Iconoclasm Then and Now.

by Tom Noble

Byzantine Iconoclasm is often considered to be the beginning of a process or movement that has persisted to our own times. On the fall of the Soviet Union, people went to the streets and pulled down statues of Lenin and Stalin. In Pakistan in 2001, the Taliban destroyed two beautiful Buddha sculptures at Bamiyan. When the United States defeated Saddam Hussein, Iraqis yanked his statues off their pedestals. In recent years Confederate statues in the US have been tipped over or removed by both crowds and public authorities. These recent phenomena had political, social, ideological, and religious motivations. How was it with Byzantium?



Above: Taller Buddha of Bamyan in 1963 (left) and in 2008 (right) after destruction. Image from Wikipedia. Below: A US soldier watches as a statue of Saddam Hussein falls on April 9, 2003. (Reuters) Image from


Byzantine Iconoclasm was “born in the purple”: the phenomenon was inaugurated by Emperor Leo III, perhaps around 726, continued by Constantine V in the 750s and 760s, quashed by Empress Irene in 787, and revived after 815 under emperors Leo V, Michael II, and Theophilus before its definitive rejection in 843. Iconoclasm was episodic. There is no evidence that a broad social movement caused or sustained iconoclasm, although soldiers loyal to particular emperors were reliably iconoclastic. Iconoclasm was fundamentally a theological proposition based on Exodus 20.4: “You shall not make a graven image ….” Leo seems to have believed that Byzantium was suffering natural disasters and military defeats because God’s prohibition of images had been contravened, that Christians had become idolaters. Byzantium’s Muslim enemies rejected figural images, but there is no evidence they influenced Leo. Leo’s successors tried to deepen the theological case against images and also to take some practical steps to avoid their adoration, such as placing them out of the reach of their devotees.

What, exactly, is iconoclasm? Iconoclasm—from the Greek eikono/klasmo—means to break or crush an image. Is to break or crush an image the same as to reject an image? If someone dislikes an image, will he or she seek to destroy it? Will his or her objection be based on the person represented or the fact that someone, anyone, has been represented? Will his or her objection be based on who mounted the representation? Will the objector be a solitary or a member of social movement?

Iconoclasm is actually related to two other processes: damnatio memoriae and vandalism. Damnatio memoriae is an action designed to efface the memory of a person memorialized by, say, a public inscription bearing that person’s name and, possibly, countenance. The action might be undertaken by one aggrieved individual but more often results from concerted action by a specific aggrieved group. Vandalism takes many forms, ranging from modest damage to massive destruction. It can result from teenage pranks on Halloween, “marking” by gangs, or intended or unintended street violence during protests.

Let’s pursue definitions a bit further. Iconoclasts were those who broke or destroyed images. Iconodules were those who regarded them as traditional and adored them. Amid the discussions prompted by images in the iconoclast period we can sometimes see an attempt to differentiate between adoration and veneration (latreia and proskynesis in Greek). We might also speak of iconophobes and iconophiles, identifying this way those who were basically indifferent to images and those whose devotion to images was moderate and restrained.

A letter of Emperor Michael II to Louis the Pious, Charlemagne’s son and successor, spelled out a number of practices to which iconoclasts objected. The Carolingians (the dynasty named for Carolus Magnus, or Charlemagne) in treatises and church councils said that images were licit for commemoration or decoration. Pictures could remind people of what they had been taught or because of their sheer beauty elevate their thoughts to a higher plane. What the Byzantines objected to was burning oil and incense before images instead of before the cross. People prayed before—to?—images seeking help. Sometimes images were wrapped in linen and made sponsors to children at baptism. The clippings from a boy’s first haircut were allowed to fall upon an image. Scrapings from images were mixed with wine in the communion chalice. Priests occasionally placed the communion bread on an image and extended the image to the communicant. We also know that images were carried into battle and hung over the walls of cities to ward off enemy attacks. Those who attacked images claimed that these kinds of practices were recent novelties. Those who defended images claimed that such practices were traditional.

The deep background to Byzantine iconoclasm is important historically. As early as the fourth century, arguments for and against figural art had begun to circulate in Christian circles. Art historians note that Christians began to adopt and even surpass the style and production techniques of pagan artists. Those opposed to images said they contravened the words of God expressed in Exodus 20.4: “You shall make no graven image….“ They also said that images were idolatrous and equated them with images of the ancient gods and goddesses. The sheer materiality of images was rejected by those who said God was to be worshiped “in spirit and in truth” (John 4.24).

Some insisted that faith and morals could only be inculcated by texts, not by images. This argument was an interesting manifestation of relative superiority among the senses: seeing meant, say, looking at a statue and potentially being deceived whereas hearing meant listening to a text read out (and not privately reading—looking at—a book). Those who defended images began by saying that God had commanded some images to be made such as the Ark of the Covenant and the fittings of the temple in Jerusalem. They also said that images and idols were completely different: an image represented something whereas an idol was something. What is more, images were like writing and could instruct those who lacked the ability to read. Images could provoke salutary emotions. The beauty of images could lift mortals from the cares of this world to a contemplation of divine and heavenly truths. Acts of veneration performed before images were transported to the person represented and were not focused on the image itself.

In the Orthodox world the views of the defenders prevailed augmented later by some sophisticated explanations rooted in Plato and Aristotle. Roman Catholicism basically accepted the views of the defenders as well. Protestant Christianity harkened to the views of the opponents of images. The taxonomy sketched above permits this characterization: Byzantines wound up as iconodules. Roman Catholics were initially iconophiles but gradually verged on iconodulia. Protestants were always iconophobes and sometimes iconoclasts.

The matter is, however, a little more complicated. I have used the word image instead of the word icon. Now, icon (eikon in Greek) simply means image but anyone who has any familiarity with Byzantium and its art will think right away of icons, a kind of beautiful picture that has a hauntingly similar look down through the centuries. The distinction I am drawing is not stylistic; it does not focus on Byzantine styles of representation as opposed to those of the West. The distinction I am drawing emphasizes that, in Byzantium, perhaps beginning in the sixth and seventh centuries and growing in intensity after that, some images were imagined to be potent, to be holy, to share somehow in the ontology—the “way of being”—of the person represented. This kind of thinking took a long time to root itself in the Catholic West. When Protestants rejected images, therefore, they not only cited Exodus and called them idolatrous but they also regarded their adoration as flatly superstitious.

Iconoclasm was official policy in the Byzantine world for almost 125 years. Very little writing survives from the iconoclasts. Iconodule writing tends to be harsh, almost hysterical, in its condemnation of the iconoclasts. Iconodules had every incentive to catalogue the art works that were supposedly destroyed or whitewashed. Yet they did not do so. It is difficult to name more than a dozen or so works of art that that were destroyed, effaced, or covered over. These might be illuminated pages from manuscripts, frescoes, or mosaics. A few examples might serve to illustrate the issue. In the Hagia Eirene church in Constantinople (Istanbul), a cross was placed in the apse over another no longer identifiable image. In the Koimesis church in Nicaea, a lovely image of Mary and Jesus was put over an undefinable removed image. The ninth-century Khludov Psalter has a revealing image in which the Roman centurion Longinus pierced Christ’s side while, below, an iconoclast is whitewashing an image of Christ. Iconoclasm in practice was a pretty small-scale affair. Actually this conclusion makes sense for a surprising reason. Churches in Byzantium before the ninth century were much less lavishly decorated than used to be assumed. There was not, in other words, a huge quantity of art available for destruction.


Left: Hagia Irene: Constantine’s first church, first completed in 360 ad. The black cross on a gold field, installed during  the 8th century by Constantine V, covers a previous mosaic. Http:// Center: Church of Koimesis in Nicaea. Mosaic of Virgin and Child. It replaced an Iconoclast cross whose outline can still be seen on the gold background. Right: Khludov Psalter, 9th century priest rubbing out the image of Christ with a sponge.


Iconoclasm is a wonderfully complicated subject. When French revolutionary mobs pulled down statues from the façade of Notre Dame, mistaking kings of Israel for kings of France, or when, say, Californians pull down statues of Junipero Serra, how are we to understand this? The revolutionaries were not irreligious, and the California protesters were not anti-Catholic, like Protestant iconoclasts of the sixteenth century who bashed out stained glass windows. Today, an “iconoclast” might be a person who rejects prevailing standards in speech, conduct, or behavior.


Thomas F. X Noble is the Andrew V. Tackes Professor Emeritus of the University of Notre Dame.  He taught for 42 years, mostly at Virginia and Notre Dame.  His work focused on the city of Rome, the papacy, the Carolingian period, and the connections among art, theology, and politics.  He is the author or editor of twelve books and more than 50 articles and chapters.  He held three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and memberships in Clare Hall, Cambridge, The Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton), and the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study.  He is currently writing a history of the papacy.



Stalin’s monument was torn down on October 23, 1956, during Hungary’s October Revolution. Image from

Above: Workers remove the statue of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson from it's pedestal on July 1, 2020, in Richmond, Va.  Photo by Associated Press/Steve Helber.


Below: Protesters lynch a figure pulled from the Confederate monument at the State Capitol in Raleigh, N.C., June 19, 2020. (Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP)

The "Theotokos of Vladimir" icon (twelfth century)

A contemporary Orthodox icon: "Christ the Pantocrator" (The Almighty)



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