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History of Iconoclasm: Focal points behind the Iconoclastic controversy

Iconoclastic Controversy

Iconoclasm literally means ‘breaking of images’ and the first instances of this date back to the 720s AD. Since then iconoclastic controversy has been an extensively debated topic in the byzantine empire.

Iconoclastic Controversy
Iconoclastic Controversy

Before we dive deeper into the history and the focal points, let us get the terminology right as we would use these two words throughout this article.

Iconoclasts Vs Iconophiles: Who were they?

Iconoclasts: These are people who were for the breaking of images. They strongly condemn worshipping figural images and icons and promoted the use of the cross instead.

Iconophiles: These are people who were against the breaking of images. They fought against every point the iconoclasts put forth in favor of worshipping images and figures.

Focal points behind the Iconoclastic controversy

Icons and images were widespread across the byzantine empire. Emperor Justinian II etched icons of Christ onto his coins during his rule. below is an image of it:

Icon of Christ found on coins
Icon of Christ found on coins. Source: Yale University Art Gallery

Two main events caused people to believe that the Gods were testing the empire as bad fortunes kept piling up. Iconoclasts acted in fear that the Gods are maybe punishing the byzantine empire that they were not following the rules stated in the old testament.

The two main focal points are:

Persian and Arab invasion

Around the beginning of the seventh century, the byzantine empire was all for icons and worshipped the images and icons freely. There was a small section of people who were not happy with it but their voice was not heard by the people.

It was around this same time that the byzantine empire was subject to the Persian and Arab invasions. This resulted in a devastating loss to the entire empire.

The loss was multifold as the invasion led to a loss of territory which in turn led to a decrease in trade. Since trade was one of the biggest revenue generators for the empire, the people were subject to an economic downturn.

As people kept debating and thinking about how to move forward and bring back better times, that small section of people who were iconoclasts, started speaking out. They debated that the Gods are punishing the empire because they did not follow the word of God from the Old Testament.

They called for the end of Icons and images as they paraded it to be the only stumbling block preventing the empire from moving towards better times.

Their voices grew louder as more and more people started believing that this might very well be true.

Emperor Leo

As the strength of the iconoclasts grew, all they needed was a person who believed in their ideals to take over the rule of the byzantine empire. And that is exactly what happened.

Emperor Leo III began his rule of the byzantine empire and he was an iconoclast. His first move after taking over the rule was to abolish the icons from coins.

And around this same time, the iconoclasts also prohibited the presence of crosses on the floors as it was disrespectful to walk on the image of the cross.

Then slowly the cross was put forth as an ideal candidate to replace the icons and images as a symbol for worship.

This iconoclastic controversy gave rise to the first iconoclastic period.

Iconoclastic controversy: Arguments for and against Iconoclasm

Both these sets of people made commendable arguments for the cause and each has its own merits. Below are the main arguments put forth by both groups.

Iconoclasts: Arguments for Iconoclasm

  • The iconoclasts first point of argument was from the bible which has a verse talking about the prohibition of the worship of icons and images. The verse said,

“You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them…”

(Exodus 20:4–5, NRSV)
  • The second argument was that God was infinite and therefore it is beyond human ability and power to depict that power in the form of icons or images.
  • The last important point put forth was the worshippers lighted candles, kept flowers, and worshiped the images which led many to believe that they were not worshiping God in the image but the artwork itself. This was considered to be a sin by many.

Iconophiles: Arguments against Iconoclasm

  • The iconophiles argued the first point from the iconoclasts by stating that even though the bible prohibits cions in some verses, it also mandates the creation of images in other verses. For example, there is one section that states that God commanded the Cherubim, which is a Hebrew term for angels, should wear the Ark of the Covenant which is a wooden chest covered in gold on which the ten commandments were inscribed.
  • The counter for the second argument put forth by the iconoclasts was that, even though God is infinite and cannot be depicted in images, it was God himself who sent Jesus Christ as a human with a body that can be seen and depicted. So it is possible to portray Jesus and worship that image.
  • The Iconophiles negated the third argument saying that they do worship God and not the artwork. Since this cannot be quantified, this argument was sort of a dead end.

Iconoclastic Controversy: Was it right for iconoclasts to destroy icons?

After all that we have discussed the reasons and the motivations behind iconoclasm, it begs a very different, was it right for the iconoclasts to destroy icons?

The iconoclasts destroyed icons because they deemed them necessary for the betterment of life in the byzantine empire. Their entire problem was with worshipping icons.

After being accustomed to worshipping images and icons, the people will find it hard to shift to worshipping the cross for instance. Old habits die hard and the iconoclasts had to force them to shift to praying to the cross.

One such way they used was to destroy every possible icon created for worship which would leave people with no choice but to confirm with them.

Whether it was right or not, depends on the beliefs of the person asking the question.

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Adithya V

I have an innate interest in art and I am starting this blog to document some of the amazing things I learned. I would segregate my content in chronological order which would make sense for any beginner to read and make sense of it all.

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