An icon of Christ the Savior

A pre-iconoclasm orthodox icon from the 6th century. This was preserved at St Catherine's monastery in the Sinai peninsula, one of the only major collections of icons of the preiod to survive. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I’m reading some catholic theology at the moment, and I came across discussion of the 10 commandments. Which reminded me of the interesting story of the first orthodox iconoclasm.

Even though Christian theology broke early from its Jewish parent, there were things that remained important to Christian communities. Most of the Jewish law was rejected, but the ten commandments were (and still are) considered to be important for Christians. Unfortunately, the second commandment, in the traditional Jewish way of counting them, was a little inconvenient. It says:

you shall not make a graven image or any likeness of anything that is in the heavens above, the earth below, or the waters under the earth; you shall not bow down to them and worship them.

– Deut 5:8-9a

It was inconvenient because in both Catholic and Orthodox Christian practice representations became a very important part of worship. This tension didn’t go unnoticed. Possibly motivated in part by this, Augustine (354-430) redivided the 10 commandments from their traditional Jewish division to fold number 2 into number 1, which commands us to have no other Gods (allowing the interpretation that representations are fine, as long as they aren’t of other gods or objects of worship). To make this combination fit, Augustine had to divide the last commandment, on coveting, into two. Augustine’s approach was adopted by the catholic church.

The orthodox church stuck with the original formulation however. But they took it very literally. They avoided making any ‘graven’ (engraved) images. They instead developed the art of the icon – painted on a flat surface – the iconic (!) artform of the orthodox church. At the same time they developed a complex theological structure of three different ‘levels’ of worship. So they could understand that when they worshipped an icon, for example, it wasn’t the same ‘kind’ of worship as the worship of God, and therefore wasn’t covered by the commandment.

This long standing tension about representation was further reinforced when the capital of the orthodox world, Constantinople (modern Istanbul) began to be buffeted by successive waves of Muslim conquest in the  7th and early 8th century. The Muslims forbade all representation, and developed a beautiful artistic grammar based on geometry and calligraphy. Faced with successive defeats and losses of territory, the orthodox church must have wondered why God had forsaken them in favor of this new religion. Those orthodox areas that were captured undoubtedly put pressure on the mother church over the iconography that so enraged their new overlords.

And so in 730, Emperor Leo III began a program of iconoclasm: the deliberate removal, destruction and whitewashing of sacred art. This was so extraordinarily successful that we know of only a few works pre-dating this campaign.

The end of the iconoclasm involved one of the most interesting women in orthodox history. Empress Irene, a woman of seemingly un-notable birth who was chosen in a beauty pageant to marry the emperor (Leo IV), and after his death became the regent of their son. She continued to pull the strings after her son became old enough to govern in his own right, and after he began to assert his authority, she had him blinded. He died of his wounds and Irene declared herself ’emperor’ (rather than the female form empress). She had no truck with the Iconoclasm, possibly motivated by the unpopularity of the new blank and austere worship, she repudiated Leo’s orders and brought the iconoclasm to an end.

Its a fascinating story, which I’ve only just touched on. But what is interesting about it is the tension between Christian practice, and biblical commands. Between what a church practices and what it preaches. That tension hasn’t gone away, of course. It is present in every church you care to name. And while it rarely erupts into the wholesale destruction and violence of the Iconoclasm, the dissonance of action and belief is always a potent destabilizing factor.



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7 responses to “Iconoclasm

  1. Fascinating ! Amazing layers of irony in that the beauty queen put beauty back in the church after torturing and killing her won son.

    Perhaps at the hands of Ian we could have a similar hx of Music in Church history ! The tension between the desire for pleasures and the running to asceticism will always give us rich stories in religions.

  2. This reminds me of the iconoclasm of Muslims for Buddhist images in Afghanistan and other places. What is it in the human mind that hates the art of others. The religious mind can harbor ugly demons of the human brain.

  3. The great Buddha Statue Destroyed

  4. Sorry, experimenting inserting Video.

  5. ian

    Yes, that incident was in my mind when writing the post too. There was also substantial iconoclasm in the reformation. In the UK, most of our churches are whitewashed, though our village church was whitewashed in the 1650s you can still see the shadows of the images that used to be painted underneath it.

    It is a continual tension I think.

    There are groups in Islam, and periods in its history, when representative art was quite normal.

  6. Temaskian

    Interesting indeed! Learnt something new today.

  7. ian

    Hi Temaskian! Thanks for the comment. I half remembered this story. It was fun to find all the details again to write the post.

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