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Exhibitions/ Byzantium and Islam/ Byzantium and Islam Exhibition Blog/ Iconoclasm


Iconoclasm in eighth- and ninth-century Byzantium is often presented as a straightforward, universal policy that was widely enforced. Do the works in the exhibition support such a view?

Images, or "icons," played a central role in Christian worship and devotion from an early period. Paintings of biblical scenes and holy figures covered the walls of Roman catacombs as early as the year 200. Similar images have been found in the earliest-known Christian house church, which was constructed in Dura-Europos, Syria, in 235. In the Byzantine empire, images became increasingly associated with the veneration of relics and the cult of the saints.

Byzantine Iconoclasm

According to the generally accepted account, the advent of iconoclasm (literally, "image breaking") during the eighth-century reign of Emperor Leo III called the use and veneration of images into question. Central to the debate was the issue of whether the devotion (proskynesis) to icons violated scriptural prohibitions against idolatry. Iconodules (those supporting the use of images) such as John of Damascus rejected the iconoclasts' accusations of idolatry. John argued that while the Hebrew scriptures indeed prohibited the depiction of God on the basis of His invisibility, the appearance of God in Jesus Christ enabled God to be both seen and depicted.

Byzantine iconoclasm peaked during the reign of Constantine V, who convened the Council of Hieria in 754, which supported iconoclasm and promoted the cross as the primary symbol of Christianity and imperial power, and the Eucharist—not icons—as the true image of Christ. However, a few decades later, under the reign of Empress Irene in 787, the Second Council of Nicaea condemned the Council of Hieria and argued for the continued use and veneration of icons, distinguishing the devotion (proskynesis) given to icons from the worship (latreia) given to God alone. Byzantine iconoclasm was revived again in 815, but was ultimately condemned in 843.

Such is the general account of the iconoclast controversy of the eighth and ninth centuries in Byzantium. However, extant objects from the provinces during that period suggest a more complex, nuanced situation. Certain examples of what was previously understood to be "textbook" iconoclasm may signify something else altogether.

"Iconoclasm" in the Southern Provinces

A number of churches and synagogues located in Jordan and Palestine show signs of apparent iconoclastic activity from the eighth century. Between the 720s and 760s, the mosaic floors in these buildings, which originally included depictions of humans and animals, were at least partially rearranged to depict inanimate subjects like vegetation. Mosaics from the church on the acropolis in Ma‘in, Jordan, are examples of such partial revisions.

Mosaic      Mosaic

Two mosaics with examples of iconoclasm, from the chruch on the acropolis, Ma‘in, Jordan, 719–20 and later. Stone tesserae. Madaba Archaeological Park, Jordan. Left: Mosaic Depicting Nikopolis Set over an Altered Animal; Right: Mosaic Depicting an Altered Ox. Images: / Courtesy of the Department of Antiquities, Amman

However, these buildings were located in regions under Muslim, not Byzantine, rule from the time of the seventh century. Furthermore, recent scholarship reveals that the effects of Byzantine iconoclasm were largely confined to Constantinople and its environs. What, then, was behind this eighth-century "iconoclasm" in Jordan and Palestine? Did the reach of Constantinople's policies really extend beyond the borders of its military control?

While Byzantine iconoclasm was primarily concerned with the veneration of images of Christ and the saints, the rearranging of the mosaics in question seems directed against depiction of any animate figures. It has also been observed that the revised images depicting vegetation are very similar to mosaic images in Umayyad mosques, like those in the Friday Mosque in Damascus.

Mosaic      Mosaic

Details of the mosaics on the western courtyard wall from the Friday Mosque, Damascus, 705–715. Left: Detail showing a pastoral scene punctuated by tall trees. Right: Detail showing a fanciful pavilion with hanging pearl chains. Photographs: John Wreford / Courtesy of Finbarr B. Flood

Such mosaic images of vegetation reflect certain hadith, or traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, that favor the depiction of vegetation over images of animate creatures. Thus, scholars believe that the rearranging of these mosaics in Jordan and Palestine was not directly connected with the iconoclasm of Constantinople but was more likely the result of Muslim thought influencing Christian and Jewish communities in these regions.

It should be noted that it is unlikely that this Levantine "iconoclasm" was the result of coercion; rather, it is believed that Christian and Jewish communities undertook the revisions themselves. (The incomplete transformation of the images may suggest ambivalence or a desire to retain at least an evocation of the original images and iconographic programs.) Theodore Abu Qurrah, who wrote in Arabic in defense of Christian image veneration at the beginning of the ninth century, gives accounts of Christians who, in response to Muslim teachings, refused to venerate icons. Such accounts support the view that these mosaic revisions were neither a result of Byzantine iconoclasm nor the product of forcefully imposed Muslim policies, but rather the result of interactions between Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities in Jordan and Palestine.

The mosaics from Ma‘in provide two examples, but similar nuances and complexities can be recognized throughout the works on view in the exhibition. Recent scholarship is making the case that the old "black-and-white" narrative of the iconoclast period needs significant reconsideration, and that cultural diffusion is certainly a greater force in history than ideological competition.

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