This is one of several translated excerpts from Byzantine sources produced and mounted with historical introduction and commentary by Paul Stephenson.


ICONOCLASM, I

THE FIRST PERIOD OF POLITICAL ICONOCLASM

'The First Period of Iconoclasm', 726-87: Yazid II issues iconoclast edict in Damascus, 723; submarine eruption, icon of Virgin removed from Chalke (Bronze) gate, 726; silention convened, Patriarch Germanos resigns, 730; (Seventh) 'Iconoclast' Church Council, 754; death of St. Stephen the Younger, 765; monks 'married' in the hippodrome, 766; Patriarch Tarasios appointed, 784; (Iconodule) Seventh Ecumenical Council, restoration of icons, 787.

In the eighth century the Greek eikones was understood to refer to holy images of Christ, the Virgin and the Saints, usually in non-narrative representations. (Church decoration included many standard narrative pictorial sequences.) They might be individual portraits painted on wood panels, either portable or fixed to church walls; but they might equally be mosaics or frescoes, that is painted directly onto the plaster of church walls. Individuals who showed a devotion to Icons came to be known as Iconodules, those opposed to their veneration as Iconoclasts.

Iconoclasm, literally the destruction of images, was the most significant issue affecting Byzantium between 717 and 787. This remains true, despite voices demanding that we reassess its importance across the empire. Thus Cyril Mango wrote: 'First, it is as well to remember that the historian of Iconoclasm, like any other historian, has to work within the limits of his source of material.' Dissenting voices have continued to demand a better reading of those sources, not least Mango's suggesting that 'the issue of Iconoclasm was deliberately magnified by its opponents ... [and] we should treat their evidence with great circumspection'. Patricia Karlin-Hayter has concurred, suggesting that the weight of evidence is disproportinate to significance of the issue to society at large.  I. Sevcenko, ('Hagiography of the Iconoclast period', in A. Bryer and J. Herrin, eds., Iconoclasm (Birmingham, 1977), pp. 113-31) presents a compelling overview of the hagiography. He notes that of the dozen saints' lives that profess to tell the tales of those persecuted by the Iconoclasts, only one was written fifty years of the death of its protagonist, and only three before the end of the second period of Iconoclasm (i.e., A.D. 843). The Life of Stephen the Younger is the jewel. Written in c. 807, it lent motifs, toponyms, language and much else to the later lives, and is now available in full translation by Alice-Mary Talbot, in her Byzantine Defenders of Images (Washington, D.C., 1998).

The abstruse christological discussions which characterized the debate were far beyond the comprehension of the majority of those who were inclined or disinclined to venerate icons. Moreover, increasingly excavations at churches in the provinces have revealed frescoes and mosaics of Christ, the virgin and the saints dating from the period of Iconoclasm. On this one can turn with great profit to G. Bowersock, Mosaics as History (Cambridge, MA, 2006). By implication we might believe that Iconoclasm was not universally enforced -- as we have hitherto believed -- and its prominence is merely a reflection of the obsessions of the few literate, and victorious Iconodules. Indeed, we might ask whether the phrase 'period of Iconoclasm' has any relevance except in a theological context.This is one direction that scholarship has taken, and leads to something of a dead end. Certainly it leads us to question our sources, but it is unsatisfactory in that it only suggests negative answers. And it misrepresents a situation where there is no clear line to be drawn between theology and politics, and where the institution of correct belief was seen to have clear political and military consequences, and was held to affect society as a whole.

Another direction recent scholarship has taken, and one which I consider more fruitful, seeks to explore the significance of Iconoclasm as a point of entry into the Byzantine cultural system -- a phrase borrowed from anthropologists, for example Clifford Geertz, who wrote authoritatively on 'Religion as a cultural system'; and into what we might call the empire's 'Sociology of Knowledge' -- that is, what those within the society believed constituted knowledge, who had authority over it. Such anthropological and sociological ideas have been applied by, for example, Averil Cameron to the issue of Iconoclasm.

If we follow Cameron, we may conclude that the veneration of Icons, and Iconoclasm were alternative responses to the issue of authority and knowledge in Byzantine society; a society which had undergone a radical intellectual realignment, in tandem with a total economic and political transformation. The decline of cities saw the end of the classical system of education, the paideusis. Thereafter books became extremely scarce, and access to ancient knowledge extremely limited. In this void a new conception of what constituted knowledge emerged, and within that system the issue of authority became paramount. Where the pursuit of knowledge constituted a codified search for religious truth, the discussion of the place of icons was central. It cannot be marginalized, nor considered the obsession of a few literate churchmen and monks; nor dismissed as a politically motivated device to consolidate the authority of a new imperial dynasty which hailed from the eastern reaches of the empire. Rather, it must be considered the clearest manifestation of a debate within Byzantine society as to what constituted truth, what were the appropriate symbols of authority, and on what foundations the cultural system of the transformed empire should be built.

Click here for two brief translated excerpts relating to the first period of political Iconoclasm in Byzantium.

Paul Stephenson
May 2001

Revised November 2006; January 2009; January 2012