Posts Tagged ‘Iconoclasm’

Blaming the Media: A.D. 730

Posted in General on July 24th, 2008 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

Blaming the media for your misfortunes–especially the self-inflicted ones–is a time-honored tradition dating back 1300 years to my beloved Byzantines. In just a 50-year period, c. 630 to 680, the Byzantine Empire had lost two-thirds of its territory: the provinces that we would recognize as Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Libya and Morocco. Incompetent generals were partially responsible: try not to station your troops downwind from a sandstorm and Arab arrows. But the Arab Conquest could also be attributed to Islamic Charm.

Many Christians in the Middle East and all the Jews actually preferred the Arabs to the Byzantines. Constantinople had never been light with taxes, but it was even heavier with its dogmatic if erratic religious policies. Every week, it seems, Constantinople was issuing a different interpretation of the Trinity and all Christian subjects were expected to keep up with the theological fashion. That would have exhausting for a dutifully orthodox Greek, but it was exasperating for the Christians of Syria and Egypt who generally adhered to a different Christian denomination. Most of Egypt’s Christians were Coptic, many of Syria’s Christians were Nestorians; but in Constantinople’s view, they were all heretics. The Byzantine government had occasional persecutions with a few martyrs, but lacking a consistent ferocity, the Byzantines were more aggravating than intimidating. They only succeeded in making the Arabs look like the lesser of two evils.

The Moslems promised religious tolerance and also less taxes; but for their polygamy, they could have been Libertarians. Syria and Israel barely resisted. Jerusalem, the city that defied the might of Babylon and Rome, nonchalently submitted to ragged bedouins without siege equipment. Alexandria threw open its gates, welcoming a flabbergasted Arab cavalry patrol that never expected to take the second city of the Byzantine Empire.

So, how did the Byzantines react to these humiliating losses and defections? They blamed the media, of course. The denounced media, however, was not left-leaning scribes or town criers with liberal biases. No, the accused culprit was art, specifically religious paintings. What could be more obvious! Why were the Arabs winning? Their Islamic faith forbade the making and worship of graven images, a prohibition derived from the Bible. Yet, the Christian churches were adorned with art and every Byzantine home had an icon or two of Christ and a favorite saint. This veneration of icons smacked of paganism. All those prayers before graven images were an affront to Heaven. If you are praying to an icon of St. Michael, you might as well be praying to an idol of Ares. No wonder God was siding–temporarily–with Moslems. If aesthetic deprivation was good for Islam, then it should be even better for the true religion. (The Byzantines never considered emulating the Islamic practice of circumcision.)

The Arab threat had not ended against the Byzantine Empire; the Caliph wanted Constantinople for his capital. By 717, the Arabs had a wealthy empire and could send a powerful army and fleet to attack the Byzantine capital. Constantinople withstood the 12-month siege, but the Emperor Leo III was not complacent about his victory. God had given the Empire a second chance, and Leo would restore his realm by a puritanical austerity. In 730, Leo ordered the churches of the Empire to remove, cover or destroy all art that depicted the human form. Unadorned crosses would be the sole art permitted in the Empire’s churches. Additional edicts prohibited icons in homes. This aesthetic suppression is known as iconoclasm–the breaking of icons.

The policy was very unpopular. Church leaders protested and risked persecutions. Many individuals refused to turn over or destroy their household icons. One province successfully revolted against iconoclasm. An iconophilic bishop raised a local militia to defend his diocese’s art. The Byzantine governor backed down and gave up any further attempt to enforce iconoclasm. So, that successful rebellion has preserved for us some of the best examples of early Byzantine art, and you can see those glorious mosaics today in that renegade province–Italy. As for the bishop, he apparently enjoyed raising armies, wielding power and defying Constantinople. He certainly established a number of precedents for his successors. The political independence of the Papacy begins with a bishop’s devotion to religious art.

Yet, for all the unpopularity and defiance of iconoclasm, it remained the policy of the Empire from 730 to 787. Why? Because the Byzantine armies started winning, pushing back barbarians in the Balkans and Moslems in Asia Minor. Evidently God really was an iconoclast. In 787, however, the dynasty of iconoclast rulers ended with the death (possibly suspicious) of a young emperor; his widow Irene (possible suspect) wanted to rule in her own right and so she courted popularity by restoring art to the churches.  First as regent for her son and then, after disposing of that annoying offspring, Irene lasted on the throne until 802.  Her reign and the aesthetic restoration did not coincide with any catastrophes to the Empire–at least for a while.

Iconoclasm can be regarded as an aesthetic disaster. Very little Byzantine art survived the period. Greek artists, many of whom were monks, actually were in danger. Some ended up imprisoned; a few were executed. Ironically, a number of Byzantine artists found haven in the Arab world. The Caliphate had no prohibitions against art in the Christian churches in its realm. The Byzantine artists were free to paint whatever they wanted in Arab-controlled Damascus and Jerusalem. Other Greek artists ventured west. They found work with a family of nouveau riche–Pepin and his son Charlie–who wanted to be classy. So Iconoclasm may have been the beginning of French art.