1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Iconoclasts

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ICONOCLASTS (Gr. εἰκονοκλάστης: εἰκών, image, and κλάειν, to break), the name applied particularly to the opponents in the 8th and 9th centuries of the use of images in Christian cult.

As regards the attitude towards religious images assumed by the primitive Christian Church, several questions have often been treated as one which cannot be too carefully kept apart. There can be no doubt that the early Christians were unanimous in condemning heathen image-worship and the various customs, some immoral, with which it was associated. A form of iconolatry specially deprecated in the New Testament was the then prevalent adoration of the images of the reigning emperors (see Rev. xv. 2). It is also tolerably certain that, if for no other reasons besides the Judaism, obscurity, and poverty of the early converts to Christianity, the works of art seen in their meeting-houses cannot at first have been numerous. Along with these reasons would co-operate towards the exclusion of visible aids to devotion, not only the church’s sacramental use of Christ’s name as a name of power, and its living sense of his continued real though unseen presence, but also, during the first years, its constant expectation of his second advent as imminent. It was a common accusation brought against Jews and Christians that they had “no altars, no temples, no known images” (Min. Fel. Oct. c. 10), that “they set up no image or form of any god” (see Arnob. Adv. Gent. vi. I; similarly Celsus); and this charge was never denied; on the contrary Origen gloried in it (c. Celsum, bk. 7, p. 386). At a comparatively early date, indeed, we read of various Gnostic sects calling in the fine arts to aid their worship; thus Irenaeus (Haer. i. 25. 6), speaking of the followers of Marcellina, says that “they possess images, some of them painted, and others formed from different kinds of material; and they maintain that a likeness of Christ was made by Pilate at that time when Jesus lived among men. They crown these images, and set them up along with the images of the philosophers of the world; that is to say, with the images of Pythagoras and Plato and Aristotle and the rest. They have also other modes of honouring these images after the same manner as the Gentiles” (cf. Aug. De Haer. c. 7). It is also well known that the emperor Alexander Severus found a place for several Scripture characters and even for Christ in his lararium (Lamprid. Vit. Alex. Sev. c. 29). But there is no evidence that such a use of images extended at that period to orthodox Christian circles. The first unmistakable indication of the public use of the painter’s art for directly religious ends does not occur until A.D. 306, when the synod of Elvira, Spain, decreed (can. 36) that “pictures ought not to be in a church, lest that which is worshipped and adored be painted on walls.”[1] This canon is proof that the use of sacred pictures in public worship was not at the beginning of the 4th century a thing unknown within the church in Spain; and the presumption is that in other places, about the same period, the custom was looked upon with a more tolerant eye. Indications of the existence of allied forms of sacred Christian art prior to this period are not wholly wanting. It seems possible to trace some of the older and better frescos in the catacombs to a very early age; and Bible manuscripts were often copiously illuminated and illustrated even before the middle of the 4th century. An often-quoted passage from Tertullian (De Pudic. c. 10, cf. c. 7) shows that in his day the communion cup was wont to bear a representation of the Good Shepherd. Clement of Alexandria (Paedag. iii. 11) mentions the dove, fish, ship, lyre, anchor, as suitable devices for Christian signet rings. Origen (c. Celsum, bk. 3) repudiates graven images as only fit for demons.

During the 4th and following centuries the tendency to enlist the fine arts in the service of the church steadily advanced; not, however, so far as appears, with the formal sanction of any regular ecclesiastical authority, and certainly not without strong protests raised by more than one powerful voice. From a passage in the writings of Gregory of Nyssa (Orat. de Laudibus Theodori Martyris, c. 2) it is easy to see how the stories of recent martyrs would offer themselves as tempting subjects for the painter, and at the same time be considered to have received from him their best and most permanent expression; that this feeling was widespread is shown in many places by Paulinus of Nola (ob. 431), from whom we gather that not only martyrdoms and Bible histories, but also symbols of the Trinity were in his day freely represented pictorially. Augustine (De Cons. Ev. i. 10) speaks less approvingly of those who look for Christ and his apostles “on painted walls” rather than in his written word. How far the Christian feeling of the 4th and 5th centuries was from being settled in favour of the employment of the fine arts is shown by such a case as that of Eusebius of Caesarea, who, in reply to a request of Constantia, sister of Constantine, for a picture of Christ, wrote that it was unlawful to possess images pretending to represent the Saviour either in his divine or in his human nature, and added that to avoid the reproach of idolatry he had actually taken away from a lady friend the pictures of Paul and of Christ which she had.[2] Similarly Epiphanius in a letter to John, bishop of Jerusalem, tells how in a church at Anablatha near Bethel he had found a curtain painted with the image “of Christ or of some other saint,” which he had torn down and ordered to be used for the burial of a pauper. The passage, however, reveals not only what Epiphanius thought on the subject, but also that such pictures must have been becoming frequent. Nilus, the disciple and defender of Chrysostom, permitted the symbol of the cross in churches and also pictorial delineations of Old and New Testament history, but deprecated other symbols, pictures of martyrs, and most of all the representation of Christ. In the time of Gregory the Great the Western Church obtained something like an authoritative declaration on the question about images, but in a sense not quite the same as that of the synod of Elvira. Serenus of Marseilles had ordered the destruction of all sacred images within his diocese; this action called forth several letters from Pope Gregory (viii. 2. III; ix. 4. 11), in which he disapproved of that course, and, drawing the distinction which has since been authoritative for the Roman Church, pointed out that—

“It is one thing to worship a picture and another to learn from the language of a picture what that is which ought to be worshipped. What those who can read learn by means of writing, that do the uneducated learn by looking at a picture. . . . That, therefore, ought not to have been destroyed which had been placed in the churches, not for worship, but solely for instructing the minds of the ignorant.”

With regard to the symbol of the cross, its public use dates from the time of Constantine, though, according to many Christian archaeologists it had, prior to that date, a very important place in the so-called “disciplina arcani.” The introduction of the crucifix was later; originally the favourite combination was that of the figure of a lamb lying at the foot of the cross; the council of Constantinople, called “in Trullo,” in 692 enjoined that this symbol should be discontinued, and that where Christ was shown in connexion with his cross he should be represented in his human nature. In the catacombs Christ is never represented hanging on the cross, and the cross itself is only portrayed in a veiled and hesitating manner. In the Egyptian churches the cross was a pagan symbol of life borrowed by the Christians and interpreted in the pagan manner. The cross of the early Christian emperors was a labarum or token of victory in war, a standard for use in battle. Religious feeling in the West recoiled from the crucifix as late as the 6th century, and it was equally abhorrent to the Monophysites of the East who regarded the human nature of Christ as swallowed up in the divine. Nevertheless it seems to have originated in the East, perhaps as a protest against the extreme Monophysites, who even denied the passibility of Christ. Perhaps the Nestorians, who clung to the human aspect of Christ, introduced it about 550. From the East it soon passed to the West.

Not until the 8th century were the religious and theological questions which connect themselves with image-worship distinctly raised in the Eastern Church in their entirety. The controversy began with an address which Leo the Isaurian, in the tenth year of his reign (726), delivered in public “in favour of overthrowing the holy and venerable images,” as says Theophanes (Chronogr., in Migne Patr. Gr. 108, 816). This emperor had, in the years 717 and 718, hurled back the tide of Arab conquest which threatened to engulf Byzantium, and had also shown himself an able statesman and legislator. Born at Germanicia in Syria, and, before he mounted the throne, captain-general of the Anatolian theme, he had come under the influence of the anti-idolatrous sects, such as the Jews, Montanists, Paulicians and Manicheans, which abounded in Asia Minor, but of which he was otherwise no friend. But his religious reform was unpopular, especially among the women, who killed an official who, by the emperor’s command, was destroying an image of Christ in the vestibule of the imperial palace of Chalcé. This émeute provoked severe reprisals, and the partisans of the images were mutilated and killed, or beaten and exiled. A rival emperor even, Agallianus, was set up, who perished in his attempt to seize Constantinople. Italy also rose in arms, and Pope Gregory II. wrote to Leo blaming his interference in religious matters, though he dissuaded the rebels in Venetia, the Exarchate and the Pentapolis from electing a new emperor and marching against Leo. In 730 Germanus the patriarch resigned rather than subscribe to a decree condemning images; later he was strangled, in exile and replaced by an iconoclast, Anastasius. Meanwhile, inside the Arab empire, John of Damascus wrote his three dogmatic discourses against the traducers of images, arguing that their use was not idolatry but only a relative worship (προσκύνησις σχετική). The next pope, Gregory III. convoked a council of ninety-three bishops, which excommunicated the iconoclasts, and the fleet which Leo sent to retaliate on the Latin peninsula was lost in a storm in the Adriatic. The most Leo was able to do was to double the tribute of Calabria and Sicily, confiscate the pope’s revenues there, and impose on the bishops of south Italy a servitude to Byzantium which lasted for centuries.

Leo III. died in June 740, and then his son Constantine V. began a persecution of the image-worshippers in real earnest. In his eagerness to restore the simplicity of the primitive church he even assailed Mariolatry, intercession of saints, relics and perhaps infant baptism, to the scandal even of the iconoclast bishops themselves. His reign began with the seizure for eighteen months of Constantinople by his brother-in-law Artavasdes, who temporarily restored the images. He was captured and beheaded with his accomplices in November 742, and in February 754 Constantine held in the palace of Hieria a council of 388 bishops, mostly of the East; the patriarchs of Rome, Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem refused to attend. In it images were condemned, but the other equally conservative leanings of the emperor found no favour. The chief upholders of images, the patriarch Germanus, George of Cyprus and John of Damascus, were anathematized, and Christians forbidden to adore or make images or even to hide them. These decrees were obstinately resisted, especially by the monks, large numbers of whom fled to Italy. In 765 the emperor demanded of his subjects all over his empire an oath on the cross that they detested images, and St Stephen the younger, the chief upholder of them, was murdered in the streets. A regular crusade now began against monks and nuns, and images and relics were destroyed on a great scale. In parts of Asia Minor (Lydia and Caria) the monks were even forced to marry the nuns. In 769 Pope Stephen III. condemned the council of Hieria, and in 775 Constantine V. died. His son Leo IV. died in 780, leaving a widow, Irene, of Athenian birth, who seized the opportunity presented by the minority of her ten-year-old son Constantine VI. to restore the images and dispersed relics. In 784 she invited Pope Adrian I. to come and preside over a fresh council, which was to reverse that of 754 and heal the schism with Rome. In August 786 the council met, but was broken up by the imperial guards, who were Easterns and sturdy iconoclasts. Irene replaced them by a more trustworthy force, and convoked a fresh council of three hundred bishops and monks innumerable in September 787, at Nicaea in the church of St Sophia. The cult of images was now solemnly restored, iconoclast bishops deposed or reconciled, the dogmatic theory of images defined, and church discipline re-established. The order thus imposed lasted twenty-four years, until a military revolution placed a soldier of fortune, half Armenian, half Persian, named Leo, on the throne; he, like his soldiers, was persuaded that the ill-success of the Roman arms against Bulgarians and other invaders was due to the idolatry rampant at court and elsewhere. The soldiers stoned the image of Christ which Irene had set up afresh in the palace of Chalcé, and this provoked a counter-demonstration of the clergy. Leo feigned for a while to be on their side, but on the 2nd of February 815, in the sanctuary of St Sophia, publicly refused to prostrate himself before the images, with the approbation of the army and of many bishops who were iconoclasts at heart. Irene’s patriarch Nicephorus was now deposed and one Theodotus, a kinsman of Constantine Copronymus, consecrated in his place on the 1st of April 815. A fresh council was soon convoked, which cursed Irene and re-enacted the decrees of 754. This reaction lasted only for a generation under Leo the Armenian, who died 820, Michael II. 820–829, and Theophilus 829–842; and was frustrated mainly by the exertions of Theodore of Studion and his monks, called the Studitae. Theodore refused to attend or recognize the new council, and was banished first to Bithynia and thence to Smyrna, whence he continued to address his appeals to the pope, to the eastern patriarchs and to his dispersed monks. He died in 826. Theophilus, the last of the iconoclast emperors, was a devoted Mariolater and controversialist who invited the monks to discuss the question of images with him, and whipped or branded them when he was out-argued; he at length banished them from the cities, and branded on the hands a painter of holy pictures, Lazarus by name, who declined to secularize his art; he also raised to the patriarchal throne John Hylilas, chief instigator of the reaction of 815. In 842 Theophilus died, leaving his wife Theodora regent; she was, like Irene, addicted to images, and chose as patriarch a monk, Methodius, whom the emperor Michael had imprisoned for laying before him Pope Paschal I.’s letter of protest. John Hylilas was deposed and flogged in turn. A fresh council was now held which re-enacted the decrees of 787, and on the 20th of February 842 the new patriarch, the empress, clergy and court dignitaries assisted in the church of St Sophia at a solemn restoration of images which lasted until the advent of the Turks. The struggle had gone on for 116 years.

The iconoclastic movement is perhaps the most dramatic episode in Byzantine history, and the above outline of its external events must be completed by an appreciation of its deeper historical and religious significance and results. We can distinguish three parties among the combatants:—

1. The partisans of image worship. These were chiefly found in the Hellenic portions of the empire, where Greek art had once held sway. The monks were the chief champions of images, because they were illuminators and artists. Their doctors taught that the same grace of the Holy Spirit which imbued the living saint attaches after death to his relics, name, image and picture. The latter are thus no mere representations, but as it were emanations from the archetype, vehicles of the supernatural personality represented, and possessed of an inherent sacramental value and power, such as the name of Jesus had for the earliest believers. Here Christian image-worship borders on the beliefs which underlie sympathetic magic (see Image Worship).

2. The iconoclasts proper, who not only condemned image worship in the sense just explained but rejected all religious art whatever. Fleeting matter to their mind was not worthy to embody or reflect heavenly supersensuous energies denoted by the names of Christ and the saints. For the same reason they rejected relics and, as a rule, the worship of the cross. Statues of Christ, especially of him hanging on the cross, inspired the greatest horror and indignation; and this is why none of the graven images of Christ, common before the outbreak of the movement, survive. More than this—although the synod of 692 specially allowed the crucifix, yet Greek churches have discarded it ever since the 8th century.

This idea that material representation involves a profanation of divine personages, while disallowing all religious art which goes beyond scroll-work, spirals, flourishes and geometrical designs, yet admits to the full of secular art; and accordingly the iconoclastic emperors replaced the holy pictures in churches with frescoes of hunting scenes, and covered their palaces with garden scenes where men were plucking fruit and birds singing amid the foliage. Contemporary Mahommedans did the same, for it is an error to suppose that this religion was from the first hostile to profane art. At one time the mosques were covered with mosaics, analogous to those of Ravenna, depicting scenes from the life of Mahomet and the prophets. The Arabs only forbade plastic art in the 9th century, nor were their essentially Semitic scruples ever shared by the Persians.

The prejudice we are considering is closely connected with the Manichaean view of matter, which in strict consistency rejected the belief that God was really made flesh, or really died on the cross. The Manichaeans were therefore, by reason of their dualism, arch-enemies no less of Christian art than of relics and cross-worship; the Monophysites were equally so by reason of their belief that the divine nature in Christ entirely absorbed and sublated the human; they shaded off into the party of the aphthartodoketes, who held that his human body was incorruptible and made of ethereal fire, and that his divine nature was impassible. Their belief made them, like the Manichaeans, hostile to material portraiture of Christ, especially of his sufferings on the cross. All these nearly allied schools of Christian thought could, moreover, address, as against the image-worshippers, a very effective appeal to the Bible and to Christian antiquity. Now Egypt, Asia Minor, Armenia, western Syria and the Hauran were almost wholly given up to these forms of opinion. Accordingly in all the remains of the Christian art of the Hauran one seeks in vain for any delineation of human face or figure. The art of these countries is mainly geometrical, and allows only of monograms crowned with laurels, of peacocks, of animals gambolling amid foliage, of fruit and flowers, of crosses which are either svastikas of Hindu and Mycenaean type, or so lost in enveloping arabesques as to be merely decorative. Such was the only religious art permitted by the Christian sentiment of these countries, and also of the large enclaves of semi-Manichaean belief formed in the Balkans by the transportation thither of Armenians and Paulicians. And it is important to remark that the protagonists of iconoclasm in Byzantium came from these lands where image cult offended the deepest religious instincts of the masses. Leo the Isaurian had all the scruples of a Paulician, even to the rejection of the cult of Virgin and saints; Constantine V. was openly such. Michael Balbus was reared in Phrygia among Montanists. The soldiers and captains of the Byzantine garrisons were equally Armenians and Syrians, in whom the sight of a crucifix or image set up for worship inspired nothing but horror.

The issue of the struggle was not a complete victory even in Byzantium for the partisans of image-worship. The Iconoclasts left an indelible impress on the Christian art of the Greek Church, in so far as they put an end to the use of graven images; for the Eastern icon is a flat picture, less easily regarded than would be a statue as a nidus within which a spirit can lurk. Half the realm of creative art, that of statuary, was thus suppressed at a blow; and the other half, painting, forfeited all the grace and freedom, all the capacity of new themes, forms and colours, all the development which we see in the Latin Church. The Greeks have produced no Giotto, no Fra Angelico, no Raphael. Their artists have no choice of subjects and no initiative. Colour, dress, attitude, grouping of figures are all dictated by traditional rules, set out in regular manuals. God the Father may not be depicted at all—a restriction intelligible when we remember that the image in theory is fraught with the virtue of the archetype; but everywhere the utmost timidity is shown. What else could an artist do but make a slavish and exact copy of old pictures which worked miracles and perhaps had the reputation as well of having fallen from heaven?

3. Between these extreme parties the Roman Church took the middle way of common sense. The hair-splitting distinction of the Byzantine doctors between veneration due to images (προσκύνησις τιμητική), and the adoration (προσκύνησις λατρευτική) due to God alone, was dropped, and the utility of pictures for the illiterate emphasized. Their use was declared to be this, that they taught the ignorant through the eye what they should adore with the mind; they are not themselves to be adored. Such was Gregory the Great’s teaching, and such also is the purport of the Caroline books, which embody the conclusions arrived at by the bishops of Germany, Gaul and Aquitaine, presided over by papal legates at the council of Frankfort in 794, and incidentally also reveal the hatred and contempt of Charlemagne for the Byzantine empire as an institution, and for Irene, its ruler, as a person. The theologians whom Louis the Pious convened at Paris in 825, to answer the letter received from the iconoclast emperor Michael Balbus, were as hostile to the orthodox Greeks as to the image-worshippers, and did not scruple to censure Pope Adrian for having approved of the empress Irene’s attitude. The council of Trent decided afresh in the same sense.

Two incidental results of the iconoclastic movement must be noticed, the one of less, the other of more importance. The lesser one was the flight of Greek iconolatrous monks from Asia Minor and the Levant to Sicily and Calabria, where they established convents which for centuries were the western homes of Greek learning, and in which were written not a few of the oldest Greek MSS. found in our libraries. The greater event was the scission between East and West. The fury of the West against the iconoclastic emperors was such that the whole of Italy clamoured for war. It is true that Pope Stephen II. applied in 753 to Constantine V., one of the worst destroyers of images, for aid against the Lombards, for the emperor of Byzantium was still regarded as the natural champion of the church. But Constantine refused aid, and the pope turned to the Frankish King Pippin. The die was cast. Henceforth Rome was linked with the Carolingian house in an alliance which culminated in the coronation of Charlemagne by the pope on the 25th of December 800.

In the crusading epoch the Cathars and Paulicians carried all over Europe the old iconoclastic spirit, and perhaps helped to transmit it to Wycliffe and Hus. Not the least racy clause in the document compiled about 1389 by the Wycliffites in defence of their defunct teacher is the following: “Hit semes that this offrynge ymages is a sotile cast of Antichriste and his clerkis for to drawe almes fro pore men . . . certis, these ymages of hemselfe may do nouther gode nor yvel to mennis soules, but thai myghtten warme a man’s body in colde, if thai were sette upon a fire.”

At the period of the Reformation it was unanimously felt by the reforming party that, with the invocation of saints and the practice of reverencing their relics, the adoration of images ought also to cease. The leaders of the movement were not, however, perfectly agreed on the question as to whether these might not in some circumstances be retained in churches. Luther had no sympathy with the iconoclastic outbreaks which then occurred; he classed images in themselves as among the “adiaphora,” and condemned only their cultus; so also the “Confessio Tetrapolitana” leaves Christians free to have them or not, if only due regard be had to what is expedient and edifying. The “Heidelberg Catechism,” however, emphatically declares that images are not to be tolerated at all in churches.

Sources.—“Acts of the Seventh Ecumenical Council held in Nicaea, 787,” in Mansi’s Concilia, vols. xii. and xiii.; “Acts of the Iconoclast Council of 815,” in a treatise of Nicephorus discovered by M. Serruys and printed in the Séances Acad. des Inscript. (May 1903); Theophanes, Chronographia, edit. de Boor (Leipzig, 1883–1885); and Patr. Gr. vol. 108. Also his “Continuators” in Patr. Gr. vol. 109; Nicephorus, Chronicon, edit. de Boor (Leipzig, 1880), and Patr. Gr. vol. 100; Georgius Monachus, Chronicon, edit. Muralt (Petersburg, 1859), and Patr. Gr. 110; anonymous “Life of Leo the Armenian” in Patr. Gr. 108; The Book of the Kings, by Joseph Genesios, Patr. Gr. 109; “Life of S. Stephanus, Junior,” Patr. Gr. 100; “St John of Damascus,” three “Sermones” against the iconoclasts, Patr. Gr. 95; Nicephorus Patriarch, “Antirrhetici,” Patr. Gr. 100; Theodore Studita, “Antirrhetici,” Patr. Gr. 99. For bibliography of contemporary hymns, letters, &c., bearing on the controversy see K. Krumbacher’s History of Byzantine Literature, 2nd ed. p. 674. Literature: Louis Brehier, La Querelle des images, and Les Origines du crucifix (Paris, 1904); Librairie Blond, in French, each volume 60 centimes (brief but admirable); Karl Schwartzlose, Der Bilderstreit (Gotha, 1890); Karl Schenk, “The Emperor Leo III.,” in Byzant. Zeitschrift (1896, German); Tel. Uspenskij, Skizzen zur Geschichte der byzantinischen Kultur (St Petersburg, 1892, Russian); Lombard, Études d’histoire byzantine; Constantine V.( Paris, 1902, Biblioth. de l’université de Paris, xvi.); A. Tougard, La Persécution iconoclaste (Paris, 1897); and Rev. des questions historiques (1891); Marin, Les Moines de Constantinople (Paris, 1897, bk. iv. Les Moines et les empereurs iconoclastes); Alice Gardner, Theodore of Studium (London, 1905); Louis Maimbourg, Histoire de l’hérésie des iconoclastes (Paris, 1679–1683); J. Daillé (Dallaeus), De imaginibus (Leiden, 1642, and in French, Geneva, 1641); Spanheim, Historia imaginum (Leiden, 1686). See also the account of this epoch in the Histories of Neander, Gibbon and Milman; Aug. Fr. Gfrörer, “Der Bildersturm” in Byzantinische Geschichte 2 (1873); C. J. von Hefele, Conciliengeschichte 3 (1877), 366 ff. (also in English translation; Karl Krumbacher. Byzant. Literaturgeschichte (2nd ed. p. 1090).  (F. C. C.) 

  1. “Placuit picturas in ecclesia esse non debere, ne quod colitur et adoratur in parietibus depingatur.” See Hefele, Conciliengesch. i. 170.
  2. The letter, which is most probably, though not certainly, genuine, appears in the Acta of the second council of Nice.