(EUROPE: 501 to 1000 CE – continued)

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EUROPE: 501 to 1000 CE (7 of 10)

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The Icons and Images Conflict

Leo held to the Roman and Christian traditions of wanting to secure God's favor. Responding to the concerns of military people and their belief that God was offended by icon worship, in 730 Leo forbade representations of Jesus Christ and the Virgin, and Church murals were to be covered with plaster.

Opposed to Leo's move, the Church's patriarch, Germanus, had a propaganda concern: he feared that banning icons would indicate that the Church had been in error for a long time and that this would play into the hands of Jews and Muslims. In Rome, Pope Gregory II praised Germanus for his "zeal and steadfastness." Germanus was dismissed from his position. Gregory II died in 631, and his successor Gregory III appealed to Leo III to moderate his position. Leo had the Pope's representative arrested. Gregory increased his support of icon worship, and Leo sent a warship that was shipwrecked in the Adriatic Sea. Leo then transferred jurisdiction of papal territories in Sicily and Calabria to the patriarch of Constantinople.

The emperor, Leo, died peacefully in 741, at age 56. The inherent instability of the authoritarian dynasty system manifested itself with a two-year war over who was to succeed Leo – a war connected with the icon controversy. Leo's son, Constantine V, emerged as the new emperor, siding with strict enforcement of his father's prohibitions.

Among those opposed to restrictions on icon worship were the low clergy and monks, who didn't connect icon worship with paganism. This was similar in appearance to the Pharisees – commoners – supporting the importation of foreign (Persian) beliefs into Judaism while the aristocrat temple authorities, the Sadducees, were opposed.

On Constantine's side were the soldiers. Constantine had almost constant campaigning against Arabs, Slavs and Bulgars. His successes added to their support for him and his iconoclasm. Success was still seen as favor from God.

Emperor Constantine V is reported to have returned to the old punishments, to have imprisoned and tortured monks who resisted his father's law. Constantine closed monasteries and convents and gave the properties to people he liked. He had a rebellious patriarch paraded around the great stadium called the Hippodrome and then beheaded. According to Will Durant in The Age of Faith, "Again eyes or tongues were torn out, noses were cut off." note21

Emperor Constantine's eldest son, Leo IV, whose reign began in 775, continued to enforce the law against icon worship. He had been married back in 768, when he was 18, to Irene of Athens. She had been selected for him (probably by his father, writes John Norwich) from a lineup of beautiful women in Athens. John Norwich describes Athens as having lost its old distinction. He continues:

The former intellectual capital of the world was now a pious little provincial town; even the Parthenon had been converted into a church. Worse still from the imperial point of view, the people of Athens were known to be fervent supporters of images; and Irene was no exception... Irene made no secret of her sympathy and strove to bring about the defeat of iconoclasm. note22

Leo IV pursued a path of conciliation between those for and against Icon worship. He is suspected of having died of tuberculous, just short of his 32nd birthday, five years into his reign. Their 9-year old became emperor with Irene as empress and his regent. Seven years later in the name of her emperor child a Council of Nicaea met at the Church of Hagia Sophia. It affirmed that icons could be venerated but not worshiped, and all iconoclast texts were ordered destroyed.

A conspiracy and uprising against Empress Irene had to be suppressed. In 790, the military recognized Constantine, at the age of 19, as having power independent of his mother's regency. Irene had lost power but was allowed to keep the title of Empress.

The same inter-family conflict and power considerations that had ruined the family of Constantine the Great was working on Irene's family, not terribly unlike political developments in China: similar in dynastic absolutism but different in religious ideology. Emperor Constantine VI's army lost a battle against Arabs and in 792 against Bulgars. A movement developed in favor of his uncle, and Constantine had his eyes put out and the tongues of his father's four other half-brothers cut off. His former Armenian supporters revolted after he blinded their general, Alexios Mosele, and he crushed this revolt in 793.

Irene organized a conspiracy against her son. In 797 Constantine was captured, blinded, and imprisoned by the supporters of his mother, leaving Irene to be crowned as a ruling Empress. When Constantine died is unknown. Irene was overthrown in 802 and forced into exile on the island of Lesbos and forced to support herself by spinning cloth. She died in 803 at an age of around 51.

A new dynasty began its rule. A former finance minister ruled from 802 to 811. His dynasty ended in 813, followed by the reign of Leo V, known as Leo the Armenian. He instituted a second period of Iconoclasm in 815, possibly motivated by military failures seen as indicators of divine displeasure, the Byzantines having suffered a series of humiliating defeats at the hands of the Bulgarian Khan Krum. Leo the Armenian reigned seven years. A couple of emperors later was the Emperor Theophilos who reigned to 842. He died leaving his wife Theodora regent for his heir, and like Irene 50 years before her, Theodora presided over the restoration of icon veneration. Judith Herrin writes:

Despite the challenges posed by several military officials and her own male relatives, she succeeded in making a firm alliance with the court hierarchy, led by the chief eunuch Theoktistos, and previously exiled iconophile monks, and again an empress reversed iconoclasm. note23

This time it stuck. Historians were not to have documents with the arguments of the iconoclasts. They were destroyed. Byzantine Christianity, writes Herrin, "broke away from the established interpretation of what was a graven image," and Icons became celebrated in displays of Byzantium's public art.


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