Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Iconoclasm - A Byzantine Tragedy - Part Two

The image below depicts the Second Council of Nicaea in 787; an event celebrated in the Greek church to this day as the triumph of orthodoxy. It was nominally presided over by the young Byzantine emperor Constantine VI but was the crowning glory in the career of his mother the Empress Irene. An inveterate schemer, Irene the widow of Leo IV had overseen the restoration of icon worship following the death of her husband in 780.

7th Ecumenical Council Nicaea 787
Leo had taken a moderate stance in comparison to his arch-iconoclast father Constantine V; ending the persecution of the monasteries. Nevertheless as he reached the end of his days he took a harder iconoclastic line as he pondered the fate of his soul and distanced himself from his icon-loving Athenian wife.

With Leo dead, Irene assumed the regency of the empire for her ten year old son Constantine and immediately embarked upon the course of reform; systematically sidelining all of those who would oppose her agenda both for the restoration of the icons and to establish herself as the de-facto ruler of the empire.

Sympathy for the iconoclastic cause remained strong, particularly in the empire’s eastern provinces where the majority of Irene’s armies were stationed. Following the old emperor’s death some of these troops had attempted a revolt with the intention of placing his brother on the throne. This had been swiftly put down and Irene thereafter had set out to purge the army. Her willingness to dismember the empire’s forces; removing capable commanders and disbanding troops whose loyalty was suspect, sparked widespread mutiny and rendered the imperial frontiers vulnerable to invasion. The highly capable Abbasid prince Harun al Rashid led an invasion in 782 which swept into Byzantine territory meeting with little opposition and indeed many of the imperial forces defected to the enemy. Irene was forced to buy peace from the future Caliph.

For those who were dismayed by the Empress’ actions, her son Constantine was an obvious focal point. The armies in the east remained staunchly iconoclast and those in the capital who longed to overturn Irene’s reforms therefore had a ready source of manpower to call upon and a suitable figurehead in the form of Constantine. Matters came to a head in 790 when Irene attempted to seize supreme power for herself; flinging her son into prison when a plot by leading iconoclasts for her overthrow and exile came to light. With Constantine behind bars, Irene demanded an oath of loyalty from all of her armies. This galvanised the eastern opposition who marched on the capital and restored Constantine to his throne. Irene, deposed, was left to stew in the confinement of her palace and plot her revenge.

She did not have long to wait. Within two years her son had shown himself to be hopelessly incapable of government and had her recalled. For the next five years mother and son resumed their uneasy partnership but Constantine through military blunders and an ill-advised divorce steadily lost support until finally Irene felt safe enough to make her move. For a second time Constantine was seized and imprisoned but this time his mother was taking no chances and ordered her son blinded. The punishment was carried out, in the very room in which he had been born, with such brutality as to cause his death. It was a crime which sent a shockwave through the empire and it left Irene as empress and sole ruler. (shown left depicted as such)

Her actions had an unintended and far reaching consequence. Three years later as Pope Leo III was contemplating how best to honour and reward his champion and saviour; Charles King of the Franks, the son
of Pepin the Short, he could observe that the title of Emperor of the Romans was conveniently vacant, for the Pope did not recognise the right of a woman to hold that title.

On Christmas Day 800 therefore, since Irene remained the sole ruler in Constantinople, Leo was able to confer the imperial title upon Charles; whose efforts in the cause of Christianity had gone a considerable way towards the restoration of a western empire.

In Constantinople such presumption seemed ludicrous. Who was this semi-literate barbarian who laid claim to the legacy of Augustus and Constantine? Nevertheless Irene had continued to alienate her subjects. Her continuing appeasement of the now-Caliph al-Rashid with ever greater payments of protection money and her increasingly desperate attempts to buy her subjects’ affections through unaffordable tax breaks, convinced many that her deposition would be vital for the future wellbeing of the empire. When two years after his coronation Irene began seriously to entertain proposals of marriage from Charlemagne; an act which would unite the rival eastern and western claimants to the Empire of the Romans and place the Frankish ruler on the throne of Byzantium, she had at last gone too far. Her own officials convened an assembly in the hippodrome and declared her deposed. She was exiled to an island in the Marmara and died a year later.

Irene has gone down in history as a wicked schemer, driven by ambition to commit the worst crime any mother could commit; the cold-blooded murder of her own child. In the iconoclastic struggle however, she struck the decisive, if not the final blow. Although the findings of the council she had convened in Nicaea in 787, anathemitizing the writings of the iconoclasts, would be challenged anew within a decade of her death and ultimately overturned, it would in the end stand as the final word on the veneration of icons.

The present Canon decrees that all the false writings which the iconomachists composed against the holy icons and which are flimsy as children’s toys, and as crazy as the raving and insane bacchantes — those women who used to dance drunken at the festival of the tutelar of intoxication Dionysus — all those writings, I say, must be surrendered to the Patriarchate of Constantinople, to be put together with the other books by heretics — in such a place, that is to say, that no one will ever be able to take them therefrom with a view to reading them. As for anyone who should hide them, with a view to reading them himself or providing them for others to read, if he be a bishop, a presbyter, or a deacon, let him be deposed from office; but if he be a layman or a monk, let him be excommunicated.

Leo III crowns Charlemagne
The Seventh Ecumenical Council in full


Some good sites featuring iconographic art


To continue the story of iconoclasm click the link below


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