What made Byzantine Christians take up arms against one another in the stronghold of the Orthodox world of the eighth – early ninth centuries? What caused an extremely violent civil war between iconoclasts and icon worshippers, fighting with such ferocity that an Ecumenical Council had to be convened to stop the fratricide. The entire church hierarchy, including patriarchs, suffered from this war, almost resulting in the mid-eighth century in complete prohibition of monasticism, as a “hotbed of obscurantism”.
Iconoclasm, condemned by the seventh Ecumenical Council in 787, arose 60 years earlier under the Byzantine emperor Leo the Isaurian, who banned the veneration of icons. This phenomenon reached its apogee in the reign of Constantine V. Thousands of icons, mosaics, frescoes, statues of saints and altar paintings were destroyed. Icon worshippers were repressed, regardless of their status. The list of victims includes the Patriarchs Herman I and Nikephoros, as well as the anathematized theologian John of Damascus and many others who were scourged, exiled or executed.
Why were Christians so cruelly persecuted in a Christian country just because they honoured their relics? The underlying reasons are not so much ecclesiastical as political.
Under Justinian II, the clergy in Byzantium held the highest government positions (including the Minister of Finance), which inevitably turned it into some kind of a political party, and not a popular one. Naturally, their political opponents put forward an anti-clerical program, insisting on the “secularity” of the state and, where possible, the “secularization” of the Church. The monastics were viewed in this context as the main enemies of this new secular movement, since they were the force capable of providing the most stubborn resistance.
Discord and Vacillation
In those days, an average Byzantine citizen was a pious person, strictly observing the church traditions that the iconoclasts proudly ignored. Suddenly a person spending a night praying in church was considered unreliable, while carousing, swearing and profanity became common courtesy, as well as shaving one’s beard. Deviating from the tradition, the iconoclast emperors fighting the veneration of icons wanted to reduce the visible presence of Christianity in society to a minimum, without formally renouncing it.
Rude pagan veneration of images was actually alien to the fathers of the Church. When Constantia, the half-sister of Emperor Constantine the Great, asked the church historian Eusebius of Caesarea where one could find a depiction of the bodily image of Christ, he replied that every Christian should carry His true image in his heart. Serenus, Bishop of Marseilles, in 598, seeing his flock literally deifying icons, tore them off the walls and threw them out of the church, causing a great confusion among people. When the news of this incident reached Pope Gregory the Great, he sent Serenus a message in which … he praised him for his zeal, albeit excessive. At the same time, he commanded Serenus to “calm down the confusion” produced in the congregation and to return the icons, “serving instead of books for illiterate people,” into the church. He also told him to teach his people to properly honour icons.
Clearly, such excesses were disturbing, although often they were caused by frank childlike faith. Saint Theodore the Studite once actually praised a nobleman who chose an icon of the Great Martyr Demetrius as a godfather to his son.
However, the very rite of the Church was often grossly distorted, as the veneration of icons was becoming similar to idolatry. Therefore, in the East, there were bishops like Serenus of Marseilles, who believed that neither faith nor the veneration of saints would suffer from the abolition of icons. Moreover, they believed that such a practice would bring the church rite closer to the ideal of worshipping God in spirit and in truth.
Persecution of Monastics
The icon-worshippers’ main opponents were the politicians who took up arms against them and blamed the ignorance of the people on the “clerical” regime. They were no longer content with “cancelling” icons. Instead, they started talking about the secularization of all church property.
In the 60s of the eighth century, monks and entire monasteries began to be persecuted as the alleged hotbeds of icon veneration and powerhouses of the clergy. The situation escalated almost to the complete abolition of monasticism. The iconoclasts acted harshly, forcing the monks to dress in bright clothes and to get married. Those who refused to obey were blinded and exiled, or sometimes even executed. Monasteries were confiscated, used as barracks for soldiers, or simply destroyed.
In provinces, such persecutions were initiated by the authorities, while in the capital they were driven by the instigated crowd.
Echoes of Iconoclasm
In 787, the Seventh Ecumenical Council restored icon veneration, but iconoclasm flourished for another 56 years. Defeated on ecclesiastical grounds, it remained in force for political reasons. Some hierarchs perceived the restoration of icon veneration as a restoration of their own social influence. This resulted in another “clash of interest,” and the iconoclast party prevailed once again under Emperor Leo V, crowned in 813.
However, it had far fewer supporters this time. Besides, the moods of the elites were changing.
In 842, a Council was convened in Constantinople, through the efforts of Empress Theodora, completely restoring the veneration of icons throughout the empire. In memory of this event, we celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy every year on the first Sunday of Great Lent.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds