Byantine Iconoclasm

Byzantine Iconoclasm

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The author of this report is to answer a series of questions about the Byzantine Empire and their practice of iconoclasm. A series of questions shall be answered to that end. The first question is why Leo III installed iconoclasm in the first place and what his motivations were. The second question will be why Constantine V continued the policy. The third question asks whether iconoclasm was a continuation of a few between the orthodox and monophysite Christians. The fourth question asks whether iconoclasm helped paved the way for the Papal/Frankish alliance and the eventual coronation of Charlemagne. The fifth question asks why Leo V newly imposed iconoclasm, the sixth asks for a definition of the roles of Irene and Theodora, the seventh asks about the impacts of Iconoclasm on the Empire from a religious/artistic/cultural standpoint and the eighth asks about the questions that are/were raised in regard to the role of emperors as it relates to Christianity. While there are still debates to this day about the motives and outcomes brought on by iconoclasm, most of the answers are fairly settled.


Leo implemented iconoclasm as he viewed the reverence of symbols as being a form of “idolatry.” There was a volcanic eruption just before this decision by Leo and it is asserted by many that the use of symbols was a direct reaction to the use of images by the people that Leo later restricted. He went to far as to include images of the emperor as well as religious symbols like the cross were banned. However, there were some military implications as he did not want to feed the motivations and aspirations of Jews or Muslims, who were obviously not entirely (if at all) the same side as the Christians (NWE, 2014).

Constantine continued the policy because he was personally committed to the same idea as Leo. It served him well as he was militarily and cultural successful himself. He had the support of the bishops and other personnel of the church as they held the same view about “veneration” of the saints and such. However, the view was not monolithic as John of Damascus was against the idea. In the end, the anti-iconoclasm stance that Constantine took was seen as his way as asserting authority as some council members and others were exiled and Constantine viewed the symbols as heresy. He perhaps took the view that any use of icons was an affront to his own rule (NWE, 2014).

Regarding the third question, the answer was absolutely “yes” as there was clearly a demarcation as to what symbols should be revered and what symbols should not. Regarding the suggested use of Geanakoplos wrote a lot about how the and communicated with each other, including when Barlaam of the Greeks demanded from the Pope that “all will submit” (Geanakoplos, 1989). Iconoclasm absolutely paved the way between the Papal group and the Frankish group as was himself against iconography. Indeed, there was a that centered on precisely that and the Byzantines were the main source of this discussion (UPenn, 2014).

Leo’s restoration of the iconoclasm period was moved in part by a number of things. These would include the fact that the prior Leo, his namesake, did much the same thing, that there were military failures that he thought were brought on by the disfavor and disapproval of God and so forth. Even with the restoration of the iconoclasm, it was muted compared to that of the prior Leo and was not nearly as aggressiveat least at first. However, things ramped up quite quickly when people like the Patriarch Nicephorus (who later took over Irene’s reign, as mentioned below) resisted what Leo V was ordering (OL, 2014).

Regarding Irene and Theodora, they were or course empresses that actually embraced and welcome icons. Irene came first and then Theodora. While there is some debate about the role they played, their presence and love for icons ended Iconoclasm as was established by the two Leo’s and Constantine. Theodora was the spouse of Byzantine Emperor Theophilios and she later became a saint within the annals of the Eastern Orthodox church. Even though Irene and Theodora did not hold the status of their spouses, they still made a marked impact on the church (OCA, 2014). Irene reintroduced pictures, but did so slowly and only after she became a widow (BBC, 2014).

Regarding the impacts that iconoclasm had, there were many. In terms art, there were some marked effects in that a lot of the art and imagery that normally would have emerged during the reigns of Constantine, Leo III and Leo were either destroyed or simply did not happen. This alone induces many to view the reigns of one or more of these leaders as a negative. That being said, there was the emergence of art that was made naturally and/or without the use of human hands, known as acheiropoieta. A modern example of this would be items that ostensibly or supposedly bear the image of the Virgin Mary even though the images are completely accidental and natural in nature rather than being crafted by the design of an artist. The political and cultural effects of iconoclasm were also quite obvious. While the Leos and Constantine were generally trying to adhere to the precept in the Bible that discussed that one should not have an idol, some held that this was not applicable to Christian images while others held that ALL images were included. Indeed, some hold the cross (which came later, obviously, as the idol comments first came in the Old Testament) to be an example of idolatry while others held it was a symbol of Jesus dying on the cross and thus should not be treated as heresy or something to be quashed. Even today, there is question whether the veneration of images is being directed towards the images themselves or the people or entities (e.g. God) that they images are supposed to represent. In other words, when someone see’s the Virgin Mary in an item, the question is whether they are revering just the image appearing or the person behind the image, Mary herself. Indeed, Mary is deemed by Christians to be the earthly Mother of Jesus. Some might think that to be splitting hairs but people do sometimes get obsessed with images and forget what underpins them (NWE, 2014).

Regarding the role of iconoclasm and the role of the emperor vs. that of Christianity, it proved the point that some emperors get a fairly inflated viewpoint about their power and influence. Indeed, while the emperor is viewed, rightly so, as the earthly leader of the Christians (at least at that time), he is not God and he is not Jesus and he does not get to step in and throw his weight around in a way that pertains to questions that are far from settled and official. Empresses made their own impacts in that they were at the right hand of their husbands and were also actually in power when their husbands died. When it comes to both emperors and empresses, there seemed to be the attitude and viewpoint that leaders would work for God or for themselves. While the Leos and Constantine seemed to want to portend that they were voicing the intentions of God given that they dcited scripture, it soon became clear that they were a little more interested (if not a lot more interested) in their own power and asserting their own dominance rather than really caring about adhering to the Bible and other teachings of Jesus and God based on the interpretations and such of scholars and saints since then. The Catholic (and similar) churches have had a history of perhaps overreaching and making rules that really aren’t justified. This would explain why people like Martin Luther and others broke away as the Catholics were sometimes making up the rules as they went along whereas Luther and others tried to stick to the Bible and nothing beyond that. The Leos and Constantine were really doing a combination of the two and it shifted as it suited them. Some people caught onto this and were not pleased.


Even if the Leos and Constantine were truly trying to keep Christianity pure and on the right track, they went about it entirely the wrong way. There is a difference between trying to convince people that one way of faith is more pious than others and doing so under the threat of death or banishment. The Leos and Constantine were terrible at knowing where that line was and were indeed engaging in self-serving and . People did not just fall in line all of the time and instead roiled against what they thought to be unfair and/or ungodly.

Works Cited

BBC. “Byzantium: Irene and Iconoclasm.” BBC News. BBC, 22 Oct. 2014. Web. 22 Oct. 2014. .

Geanakoplos, Deno John. Constantinople and the West: essays on the late Byzantine (Palaeologan) and Italian Renaissances and the Byzantine and Roman churches. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989. Print.

NWE. “Iconoclasm.” – New World Encyclopedia. N.p., 22 Oct. 2014. Web. 22 Oct. 2014. .

OCA. “Righteous Theodora, wife of the Emperor Theophilus, the Iconoclast.” – Orthodox Church in America. N.p., 22 Oct. 2014. Web. 22 Oct. 2014. .

OL. “An Overview of the Iconoclastic Controversy.” The Orthodox Life. N.p., 5 Feb. 2011. Web. 22 Oct. 2014. .

UPenn. “Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians.” Table of Contents:. N.p., 22 Oct. 2014. Web. 22 Oct. 2014. .