The Byzantine Empire was one of the longest-running empires in history and its influence on religion, as well as the arts, reached even into the most distant parts of its dominion. When Constantine the Great first established Constantinople as his capital in 330 AD, he also brought to the city his new-found religion: Christianity. It flourished in Constantinople and soon, numerous churches were built left and right to accommodate the increasing number of new converts to Christianity. The finest examples of Byzantine-style churches were mostly built during the time of the Emperor Justinian and included the Hagia Sophia, Hagia Irene, and Little Hagia Sophia (Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus). Byzantine-influenced churches can also be found in Italy, Greece, Egypt, Armenia, and the Middle East. The worship of idols was later forbidden around 726 AD according to the Biblical Timeline Chart with World History.
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These churches hosted a number of magnificent decorations, such as mosaics and icons, which early Christians used during prayers, meditations, and mass. The icons, which came from the Greek word eikon and means “images,” were depictions of the divine and for the medieval Christians. These icons offered a way to the spiritual world. Byzantine artists frequently depicted Christ, the Virgin Mary, and numerous saints with common themes such as the Nativity, Christ’s crucifixion, and life (as well as death) of the Saints dominated the church art scene. Many medieval Christians worshiped the icons and attributed to them healing powers.
These icons were portrayed in different media such as wooden panels, gems, mosaic, ivory, and frescoes. Some were for personal use (such as icons used as jewelry) and framed wooden panels with tempera or encaustic paints; while some, such as mosaics and frescoes in churches, were for public use.
Emperor Leo III and Iconoclasm
The Byzantine Emperor Leo III authorized the widespread state-sanctioned iconoclasm (image breaking) years after the end of the Second Siege of Constantinople. The Hodogetria, an icon of the Virgin Mary holding the Infant Jesus, was paraded around the city by the Patriarch Germanos during the Arab invasion and was credited by the people like the one that helped lift the siege. As the man who led the defense of Constantinople, Emperor Leo was understandably annoyed by this, and he attempted to get rid of the people’s reliance on the icons in 726 AD.
One of the first casualties of the iconoclasm was Christ’s icon that was hung on the Great Palace’s Bronze Gate (Chalke Gate). Emperor Leo sent a group of soldiers to remove the icon, but a bewildered crowd attacked them and left one of the soldiers dead during the altercation. As punishment, the emperor had the mob arrested and fined, while some were tortured for the death of the soldier. The iconoclasm continued and spread to Greece where the people revolted when they learned of Leo’s decree, but the rebellion was immediately quashed. It had, however, already divided the people into two sides: the iconoclasts (icon-breakers) and the iconodules (those who favor icons).
The iconoclasm Emperor Leo started also reached Rome and his attempt at changing one of the church doctrines deeply angered Pope Gregory II. The pope sent a dismissive letter to the Byzantine emperor and admonished him to stop meddling in church doctrine. This issue further drove a wedge between Italy and the Eastern Empire, and when Gregory II died, his successor, Pope Gregory III, excommunicated the iconoclasts in 731 AD. Iconoclasm continued in the East, while Italy ignored Leo’s decree and continued the production of icons all throughout the Middle Ages. When Leo died in 741 AD his son and successor, Constantine V, became more iconoclastic than his father was.
Brooks, Sarah. “Icons and Iconoclasm in Byzantium.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/icon/hd_icon.htm (originally published October 2001, last revised August 2009)
Džalto, Dr. Davor. “Khan Academy.” Khan Academy. Accessed August 02, 2016. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/medieval-world/byzantine1/beginners-guide-byzantine/a/iconoclastic-controversies
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