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Byzantine Iconoclasm: The Polite Revolution

How a controversy over art affected the politics of an empire

Published onDec 06, 2022
Byzantine Iconoclasm: The Polite Revolution


When most people picture revolutions, images of anarchy, war, chaos, and violent decapitation first appear in mind. For most of history this is true but for the Byzantine Empire in the eighth and ninth centuries, a revolution occurred that did not obviously result in a mosh pit of incivility. This event was known as the Byzantine Iconoclasm. during Byzantine Iconoclasm, from c.700 CE to c.850 CE, many emperors and supporters advocated for the destruction of Christian imagery. On the surface, the Iconoclastic period was a religious debate but in reality, it was a disguise for deeper political issues the empire faced.

The Byzantine empire was the name of the Roman empire after around 400 CE when the state religion changed from Paganism to Christianity and the western portion declined. The new capital of the empire was Constantinople, in present day Istanbul, Turkey. Byzantium was mostly concentrated in the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea basin. The emperor declared himself to be the ruler of the church but there was an issue: West of Constantinople, Chalcedonian Christians who believed that Jesus had both a human and divine nature supported the use of Icons, religious imagery, while Monophysite Christians in Egypt, Syria, and Anatolia believed Jesus had a single divine nature opposed the use of Icons. In 642, Umar of the Caliphate conquered most of the Provinces of Egypt and Syria and Byzantium entered a period of internal strife and regime change. Emperor Leo III, several decades later in the early 700s.

A map of the eastern provinces of Byzantium, the Themes.

Themes of the Byzantine Empire in the 7th Century by eaxelandersson on DeviantArt

The Religious Perspective

Chalcedonian Christians tended to be ethnic Greek or Slavs, comparatively wealthier, and supported the monasteries and monks. Monophysites however, tended to be non-Greek speaking people who were often poorer and disliked the monasteries. Before Iconoclasm, there was significant beef between the two factions but the marriage of Justinian, a Chalcedonian, and Theodora, a Monophysite, temporarily united the empire.

St. John of Damascus, a prominent Chalcedonian and critic of the Iconoclastic movement deeply advocated in favor of preserving images.

…We know therefore that the nature of neither God nor angel nor soul nor demon can be seen, but by a certain transformation these beings are beheld, since the divine providence bestows figures and shapes upon beings that are incorporeal and without figure or any bodily shape so that we might be guided to an approximate and partial knowledge of them…[1]

The Political Perspective

In many ways however, the Iconoclasm was simply a metaphor for Byzantium’s need to adapt to a changing environment and served as a means to stress that importance. In the political landscape, icons represented an adherence to dogmatism while iconoclasm represented policies of pragmatism. The iconoclast emperors amid military defeats from the Muslims restructured and reorganized the armies. Sweeping economic reforms were also passed that while harmed cities and artistry, allowed the countryside to thrive and decreased the cost of living. [2]

The minimalist nature of iconoclastic art reflected the government’s commitment to practical, no-nonsense policies intended to effectively improve conditions.

The church Irene Hagia in Istanbul, Turkey. The simple cross was one of the few icons allowed to remain during iconoclasm and is an example of Iconoclastic art.

Nina Thune, IreneKirken, 2010, Still Image, 1332 x 1798 pixels, 2010,

What can we take away from this?

Our attitudes towards religion and art are often influenced by our political situation. In a way, Byzantine Iconoclasm was a way to introduce somewhat radical ideas in a civil manner. Instead of blood running down the streets, there were debates. If we were to follow the example of Iconoclasm, the world would be a much more polite place.

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