Saturday, June 15, 2019

Iconoclasm

Iconoclasm

Iconoclasm is the policy that favors destruction of visual images, and lack of tolerance for them.  While derived from two Greek roots, the expression is a modern term. The primary reference, however, was to two periods in Byzantine history when the use of religious images or icons was strongly opposed by the imperial authorities. In the Greek of medieval Byzantium, the overall conflict was termed Εἰκονομαχία, Eikonomachía, literally, "image struggle" or "war on icons.”

Over time, this negativity has taken various forms, an early instance being the Second Commandment of the Hebrew Bible:  “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” (NRSV; the texts in Exodus 20:4 and Deuteronomy 5:8 are identical). The word here rendered idol is probably more familiar in the King James rendering “graven image.” In Hebrew the word is “pesel,” derived from “pasal,” to hew, hew into shape. This usage implies that the banned objects were three-dimensional, opening the way for exceptions, honored in various times and places, allowing for flat images.

At all events the archetypal instances occurred in the mid-Byzantine empire. Byzantine iconoclasm surfaced in two periods in history when emperors, with the support of imperially-appointed leaders and councils of the Christian church, imposed a ban on religious images. According to the usual account, the "First Iconoclasm,” as it is sometimes termed, was imposed by Leo III in 726 or 730.  (Some scholars have questioned the reliability of this account, holding the iconoclasm began somewhat later.). Its ravages gradually mounted. Opposition increased, and a change in regime reversed the ban (in 787). But not definitively, as the "Second Iconoclasm” ensued in the years 814 to 842.

The two serious outbreaks of iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire during the eighth and ninth centuries were unusual in that the role of images was the main issue in the dispute, rather than a by-product of wider concerns. While the actions of the iconoclasts caused the destruction of countless works of art, it is undeniable that the intensity of the conflict attests that both sides took art very seriously.  As no extended sources defending the iconoclast viewpoint have survived, historians depend on accounts by their opponents, the iconodules.

This negativity did not appear out of thin air.  The first Christians were slow to adopt visual art, with the first images surfacing around 200 C.E. Once the art appeared, the temptation to invest such works, especially icons, with special powers was hard to resist.  The later sixth century, a time of growing social insecurity, saw an increase in magical associations surrounding icons. The faithful were (it was charged) worshiping the icon rather than the holy figures depicted therein. Icons were held to be able to save cities and armies, and to protect individuals (as they were readily portable). Some of these objects were deemed acheiropoetai, not made by human hands. The apprehensions these beliefs caused fostered the rise of iconoclasm in the following century.

It has been suggested that a further causal factor was the need to combat Islam, which had its own traditions of distrusting images.  As a rule, modern scholarship discounts this explanation, viewing the emergence and progress of Byzantine iconoclasm as an internal matter.

The Western empire stood aloof from the iconoclastic fervor, and one motivation for ending the first phase of iconoclasm may have been to establish more cordial relations between Constantinople and Rome.

Iconoclastic destruction was immense.  Once the turmoil was over, figural mosaics could be recovered in some churches beneath the whitewashing.  Yet most early icons perished.  Only those outside the imperial jurisdiction survived - at St. Catherine’s in the Sinai and in Rome under papal rule.

By 842 C. E. the iconoclastic furor had spent its force.  The production of icons resumed, and to this day their legacy continues to be cherished in the Orthodox world.  The solution achieved served to reflect the sense that icons were at best a transitional stage on the path to true piety.  The devotion they evoke must pass to the prototype - that is, to the holy figures and events depicted.  Under cover of this rationale painting revived, while sculpture in the round, still retaining the stigma of idolatry, did not. 

The rise of the Protestant Reformation in Western Europe reopened the image question. Some territories that became Protestant stopped producing religious art. A few took more drastic action. so that a second great outburst of iconoclasm occurred in the 1560s in the Low Countries, stoked by Calvinist rigorism. Thus the only truly major works that survive by Hieronymus Bosch did so because they were secure in Catholic Spain and Portugal.

Apart from isolated outbreaks of vandalism, iconoclasm disappeared in Western Europe after that time. However, Stalin's Russia, officially atheistic, saw the destruction of many religious buildings and works of art. Yet after 1991 a number of churches, prominent symbols of Orthodoxy, were rebuilt.

The most recent period has seen jihadist attacks, by the Islamic State and other Muslim extremists, on works of art in areas under their control.

All these assaults were ideologically motivated.  In addition, there have been isolated instances of vandalism committed by disturbed individuals.  Because of the absence of any overarching rationale these are not generally regarded as iconoclasm.

Another possible connection is more remote.  Shortly after the year 1900 several pioneering European artists, including Hilma af Klint, Vassily Kandinsky, and Piet Mondrian, created an art of pure abstraction completely excluding any representational elements.  This approach, forms of which continue to this day, is not so much iconoclasm as image avoidance. 


Further Reading:

Charles Barber.  Figure and Likeness: On the Limits of Representation in Byzantine Iconoclasm, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Stacy Boldrick, et al. eds., Striking Images, Iconoclasms Past and Present,  London: Routledge, 2018.

Leslie Brubaker,  Inventing Byzantine Iconoclasm, Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 2003. [revisionist approach, with useful bibliographical references]

Anthony Bryer, and Judith Herrin, eds., Iconoclasm. Birmingham: Centre for Byzantine Studies, University of Birmingham, 1977.

David Freedberg,  The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

James Noyes,  The Politics of Iconoclasm:  Religion, Violence and the Culture of Iconoclasm in Byzantium, Christianity, and Islam,  London: I. B. Tauris, 2013.

Alice-Mary Talbot. Byzantine Defenders of Images: Eight Saints’ Lives in English Translation.  Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 1998.




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