By D.R. Turner
Toleration and repression in the Middle Ages (2002)
Introduction: The eastern Roman controversy over the place of religious images represents a major chapter in the story of how notions of religious Orthodoxy and political legitimacy finally came to be irrevocably united in the person of the Emperor. In securing the unity of empire and the conformity of its citizens, both the iconoclasts and iconophiles attempted to define what may be called the peculiarity of the empire in a changing world, where Arabs and then Franks had made nonsense of Constantinople’s claims to universal Roman geopolitical hegemony. Political legitimacy could now appeal only to the God who also demanded religious uniformity.
Below, I want to comment briefly on how conflicting notions of conformity manifested themselves during one specific period of the iconoclastic controversy: the first ten years or so of the second iconoclasm, that is from about 815 and the restoration of iconoclasm, to 826 and the death of the iconophile champion and monastic leader, Theodore the Stoudite1. This period provides an interesting case study of how and why individuals placed themselves or were themselves placed in categories of “iconworshiper” or “iconoclast”, of persecuted and persecutor. The Letters of Theodore the Stoudite provide valuable insights into how Theodore’s circle of monks, clergy and lay men and women perceived iconoclasm, and how individuals attempted to cope with pressures to conform to iconoclasm. It becomes clear that the iconoclasts were little interested in the icon question per se. Religious, and thus political, conformity was what they were attempting to secure from the empire’s citizens. That conformity on a religious issue (i.e. the icon) could now be interpreted as a political imperative (i.e. loyalty to the Emperor) underscores that Emperor and Church had to fit like hand and glove if the harmony or symphonia of the state be preserved. The controversy over icons was really about establishing which of these partners would play the defining hand to the accommodating glove.