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Iconoclasm in Byzantium: myths and realities

Iconoclasm in Byzantium: myths and realities

By John Haldon

Iconoclasm: The War on Images: 6th Annual Platsis Symposium (2007)

Byzantine iconoclasm has been wrapped in an almost impenetrable membrane of attitudes and assumptions, many of them conflicting. But it has been increasingly recognised – and demonstrated – that the Byzantines were as adept at ‘spin’ as modern politicians are frequently accused of being, so that Byzantine writings on iconoclasm might therefore be seen as a particularly problematic body of primary sources. Indeed, when we come to re-examine the texts involved, and place them clearly in their historical context, it rapidly becomes apparent that very little of what has been assumed about the iconoclast debate is in fact reliable.

The context for the iconoclast controversy is provided by the political and economic crisis which afflicted the eastern Roman empire following the Arab invasions of the 630s onwards and the collapse of Roman power in the east Mediterranean basin. The need to codify and delimit the parameters of what was now possible and thinkable is apparent in texts from the 650s onwards and in the attempts of the church to deal with shifting perceptions and explanations of the ways the world was changing. Religious images and portraits had existed long before Christianity, and continued into the Christian era. But the fusion of sacred portraits with the real presence of saintly personages – a linkage accepted for relics from the later fourth century – occurred only shortly before the first stirring of the iconoclast movement in the early 8th century, and iconoclasm responded to this, pulling together a wide set of apparently different issues into the same ideological package. Whether or not images had initially been at the heart of these concerns, this new conceptual construct was able to absorb them.

The obvious question to ask is why did iconoclasm occur at this particular time? And I would argue that the answer has to do – as scholars have argued for decades, but, I would suggest, for the wrong reasons – with the Byzantine response to Islam. On one level, Iconoclasm was about positioning images within the cult of saints: of allowing images of the holy to perform like relics of the holy. To say that a saint’s bone, or a bit of cloth or oil that once touched a saint or the saint’s bones, conveyed saintly presence was a major step in itself; to extend that power to an object physically unconnected to the saint in anyway – the portrait painted by human hands – did indeed smack to many of idolatry, and was condemned as such by early churchmen. Images of pre-Christian gods and goddesses had to be long forgotten as real actors before the sacred portrait could first be admitted into the company of the holy through the medium of miraculous images not made by human hands, a shift which only occurred in the mid-sixth century.

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