The Medieval Experiments with religious Icons

The Medieval Experiments with religious Icons


The Greek word eikon (which means image ) retains, even in its restricted sense of religious image, the implication of a true resemblance. In the 6th and seventh centuries of cults of saints, holy persons and their images intensified. This development marks the success of Christianity in reaching ordinary people, who sought a personal , visible focus for their prayers. But it also reflects a quest for supernatural aid, as the byzantine empire  succumbed to waves of barbarian invaders and to natural disasters.

Emperors themselves patronized some cults. Some of our earliest surviving icons come from St Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai, a foundation of Justinian 1. The council in Trullo  laid down rules for the painting of icons, as well as for many other aspects of worship. Justinian II’s coinage reflects the council’s interest in images. He was the first emperor to place an image of Christ on his coins.

In AD 717-18 the Arabs besieged Constantinople. Byzantines such as the later chronicler Theophanes attributed the siege’s failure to the ”assistance of God, though the intercession of the wholly immaculate Mother of God. However, the Arab invasions of the empire continued. Some wondered whether the icons, far from acting as lifelines to the saints, might not actually be incurring God’s wrath: the Arab onslaught could be divine punishment for idolatry. Leo III himself had his doubts. These seems to have been crystalized by a colossal submarine eruption in the Aegean in 726. the image of Christ over the palace’s Bronze Gate was removed and the cult of icons was formally banned. Those who actively resisted were persecuted. The  definition of doctrine on icons summed up Iconoclast objections to the confusion and vain fancy of icon painters’ renderings of Christ. The definition complained  that the images of false and evil name have no foundation in the tradition of Christ, the apostles and the Fathers , nor is there a holy prayer that might sanctify an image , and so transform it from the common to a state of holiness.

The only authentic like-holiness or holy objects were, in iconoclast eyes, the sacraments of the Eucharist, churches, which had been formally consecrated by bishops, and the sign of the cross, given by God to the first Christian emperor, Constantine, which resembled in form Christ’s own cross. Perhaps the insistence  of Leo III and Constantine V on good church order reflected their background as military men. But their concerns had much in common with those of the 7th Century  church councils- the minute prescription of conduct for priests and the virtual regimentation of worship. Individual laymen’s veneration of icons could spawn abuses. If these abuses were not eradicated. God’s wrath would fall upon his people, as night follows day.

The destruction of icons and persecution of their venerators seems to have been most thorough between 760 and 775. Icon veneration was rehabilitated at the council of Nicaea in 787, only to be banned again in 815, after the empire had suffered another bout of defeats and humiliations, reminiscent of those of the early 8th century, it was finally restored by Empress Theodora in 843 AD.



Scroll to Top