Despite the metaphorical black-bar of iconoclasm in the height of the Byzantine Empire, the period still can offer great insight into the developing identity of Christian art. Before Leo III’s imposition of iconoclasm with the emblematic removal of Christ’s face from the Chalke Gate at his royal palace in 726, religious imagery picked up relatively near where western antiquity had left off. Representations of Christ and his saints, as well as a newfound interest in the Virgin populated Orthodox churches around the newly designated de-facto seat of Christianity, Constantinople.
The events preceding Leo III seem to contradict the ideology of iconoclasm completely. During the reign of Justinian II, the very face of Christ was minted on new coinage instead of—as was custom in previous eras—symbolic images. This change coincided with Canon 82 of the Quinisext Council: “So, in order that the perfect should be represented before the eyes of all people, we ordain that from now on Christ our Lord, the Lamb who took upon Himself the sins of the world, be portrayed in images in His human form” (Cormack 99). Thus, symbols favored in the early Roman period (lambs, bread, fish, etc.) suddenly became a heretical misrepresentation of Christ. At that same council, Canon 73 declared a reverence for the cross by banning its placement on the ground of churches, where human feet would trample it. So, while the former law asserted the human nature of Christ’s image, the latter began setting up the symbolism that would by and large replace it during the iconoclastic years.
Scholars have argued over the multiple possible reasons leading up to Leo’s smashing of the icons and this break in tradition. Some explanations, such as that it was an appeasement of God after a deadly volcanic eruption of Santorini, sound somewhat like a plot out of a Greek melodrama. Others ring slightly more believable. The first explanation frames iconoclasm in terms of the Arab influence: as the Islamic faith pushed against the Eastern borders of Byzantium, Leo III was forced to confront their culture. Some scholars argue that the ideology of an image-free religion came across through a cultural osmoses. Leo was also born in present-day Syria, square in the heart of the new Islamic region. Thus, it is possible that Leo attempted to meld the cultures by adopting similar artistic conventions. Another, more internal, explanation postulates that iconoclasm was a new response to a literal translation of the second commandment: “You shall not make for yourself any idol or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth. You shall not adore them nor worship them; for I am the lord your God, a jealous God” (Exodus: 20, 4: Cormack 109). Compared to previous translations, this struck a directive into the heart of Christians to discontinue the use of so-called “idols.”
But this era did not completely silence iconophiles. In a letter to the emperor, they spelled out a list of reasons why icons were a valuable asset to the church. Among these arguments are the existence of miraculously made icons, icons that have saved Christian lives, and icons that were drawn by church fathers themselves. These arguments were deemed heretical by iconoclastic emperors.
After a brief break in iconoclasm due to the Council of Nicaea’s denouncement, a brief regression followed, but then iconoclasm officially ended in 843 with the reinstatement of Christ on Chalke Gates. Over the next centuries, art picked up from where it had left off. Christ returned as a king-like figure, saintly icon production was resumed, and the cult of the Virgin had a strong a place as ever in the Empire. Looking forward, scholars have argued that iconoclasm actually slingshot the development of icons into their soon-to-be ubiquitous status.
Christ Pantocrator Icon: St. Catherines Monastery in Sinai, 6-7 century (Photo c/o Katapi Bible Resources)
This icon to the left is the original pre-iconoclasm example of the Christ Pantocrator, which emerged as a crucial depiction of Christ as a result of the influence of this painting. Despite being formally antiquated, the image establishes a norm for much of the symbolism one sees in later Christian art, even into the Renaissance. The image of Christ with a halo was picked up from post-Constantine art from the Roman Empire and was used as a newfound sign of Christ’s divinity. Added to the mix here is the classic gesture of blessing with the right hand, which was molded after that of Roman orators, an act replicated countless times in images to come. Thus, aspects of Roman tradition pervade Christian art beyond the realms of the Empire. The final element to a Pantocrator is the bible clutched firmly in Christ’s left hand (OrthodoxWiki).
Also revolutionary here is the image of Christ as an adult. In many of the Roman works, Christ was seen as a curly-haired, beardless child. As artists began to grapple with events later in his life (i.e., the Passion), scholars begin to see a transition to a grown Jesus. The image of Jesus that many Christians are used to seeing today developed around this period in Byzantium.
Coin of Justinian II: 7th century (Photo c/o CNG Coins)
Pictured to the right is the monetary artwork that sowed the seeds of Iconoclasm. Christ Pantocrator appears unabashedly on one side, while Justinian II stands on the other, firmly grasping a Cross. Thus, religion and government suddenly become one entity in this simple coin.
The repercussions of this minting were far ranging. Besides possibly precipitating both Canons 82 and 73, the coin generated general mistrust in the Islamic regions of Byzantium, where Christianity was far less practiced. While the coin is, artistically, a simple icon, the act of placing the icon on money would impact Orthodox Christianity’s relationship to art for years to come.
Replacement Cross: St. Sophia’s, 768 (Photo c/o Early Christian and Byzantine Art)
Due to the nature of Iconoclasm, actual artworks to analyze are few and far between. Pictured to the left is an example of what typically replaced icons in churches around Byzantium. A simple cross—an image widely revered due to Canon 73—suitably replaces the image of a holy figure in accordance with the iconoclasts belief. One can also see, below the cross, a messy section of the mosaic. The area where the names of saints were written, iconoclasts simply covered with a mosaic patchwork. Thus, rather than even acknowledging saints, they chose to ignore the idea completely.
Image at Edessa: 10th Century Depiction (Photo c/o Wikipedia)
The image to the right represents a later interpretation of one of the leading arguments against Iconoclasm. The image at Edessa, later referred to as the Shroud of Turin, was an example of an icon with divine origins. Iconophiles thus argued that icons must be part of the faith if divinities, too, create them.
The depiction of Christ here is tricky. Despite being made outside the era of iconoclasm, it is not quite an icon of Christ. A grown Jesus does appear in the piece, but instead of an icon, it is a depiction one of Christ’s miracles. The image mirrors several iconophilic attempts to convert the then-emperors to their cause. The metaphorical “revealing of the cloth” was an argument of faith, just as the literal revealing of the cloth was.
Khludov Psalter: Historical Museum of Moscow, 9th Century (Photo c/o The World According to Art)
Khludov Psalter refers to a series of anti-iconoclastic drawings from 9th-century Byzantium. Each represents a different facet of the argument against iconoclasm, complete with drawings and textual references from the bible. The psalter on the left equates iconoclasts to the Jews—a common connection at the time. The argument here, as pictured, is that, just as the Jews crucified Jesus, so too do iconoclasts metaphorically “kill” Jesus by destroying his image. The connection is made abundantly clear here since both the Romans and the iconoclast are using the same tools and attacking a similarly dressed Jesus—both men have on the blue robes of mourning. Works such as this began to appear at the end the iconoclastic era, but their effect on the final decision to end the law is unknown.
Virgin & Child: St. Sophia, 9th century (Photo c/o Wikipedia)
The cult of the virgin that began to evolve around Byzantium before Iconoclasm was one of the most powerful artistic movements to emerge after it. The depicted apse image from St. Sophia is representative of the budding interest in the Virgin in Byzantine culture, another development that would go on to impact artists in centuries to come.
Byzantium’s obsession with Mary came about in two ways. The first was an influx of relics of the Holy Mother during the period. In addition to and independent of these cultural imports (or perhaps because of them), Byzantine culture began to embrace familial life. As the Mother of God, Mary’s image held a clear moral imperative towards those sentiments that were valued more heavily during that period. Thus, some of the clearest origins of the cult of the Virgin can be found emerging from Iconoclasm (Cormack).
The image depicts Justinian I and Constantine offering a throned Mary gifts. The symbolism of the great leaders of the empire offering Mary gifts reflects the same idea that led to Jesus’ depiction on Justinian II’s coins. No longer was the emperor the most powerful being—that power was reserved for the divine. Furthermore, despite his lessened power, both images reinforce the idea that the emperor is the link to the divine. Apart from the power dichotomy, the baby Jesus sits regally in the Virgin’s lap, with Mary’s arms firmly wrapped around him, again emphasizing the importance of tightly woven family communities in Byzantium, all under the generous gaze of the government.