Reference address :

ELPENOR - Home of the Greek Word

Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Vasilief, A History of the Byzantine Empire

The Iconoclastic epoch (717-867)

Religious controversies and the first period of Iconoclasm 


Icon of the Christ and New Testament Reader
Page 3

There were some who believed that the iconoclastic policy of the emperors was prompted by both religious and political considerations, with a decided predominance of the latter; they maintained that Leo III, desirous of being the sole autocratic ruler in all aspects of life, hoped, by prohibiting the worship of images, to liberate the people from the strong influence of the church, which used image-worship as one of its strongest tools in securing the allegiance of the laity. Leo's final ideal was to attain unlimited power over a religiously united people. The religious life of the Empire was to be regulated by the iconoclastic policy of the emperors, which was intended to aid these rulers in the realization of their political ideals surrounded by the halo of reformatory zeal.

In more recent times some scholars (the Frenchman Lombard, for instance) began to view iconoclasm as a purely religious reform which aimed to arrest the progress of the revival of paganism in the form of excessive image-worship, and restore Christianity to its original purity. Lombard believed that this religious reform developed parallel with the political changes, but had a history of its own. The French Byzantine scholar, Brehier, called particular attention to the fact that iconoclasm involves two distinctly different questions; (1) the habitually discussed question of image-worship itself, and (2) the problem of the legality of religious art, i.e., the question as to whether or not it was permissible to resort to art as a means of depicting the supernatural world, and of representing the Saints, the Holy Virgin, and Jesus Christ. In other words, Brehier brought to the fore the question of the influence of iconoclasm upon Byzantine art. Finally, C. N. Uspensky shifted the emphasis from iconoclasm to the policy of the government against the rise and growth of monasterial landownerslnp. He wrote:

Leo's administrative measures were basically and essentially directed rom the very beginning against the monasteries, which toward the eighth century came to occupy a very unnatural position in the empire. In its fundamental aims the policy of Leo III was not based upon any religious considerations, but the persecuted monastic groups, the defenders of monastic feudalism, found it to their advantage to transfer the dispute to theological grounds in order to be able to claim that the activity of the emperors was atheistic and heretical, thus discrediting the movement: and undermining the confidence of the masses in their emperor. The true nature of the movement was thus skillfully disguised and can be rediscovered only with very great effort.

In view of these varied opinions, it is evident that the iconoclastic movement was an extremely complex phenomenon; and unfortunately the condition of the sources still prevents its clarification.

Previous / First / Next Page of this section

A History of the Byzantine Empire - Table of Contents

Next Chapter : Charles the Great and his significance for the Byzantine Empire

Previous Chapter : The internal activities of the emperors of the Isaurian dynasty



Medieval West * The Making of Europe
Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Learned Freeware

Reference address :