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Byzantine Empire Iconoclasm

In the Byzantine world, Iconoclasm refers to a theological debate involving both the Byzantine church and state. The controversy spanned roughly a century, during the years 726–87 and 815–43. In these decades, imperial legislation barred the production and use of figural images; simultaneously, the cross was promoted as the most acceptable decorative form for Byzantine churches.

Archaeological evidence suggests that in certain regions of Byzantium, including Constantinople and Nicaea, existing icons were destroyed or plastered over. Very few early Byzantine icons survived the Iconoclastic period; notable exceptions are woven icons, painted icons preserved at the Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai, Egypt, and the miniature icons found on Byzantine coins, including those of Justinian II.

Byzantine iconoclasm has been wrapped in an almost impenetrable membrane of attitudes and assumptions, many of them conflicting. But it has been increasingly recognised – and demonstrated – that the Byzantines were as adept at ‘spin’ as modern politicians are frequently accused of being, so that Byzantine writings on iconoclasm might therefore be seen as a particularly problematic body of primary sources. Indeed, when we come to re-examine the texts involved, and place them clearly in their historical context, it rapidly becomes apparent that very little of what has been assumed about the iconoclast debate is in fact reliable.

There was also a strong rationalistic tendency among there Iconoclast emperors, a reaction against the forms of Byzantine piety that became more pronounced each century. This rationalism helps to explain their hatred of monks. Once persuaded, Leo began to enforce his idea ruthlessly. Constantine of Nacolia came to the capital in the early part of his reign; at the same time John of Synnada wrote to the patriarch Germanus I (715-30), warning him that Constantine had made a disturbance among the other bishops of the province by preaching against the use of holy pictures.

A significant number of acheiropoieta originated in the Early Byzantine period, before the advent of Iconoclasm in the early eighth century. The most famous acheiropoieta included the Mandylion, a white cloth imprinted with the face of Christ, and the Keramion, a ceramic tile which received the impression of Christ's face from the Mandylion. The ability to miraculously replicate was a common feature of acheiropoieta.

Iconoclasm was about positioning images within the cult of saints: of allowing images of the holy to perform like relics of the holy. To say that a saint’s bone, or a bit of cloth or oil that once touched a saint or the saint’s bones, conveyed saintly presence was a major step in itself; to extend that power to an object physically unconnected to the saint in anyway – the portrait painted by human hands – did indeed smack to many of idolatry, and was condemned as such by early churchmen.

Anastasius, who had been intruded in the place of Germanus as the Iconoclast candidate, now veered round in the usual Byzantine way, helped the restoration of the images and excommunicated Constantine V as a heretic and denier of Christ. But Constantine marched on the city, took it, blinded Artabasdus and began a furious revenge on all rebels and image-worshippers (743).

His treatment of Anastasius is a typical example of the way these later emperors behaved towards the patriarchs through whom they tried to govern the Church. Anastasius was flogged in public, blinded, driven shamefully through the streets, made to return to his Iconoclasm and finally reinstated as patriarch.

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