of old motifs and, since the technique and style are popular, no large aesthetic claims can be made for it. The content, however, is of much greater interest than the form. The motifs of pagan convention which the Christians used were symbols which were capable of Christian reinterpretation. The four seasons might suggest life from death. The peacock symbolized immortality, the dove peace hereafter; above all the fish, the Greek word for which (IXOYC) formed an acrostic ‘Jesus Christ Son of God Saviour’, was a favourite Christian emblem, especially of the eucharist. About 182 the Phrygian bishop Abercius (or Avircius) of Hieropolis wrote his own epitaph containing his autobiography. ‘A disciple of the pure Shepherd’, he explains, he had visited the Roman church, ‘a golden-robed and golden-sandalled queen’, and had also travelled through Syria to Nisibis; everywhere he had found brethren – ‘with Paul before me I followed, and faith everywhere led the way and served food everywhere, the Fish from the spring, immense, pure, which the pure Virgin caught and gave to her friends to eat for ever, with good wine, giving the cup with the loaf’. It was part of the same group of angling or nautical symbols when the Christians used anchors in paintings or in the design of sarcophagi. The epistle to the Hebrews had spoken of hope as the anchor of the soul. Or the journey through life could naturally be compared to a storm-tossed voyage ending in the heavenly harbour.

But besides these themes and symbols which a Christian would understand but which a pagan would not read with the same meaning, there were certainly paintings with biblical scenes: Adam and Eve, Noah’s ark, the sacrifice of Isaac, Moses striking water from the rock, Jonah and the great fish, Daniel in the lion’s den, the three young men in the burning fiery furnace, and others. The favourite New Testament themes were the baptism of the Lord, the Paralytic carrying his bed or being let down through the roof of the house to Jesus, the Samaritan woman at the well, the raising of Lazarus, and Peter walking on the water. The earliest known example of a church with such pictures on the walls is the third-century house church at Dura on the Euphrates, where a private house built in the first century A.D. was adapted for Christian use in the year 232. This little house church was rather overshadowed at Dura by a large and opulent Jewish synagogue nearby, the walls of which were splendidly decorated with Old Testament scenes and figures. The Dura synagogue proves conclusively that the Jews could have elaborate decoration in their synagogues if they wished, and probably early Christian representations of biblical scenes owed much to Jewish models. It is probably significant that in the choice of biblical scenes favoured by the early Christian artists Old Testament subjects outnumber New Testament scenes in the period before Constantine. One particular example of Jewish precedent may be given. The Phrygian town of Apamea had a Jewish populadon which disregarded the claims of Ararat to be the site where Noah’s ark ran aground and affirmed that on a hill near their city they had the very remains of the ark itself. (The place was among the sites visited by that curious traveller and antiquarian, Julius Africanus – above, p. 103). Late in the second century and early in the third, the town mint of Apamea issued a series of coins portraying Noah and his ark. The type so very closely resembles the manner in which Noah is portrayed in Christian catacomb art that it is very difficult to deny a connexion. Probably, therefore, other Old Testament scenes in early Christian art were taken from Jewish models.

With the conversion of Constantine the Church no longer had to be reticent in expressing its faith. Churches became public buildings. In architecture, sculpture, mosaic decoration, and in paintings the symbols of Christianity and the themes of the gospel provided a rich material for artistic expression, and some of the greatest achievements in the civilization of late antiquity lie in the realm of art. But the process had already begun within the church even before Constantine appeared. The Spanish council of Elvira recorded its shocked disapproval of some churches with paintings on the walls, but the fact that such places existed was not suppressed, and the tide became a flood in the course of the fourth century.

Nevertheless, the older puritanism was not stifled or killed. About 327 the learned historian Eusebius of Caesarea received a letter from the emperor’s sister Constantia asking him for a picture of Christ. She evidently supposed that an authentic likeness was more likely to be obtainable in Palestine than elsewhere. Eusebius wrote her a very stern reply. He was well aware that one could find pictures of Christ and of the apostles. They were for sale in the bazaars of Palestine, and he had himself seen them. But Eusebius did not think the painters and shopkeepers selling these mementoes to pilgrims were Christians at all. Similarly at Caesarea Philippi he had seen a group of bronze statuary in which a woman bending on one knee stretched out her hand as a suppliant to a standing man whose hand reached towards her. From Eusebius’ description the group was evidently a type familiar on Hadrian’s coins, showing the emperor restoring rights to his provinces. By 300, however, Hadrian was forgotten. The citizens of Caesarea Philippi were now interpreting the bronze pair to represent Jesus healing the woman with the issue of blood, and could even show visitors the house where she lived. (This interpretation of the Hadrianic statues, which adorned a fountain in a public square, was so widely accepted that under Julian they were damaged by pagan vandals.) The story told by Eusebius has an incidental interest in marking the first step towards the creation of the medieval legend of Veronica.[i] His own attitude to the statues is one of sympathetic interest, but takes it for granted that only pagan artists would dream of making such representations.

A similarly iconoclastic view was taken by Epiphanius of Salamis who was horrified to find in Palestine a curtain in a church porch with a picture of Christ or some saint. He tore it down and lodged a vehement protest with the bishop of Jerusalem.

Though Epiphanius did all he could to prevent the introduction of pictures in churches, he was fighting a losing battle. By 403, when he died, portrayals of Christ and the saints were widespread. It was a move of popular devotion roughly contemporaneous with the rise in the veneration of the Blessed Virgin who, by 400, was occupying a mounting place in private devotion that was soon to pass into the official liturgy. The first known church dedicated to her is that at Ephesus where the council of 431 was held. In the next decade Pope Sixtus III  (432—40) built the great church of St Mary Major in Rome with its superb mosaics on the walls and the triumphal arch. The mosaics on the side walls portray Old Testament scenes. Those on the triumphal arch show the Annunciation, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, the Magi offering gifts and visiting Herod, Herod ordering the massacre of the Innocents, and an apocryphal story of Christ in Egypt. At one time the walls also showed mosaics with a line of martyrs offering their crowns to the Virgin and Child, as in the extant Arian mosaics at S. Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna; but these have entirely perished. The mosaics of St Mary Major mark a watershed in the development of Mariology. They remain largely within the older tradition in which the Virgin appears in the context of representations of Christ’s birth at Bethlehem and is subordinate to Christ. But at the same time the mosaics are the earliest evidence in art for the tendency to accord her an independent position. This independence was accelerated by the popular Monophysite Christology of the fifth century which transferred to St Mary the redemptive value that had been attributed to the humanity of Christ. In a Monophysite devotion Christ as man ceased to be very important; his resurrection was that of a God. Because of this loss of a sense of solidarity between Christ and the rest of the human race, the faithful increasingly looked towards Mary as the perfect representative of redeemed humanity. This theme was powerfully portrayed in Christian art from the sixth century onwards, and was much enhanced by the growing popular belief that the Virgin either had not died or had already been granted resurrection and admission to heaven.

A considerable body of Christian art of the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries has survived, and illustrates the very high quality of artistic achievement that characterized the age. The splendid mosaics of the churches at Ravenna or Rome, the Rossano codex of the gospels, the Syriac gospel book written in 586 by the Mesopotamian monk Rabula (now in Florence), the doors of Santa Sabina in Rome, and many other examples, witness to an artistic renaissance of the first distinction, devoted to the expression of Christian themes and unrestrained by any inhibitions about portraying Christ and the saints. Yet these representations of Christ caused pain to those who remembered an older austerity and reserve. The icons were the object of an undercurrent of mistrust which emerged in the eighth century as the bitter iconoclastic controversy, when the emperor Leo the Isaurian in 726 initiated by edict a full-scale programme of destroying all such pictures. The icons had become an accepted and loved part of church decoration, and were deeply valued by devout souls. The controversy grew into a major conflict between church and State in the Byzantine empire lasting over a century, and (since the emperors were iconoclast and the papacy was not) contributed to a still further widening of the estrangement between Rome and Byzantium.


  The Iconoclastic Controversy


    [Walker, 3.11, pp. 162-164]

THE apparent collapse of the Eastern empire in the seventh century was followed by a very considerable renewal of its strength under the able Leo III, the Isaurian (717-740), to whose military and administrative talents its new lease of life was due. A forceful sovereign, he would rule the church in the spirit of Justinian. He desired to make entrance as easy as possible for Jews, Moslems, and the representatives of the stricter Christian sects, such as the remaining Montanists.

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

THEY [i.e. Montanists, Jews, Muslims] charged the church with idolatry, by reason of the widespread veneration of icons. In 726, Leo forbade their further employment in worship. The result was religious revolt. The monks and common people resisted, partly from veneration of images, partly in the interest of the freedom of the church from imperial dictation.

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

Leo enforced his decree by the army. In most of the empire he had his will. Italy was too remote, and there Popes and people resisted him. Under Pope Gregory III (731-741), a Roman synod of 731 excommunicated the iconoclasts. The Emperor answered by removing all of Sicily and such portions of Italy as he could from the Pope’s jurisdiction. Leo’s able and tyrannous son, Constantine V (740-775), pursued the same policy even more relentlessly. A synod assembled by him in Constantinople in 754 condemned icons and approved his authority over the church. In this struggle the papacy sought the help of the Franks and tore itself permanently from dependence on the Eastern Emperors.

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.

A change of imperial policy came, however, with the accession of Constantine VI (780-797), under the dominance of his mother, Irene, a partisan of icons. By imperial authority, and with the presence of papal delegates, the Seventh and, in the estimate of the Greek Church, the last, General Council now assembled in Nicæa in 787. By its decree icons, the cross, and the Gospels

should be given due salutation and honorable reverence, not indeed that true worship, which pertains alone to the divine nature. . . For the honor which is paid to the image passes on to that which the image represents, and he who shows reverence to the image shows reverence to the subject represented in it.”[ii] The council seems to have been unconscious that much the same thing could have been said by heathenism for its images.

  John of Damascus

    Among the vigorous supporters of image-reverence was John of Damascus (700?-753?), the most honored of the later theologians of the Eastern portion of the ancient church. Born in the city from which he took his name, the son of a Christian high-placed in the civil service of the Mohammedan Caliph, he succeeded to his father’s position, only to abandon it and become a monk of the cloister of St. Sabas near Jerusalem. His chief work, The Fountain of Knowledge, is a complete, systematic presentation of the theology of the church of the East. With little of originality, and much use of extracts from earlier writers, he presented the whole in clear and logical form, so that he became the great theological instructor of the Greek Church, and, thanks to a Latin translation of the twelfth century, influenced the scholasticism of the West. His philosophical basis is an Aristotelianism largely influenced by Neo-Platonism. In the Christological discussion he followed Leontius, in an interpretation of the Chalcedonian symbol consonant with the views of Cyril. To him the death of Christ is a sacrifice offered to God, not a ransom to the devil. The Lord’s Supper is fully the body and blood of Christ, not by transubstantiation, but by a miraculous transformation wrought by the Holy Spirit.  John of Damascus summed up the theological development of the Orient, and beyond the positions which he represented the East made practically no progress. Its contribution to the intellectual explanation of Christianity was completed.

  Summary of the Iconoclastic Controversy

         [Chadwick, pp. 283-284]

The strength of the iconoclasts lay less in their theological arguments, which were too technical to be in the long run persuasive,[iii] than in their instinct that images were associated with the idolatry Christianity had come to destroy, and that the representations of Christ, the Virgin, and the saints, owed too much to pagan precedents. In this instinct there was a measure of truth. The representation of Christ as the Almighty Lord on his judgement throne owed something to pictures of Zeus. Portraits of the Mother of God were not wholly independent of a pagan past of venerated mother-goddesses. In the popular mind the saints had come to fill a role that had been played by local heroes and deities.

   But it was inevitable that iconoclasm should be understood as an attack on aids to devotion which frail mortals needed, and to which they had become accustomed by tolerably long use over more than a century before the outbreak of the controversy. John of Damascus saw iconoclasm as implying a pessimistic, Manichee view of matter. The charge was no doubt very unfair. The exquisite. cross in the mosaic of the apse at St Irene in Istanbul, the decoration of which belongs to the iconoclastic period, is in itself sufficient to refute the notion that the eighth-century iconoclasts were utterly indifferent or hostile to aesthetic values. They were not Philistines but conservatives wanting their religion the old way, as it had been in their grandfather’s time before the artists had been encouraged to let themselves go. But they were also unconsciously repeating in a new form and a new idiom something of the old attack of the spiritualizing Origenists upon the ‘Anthropomorphites’ who needed to picture the God to whom they prayed .

   The decision to restore icons was taken by the empress Irene (780-90). In face of strong hostility in both Church and army her firm hand led the second Council of Nicaea (787) formally to condemn the iconoclasts. The failure of Irene and her successors to achieve prosperity for the empire brought a reaction in favour of iconoclasm again from 814 until 843, the iconophile cause being maintained meanwhile by the monks of Studios at Constantinople under their abbot Theodore. But on the first Sunday in Lent 843 the empress Theodora restored the icons for the last time with a procession that in the eyes of posterity marked ‘the triumph of Orthodoxy’, and made possible the gradual redecoration of the churches under the patriarch Photius from 858 onwards.



On art see W. F. Volbach and M. Hirmer, Early Christian Art (ET 1961); F. van der Meer and C. Mohrmann, Atlas of the Early Christian World (ET 1958); M. Gough, The Early Christians (1961); L. Hertling and E. Kirschbaum, The Roman Catacombs and their Martyrs (revised ed. ET 1960); D. Talbot Rice, The Art of Byzantium (1959); J. G. Davies, The Origin and Development of Early Christian Architecture (1952); R. Krautheimer, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture (The Pelican History of Art, 3rd ed. 1979); R. J. Mainstone, Hagia Sophia (1988).

On icons see N. H. Baynes, Byzantine Studies (1955); E. Bevan, Holy Images (1940). P. J. Alexander, The Patriarch Nicephorus (1958). C. Mango, The Art of the Byzantine Empire (1972), translates selected documents. On the veneration of the saints see H. Delehaye, The Legends of the Saints (ET 1962); P. Brown, The Cult of the Saints (1981 ).



[i] The Veronica legend arose from a remarkable fusion of several legends. By the fourth century the woman with the issue of blood was named Berenice. According to one form of the Abgar legend , current by 400, Christ sent his portrait to a princess of Edessa named Berenice. The two ladies were identified, and in the Latin West the name became Veronica. In later legend she acquired her picture of Christ on a towel which she offered him on the via dolorosa. The towel, preserved at St Peter’s, Rome, has in modern times attracted less attention than the Shroud of Turin, the work of a fourteenth-century artist for which no claims can be made on historical grounds.

[ii] Ayer, pp. 694-697.

[iii] The principal iconoclast arguments were: (a) the second commandment; (b) man alone is the earthly image of God; (c) to portray Christ implies a Nestorian separation of the humanity from the divine nature; or, if not that, it implies a circumscribing and limiting of the divine nature which cannot be so limited.
   The iconodules replied: (a) we venerate not the icons but those whom they depict; (b) honour addressed to Christ’s servants the saints is relative, not an absolute worship; (e) icons are a necessary consequence of the invocation of saints; (d) if value is ascribed to relics, why not also to icons? (s) the second commandment was only temporary legislation; (f) icons aid devotion and are univesully used.



[1] Gee and Hardy, Documents Illustrative of English Church History, pp. 9, 10

[2] Robinson, Readings in European History, 1:105-111.


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