The First Iconoclasts…

…of Christendom.  No, this will not be a story of the Reformation.

The Age of Paradise: Christendom from Pentecost to the First Millennium, by John Strickland

By the middle of the eighth century, the southern territories of Christendom had been all but consumed by the conquests of the Umayyad Caliphate….

It will also not be a story of iconoclasm by the Muslims.

But first, a backstory.  By this point, the integrity of the Roman Empire had been greatly compromised.  Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa were all overrun by Muslim armies.  Despite having second-class status, the Christians in these lands were granted some toleration as they constituted the majority in these lands and were necessary for effective administration.

They also had religious autonomy, however they could not convert Muslims, build new churches, even maintain existing churches.  The cross could not be displayed, and bells could not be rung.  Even with this, many of the Christian clergy supported this Arab colonization:

Bishops enjoyed a privileged status under the caliphate, being assigned the responsibility of overseeing their fellow dhimmis.

A large number of these bishops were Monophysites, persecuted under Byzantine rule; they saw the Arabs as a lesser evil.  Becoming both agents and victims of this long-term subjugation, resistance to the pressures of apostasy would dissolve.  The Syrian and Coptic churches survive to this day, but the numbers are rather insignificant.

The rest of Christendom would have suffered a similar fate if not for two men: Byzantine Emperor Leo III in the East, and Charles Martel in the West.  In 718, the Arab forces against Byzantium finally relented; in 732, Martel was victorious in the Battle of Tours.  European Christendom was saved, only to fall into another internally divisive period.

For Muslims and Jews, the making of images was precluded; however, icons were prevalent throughout Christendom.  This would change under Emperor Leo III, who formed the conviction that the widespread use of icons was causing the empire to lose its faith.  Leo decided in 726 to launch Christendom’s first iconoclastic movement, preceding the Reformation by about 800 years.

It began with the icon of Christ Pantocrator, standing at the top of the Chalke Gate.  As the workers assembled to remove it, a riot broke out; the foreman of the crew was lynched.  This did not dissuade Leo.  He continued, persecuting and deposing any bishops who opposed him – no separation of church and emperor here.

Leo died in 740.  His son and heir, Constantine V, only increased the policy; he convened a council of his bishops – not an ecumenical council, despite the claim.  Suffice it to say, the vast majority of bishops did not agree with the conclusion.

The iconoclastic argument was refuted by John of Damascus.  How did John manage this?  He argued that as God commanded the Israelites to make graven images of cherubim, icons were acceptable.  But what of Jesus?  His humanity was as real as his divinity; the transcendent God had entered creation and assumed human form.  It was this human form that was captured; the Incarnation was at the center of the defense of icons.  In 787, at the Seventh Ecumenical Council, John’s arguments carried the day.

But this did not last long.  Constantine VI and his mother, Irene, offered the latest chapter in Byzantine court intrigue.  He an iconoclast, she an iconophile.  As he was young, the two would be co-emperors – but such an arrangement wouldn’t last long.

In 790, Constantine would move to remove Irene from power, acting with great cruelty, blinding his enemies at the court, including his own uncle.  His actions led to a return to iconoclasm, despite the ruling of the recent council.

Seven years later, Irene returned to prominence at the court and had her son arrested.  She gave orders to have him blinded in the very room in which he was born.  He died soon after.  And for the first time, a woman was named Emperor of the Romans.

In the West, these events were looked at with difficulty.  The situation was exacerbated when Emperor Leo reassigned certain territories from the papacy in southern Italy to the Byzantine state.  And of course, Pope Gregory II condemned Leo’s attack on icons.

Leo sent agents to murder the pope, but Gregory enjoyed protection given the universal dismay over iconoclasm.  After Gregory’s death, Leo attempted the same with the new pope, but the ship of the agents foundered in the Adriatic.  Unsuccessful at killing the pope, Leo transferred further lands from Italy to Constantinople.

Some mark these events as the final turning point in destroying relations between East and West.  The pope would turn to the Franks for military support; eventually Pepin would be anointed by the pope himself.

Which brings us to a great forgery known as The Donation of Constantine.  That it was a forgery was not known for seven hundred years; in the meantime, it served its purpose: Constantine, who relocated the capital to Constantinople, “donated” the entire western half of his empire to Sylvester, the bishop of Rome.  Further, the other patriarchates were to be subject to Rome’s authority.  In this came a clue, not realized for centuries: included in the list of sees now to be under Rome were sees not even in existence at the time of the “donation.”

Conclusion

We now come to Charlemagne, Pepin’s son.  The relationship between the Franks and the Papacy was showing great promise.  Charlemagne proved to be a great protector of the Church – at least the Western half; he expanded the empire (violently, certainly) in almost every direction.

Pope Leo III was in trouble, accused of (likely false) charges of sexual immorality and financial misdeed.  Charlemagne organized a formal investigation, arriving in Rome in 800.  Charlemagne was at the height of his influence; Leo was still working his out.  Leo commissioned a mosaic:

At the center stood the apostles; on the left Christ was flanked by Pope Sylvester and Emperor Constantine, an immediate reminder of the emerging myth of the Donation of Constantine. …At its center was the Apostle Peter, flanked, in this case, by representations of Pope Leo III and King Charlemagne, the latter-day successors to Sylvester and Constantine.

Well, Leo’s verdict was secure: he would place his hand on the Gospel, swearing his innocence; all charges were dropped.  Those who accused him were sentenced to death.  And on Christmas Day, Charlemagne was declared Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo.  For Christians there had been one Church and one empire.  Roman meant Christian.  No longer:

In a single act, Pope Leo’s coronation of Charlemagne changed all of that.  Christendom still may have possessed only one Church, but now there were two Roman Empires to claim her.

Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.

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