Byzantium today is renowned for two things; its brutal politics and its artistic legacy, in particular its religious art. It was an empire plagued by intrigues and obsessed with icons. During two turbulent periods in the Eighth and Ninth Centuries however, the Byzantines turned against and wilfully destroyed these precious and venerated objects. The repercussions from these destructive movements went beyond the spiritual life of the Empire to have a profound impact on both its politics and its relations with the west.
The Arab conquests of the Seventh Century had seen vast tracts of formerly Christian territory come under Islamic rule. Of the four Patriarchates of Eastern Christendom, three; Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria lay within the territories of the Umayyad Caliphate. As ‘people of the book’, Christians living under Arab rule were generally tolerated but under the reign of the austere and pious Caliph Umar II interference with Christian practices which were offensive to Islam had increased. In 723 AD Umar's successor Yazid had issued a decree that all holy images in Christian churches within his territories should be destroyed and his brother Hisham who succeeded Yazid upon his death in 724 took an equally hard line. This reaction of the Muslim rulers against what they saw as flagrant idolatry also struck a chord with many Christians, fuelling a growing movement in the east which would sweep across the Byzantine Empire with profound consequences.
Iconoclasm as it is known to posterity; literally the smashing of icons, was a policy first adopted by Emperor Leo III in response to the growing cult of icon worship amongst his subjects. The emperor was of Syrian descent and as such was likely to have Monophysite leanings, seeing Christ as wholly divine with no mortal aspect. He may also have been influenced by being exposed to Islamic and Jewish thought. He therefore took a dim view of the widespread practice among his fellow Christians of openly worshipping icons of Christ, the Virgin and the saints; treating these inanimate representations of the divine as divine objects in their own right. For Leo and those who shared his views this was a clear violation of the commandment which forbade bowing down before graven images. In 726 he made his feelings clear by ordering the violent and shocking destruction of Constantinople’s largest and most beloved icon of Christ which was displayed above the main gate of the imperial palace.
Byzantine icon of Christ 9th Century - from St Catherines Sinai
This deed polarised opinion in the capital and beyond. Those of an iconoclast persuasion could rejoice that the first great blow against idolatry had been struck whilst a great many were appalled by what they saw as an act of wanton vandalism and sacrilege. Everywhere emotions ran high. In Ravenna anger at the emperor’s actions turned into a full scale revolt which claimed the life of the governor and an uprising in the islands of the Aegean had to be put down with Greek fire. There was violence too on the streets of the capital but Leo was unperturbed. In 730 he issued an edict calling for all icons to be destroyed and those who persisted in protecting and venerating them faced the threat of torture and death. In Rome Pope Gregory II condemned Leo’s edict as blasphemy and promptly excommunicated him. The emperor paid little heed and pressed ahead with his mission to cleanse the capital of idols. Churches, private homes and monasteries were raided and their treasured and precious icons were confiscated and destroyed. Many more were hidden away to keep them safe from the iconoclasts.
Following Leo’s death in 741 the iconoclast movement gained new momentum with the accession of his son Constantine V. The new emperor was an even more fervent iconoclast than his father and continued the persecution of those who persisted in the veneration of icons. He particularly despised the monasteries, both as purveyors of idolatry and more generally as a waste of space. Too many young men were wasting their lives in prayer in the emperor’s opinion, when they should be usefully employed in the service of the Empire. Many monasteries were forcibly closed down; their wealth appropriated by the treasury and their inhabitants forced back into the outside world on pain of death. The Byzantine chronicler Theophanes the Confessor, who himself lived through a later resurgence of iconoclasm and was exiled as a result of his opposition to it, understandably takes an especially dim view of Constantine, calling him Copronymus; literally ‘baptised in shit’. This is a reference to the fact that Constantine defecated in the font during his baptism; a clear sign of things to come. He does not hold back in further lambasting the iconoclast emperor, describing him as a ‘Totally destructive bloodsucking wild beast.’
Byzantine Iconoclasm depicted in the Chludov Psalter, 9th century.
The later hostility of Theophanes was shared by many at the time in Constantinople. The emperor knew the risk of leaving his capital but nevertheless leave it he did. In 742, in response to an Arab invasion of Anatolia, both Constantine and his brother-in-law Artabasdus had set out from the capital in command of separate armies. Mistrusting Artabasdus, Constantine requested that he should send his sons to the emperor as hostages. Artabasdus refused and then having made this implicit admission of guilt, raced back to Constantinople at the head of his forces to stage an anti-iconoclast coup. Cheering crowds welcomed the restoration of the images and Artabasdus was crowned by the turncoat Patriarch Anastasius who quickly forgot his iconoclast sympathies. Constantine meanwhile pressed on and raised further troops who were loyal both to his person and to the iconoclast cause from the frontier garrisons with which he then marched against Artabasdus, leaving the Arab invaders with a free hand whilst civil war raged.
Following a series of military reverses at the hands of Constantine’s veterans, Artabasdus realised that the game was up and attempted to flee by sea but was captured and handed over to the emperor. The rebel and his sons were blinded and exiled whilst the patriarch was stripped, scourged and paraded around the hippodrome seated backwards on a donkey before being reinstated as a discredited laughing stock. Following Constantine’s victory, the iconoclast edict was reinforced with hitherto unseen vigour and a council of sympathetic bishops was assembled to pronounce on its validity on behalf of all Christendom in an act which further enraged the Pope and alienated the subjects of Constantine’s remaining Italian territories. From here on in Rome would look increasingly towards the Franks rather than the Empire for protection and deliverance from the Lombard invaders who had taken over much of Italy in the late Sixth Century.
In 751 the aggressive new Lombard king Aistulf succeeded in capturing Ravenna. The permanent loss of this key imperial enclave was a major blow to the Byzantine Empire but despite an increased threat to the remaining imperial territories including Rome itself, Constantine V did little but send ineffectual embassies asking for the Pope’s intercession. Pope Zacharias had been successful in the past in dissuading Lombard rulers from marching against Rome but Aistulf was of a more belligerent persuasion than his predecessors and it seemed only a matter of time before the eternal city faced a Lombard attack. Despairing of any useful assistance from the emperor who was at any rate an iconoclast heretic in his eyes, Pope Zacharias instead looked to cultivate Pepin the Short; the de-facto ruler of the Franks. An opportunity to gain Pepin’s good will had presented itself when a Frankish delegation arrived with a question for the Pontiff. Was it right, they asked, that the King of the Franks was a powerless puppet whilst true power rested in the hands of the Mayor of the Palace? Zacharias’ answer was of course precisely what Pepin wanted to hear. It was better, he pronounced, that he who wielded the power of a king should be called king. Armed with this Papal endorsement Pepin was able to secure the support of the Frankish aristocracy in order to depose the last Merovingian king Childeric III and to have himself crowned as King of the Franks. In 754 Zacharias’ successor Stephen made his way over the Alps to meet with Pepin and in a ceremony in Paris anointed him as King. In return for Papal approval of his seizure of power, Pepin undertook to come to the defence of Rome against the Lombards and marched against the Lombard King Aistulf. The Frankish forces proved irresistible and the Lombard king soon found himself besieged in Pavia and forced to agree to terms. According to this agreement known as the Donation of Pepin, all of the imperial territories previously incorporated into the Exarchate of Ravenna were henceforth ceded to the Pope. Aistulf failed to adhere to the terms and two years later Pepin was back to enforce them, laying siege to Pavia once more until the Lombard king relented. This time the Donation of Pepin was honoured by the Lombards and the ribbon of formerly Imperial territory stretching across central Italy including Ravenna, Rimini and Perugia became the Papal States, much to the impotent fury of Constantine. Rome at last had turned its face away from the man who claimed the title of Emperor of the Romans. Realpolitik had triumphed over old established loyalties which had been weakened over the years by imperial high-handedness and neglect of military responsibilities and stretched to breaking point by the iconoclast controversy. The relationship between Rome and Constantinople was changed forever.
Coronation of Pepin the Short
I was lazy for this article and reused material from my own book The Battles are the Best Bits, but if you liked it please check out the book.
To continue the story of iconoclasm click the link below
To continue the story of iconoclasm click the link below