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Painting of an old white man with a beard and church robes and a halo: Icon of St. Nicholas (Russia) - Byzantine iconoclasm

Icon of St. Nicholas (Russia)

Byzantine iconoclasm

By the early 700s AD, the Roman Empire had seen four hundred years of religious arguments about what or who Jesus Christ was.

The Arians believed that Christ was all god. The Catholics believed that Christ was entirely and inseparably both god and man.

(More about Arianism)

And people had fought over every possible combination of thoughts in between.

Breaking the  Second Commandment?

But in 725, the Roman Emperor Leo presented a new idea. Leo suggested that icons, or statues and paintings of Jesus Christ, were a violation of the Second Commandment of Moses.

(More about the Roman Emperor Leo)

Also, Leo thought icons were 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!)

Coin of Leo's son Constantine V with no pictures on it - just writing and symbols - Byzantine iconoclasm

Byzantine iconoclasm: Coin of Leo’s son Constantine V with no pictures on it – just writing and symbols

Jewish and Islamic influence

Probably Leo was also influenced by Jewish and Islamic rules. And those rules reflected an even earlier East Mediterranean taboo.

(More about Islam)

What’s an iconoclast?

Many local people felt 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. We call this iconoclasm (i-KON-oh-klaz-um).

What’s an iconodule?

The people who wanted to still have icons we call 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. People burned these statues in lime kilns to make mortar to build medieval houses and churches.

The split between Eastern and Western Christianity

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.

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Learn by Doing – making an icon

More about iconoclasm
More about medieval Russian icons

Bibliography and further reading about icons and iconoclasm:


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