What is iconoclasm? History of Christianity

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

What is iconoclasm? Icon of St. Nicholas (Russia)

What is 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. And people had fought over every possible combination of thoughts in between. 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. 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 - what is iconoclasm

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

What’s an iconodule?

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

So what is iconoclasm? Did you find what you wanted? Let us know in the comments!

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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By | 2017-12-06T11:32:57+00:00 August 22nd, 2017|Medieval, Religion|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. What is iconoclasm? History of Christianity. Quatr.us Study Guides, August 22, 2017. Web. December 13, 2017.

About the Author:

Karen Carr

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, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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