Tuesday, June 25, 2019


The influential Chinese thinker Confucius (Chinese: Kongzi) came into the world in the Warring States Period which lasted from 475 to 211 C.E.  The era confirmed the political fragmentation of the once pervasive Zhou realm, whose original coherence attracted many later scholars as a Golden Age.  In some respects China’s later system of competing states recalls the contemporary Greek system of the poleis, or city states. Arguably, the turbulence of the times in which he lived prompted Confucius to posit a regenerative model of social harmony based on accord with the mandate of Tian (“Heaven”).  In this approach he perceived the well-regulated family as the template for larger social entities.

Kongzi (traditionally 551-479 C.E.) was born in the small state of Lu.  His father, a military official named Kong He, died when the boy was only three years old.  He was raised in poverty by his mother, but nonetheless managed to secure an education.  Much of his adult career was consumed by a frustrating quest for preferment by the rulers of Lu and other states. At the same time his ideas attracted a circle of disciples who were to honor his memory by propagating his teaching, as seen primarily in the book known as The Analects (Lunyu).

Other followers arose after his death, above all Mencius (Mengzi) and Xunzi.  Their outlook differed, with Mencius favoring human goodness, while Xunzi denied it.

Confucius’ reputed editing of the Book of Songs and the Book of Rites, though surely a legend, suggests his reverence for China’s cultural  heritage, an emphasis that has long played a key role in the country’s ethos.

In his thinking, Confucius was mainly concerned with ethical issues centering on social harmony and maintaining accord with cosmic forces. These overarching forces were sometimes designated by the common term Dao (meaning “the Way”) but more frequently expressed as Tian (or “Heaven”), embodying the idea of hierarchy.  In this way, a cascade of orderliness spreads from the primordial source to pervade the many institutions cherished by humanity.  This process is true, but only if we observe it astutely.

The concept of Tian had evolved from the earlier notion of Shangdi, or “God on High.”  For Confucius, this supernal power had three major capacities: 
  1. it stipulates and sustains our concept of moral goodness, 
  2. it requires human agents to actualize its will, and 
  3. perspicacity is needed to assess its at times inscrutable commands regarding human affairs.

Apart from his concern with this supreme entity, Confucius is sometimes asserted to have had no use for the supernatural. What is sacred is the here and now.  In actual fact, though, his emphasis on the Rites reveals a respect for mysterious entities towards whom observances were traditionally directed. 

Confucius held that, properly regarded, the basic principles of moral behavior are clear and discernible, so that some regard him as a precursor of today’s virtue ethics. In this regard, humaneness (called “ren”) is a central value.  Yet it cannot be taken for granted, for this happy state must be attained by diligent self-cultivation in accord with the mandate decreed by the higher powers.

Realism requires the recognition that not all humans stand on the same level of consciousness. Hence the concept of the Superior Man.  This prized state is not hereditary, but follows from making good choices in accord with due diligence.

Confucius practiced a respectful, but creative allegiance to past exemplars, an approach perhaps best termed dynamic traditionalism.  Arguably, this method, combining the new and the old, was best captured by latter-day admirer Ezra Pound in his adjuration to “Make it New.”  To be sure, Confucius denied that he offered any innovations, but this claim must be taken with a grain of salt.

His close attention to texts engendered a general theory of language, the Rectification of Names (Zhengming), a practice designed to bring terms into accord with reality. In fact, social disorder often stems from failure to call things by their proper names.  This terminological diligence is a necessary step in achieving the status of the Superior Man.

Above all, Confucianism is practical.  A good life can be measured by modest accomplishments, such a strolling in the evening, making music, and arranging convivial gatherings.

The broad range of themes characterizing the work of Confucius forbids any single explanation of the essence of his thought.  Yet all in all, the symbiosis between his mind and the overall sensibility of the Chinese people is extraordinary. 

In fact, the influence of Confucius long persisted in China. A notable aspect of this concern was Neo-Confucianism, the revival that began in the middle of the ninth century, reaching its peak two centuries later. In due course the movement came to embrace a broad spectrum of adherents: speculative thinkers, annotators, poets, artists, physicians, historians, and government civil servants. By the fourteenth century, the official version of the system, known as daoxue (“the teaching of the way”), or lixue (“the teaching of principle”), had become firmly ensconced in the curriculum for the imperial civil-service examination system.  In addition, the Neo-Confucian movement spread to Korea and Japan, where significant independent contributions were made.  

Another enhancement to the renown of the Chinese thinker came from abroad.  Beginning in the seventeenth century Western Jesuit missionaries, inspired by the Chinese elites among whom they mingled, cultivated an ideal picture of the Chinese savant.  It is to them that the Latinized version of the name, “Confucius,” is due. The admiration expressed in their writings was then taken up by Enlightenment figures, such as Leibniz and Voltaire.

Modernization pressures in twentieth-century China diminished the reputation of Confucius, a disparagement culminating during the Communist Cultural Revolution.  Yet in recent years the People’s Republic has reversed course, financing a chain of Confucius Institutes.  There are now internationally some 500 of these, including 90 in the US.  Generally attached to universities, the Institutes are dedicated to the promotion of Chinese language and culture.

See Also:
Ancient Chinese Oracle Bones; Creation of Taoism.
Further Reading:
Annping Chin, Confucius: A Life of Thought and Politics, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
David Jones, ed., Confucius: Contemporary Encounters with the Analects, Chicago: Open Court, 2008.
Michael Nylan and Thomas Wilson, Lives of Confucius: Civilization’s Greatest Sage Through the Ages, New York: Crown, 2010.

Bryan W. Van Norden, ed., Confucius and the Analects: New Essays, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. 

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Hagia Sophia

This great building, erected in its present form in 532-37 C.E. in Istanbul, stands so to speak at the junction of Early Christian and Byzantine architecture, synthesizing much of what had gone before and pointing the way to the future.  Created at the command of the Emperor Justinian, Hagia Sophia was designed by the architects Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles and   For centuries functioning as a mosque, it is now a museum and a major tourist attraction.

The building is located on a prominent site near the imperial palace at the eastern end of Constantinople, the original name of the city. 

The present church was preceded by two other buildings.  They were not not dedicated to a saint, but to the Holy Wisdom.  

The first Hagia Sophia was a colonnaded basilica inaugurated by the emperor Constantius II in 360 C.E.  It burned down in the early fifth century, and nothing survives of it.

The second building is that of Theodosius inaugurated in 415. It was burned down in the Nika Riots in 532, making way for the present magnificent structure.

Arguably the model for the new design was the church of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus (527-36), sometimes termed the Little Hagia Sophia. The interior of this small central-plan structure is dominated by a dome supported by eight piers.

After the Hagia Sophia’s dedication in 537 the upper zone was severely damaged by three earthquakes (in 553, 557, and 558; the latter causing the collapse of the main dome).  Justinian ordered a reconstruction, entrusting the supervision to Isidore the Younger, nephew of Isidore of Miletus.  The new work, completed in 562, employed lighter materials, elevating the dome by thirty feet.  In this way the interior reached its present interior height of 182 feet.

The effect of the dome, 102 feet wide, dominates the interior.  In its drum, forty windows assure an abundance of light. The dome is supported by four pendentives, which transfer the main thrust of the dome to four great piers based in the nave.  

The western entrance side and eastern liturgical side display arched openings extended by half- domes, supported by smaller semi-domed exedras; the result is a kind of vertical cascade that enhances the overall effect.  In this way an oblong dimension is added, so that the building combines the longitudinal and central-plan approaches. There are also auxiliary spaces, as the nave is flanked by aisles, surmounted by galleries. The main body of the interior is preceded by a narthex, or entrance hall.

On the exterior the great dome and semidome are clearly visible.  Yet the four minarets are additions of the Ottoman period.  Over the centuries, it was deemed necessary to add various buttresses. Some date to Byzantine times, while others stem from the Ottoman era, having been executed under the guidance of the architect Sinan.  Today twenty-four buttresses exist in total.

In addition to its breathtaking spatial vistas, the interior gloried in an extraordinary array of mosaics. Regrettably the past tense must be used, as there were major subtractions during the time of iconoclasm (ca, 726-826) and the Ottoman period (after 1453).  Still, some remarkable specimens survived to be admired by visitors.

The art of mosaic has distant origins going back to the ancient Near East.  In a version that generally involves small cubes or tesserae made of marble and glass, the technique was cultivated by the Greeks and Romans.  Alongside frescoes, figural mosaics were introduced into early Christian churches to illustrate major religious themes.  Eventually mosaics came to be preferred in the Eastern Empire because of their greater permanence.

The mosaics surviving from the Justinianic period are chiefly carpet patterns, crosses, and floral designs, complementing the ornate capitals. Recent research has clarified the fact that the original program was aniconic - without figural mosaics.  In the period prior to iconoclasm, this restriction seems unusual.  Its social and theological motivations remain uncertain.

Most of the mosaics now visible in Hagia Sophia belong to the mid-Byzantine period - that is, after the cessation of the iconoclastic disruption in 842.  After the conversion of the building into a mosque the figural mosaics of Christian subjects were covered over with layers of plaster.  Yet many have been revealed again, first with the work of the Swiss Fossati brothers (Gasparri and Giuseppe) in 1847-49, and then in the twentieth century after the conversion of the building into a museum, which occurred in 1931.

Here are some important surviving examples. The Imperial Gate mosaic inscribed in a lunette over the doorway comes from the late ninth or early tenth century.  In all likelihood it depicts Leo VI the Wise kneeling before an enthroned figure of Christ.

The southwestern entrance mosaic, also adorning a lunette stems from the time of Basil II. The Virgin is enthroned with her feet resting on a pedestal.  The Child Jesus sits on her lap, giving his blessing.  On her left side the emperor Constantine offers a simplified model of Constantinople which he founded.  On the right side stands Justinian, offering a model of the Church itself.

The half-dome of the apse bears a resplendent mosaic of the Virgin who is seated on a throne, holding the Child.  It dates to the year 867. 

The south gallery contains the hauntingly beautiful mosaic of the Deesis, depicting Mary and St. John the Baptist interceding with the mature figure of Christ.  It dates from the late thirteenth century.

After the Çonquest, the overall structure of the architecture of the Hagia Sophia served to inspire a number of purpose-built Ottoman mosques, including the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii), the Şehzade Mosque, the Süleymaniye Mosque, the Rüstem Pasha Mosque, and the Kılıç Ali Pasha Complex.

See Also: 

Medieval Cathedral Architecture (300-1100); Veneration and Production of Icons; Iconoclasm.

Further Reading:

Ken Dark and Jan Kostenec, Hagia Sophia in Context: An Archaeological Re-examination of the Cathedral of Byzantine Constantinople, Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2019.

Rowland J. Mainstone, Hagia Sophia: Architecture, Structure, and Liturgy of Justinian’s Great Church, New York: Thames and Hudson, 1988.

Nadine Schibille, Hagia Sophia and the Byzantine Aesthetic Experience, London: Routledge, 2014.

Natalia B. Teteriatnikov, Justinianic Mosaics of Hagia Sophia and Their Aftermath, Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 2017.


Veneration and Production of Icons

In historical terms an icon (from the Greek εἰκών eikōn “image," "resemblance") is a Christian religious work of art, generally portable and rectangular in format.  Although painting on wooden panels is the most common medium, icons were also fashioned from metal, ivory, mosaic, ceramic, or other materials.  They may be kept for personal devotion, but most prominently the icons are displayed in churches in the iconostasis or screen separating the sanctuary from the congregational space.

Typical subjects are major figures in the Christian tradition, such as Christ, Mary, St. John the Baptists, the Apostles and other saints.  Icons may also depict events.  They are particularly associated with the Orthodox church, and so may be found in Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Russia, Georgia, and other countries where this tradition has prevailed.  Sometimes miraculous powers are attributed to such images, but such views are generally discouraged by church authorities.

Over the years a number of legends have circulated regarding the origin of icons.  Ostensibly, the first specimen was the work of the evangelist St. Luke, who took the opportunity to paint the Virgin Mary from life, showing the child Jesus as well. This purported event has been depicted by later artists such as Rogier van der Weyden and Nicklaus Manuel.  Then there is the story of the mandylion, King Abgar of Edessa in northern Syria was reputed to have sent a letter to Jesus about an illness, receiving a helpful reply.  In another version he received an image of Jesus magically rendered on a sheet of cloth.  This is the origin of the legend of St. Veronica, who is supposed to have captured the image of the Savior on a veil, as he was passing by on the way to Golgotha.  Of later origin is the story of Shroud of Turin, ostensibly a full-body image of Jesus. These primordial phenomena are not consistent with the common view among art historians that visual art began among Christians about 220 C.E.  For this reason there can be no portraits of Jesus, Mary, and the Apostles that were taken from life.

Then there are the Acheiropoieta, also known as Icons Made Without Hands, which are Christian icons said to have come into existence miraculously; ostensibly they were not created by a human artist.  As a rule these objects depict Christ or the Virgin Mary.

The art-historical precursors of icons were the panel paintings that were generally well regarded among the Romans.  Because of their perishability these have generally not survived.  A major exception was the Fayum portraits of Roman Egypt, wisome 900 of them surviving, preserved by the dry climate of the country.  They were originally attached to upper-class mummies.  The remarkable realism of the Fayum works often relied on the technique of encaustic, involving the suspension of pigments in a wax medium.  Along with the rectangular format, encaustic was passed along to Christian icons.

There are major losses here as well, owing in this instance to the ravages of iconoclasm beginning about 730 C.E.  The earliest notable specimens are dated as late the sixth century, or possibly somewhat later.  The largest repository of such icons is the collection of St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai.  Two remarkable early examples are the image of the Enthroned Virgin and Child flanked by saints and accompanied by angels; and a striking bust image of the Savior which ranks as the first surviving version of Christ Pantocrator.  

After the conclusion of the iconoclastic controversy in 842, production of icons resumed vigorously in the Byzantine lands. While a premium was placed on copying earlier works, the new work showed attention to new trends of style characteristic of the mid-Byzantine period.  The iconographic repertoire also expanded considerably, embracing narrative subjects such as the Annunciation, the Crucifixion, the Transfiguration, and the Ladder of Heavenly Ascent.

Gradually, the production of icons spread to other Orthodox countries, initially in the south Slavic sphere, where examples survive from Serbia and Bulgaria.  Yet the most notable achievements in icons outside the Byzantine empire occurred in Russia, where icons were imported from Byzantium shortly after the conversion of the Kievan Rus in 988. In due course several schools of native painters emerged, and icons assumed an important role in the country’s life, lasting down to 1917.  Andrei Rublev, creator of the ethereally beautiful masterpiece known as the Old Testament Trinity, was the most outstanding artist. Born in the 1360s, Rublev died between1427 and 1430.

Although Italy lay outside the Orthodox sphere, icons became popular there, with some emulation by native artists such as Guido da Siena and Coppo di Marcovaldo.  In Tuscany these works formed the background against which the first precursors of the Renaissance, with Giotto in the lead, reacted.

In Greece the Ottoman conquest had a stifling effect on the production of Christian icons, though not everywhere.  Under Venetian rule, a notable school arose in the island of Crete, combining some Western elements with the traditional stock. The most important artist to arise from this school was Domenikos Theotokopoulos, generally known as El Greco (1541-1614).  Yet after his move first to Italy and then to Spain he gradually shifted his style to a Western orientation.

A concluding question must be posed.  In their heyday, were Christian icons actually works of art?  Hans Belting has challenged this assumption in his 1994 book Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art.  Before the Renaissance, holy images, so Belting asserts, ranked not as "art" but as objects of veneration. The faithful were confident that these images, evoking through their likeness the person or event depicted, provided a tangible presence of the Holy. In this way the objects were deemed capable of working miracles, delivering assurance, and offering security to threatened cities. Yet this quasi-magical aura did not last, for the Renaissance and Reformation fostered a wholly new attitude toward images, centering on the primacy of aesthetic quality.  This transformation ushered in the "era of art" that still prevails.

See Also: Iconoclasm.

Further Reading:
Hans Belting, Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art,  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
Robin Cormack, Icons, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2017.
Robert S. Nelson and Kristen M. Collins, eds., Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai, Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2006.
Gerolʹd Ivanovich Vzdornov and Nancy McDarby, eds.,The Russian Icon: From Its Origins to the Sixteenth Century, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1997.  
Bissera V. Pintcheva, Icons and Power, University Park, PA. Penn State University Press, 2014.
Kurt Weitzmann, The Icon, New York: George Braziller, 1978.

Cathedrals, Pre-Gothic

Medieval Cathedrals (300-1100)

A cathedral is a monumental building containing the throne (cathedra) of a bishop.  As a rule it commanded a staff of priests combining local functions, such as baptisms and confessions, with the circuit activities required by the diocese.  

We commonly think of cathedrals in terms of. such imposing edifices as those at Chartres, Canterbury, and Cologne from the later middle ages. 

Actually the origins of the cathedral as a building type and religious institution go back to the fourth century C.E.  In 313 Constantine’s Edict of Milan established the legitimacy of Christianity in the Roman Empire. This step was followed by substantial gifts of money, especially generous in the city of Rome.

As rule these buildings, especially in the Western Empire, were an adaptation of the venerable basilican type.  Normally, the layout culminated at the eastern end, where it was marked by an apse.  Here was situated the altar, the focal point of the holy liturgy.  The walls often served as vehicles for instructional frescoes or mosaics.  There was a low monumental western entrance, sometimes preceded by a courtyard known as an atrium.

Officially, Rome’s cathedral has always been the basilica of St. John Lateran (dedicated in 329).  Unfortunately the thorough rebuilding in the Baroque period has supplanted the original early Christian building..

In some respects the Lateran church was overshadowed by Old St, Peter’s erected in the Vatican district over the presumed site of the tomb of the apostle  Stretching over some forty years, construction began between 318 and 322   It had five aisles, with an exceptional feature, the transept, being inserted between the main body of the church and the apse. Unusually, the church culminates in the Western end.  Before the eastern entrance it possessed a spacious courtyard, or atrium.  During the Renaissance Old St. Peter’s was demolished, being replaced by the present grand structure erected by Bramante, Michelangelo, and Bernini.

The fate of Old St. Peter’s was typical, as most of. the early landmark Roman churches have gone or been substantially restored;  hence the value of S. Maria Maggiore where the fifth century structure and its decoration have largely survived.  At all events, these were developments were not limited to Rome, for the campaigns to build such cathedrals took place throughout the Western Roman Empire, including North Africa.

In terms of plans, the Eastern empire was originally diglossic: showing a contest between the rectangular arrangement and centralized schemes (the latter commonly surmounted with one or more domes).  In Thessaloniki, the Church of Saint Demetrius, or Hagios Demetrios, is the main sanctuary dedicated to Saint Demetrius, the patron saint of the city (in Central Macedonia, Greece). The building achieved its present form - a rectangle with five aisles - in 629-34. It stands in contrast with the archetypical central-plan Golden Octagon of Antioch (fourth century; destroyed).  

Arguably, the surpassing achievement of the first millennium of cathedral building was the church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.  It was commissioned by the emperor Justinian and completed in 537 C.E.  In its plan the building is an ingenious combination of the longitudinal and central-plan types.  The whole is dominated by the great dome, 107 feet in diameter.  After the Ottoman conquest in1453 the accoutrements were destroyed, and the mosaics showing Christian subjects were plastered over. 

Subsequently the central plan surmounted by a dome won out in the Orthodox world, though the buildings themselves tend to be much smaller.

Turning back to the West, the spread of Christianity beyond the bounds of the Roman Empire entailed the creation of new cathedrals in Ireland, Scandinavia, and Central Germany.  The buildings, which tended to be modest, have generally yielded to later constructions.

Flourishing in the later eighth and nineteenth centuries, the Carolingian Empire produced important changes.  It is said that 27 new cathedrals arose in this era. Charlemagne’s principal capital was in Aachen in Germany, and it was there that he built his imposing Palatine Chapel (792-805).  The building’s octagonal plan evokes that of  the church of San Vitale in Ravenna.

Most Carolingian cathedrals were in the rectangular basilican form inherited from Early Christian prototypes.  However additional features appeared.  Transepts, rare in earlier times, became standard features.  The increasing popularity of relics stimulated the creation of underground spaces, known as crypts, where the precious objects could be secured. Finally, rectangular courtyards, known as cloisters, sometimes appeared as adjuncts to the main cathedral structure.  Except in Italy, separate baptisteries were no longer required, as this function had migrated into the interior of the cathedral.

In some instances the main body of the church was preceded by a massive construction known as the westwork.  Such elements were the precursors of the later medieval facades surmounted by twin towers.  None of these buildings has survived in its original form, but some major examples are known from excavations and literary sources.

As the Carolingians declined their authority, at least in Germany and neighboring regions yielded to that of the Saxon emperors and there successors of the Salian house.  This overall era, embracing the second half of the tenth century and much of the eleventh, is known as the Ottonian period.  Major Ottonian churches show an interplay of inherited elements, sometimes producing new solutions.  A major area of concern was the western entrance, where oftentimes the massive westwork prevailed.  In other instances, as a Hildesheim, there was a western apse complementing the obligatory eastern one.  For their part crypts tended to be raised so as to be visible from the nave.

In terms of cathedral construction the Romanesque period, starting from the early eleventh century, tended to be conservative, with many older buildings still in use.  Still the era did innovate by adding the ambulatory, a covered passage around the apse permitting access to the chapels.  It is thought that the first example was the now demolished church of St. Martin at Tours (ca. 1050).

The great development in Christian art of this era lay in monastic complexes, which flourished especially in southern France, Spain, and Italy. These layouts included impressive churches characterized by a range of creative solutions with regard to vaulting.  The most influential of these complexes was the Abbey of Cluny, founded in 909 but developed in the ensuing period. Cluny is mostly destroyed, but it can be reconstructed, based on excavations and old drawings.

As architectural achievements these cathedrals were rivaled by the monasteries, which also excelled as sites for intellectual pursuits, a task that passed to the cathedrals in the later middle ages.

See Also: Hagia Sophia;  Medieval Cathedral Architecture  (1100-1500).

Further Reading:

Richard Krautheimer and Slobodan Curcic, Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture, 2nd ed., New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Roger Stalley, Early Medieval Architecture, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Saturday, June 15, 2019



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.