Wednesday, November 13, 2013


The word "iconoclast" today usually denotes someone who challenges tradition, but the origin of the word was in the religiously and politically charged world of Constantinople in the Early Middle Ages.

To be honest, "iconoclast" (a destroyer of religious images belonging to his own culture) and its opposite, "iconodule" or "iconophile," were terms created much later by historians to describe the iconomachia (war of icons) of the late 8th and early 9th centuries in the Byzantine Empire.

Each side had its arguments, of course. The iconoclasts invoked the third of Moses 10 Commandments against "making graven images." They argued that any proper image had to be made from the same substance as the original, and therefore wood and stone were not appropriate to portray flesh. The only substance available to represent Christ was the Eucharist, which had been decreed to be Christ's flesh. Also, images were incapable of representing Christ's divinity as well as his humanity. Images had been condemned in churches by the Synod of Elvira in 305, because they might distract people from the true reason for being in church.

The iconodules had their own reasons. Once God incarnated as Jesus, representations of the divine on Earth became justified. God did tell Moses to add cherubim to the Ark. Although idols might be false, icons represented important real people and things. Also, there were miracles associated with icons, attesting to divine approval.

There were two periods, called the First Iconoclasm—from 726-787, begun by Emperor Leo III when he replaced an image of Christ with a cross at the entrance to the palace—and the Second Iconoclasm—in 814-842, when Emperor Leo V thought his military failures were the result of displeasing God. Leo III's major opponent was the venerable St. John of Damascus. Leo V had to contend with the prolific pen of St. Theodore of Stoudios.

Iconoclasm was largely an Eastern Christian conflict. Western Christianity never became seriously concerned with it, to the delight of art historians.

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