Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Iconoclasm – a Byzantine Tragedy – Part Three

In the last post I told of how the empress Irene overturned iconoclasm only to be consumed by her lust for power. Following Irene’s deposition and exile in 802 the reins of power in Constantinople had been taken up by a one-time treasury official named Nicephorus. Having been driven to take action by the empress’ fiscal abuses, the new emperor swiftly found himself having to put aside his ledger and take up his sword in defence of the empire against a potent new threat.

Krum is brought the skull of Nicephorus

The rise of the Bulgars under their charismatic and warlike leader Krum would prove to be the greatest challenge for the house of Nicephorus and would ultimately bring about its downfall. Krum had succeeded in uniting his people as never before, bending petty warlords to his will in order to assemble an unprecedented level of military might. Nicephorus had faced the challenge head on, but his pre-emptive strike against the Bulgars had ended in the slaughter of his army and the sack of the imperial city of Serdica. Nicephorus soon struck back, leading his armies in person against the Bulgar capital Pliska and razing it to the ground. Two years later in 811 he returned with a greater army still and repeated the exercise, pursuing Krum’s forces into the mountains. As he encamped in the pass of Verbitza however, the emperor found his army entrapped and encircled by the Bulgars who then fell upon them with great slaughter. Nicephorus was killed in the fighting and Krum later had the emperor’s skull fashioned into a drinking cup in celebration of his victory. His son and successor Stauracius lingered on for six months, paralysed by his wounds until he too succumbed. The empire then passed to Nicephorus’ son in law Michael who proved an incapable ruler. Having failed to inspire his troops to follow him against Krum, Michael returned to Constantinople following a mutiny. He nevertheless rejected peace terms from the Bulgar Khan, but then vacillated as Krum laid siege to and captured the city of Messembria on the Black Sea.

It seemed that the military fortunes of the empire were at an all-time low. The depredations of Harun al Rashid had been ended only by that great Caliph’s death and now a barbarian chieftain was rampaging across imperial  territory with impunity, swigging his wine from a dead emperor’s skull. It was to their sins that the people of the empire must look for the reason for their misfortune and many concluded that it was the resumption of the veneration of icons that had so displeased the almighty and caused him to turn his face from the Romans. During a service in the Church of the Holy Apostles a mob surrounded the tomb of Constantine V; loudly imploring the iconoclast emperor to rise from his tomb and lead them in battle against the Bulgars.

In the absence of the risen Constantine, Michael would have to do and the emperor duly led his armies out once more to meet the Bulgars on the plain of Versinicia in the summer of 813. At first the battle seemed to be going well but then the entire Byzantine right wing, which consisted of the iconoclastically minded Anatolian troops, turned tail and fled the field, leaving the emperor with little choice but to follow them. This left the Byzantine left wing, who had been making good progress, to be slaughtered by the Bulgars. In the aftermath Michael, convinced that he had lost the backing of both God and his people, was persuaded to abdicate and was succeeded on the throne by Leo, the commander of the treacherous right wing.
Having escaped a Byzantine assassination attempt, Krum embarked on a campaign of devastation right up to the walls of Constantinople but with no hope of breaching them he was forced to return home and within a year he was dead.

What further proof could be needed of the support of the Almighty for the regime of Leo than this change in imperial fortunes? Iconoclasm was firmly back on the agenda and Leo, finding that the Patriarch refused to cooperate with his plans, had him arrested. Leo then summoned a synod dominated by iconoclastically minded bishops who deposed the Patriarch and condemned the findings of the Second Council of Nicaea. Those who sought to oppose the motion were beaten up and spat upon. The emperor let it be known that any holy image could be destroyed with impunity, sparking another orgy of destruction as more precious artwork was reduced to firewood. Irene was no doubt turning in her grave.
Thomas the Slav is brought before Michael II
Leo himself fell victim to a coup on Christmas day 820; cut down in the palace chapel in the midst of the service whilst desperately defending himself from his attackers with a golden cross which he had seized from the altar. His fate however did not presage a change in religious policy and the usurper Michael II maintained an iconoclast stance. He soon faced rebellion led by a charismatic rabble rouser known as Thomas the Slav who raised a large force against him and marched on the capital. Thomas succeeded in gathering his immense support through endevouring to be all things to all people; at times claiming to be the murdered emperor Constantine VI back from the dead and promising social revolution. He also promised the restoration of the icons. Thomas’ revolt was ultimately unsuccessful. This would-be champion of the cause of icon worship was defeated beneath the walls of Constantinople, run to ground and beheaded.

Under Michael II and his son and successor Theophilus, iconoclasm remained the entrenched position of the rulers of Byzantium but they did not prosecute it with the fervour of their predecessors and generally displayed tolerance to those who chose to worship icons in the privacy of their own homes. Examples were none the less made when they needed to be. A monk named Methodius who attempted to secure the support of the Pope for the restoration of the icons was scourged and imprisoned during the reign of Michael and under Theophilus the celebrated icon painter and future saint Lazarus had his hands branded with white-hot horseshoes after refusing to destroy an icon he had painted.

 The iconoclasts by Morelli shows the punishment of Lazarus

That for the most part the second succession of iconoclast emperors practiced a greater degree of tolerance towards their icon venerating subjects than had Leo III and Constantine V is perhaps an indication that they had little choice. If the first iconoclastic movement was a crusade against idolatry, the second was far more a reaction to prevailing public opinion and as a result the iconoclasts trod more carefully amongst a population which still harboured a great many icon lovers. The cause of the icons was championed by the venerable Abbot Theodore of the Studium who, having endured torture and imprisonment under Leo V, was at liberty to appeal for their restoration under his successors.
Slowly but surely, the tide began to turn in favour of the veneration of images once more.This may in part have been due to the resurgence in the east of the forces of Islam. Under Michael II, Sicily and Crete had fallen to freebooting Arab invaders. Theophilus had been obliged throughout his reign to wage war against the Abbasid Caliphs Mamun and Mutasim who led their forces deep into imperial territory. The emperor had celebrated his modest victories over the Saracens with great pomp, triumphal processions and races in the hippodrome in which he himself took part. It was an inescapable fact however that the empire was on the back foot, brought home in 838 when the emperor’s ancestral city of Amorium fell to the armies of Mutasim and was brutally sacked, with the terrorised citizens burned alive in the church where they had sought refuge. Another group of prisoners were later beheaded beside the Tigris for refusing to convert to Islam and are celebrated as the 42 Martyrs of Amorium. At such a time, with rumours of a great fleet being gathered against Constantinople, the people of the empire looked increasingly towards the familiar comfort of their icons and their saints for their salvation. They doubtless remembered how, in times of peril, the precious icon of the Virgin had been carried around the walls of the city and her divine protection had seen the terrible designs of Persians and Avars, Saracens and Bulgars brought to destruction and ruin.
The siege of Amorium

Meanwhile within the palace itself, under the emperor’s very nose, his wife and mother made little secret of their practice of venerating icons. Theophilus died in 842, leaving his widow Theodora as regent for the young emperor Michael. With power in her hands the empress swiftly convened a council which deposed the iconoclast patriarch, electing in his place that Methodius who had suffered torture and imprisonment for his beliefs in the reign of Michael II and upholding the findings of Irene’s Second Council of Nicaea. The age of iconoclasm was ended and in a great outpouring of thanksgiving icons were carried high in procession through the streets to the great church of St Sofia. In time the image of Christ above the palace gate first destroyed on the orders of Leo III and torn down once more by Leo V was replaced a final time, crafted anew by the brand-scarred hands of St Lazarus.
St Lazarus

The 42 Martyrs of Amorium

To continue the story go to the Enemies at the Gate Series

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