Byzantine icons are beautiful and have a rich history. However, not everyone throughout history loved and respected icons. This lesson will discuss why some Byzantines wanted to destroy icons during the Iconoclasm.
In the 8th and 9th centuries CE, thousands of icons were destroyed during the Iconoclasm. Icons are sacred images of important church figures, such as Jesus, Mary, the saints, and angels. The Iconoclasm is the period in Byzantine history when the validity of icons were debated. Some iconophiles, people who loved and supported icons, wanted the icons to remain. However, the iconoclasts were people who wanted icons removed and destroyed; did not want the icons to remain.
The iconoclasts supported their opinion to destroy icons because Arabic forces were successfully invading the Byzantine Empire. Leo III, the Byzantine emperor from 717 to 741 CE, felt the Arab pressure when over 120,000 enemy ships and soldiers surrounded his capital of Constantinople in 717 CE. Luckily, Leo III had a new military invention called Greek Fire, which helped the Byzantines win an important naval battle.
After the Arabs lost the naval battle and retreated from Constantinople, Leo III kept wondering why his empire was in ruins. His empire lost over half of the territory Justinian conquered not even 200 years earlier. In 725, he realized what his issue was. The icons had to be destroyed.
Thus, the Iconoclasm started in 725 CE when Leo III had the image of Christ above the imperial gate destroyed. This event angered the population, and a mob gathered and lynched the soldiers that carried out the order. The iconophile and iconoclasm debate started to get violent.
Iconoclasts & Iconophiles
The main reason Leo III decreed that all icons should be destroyed, the iconoclast stance, is because he thought the image an icon depicted was not just a image. Leo III considered the icon and person being represented as consubstantial, meaning that the two were of the same nature. Therefore, if you were looking at an icon of Mary, you were actually seeing Mary herself. Theologically, Leo III also proposed that icons broke the second commandment: ‘you shall not make any graven images.’ According to iconoclasts, Jesus should only be represented in the Eucharist.
Iconophiles opposed iconoclasts. Iconophiles argued that the icon’s image does not actually represent the actual saint depicted. Famous figures such as John of Damascus and Theodore the Studite were famous iconophiles that opposed the iconoclastic Byzantine emperor. John of Damascus even went as far as to tell the emperor to keep his nose out of church business.
But we need to remember that Leo III was under a lot of pressure and was losing Byzantine territory very quickly. Also, the Arab leader, Caliph Yazid II, condemned icons in his territories in 721, and his empire boomed after that. Leo III hoped the same thing would happen for Byzantium.
The Iconoclasm ended in 843 CE, but only after thousands of icons were destroyed. The largest collection of early icons today, dating to as early as the 6th century, are at St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai. Far removed from the chaos in Turkey and the Holy Land, St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt did not experience the destructive nature of the Iconoclasm.
Let’s review. The Iconoclasm started in 725 CE when the Byzantine emperor Leo III banned icons in the Byzantine empire. Leo III was an iconoclast, which meant that he thought icons depicted the actually person being represented in the image. To iconoclasts, icons broke the second commandment. However, anyone who is an iconophile supported icons and wanted to keep worshiping them. Iconophiles believed that the icons were only images. In 843 CE, after several icons were destroyed, the Iconoclasm ended. St Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai has the largest collection of Byzantine icons today.