Iconoclastic Controversy

The Iconoclastic Controversy, a major religious crisis, divided Byzantium and caused a split between the Christian centers of Constantinople in the east and Rome in the west.

Summary of Event

The Iconoclastic Controversy constituted a profound religious and political crisis within Christendom. It divided the religious worlds of the Western Roman Catholic Church Roman Catholic Church from Eastern Orthodoxy Eastern Orthodox Church , and it shook the religious, political, and military foundations of Byzantium. [kw]Iconoclastic Controversy (726-843)
Iconoclastic Controversy
Byzantine Empire;726-843: Iconoclastic Controversy[0570]
Turkey;726-843: Iconoclastic Controversy[0570]
Europe (general);726-843: Iconoclastic Controversy[0570]
Italy;726-843: Iconoclastic Controversy[0570]
Religion;726-843: Iconoclastic Controversy[0570]
Gregory, Saint, II
Constantine V Copronymus
Leo IV
Leo V
John of Damascus
Irene, Saint
Theodora (c. 810-862)

First, the controversy concerned the use and religious significance of icons. Icons became very popular in the sixth century, when imperial images were replaced by those of Jesus. Icons were perceived as more than simply paintings. They were holy objects, capable of working miracles to heal the sick or to offer divine protection against foreign invasion. They represented the Christian belief in intercession, offering a way by which human fears and aspirations, suffering and pain, joy and faith, and common superstition could reach God. Icons stood at the intersection of the human and divine worlds. The difficulty, however, was that icons might appear as objects of idolatry, thereby violating one of the sacred Ten Commandments.

The problem of idolatry was compounded by the rise of Islam Islam;spread of in the seventh and early eighth centuries. Islam adhered to a strict monotheism and rejected the concept of intercession and the use of images in worship. The Arabs conquered vast Byzantine territories stretching from Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and through North Africa. Many Byzantines believed the explanation for their defeats was God’s punishment for idolatry. Although political and military issues became intertwined with iconoclasm, the central question remained religious.

Emperor Leo III Leo III (Byzantine emperor) was an iconoclast who, like Jews and Muslims, considered icons to be idol worship. Leo broke the great Arab Siege of Constantinople Constantinople, Siege of (717) in 717 and promulgated an important law code (Ecloga). Because of his hostility to icons, he was called “Saracen-minded.” In 726, Leo III ordered the removal of the image of Jesus to the entrance of the imperial palace and banned the worship of icons. Despite opposition from the patriarch, elements of the army, and even the populace in Constantinople, he reaffirmed his decision to ban icons in 730 in a kind of council (Silentium). Pope Gregory II Gregory II, Saint[Gregory 02, Saint and his successor Gregory III Gregory III (d. 741) refused to recognize Leo’s imperial authority in such religious matters. Gregory III condemned iconoclasm in 731. The emperor responded by removing Dalmatia from the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of Rome to that of Constantinople—an action that would later bring many Balkan Slavs under the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Leo was succeeded by his son Constantine V Copronymus Constantine V Copronymus . For his first two years, Constantine fought a civil war with his father-in-law Artavasdus, who supported icons. Constantine triumphed with loyal troops from Anatolia. At times, though not always, the eastern provincial armies (themes) were more sympathetic to iconoclasm than European troops.

Although it was not attended by any eastern patriarch or papal legate, Constantine called a council in 754 to condemn icons as the work of the devil and to place offending believers under imperial laws. This change allowed the administration to begin a widespread persecution of monks, some of whom were forced to wear secular dress, to marry, or to march through the hippodrome holding the hands of women. Torture and executions of icon worshipers—Saint Stephen the Younger Stephen the Younger, Saint of Mount Saint Auxentius being the best-known victim—were not uncommon. Monastic lands were confiscated and monasteries turned into military barracks; thousands of monks were said to have fled the empire, particularly to Cyprus, southern Italy, and Sicily. It is probable that Constantine wished to destroy the entire Byzantine monastic order.

Not all monks opposed Constantine, especially those who had a formal religious education and resided in urban monasteries, or who came from aristocratic families. The most fervent opponents of Constantine were usually popular holy men, often poor and uneducated, who were the focal point of popular unrest. These holy men were largely responsible for bringing icons into Church liturgy.

The concept of the incarnation of Jesus (Jesus as both God and man) was at the heart of the theological dispute over icons. Constantine may have been a dualist (perhaps even a Manichean), one who believed that matter (the wood of icons) was created in sin by a lesser deity, or he may have been a Monophysite, one who believed Jesus to be only divine. (Monophysite doctrine was declared heretical and denounced in the Fourth Ecumenical Council held at Chalcedon in 451.) Constantine argued that icons could never depict what was divine in Jesus because divinity cannot be limited in paint and wood. On the other hand, if icons portray only what is human in Jesus, then they divided what could not be separated. For Constantine, only the miracle of the Mass transformed matter into spirit.

The theological defense of icons was given by John of Damascus John of Damascus . Jesus as God, having taken on flesh, had sanctified the flesh as holy. Therefore, icons could not be condemned simply because they were made of matter. Icons were an imitation (mimesis) and not of the same substance or essence (ousia) of the divine. By themselves, icons had no independent significance, but through imitation they partook of the divine.

Constantine’s successor, Leo IV Leo IV (Byzantine emperor) , halted the assault on monasticism, and Empress Irene, Irene, Saint his wife, was an advocate of icons. After Leo’s death, Irene ruled as regent for her ten-year-old son Constantine VI Constantine VI (Byzantine emperor) . In 787, the Council of Nicaea Nicaea, Council of (787) (the seventh ecumenical council) sanctioned icons, excommunicated those who declared icons to be idols, condemned seizure of monasteries, and declared that Christians could give reverence (proskynesis) to icons but could not literally worship (latreia) them.

In August of 797, Irene deposed her son and had his eyes put out; he died shortly thereafter. Her reign coincided with that of Charlemagne Charlemagne in the West. At the Frankfurt Council Council, Frankfurt (794) in 794, Charlemagne attacked the council of 787 and the Byzantines as too iconodule and as idolatrous. Icons were useful only for didactic purposes. From the point of view of Charlemagne and Pope Leo III Leo III (pope) (795-816), the fact that a woman reigned in Constantinople meant that the Byzantine throne was effectively empty. Pope Leo III hoped to unite East and West under Charlemagne by crowning him emperor on December 25, 800. To solidify his claim as emperor of Rome, Charlemagne proposed marriage to Irene, but her fall from power in 802 ended any possibility of such a union. In 812, Byzantine emperor Michael I Michael I (r. 820-829) recognized Charlemagne as emperor but not of the Romans, a title that belonged only to the Byzantine East. Marriage as a political tool;France

As with the Arab conquests, icons may have been once more associated with apostasy and foreign victory. Emperor Nicephorus I Nicephorus I (r. 802-811) was killed by the Bulgars in 811 and had his head turned into a victorious drinking cup. In the council of 815, Leo V Leo V (Byzantine emperor) condemned icons and ushered in the second iconoclastic era. He was opposed by the abbot Theodore Studites Theodore Studites of the Studius monastery in Constantinople. Theodore became a leader of the iconodules and struggled for Church independence from imperial power. He had the support of Pope Paschal I Paschal I (817-824), who offered asylum to Greek monks and sent legates in an unsuccessful attempt to end iconoclasm.

Iconoclasm continued to divide Byzantium. A terrible revolt from 821 to 823 by Thomas the Slav Thomas the Slav (d. 823) sought to restore icons. The Arab conquest of Crete in 826, the appearance of Arab forces in Sicily in 827, and the Arab sack of Amorian in Anatolia in 838 argued against the idea that Christ favored iconoclasm.


After the death of the emperor Theophilus Theophilus (r. 829-842), Empress Theodora Theodora (Byzantine empress) restored icons on March 11, 843—the date marks the Byzantine Feast of Orthodoxy, celebrated to this day on the first Sunday of Lent. Icons were to remain an integral part of the faith of the Eastern Orthodox Church, but they had created a schism between the churches of the East and West. The Roman Church could not accept the right of an emperor to interfere and define religious doctrine.

Further Reading

  • Alexander, P. J. The Patriarch Nicephorus of Constantinople: Ecclesiastical Policy and Image Worship in the Byzantine Empire. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1958. An important study on Byzantine church policy and the worship of images and icons in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
  • Brown, Peter. “A Dark Age Crisis: Aspects of the Iconoclastic Controversy.” In Society and the Holy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989. An interpretation of the controversy as an issue concerning the nature of the holy in the Middle Ages.
  • Cavarnos, Constantine. Guide to Byzantine Iconography: Detailed Explanation of the Distinctive Characteristics of Byzantine Iconography, with a Concise Systematic Exposition of Saint John Damascene’s Defense of Holy Icons. Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1993. An excellent resource on the icons of the Eastern Orthodox Church, explaining the theology of icons. Bibliography, index.
  • Kaegi, Walter. “The Byzantine Armies and Iconoclasm.” Byzantinoslavica 27 (1966): 48-70. A study of the role the Byzantine Empire’s armies played in iconoclasm and in the controversy.
  • Magoulias, Harry J. Byzantine Christianity: Empress, Church and the West. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1970. A good introduction to the beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox Church as it compares to the Western Church.
  • Martin, E. J. A History of the Iconoclastic Controversy. London: S.P.C.K., 1930. An older work but still an excellent overview of iconoclasm and the controversy.
  • Parry, Kenneth. Depicting the Word: Byzantine Iconophile Thought of the Eighth and Ninth Centuries. New York: E. J. Brill, 1996. Surveys intellectual contributions defending the veneration of icons, controversial literature on iconoclasm, and more. Bibliography, index.
  • Schönborn, Christoph. God’s Human Face: The Christ-Icon. Translated by Lothar Krauth. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994. An exploration of the nature and history of iconoclasm and the Iconoclastic Controversy, the theology of images, the representation of the body, and much more. Chapters also cover “The Icon as Grace-Filled Matter: John Damascene” and the second Council of Nicaea. Bibliography, index.