Byzantine Iconoclasm


One example of the conflict between time, memory, and impermanence is the Byzantine Iconoclasm. 

In the 8th and 9th centuries, a massive and bloody controversy boiled out of the Eastern Roman Empire (called the Byzantine Empire), the last remaining coherent piece of what was the Ancient Roman Empire. At the heart of the matter was the question of the value and role images (or icons) in that culture. The Byzantine Empire had only relatively recently adopted Christianity as its official religion, and early Christian dogma contradicted some current cultural practices. The trouble surrounded the Christian doctrine of idol worship. Iconoclasts (those that opposed the use and presence of images) claimed that images constituted idols, symbolically (or literally) worshipped and admired by viewers. They distracted viewers from the object of their worship, leaving the door open to grievous sins, such as vanity. In addition, Byzantium had a long history of pagan idol worship (as did all of the Ancient Roman Empire and surrounding geographical areas), and church leaders feared that permitting the appreciation of images would pollute their efforts to establish a new Christian culture.  

On the other hand, iconophiles identified numerous excerpts from the scriptures in which God accepted, and even required, images as part of appropriate worship, such as in the production of Solomon's Temple or the Tabernacle. They believed that images were an important part of establishing Christianity, as they would replace pagan or unacceptable images and aid in communicating the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Adherents to these two opposing points of view vehemently upheld their claims. During times when iconoclasts rose to power, leaders outlawed images and purged their communities of images with the threat of force. Nevertheless, iconophiles reinstated or recommissioned the removed or destroyed works when again in a position of political or cultural influence. 

The timeline included below outlines the general sequence of events within this conflict.

Timeline of events

Early Centuries

Sporadic evidence of Christians creating religious images and honoring them with candles and garlands emerged from as early as the second century C.E. Church leaders often condemned such images and devotional practices, which seemed too similar to the pagan religions that Christians rejected.

The Seventh Century

The Byzantine Empire faced invasions from Persians and Arabs in the seventh century, resulting in a significant loss of territory. Trade decreased and the empire experienced an economic downturn. Byzantine anxieties over images likely emerged, at least in part, as a result of these devastating events (which may have been perceived as signs of God’s displeasure with icons).

Through the centuries, icons became increasingly widespread in Byzantium. By the late seventh century, the Church began to legislate on images. Church leaders at the Quinisext Council (also known as the Council of Trullo) held in Constantinople in 691–692 prohibited the depiction of crosses on floors where they could be walked on, which was understood as disrespectful. They also mandated that Christ be depicted as a human rather than symbolically as a lamb in order to affirm Christ’s incarnation and saving works. Around this same time, emperor Justinian II incorporated icons of Christ onto his coins. These events suggest the growing importance of religious images in the Byzantine Empire at this time.

The First Phase of Iconoclasm: 720s–787

Historical texts suggest the struggle over images began in the 720s. According to traditional accounts, Iconoclasm was prompted by emperor Leo III removing an icon of Christ from the Chalke Gate of the imperial palace in Constantinople in 726 or 730, sparking a widespread destruction of images and a persecution of those who defended images. But more recently, scholars have noted a lack of evidence supporting this traditional narrative, and believe that iconophiles probably exaggerated the offenses of the iconoclasts for rhetorical effect after the Controversy.

Historical evidence firmly identifies Leo’s son, emperor Constantine V, as an iconoclast. Constantine publicly argued against icons and convened a Church council that rejected religious images at the palace in the Constantinople suburb of Hieria in 754. Probably as a result of this council, iconoclasts replaced images of saints with crosses in the sekreton (audience hall) between the patriarchal palace and Constantinople’s great cathedral, Hagia Sophia, in the 760s.

787 Iconophile Council of Nicaea II

In 787, the empress Irene convened a pro-image Church council, which negated the Iconoclast council held in Hieria in 754 and affirmed the use of religious images. The council drew on the pro-image writings of a Syrian monk, Saint John of Damascus, who lived c. 675–749.

The Second Phase of Iconoclasm: 815–843

Emperor Leo V, who reigned from 813–820, banned images once again in 815, beginning what is often referred to as a second phase of Byzantine Iconoclasm. Leo V’s ban on images followed significant Byzantine military losses to the Bulgars in Macedonia and Thrace, which Leo may have viewed as a sign of God’s displeasure with icons. Theodore, abbot of the Stoudios Monastery in Constantinople, wrote in defense of icons during this time. Evidence suggests this second phase of Iconoclasm was more mild than the first.

The Triumph of Orthodoxy

The iconoclastic emperor Theophilos died in 842. His son, Michael III, was too young to rule alone, so empress Theodora (Michael III’s mother), and the eunuch Theoktistos (an official), ruled as regents until Michael III came of age. Later sources describe Theodora as a secret iconophile during her husband’s iconoclastic reign, although there is a lack of evidence to support this. For reasons not entirely clear, Theodora and Theoktistos installed the iconophile patriarch Methodios I and once again affirmed religious images in 843, definitively ending Byzantine Iconoclasm.

Imperial and Church leaders marked this restoration of images with a triumphant procession through the city of Constantinople, culminating with a celebration of the Divine Liturgy in Hagia Sophia. The Church acclaimed the restoration of images as the “Triumph of Orthodoxy,” which continues to be commemorated annually on the first Sunday of Lent in the Eastern Orthodox Church to this day.

Iconoclasm and the Triumph of Orthodoxy in Byzantine Mosaics

The Byzantine Iconoclastic Controversy was not merely an intellectual debate; it was also an inflection point in the history of Byzantine art itself. Let us consider the examples of three Byzantine churches whose mosaics offer visual evidence of the Iconoclastic Controversy and subsequent Triumph of Orthodoxy: Hagia Eirene in Constantinople (Istanbul), the Dormition in Nicaea (İznik, Turkey), and Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (Istanbul).

Hagia Eirene in Constantinople (Istanbul)

The emperor Justinian constructed the church of Hagia Eirene in Constantinople (Istanbul) in the sixth century, but the church’s dome was not well supported, and the building was badly damaged by an earthquake in 740. Emperor Constantine V, who reigned from 741–775, rebuilt Hagia Eirene in the mid to late 750s.

Constantine V—who, as an iconoclast, opposed pictorial depictions of Christ and the saints—is credited with decorating the apse of the church with a cross, which the iconoclasts found acceptable. The cross mosaic makes liberal use of costly materials, such as gold and silver. The skilled artists who created the mosaic bent the arms of the cross downward to compensate for the curve of the dome so that the crossarm would appear straight to viewers standing on the floor of the church.

Hagia Eirene, Constantinople (Istanbul) (photo: Alexxx1979, CC BY-SA 4.0)
Hagia Eirene, begun 532, rebuilt following an earthquake in 740, Constantinople (Istanbul) (photo: Alexxx1979, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Hagia Eirene, begun 532, rebuilt following an earthquake in 740, Constantinople (Istanbul) (photo: Gryffindor, CC0)

Apse mosaic with cross, Hagia Eirene, rebuilt after 740, Constantinople (Istanbul) (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Clearly, while the iconoclasts opposed certain types of religious imagery, they did not reject art entirely, and were sometimes important patrons of art and architecture, as was Constantine V. There is also evidence that emperor Theophilos—who reigned during the second phase of Iconoclasm—expanded and lavishly decorated the imperial palace and other spaces.

The Church of the Dormition in Nicaea

Iconoclastic activity can be directly observed in the mosaics of the church of the Dormition (or Koimesis) at Nicaea (İznik, Turkey). Although the church does not survive today, photographs from 1912 clearly show seams, or sutures, where parts of the mosaics were removed and replaced during the Byzantine era.

Although the precise history of the mosaics at Nicaea is difficult to reconstruct, the 1912 photographs clearly indicate three distinct phases of creation and subsequent restorations during and after the Iconoclastic era.

1912 photograph shows multiple phases in the apse mosaic at the church of the Dormition (now destroyed), Nicaea (İznik, Turkey)
(photo: N. K. Kluge)

The Phases of the Apse Mosaic in the Church of the Dormition

Phase 1 (yellow) The original mosaics predate Iconoclasm and were probably created in the late seventh or early eighth century. They pictured the Virgin and Child standing on a jeweled footstool in the apse. An inscription refers to the church’s founder, whose name was Hyakinthos.

Phase 2 (red) Sometime during the Iconoclastic Controversy of the eighth and ninth centuries, the image of the Virgin and Child was removed and replaced with a plain cross like the one in Hagia Eirene in Constantinople, whose outlines can still be partially observed in the 1912 photograph.

Phase 3 (purple) Sometime after the Triumph of Orthodoxy in 843, the cross was replaced with another image of the Virgin and Child.

Hagia Sophia in Constantinople

The only surviving evidence of destruction of images in the Byzantine capital survives at Hagia Sophia, in audience halls (sekreta) that connected the southwestern corner of the church at the gallery level with the patriarchal palace (see the image below). Primary sources speak of patriarch Niketas—the highest-ranking Church official in Constantinople—removing mosaics of Christ and the saints from the small sekreton sometime between 766–769.

Plan of Hagia Sophia showing apse mosaic and sekreton mosaics

And as at the church of the Dormition in Nicaea, scars are visible in the mosaics in the small sekreton. Roundels with crosses, which survive today, likely once contained portraits of saints, which patriarch Niketas is said to have removed. Beneath the roundels, the ghostly remnants of erased inscriptions indicate where the missing saints’ names once appeared.

Mosaics in the small sekreton, Hagia Sophia, Constantinople (Istanbul) (photo: © Dumbarton Oaks)

Following the Triumph of Orthodoxy (those in support of icons and images), the Byzantines installed a new mosaic of the Virgin and Child in the apse of Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia. The image was accompanied by an inscription (now partially destroyed), which framed the image as a response to Iconoclasm: “The images which the imposters [i.e. the iconoclasts] had cast down here pious emperors have again set up.” Yet unlike at Nicaea, there is no evidence of the apse’s previous decoration or of any interventions by iconoclasts. So while the inscription implies that iconoclasts removed a figural image from this position, this ninth-century Virgin and Child mosaic installed after the Triumph of Orthodoxy may be the first such figural image to occupy this position in Hagia Sophia.

Apse mosaic depicting the Virgin and Child, dedicated 867, Hagia Sophia, Constantinople (Istanbul) (photo: byzantologist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In 867, patriarch Photios, the highest-ranking Church official in Constantinople, preached a homily in Hagia Sophia on the dedication of the new mosaic. Photios condemned the iconoclasts for “Stripping the Church, Christ’s bride, of her own ornaments [i.e. images], and wantonly inflicting bitter wounds on her, wherewith her face was scarred. . . .” He went on to speak of the restoration of images:

[The Church] now regains the ancient dignity of her comeliness. . . . If one called this day the beginning and day of Orthodoxy . . . one would not be far wrong. 

The mosaic in Hagia Sophia and the homily by Photios both illustrate how the iconophiles—the victors of the Iconoclastic Controversy—framed their victory as a triumph of religious orthodoxy, perhaps exaggerating the offenses of the iconoclasts along the way for rhetorical effect.

Reflection Questions

  1. How is the Byzantine iconoclasm an example of the inherent conflicts in time, memory, and impermanence? 
  2. In what ways did the iconophiles and iconoclasts agree? Disagree?
  3. How do you define an "icon"? Are not the churches themselves icons?
  4. Is using images to enhance worship possible or is it always a distraction? 
Christ as the Good Shepherd from the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia The Lamentation from the Church of Saint PanteleimonThe Christ Pantocrator from St. Catherine's MonasteryApse Semi-Dome of the Basilica of Sant'AppolinareThe Crucifixion of St. Catherine's Monastery The Holy Doors Diptych: Annunciation from St. Catherine's MonasteryVirgin (Theotokos) and Child between Saints Theodore and George from St. Catherine's MonasteryEmperor Justinian Mosaic from San Vitale
Previous Citation(s)
Dr. Evan Freeman, "Byzantine Iconoclasm and the Triumph of Orthodoxy," in Smarthistory, January 11, 2021, accessed June 21, 2023,

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