Iconoclasm - Christianity
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Russian icon of St. Nicholas
Icon of St. Nicholas (Russia)

May 2016 - By the early 700s AD, the Roman Empire had seen four hundred years of religious arguments about the nature of Jesus Christ. From the Arians, who believed that Christ was all god, to the Catholics, who believed that Christ was entirely and inseparably both god and man, every possible combination of thoughts in between had been presented and fought over. In 725, though, the Roman Emperor Leo presented a new idea: that icons, or statues and paintings of Jesus Christ, were a violation of the Second Commandment of Moses, and also out of line with the belief that Christ was entirely god: if He was a god, He should not be shown as a man. (People were not just looking at these icons, but praying to them and even having them be godfathers to their children!)

bronze coin front and back with cross and writing
Coin of Leo's son Constantine V
with no pictures on it -
just writing and symbols

Probably Leo was also influenced by Jewish and Islamic rules, reflecting an even earlier East Mediterranean taboo that said that it was wrong to make any images of the gods, or even of men and women who looked like the gods. Leo said all these icons should be destroyed, and he destroyed some himself to show the way. This is known as iconoclasm (i-KON-oh-klaz-um), and people who wanted to have icons were known as iconodules (i-KON-oh-dools). Leo's men destroyed thousands of icons all over the Roman Empire. Many of these icons were ancient Greek or Roman statues that were great works of art.

Pope Gregory II in Rome objected to this destruction of the idols, and when he died about 730 his successor Gregory III also objected. From here on the Eastern and Western churches hated each other.

When Emperor Leo died in 741, his son Constantine V succeeded him, and continued his iconoclastic policies.

Learn by Doing - making an icon
More about medieval Russian icons

Bibliography and further reading about icons and iconoclasm:

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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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