The Iconoclastic Controversy – Shadows on the Wall


Painting of Destruction of Religion Images (Icons) in Zurich, 1524 / Creative Commons

By Matthew A. McIntosh / 03.26.2013:


The period of the Iconoclastic Controversy (icon=image, clasm=destruction; hence image destruction) surrounding the imagery of holy persons began in 726 CE and ended in 843 CE during the early Middle Ages.  There was not just a division between East and West on the nature of Christ but also within Eastern Orthodoxy itself.  One group felt that people were praying to these images as though they were the actual person, thus succumbing to idolatry.  No more representational images were created and the only visual imagery was decorative in both art and architecture (planned and geometrical, mostly organic).

Iconic imagery was restored after 843 CE.  The Crusaders sacked Constantinople and did a lot of looting, and from 1204-1250 Western (Latin) leaders took the Byzantine throne.  Scholars today argue about whether certain images were created by Westerners in Byzantium or by actual Byzantine artists.  Constantinople, being a very strategic location, was sacked again, this time by their friends the Venetians in 1250 CE (who controlled it until the Ottoman conquest in 1453 CE).


Image of Christ (c.700 CE), Monastery of St. Catherine, Mt. Sinai / Creative Commons

People actually were getting overly attached to images, and rules were created for artists to avoid methodology that would lead people into idolatry.  They were usually pictured frontally and flat and not as naturalistic to clearly distinguish them only as images and not the actual figure being represented.  They developed a new relationship between image and reality.  They proposed the theory that a relationship did indeed exist.  Praying to an image of the Virgin Mary did result in the prayer reaching the real Mary, but it was instilled that the prayer was not being heard by the image itself.

Harkening back to the philosophy of Plato, the idea was that all people are in a cave with just enough light for them to see shadows of reality that is outside the cave.  One knows a chair is a chair because it has the essence of “chair”.  There were hundreds of different images of Mary in different mediums – all having the “essence” of Mary – but it was staunchly taught that there is only one true Mary of whom the images were are all but shadows.

Images were necessary and did have a role.  In the West, Pope Gregory said images were used as narratives to teach the illiterate and scolded a bishop for his thoughts of them as idolatrous.  In the Byzantine world, images served the purpose of deesis (intercession) for devotion.  People could reach the sacred through images while understanding them as images and not the actual figures.


Icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy (Restored c.1400), Constantinople / Creative Commons

Icons that had been extant prior to iconoclasm were restored.  The Triumph of the Orthodoxy shows a ceremony of restoring and rededicating important religious images.  Mary holds Jesus here as a symbol of sacrifice.


The Virgin Hodegetria on the Chalke Gate of the Great Palace (c.532 CE, restored c.1200), Constantinople / Creative Commons

The Chalke gate representation is similar in intent to the Triumph of Orthodoxy and was associated with miracles that had been performed at that location, but here Mary holds Jesus as the Savior.  It seems to cross boundaries between Christian ideas and magical thinking.  Western artists often copied Byzantine images, particularly those that were considered special because miracles were attributed to them.  For them, copying the original also captured its power.


Harbaville Triptych of Deesis and Saints, 10th Century / The Louvre


Hagia Sophia Intercessory Mosaic (c.1261 CE) / Creative Commons

A specific formula was followed for deesis art – a core that represented intercession.  In the Hagia Sophia mosaic, the figures are Christ in the center, Mary to his right and John the Baptist to his left.  They pleaded on peoples’ behalf.  These three were always needed for a deesis image.  Mary was a powerful intercessor as the Mother of God and John the Baptist as the one who consecrated him.  Mary was his mother and John his cousin.  Others were seen to have very strong relationships with Christ as well, but these two as blood family were critical in Byzantine deesis.  Mary and John are also in the Harbaville ivory triptych and the others are monks with their names inscribed on the piece.


Christ Crowning Constantine VII (c.945 CE) / Creative Commons


Leo VI Prostrating before Christ, Mosaic c.900 CE, Hagia Sophia / Creative Commons

Christ shown crowning Constantine VII as emperor sent a message of the divine right to rule.  Leo VI (Constantine’s son) is shown prostrating himself humbly in a lowly position even though he was head of church and state.  The emperors acknowledged the ultimate superiority and authority of Christ.  The position of prostration is the lowest and deepest one can take.  It is thought that Leo may also have been trying to atone for marrying too many times to relatives that were too close in blood.  Images such as these clearly served purposes of propaganda.


Roman Wall Painting of Hercules and Telephus, 1st Century CE, Pompeii / Creative Commons

Byzantine artists for a time reached back to classical Graeco-Roman traditions after iconoclasm around the 10th century CE, intentionally harkening to that art as highly skilled.  There isn’t the same kind of smooth blending from light to dark in the modeling, but there is the influence of more dark and light colors than used previously.  Classical modeling techniques influenced this new use of light and shadow.  Classical art used a wet drapery technique to emphasize the three-dimensional form of the body, but the Byzantine style hardens the drapery and adds new elements such as the face seen on the clothing covering the leg on the right.


David Composing the Psalms, Paris Psalter (c.950 CE), Creative Commons

There are figures in the Paris Psalter that derive from Graeco-Roman tradition as well.  David the shepherd boy is playing a harp and composing songs (the Psalms) in a landscape with sheep.  To his right is the personification of his muse for inspiration.  To his right is the personification of the echo from sound his harp produces.  The red figure below is old man river – the personification of a river running through the scene.  Ancient Graeco-Roman art had a deep tradition of such personifications, and here that pagan technique is used in the later Christian contexts of the Middle Ages.

The late Middle Ages began to see this heightened appreciation for Classical art and techniques, and that use exploded in the Renaissance while continuing through the Enlightenment.  The shackles of old beliefs and rules were laid aside to once again appreciate the artistic representation of holy figures and return them to walls and architecture.  No longer were Plato’s caves sealed off from those who needed the comfort of the shadows.