Iconoclasm

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The destruction of the image of Christ over the Chalke Gate of the Great Palace in Constantinople in 726 on the orders of Emperor Leo III may have marked the official beginnings of iconoclasm, but the roots of the conflict go back much earlier and may reflect the possible clash between the more iconoclastic eastern traditions where the Mosaic ban on graven images prevailed and the Hellenistic heritage. After the death of Justinian the Byzantine Empire sustained a number of serious military defeats and had lost much of its western territories, the victorious armies of Islam pressed from the East while the Slavs and the Avars attacked from the North. On several occasions the capital itself was under siege and the days of the empire must have appeared numbered. In addition, the Byzantines had endured a number of natural catastrophes and outbreaks of the plague. It was at a time of military threat to the empire and when the imperial coffers were empty, that a military emperor from the Syrian borderlands, Leo III, banned the public display of figurative religious images. The iconoclasts (literally meaning the breakers of icons), possibly as much for political reasons as theological ones, viewed icons and the cult of relics as a form of idolatry and as the possible cause for some of their military and civil misfortunes. Like their Muslim foes they forbade the depiction of figural images and destroyed some of the icons and monumental images which were on prominent view. The defenders of images, the iconodules or iconophiles, argued that an icon is not venerated as an idol and that veneration shown to an icon was conveyed 'by our spiritual eyes towards the prototype' (Seventh Ecumenical Council, 787), whether this be Christ, the Virgin or the saints. Despite the restoration of icons briefly under Empress Eirene between 787 and 814, iconoclasm lasted over a century, until 843.

The impact of iconoclasm is difficult to estimate. Certainly some religious art was destroyed, iconophile monks, clergy and artists were martyred and some illuminated manuscripts were burnt. Monumental iconoclast crosses appeared in the apses of some major churches during the iconoclast period, including Hagia Eirene in Constantinople, c.753 (plate 18.7), the Koimesis Church in Nicaea and Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki (Brubaker and Haldon 2001). Nevertheless, it was an economically depressed period with a shrinking population in a time when more resources were devoted to military survival than to the creation of new churches and their decoration. In areas including

Cappadocia, Cyprus, Sinai and parts of the West, the iconoclast decrees from distant Constantinople appear to have been ignored and figurative art production continued, as fleeing icon painters may have found refuge in areas outside of Constantinople's control and may have played a significant role in the creation of some of the art associated with the Carolingian rulers of western Europe. The brilliant theologian, St John of Damascus (d. c.750), found refuge in the Monastery of Mar Sabasin, Palestine and wrote brilliantly in defence of the icon. Some monks in Constantinople at the Studite monastery retained their iconophile sympathies, and although persecuted, seem to have produced a number of illuminated psalters, such as the Khludov Psalter, c.850, which vividly illustrated their antagonism towards the iconoclast heretics.

After a century of iconoclasm the Eastern Orthodox Church neither lost the technical skills for the production of art in many mediums, nor the knowledge of the icono-graphic conventions, but had formulated a theory of religious art in such detail and clarity that it has remained valid to the present day. Although the second half of the ninth century continued to be a period of political turmoil and economic insecurity and of limited art production, Byzantine post-iconoclast art was produced under a far more standardized iconographic schema. In 864, the conversion of Boris I brought the Bulgars into the Christian fold and at the same time missionary activities were under way in other Slav countries. Also in the 860s a protracted dispute between the pope in Rome, Nicholas I, and the patriarch in Constantinople, Photios, demonstrated the extent to which the Roman Church, which was now increasingly under the protection of the Franks rather than the Byzantines, had drifted away from the rest of the Christian Church. This separation culminated in the schism between the Orthodox Church and the Church of Rome in 1054.

After the triumph of Orthodoxy, huge figurative mosaics appeared in Hagia Sophia in Constantinople including the immense Theotokos and Child between archangels in the apse which was dedicated in 867 (plate 18.8). Below it an inscription proclaims: 'The images which the impostors [the iconoclasts] had cast down here the pious emperors have again set up.' In the post-iconoclast period there was a strongly expressed desire to restore religious iconography with an emphasis placed on continuing the presumed golden age which preceded the iconoclast heresy. In some of the new churches built in Constantinople after iconoclasm, like the Theotokos of the Pharos, c.842-67, and the Nea Ekklesia, consecrated in 880, neither of which survives, literary sources record the emergence of the smaller compact Byzantine church; this was to become the principal church design throughout the empire and was to continue to the present. Architecturally, the church was domed and had a symbolically inscribed cross: the cruciform shape may have been a symbolic reference to the crucifixion, while the dome an allusion to the celestial dome of heaven. In the classic cross-in-square church, the main vaults are in the shape of a Greek cross inscribed within a square, creating a nine bay core. The central dome is usually supported on columns and is flanked by four barrel vaults with the corner bays surmounted by four smaller domes. In this typical five-dome church, the liturgical west is frequently marked by an entrance narthex, while the apse protrudes from the eastern end. Although the Nea Ekklesia may have been an early example of a cross-in-square church in the capital, it is possible that earlier prototypes lie in Armenia or Asia Minor. If the basilica was the prevalent architectural form for the early Christian church, the cross-in-square church became the dominant architectural form in post-iconoclast church architecture.

Symbolically, the interior of the domed cross-in-square church was conceived as a microcosm of the Christian universe arranged within a hierarchal order. The ninth-century iconographic programmes of church decoration generally placed Christ in the dome (sometimes in the form of an Ascension as in the dome mosaic in Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki, 885-6), the Virgin was located in the apsidal conch, while the minor vaults were occupied with various episodes or feasts selected from the life of Christ and sometimes from the life of the Virgin Mary. Frequently the lower walls of the church bore images of individual saints and the hagiographical cycles. In this ordered hierarchy, Christ appeared as the godhead in the highest point in the church like a heavenly celestial zone frequently surrounded by angels and prophets. Below this was the festive zone, a celebration of Christ's life on earth, where the great feasts of the church were revealed liturgically to the congregation, while below this on the lowest level, the one physically and spiritually closest to the congregation, were the saints (Demus 1948). While this programme of church decoration has many antecedents and certainly exhibits a considerable amount of variation, as a general observation, it appeared as a creation of the post-iconoclast period and then with considerable uniformity it was repeated throughout the empire.

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