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File:2008-09 Nijmegen st stevens beeldenstorm.JPG

Reformation iconoclasm in the 16th century. Relief statues in St Stevenskerk in Nijmegen, attacked in the Beeldenstorm.

Iconoclasm[1] is the deliberate destruction within a culture of the culture's own religious icons and other symbols or monuments, usually for religious or political motives. It is a frequent component of major domestic political or religious changes. It is thus generally distinguished from the destruction by one culture of the images of another, for example by the Spanish in their American conquests. The term does not generally encompass the specific destruction of images of a ruler after his death or overthrow (damnatio memoriae), for example Akhenaten in Ancient Egypt.

People who engage in or support iconoclasm are called iconoclasts, a term that has come to be applied figuratively to any person who breaks or disdains established dogmata or conventions. Conversely, people who revere or venerate religious images are (by iconoclasts) called iconolaters. In a Byzantine context they are known as iconodules, or iconophiles.

Iconoclasm may be carried out by people of a different religion, but is often the result of sectarian disputes between factions of the same religion.[citation needed] The two Byzantine outbreaks during the 8th and 9th centuries were unusual in that the use of images was the main issue in the dispute, rather than a by-product of wider concerns. In Christianity, iconoclasm has generally been motivated by a literal interpretation of the Ten Commandments, which forbid the making and worshipping of "graven images", though the topic of Biblical law in Christianity has always been in dispute.

Major instances

Byzantine iconoclasm

File:Seventh ecumenical council (Icon).jpg

Icon of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (17th century, Novodevichy Convent, Moscow).

As with other doctrinal issues in the Byzantine period, the controversy over iconoclasm was by no means restricted to the clergy, or to arguments from theology. The continuing cultural confrontation with, and military threat from, Islam probably had a bearing on the attitudes of both sides. Iconoclasm seems to have been supported by many from the East of the Empire, and refugees from the provinces taken over by the Muslims. It has been suggested that their strength in the army at the start of the period, and the growing influence of Balkan forces in the army (generally considered to lack strong iconoclast feelings) over the period may have been important factors in both beginning and ending imperial support for iconoclasm.

The use of images had probably been increasing in the years leading up to the outbreak of iconoclasm. One notable change came in 695, when Justinian II put a full-face image of Christ on the obverse of his gold coins. The effect on iconoclast opinion is unknown, but the change certainly caused Caliph Abd al-Malik to break permanently with his previous adoption of Byzantine coin types to start a purely Islamic coinage with lettering only.[3] A letter by the patriarch Germanus written before 726 to two Iconoclast bishops says that "now whole towns and multitudes of people are in considerable agitation over this matter" but we have very little evidence as to the growth of the debate.[4]

The first iconoclastic period: 730-787

File:Clasm Chludov detail 9th century.jpg

Byzantine Iconoclasm, Chludov Psalter, 9th century.[5]

Sometime between 726-730, the Byzantine Emperor Leo III the Isaurian began the iconoclast campaign.[6] He ordered the removal of an image of Jesus prominently placed over the Chalke gate, the ceremonial entrance to the Great Palace of Constantinople, and its replacement with a cross. Some of those who were assigned to the task were murdered by a band of iconodules.[7] Pope St. Gregory III "convoked a synod in 730 and formally condemned iconoclasm as heretical and excommunicated its promoters. The papal letter never reached Constantinople as the messengers were intercepted and arrested in Sicily by the Byzantines."[8]

Second Council of Nicaea 787

In 780, Constantine VI ascended the throne in Constantinople, but being a minor, was managed by his mother Empress Irene. She decided that an ecumenical council needed to be held to once and for all address the issue of Iconoclasm and directed this request to Pope Hadrian I (772-795) in Rome. He announced his agreement and caused one to convene on 1 August 786 in the presence of the Emperor and Empress. The initial proceedings were interrupted by violent entry of iconoclast soldiers faithful to the memory of the prior Emperor Constantine V. This caused the council to be adjourned until a reliable army could be assembled to protect any proceedings. The council was reassembled at Nicaea 24 September 787. During those proceedings the following was adopted:

... we declare that we defend free from any innovations all the written and unwritten ecclesiastical traditions that have been entrusted to us. One of these is the production of representational art; this is quite in harmony with the history of the spread of the gospel, as it provides confirmation that the becoming man of the Word of God was real and not just imaginary, and as it brings us a similar benefit. For, things that mutually illustrate one another undoubtedly possess one another's message.

... we decree with full precision and care that, like the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, the revered and holy images, whether painted or made of mosaic or of other suitable material, are to be exposed in the holy churches of God, on sacred instruments and vestments, on walls and panels, in houses and by public ways; these are the images of our Lord, God and saviour, Jesus Christ, and of our Lady without blemish, the holy God-bearer, and of the revered angels and of any of the saintly holy men. The more frequently they are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration. Certainly this is not the full adoration in accordance with our faith, which is properly paid only to the divine nature, but it resembles that given to the figure of the honoured and life-giving cross, and also to the holy books of the gospels and to other sacred cult object.[9]

(Note:see [9] also for the original pretranslation text of this council in Greek and Latin)

Issues in Byzantine iconoclasm

What accounts of iconoclast arguments remain are largely found in iconodule writings. To understand iconoclastic arguments, one must note the main points:

  1. Iconoclasm condemned the making of any lifeless image (e.g. painting or statue) that was intended to represent Jesus or one of the saints. The Epitome of the Definition of the Iconoclastic Conciliabulum (Synod of Hiereia) held in 754 declared:

    "Supported by the Holy Scriptures and the Fathers, we declare unanimously, in the name of the Holy Trinity, that there shall be rejected and removed and cursed one of the Christian Church every likeness which is made out of any material and colour whatever by the evil art of painters.... If anyone ventures to represent the divine image (χαρακτήρ, charaktēr) of the Word after the Incarnation with material colours, let him be anathema! .... If anyone shall endeavour to represent the forms of the Saints in lifeless pictures with material colours which are of no value (for this notion is vain and introduced by the devil), and does not rather represent their virtues as living images in himself, let him be anathema!"

  2. For iconoclasts, the only real religious image must be an exact likeness of the prototype -of the same substance- which they considered impossible, seeing wood and paint as empty of spirit and life. Thus for iconoclasts the only true (and permitted) "icon" of Jesus was the Eucharist, which was believed to be his actual body and blood.
  3. Any true image of Jesus must be able to represent both his divine nature (which is impossible because it cannot be seen nor encompassed) as well his human nature. But by making an icon of Jesus, one is separating his human and divine natures, since only the human can be depicted (separating the natures was considered nestorianism), or else confusing the human and divine natures, considering them one (union of the human and divine natures was considered monophysitism).
  4. Icon use for religious purposes was viewed as an innovation in the Church, a Satanic misleading of Christians to return to pagan practice.

    "Satan misled men, so that they worshipped the creature instead of the Creator. The Law of Moses and the Prophets cooperated to remove this ruin...But the previously mentioned demiurge of evil...gradually brought back idolatry under the appearance of Christianity."[10]

    It was also seen as a departure from ancient church tradition, of which there was a written record opposing religious images.

The chief theological opponents of iconoclasm were the monks Mansur (John of Damascus), who, living in Muslim territory as advisor to the Caliph of Damascus, was far enough away from the Byzantine emperor to evade retribution, and Theodore the Studite, abbot of the Stoudios monastery in Constantinople.

John declared that he did not venerate matter, "but rather the creator of matter." However he also declared, "But I also venerate the matter through which salvation came to me, as if filled with divine energy and grace." He includes in this latter category the ink in which the gospels were written as well as the paint of images, the wood of the Cross, and the body and blood of Jesus.

The iconodule response to iconoclasm included:

  1. Assertion that the biblical commandment forbidding images of God had been superseded by the incarnation of Jesus, who, being the second person of the Trinity, is God incarnate in visible matter. Therefore, they were not depicting the invisible God, but God as He appeared in the flesh. This became an attempt to shift the issue of the incarnation in their favor, whereas the iconoclasts had used the issue of the incarnation against them.
  2. Further, in their view idols depicted persons without substance or reality while icons depicted real persons. Essentially the argument was "all religious images not of our faith are idols; all images of our faith are icons to be venerated." This was considered comparable to the Old Testament practice of only offering burnt sacrifices to God, and not to any other gods.
  3. Moses had been instructed by God according to Exodus 25:18-22 to make golden statues of cherubim angels on the lid of the Ark of the Covenant, and according to Exodus 26:31 God instructed Moses to embroider the curtain which separated the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle with cherubim.
  4. Regarding the written tradition opposing the making and veneration of images, they asserted that icons were part of unrecorded oral tradition (parádosis, sanctioned in Orthodoxy as authoritative in doctrine by reference to 2 Thessalonians 2:15, Basil the Great, etc.).
  5. Arguments were drawn from the miraculous Acheiropoieta, the supposed icon of the Virgin painted with her approval by St Luke, and other miraculous occurrences around icons, that demonstrated divine approval of Iconodule practices.
  6. Iconodules further argued that decisions such as whether icons ought to be venerated were properly made by the church assembled in council, not imposed on the church by an emperor. Thus the argument also involved the issue of the proper relationship between church and state. Related to this was the observation that it was foolish to deny to God the same honor that was freely given to the human emperor.

Muslim iconoclasm

File:Muhammad destroying icons L Histoire Merveilleuse en Vers de Mahomet BNF.jpg

The destruction of icons at the Kaaba by Muhammad (represented as a flaming aureole at top left, and (?) on the horse or camel at right), in L'Histoire Merveilleuse en Vers de Mahomet, 11th century.

Within Muslim history, the act of removing idols from the Holy Ka'ba is considered by all believers to be of great symbolic and historical importance.

In general, Muslim societies have avoided the depiction of living beings (animals and humans) within such sacred spaces as mosques and madrasahs. This opposition to figural representation is not based on the Qur'an, but rather on various traditions contained within the Hadith. The prohibition of figuration has not always extended to the secular sphere, and a robust tradition of figural representation exists within Muslim art.[11] However, western authors have tended to perceive "a long, culturally determined, and unchanging tradition of violent iconoclastic acts" within Islamic society.[12]

The first act of Muslim iconoclasm was committed by Muslims in 630, when the various statues of Arabian deities housed in the Kaaba in Mecca were destroyed, although there is an apocryphal tradition that Muhammad spared a fresco of Mary and Jesus. This act was intended to bring an end to the idolatry which, in the Muslim view, characterized Jahiliyya.

The destruction of the idols of Mecca did not, however, determine the treatment of other religious communities living under Muslim rule after the expansion of the caliphate. Most Christians under Muslim rule, for example, continued to produce icons and to decorate their churches as they wished. There was one major exception to this pattern of tolerance in early Islamic history: the "Edict of Yazīd," issued by the Umayyad caliph Yazid II in 722-723.[13] This edict ordered the destruction of crosses and Christian images within the territory of the caliphate. It seems to have been followed to a certain degree, particularly in present-day Jordan, where archaeological evidence exists for the removal of images from the mosaic floors of some, although not all, of the churches that stood at this time. However, Yazīd's iconoclastic policies were not maintained by his successors, and the production of icons by the Christian communities of the Levant continued without significant interruption from the sixth century to the ninth.[14]

The missing nose on the Great Sphinx of Giza is attributed to iconoclasm by a Sufi Muslim fanatic.[15]

Despite a religious prohibition on destroying or converting houses of worship,[citation needed] certain conquering Muslim armies have used local temples or houses of worship as mosques. An example is Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople), which was converted into a mosque in 1453. Most icons were desecrated whilst the rest were covered with plaster. In the 1920s, Hagia Sophia was converted to a museum, and the restoration of the mosaics was undertaken by the American Byzantine Institute beginning in 1932.

More dramatic cases of iconoclasm by Muslims are found in parts of India where Hindu and Buddhist temples were razed and mosques erected in their place (for example, the Qutub Complex and Babri Mosque). Another notable Iconoclast was Mughal ruler Aurangzeb who destroyed the famous hindu temples at Varanasi & Mathura.

Certain Muslim denominations continue to pursue iconoclastic agendas, and there has been much controversy within Islam over the recent, and apparently on-going, destruction by the Wahhabist authorities of Mecca of historic buildings (not images as such) which they feared were or would become the subject of "idolatry".[16][17]

A recent act of iconoclasm was the 2001 destruction of the giant Buddhas of Bamyan by the then Taliban government of Afghanistan, an act which aroused considerable world-wide protests and which was not supported by other Muslim governments and organizations. It was widely perceived in the Western media as a result of the Muslim prohibition against figural decoration. Such an account overlooks "the coexistence between the Buddhas and the Muslim population that marveled at them for over a millennium" before their destruction.[18]

The Buddhas had however twice in the past been attacked by the less efficient artillery of Nadir Shah and Aurengzeb. According to Flood, analysis of the Taliban's own declarations regarding the Buddhas suggest that their destruction was motivated more by political than by theological concerns.[19] However, many different explanations of the motives for the destruction have been given by Taliban figures.

File:Looting of the Churches of Lyon by the Calvinists 1562.jpg

Looting of the Churches of Lyon by the Calvinists, in 1562. Antoine Carot.

File:Destruction of icons in Zurich 1524.jpg

Destruction of icons in Zurich, 1524.

Reformation iconoclasm


Illustration of the Beeldenstorm during the Dutch reformation.

File:Iconoclasm Clocher Saint Barthelemy south side La Rochelle.jpg

Remains of Reformation iconoclasm, Clocher Saint-Barthélémy, La Rochelle, France.

Some of the Protestant reformers, in particular Andreas Karlstadt, Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin, encouraged the removal of religious images by invoking the Decalogue's prohibition of idolatry and the manufacture of graven images of God. As a result, statues and images were damaged in spontaneous individual attacks as well as unauthorised iconoclastic riots. However, in most cases images were removed in an orderly manner by civil authorities in the newly reformed cities and territories of Europe.

Significant iconoclastic riots took place in Zurich (in 1523), Copenhagen (1530), Münster (1534), Geneva (1535), Augsburg (1537), Scotland (1559), and Saintes and La Rochelle (1562).[20] The Seventeen Provinces (now the Netherlands and Belgium and parts of Northern France) were hit by a large wave of Protestant iconoclasm in the summer of 1566. This is called the "Beeldenstorm" and included such acts as the destruction of the statuary of the Monastery of Saint Lawrence in Steenvoorde after a "Hagenpreek", or field sermon, by Sebastiaan Matte; and the sacking of the Monastery of Saint Anthony after a sermon by Jacob de Buysere. The "Beeldenstorm" marked the start of the revolution against the Spanish forces and the Catholic church. See Flanders for more on its history.

During the English Civil War, Bishop Joseph Hall of Norwich described the events of 1643 when troops and citizens, encouraged by a Parliamentary ordinance against superstition and idolatry, behaved thus:

Lord what work was here! What clattering of glasses! What beating down of walls! What tearing up of monuments! What pulling down of seats! What wresting out of irons and brass from the windows! What defacing of arms! What demolishing of curious stonework! What tooting and piping upon organ pipes! And what a hideous triumph in the market-place before all the country, when all the mangled organ pipes, vestments, both copes and surplices, together with the leaden cross which had newly been sawn down from the Green-yard pulpit and the service-books and singing books that could be carried to the fire in the public market-place were heaped together.'


An illustration from a 1563 edition of Foxe's Book of Martyrs depicts "The Temple well purged", "Burning of images", and "the Papists packing away their paltry."

The keen puritan William Dowsing was commissioned and salaried by the government to tour the towns and villages of East Anglia destroying images in churches. His detailed record of his trail of destruction through Suffolk and Cambridgeshire survives:[21]

We brake [sic] down about a hundred superstitious pictures; and seven fryers [sic] hugging a nun; and the picture of God, and Christ; and divers others very superstitious. And 200 had been broke down afore I came. We took away 2 popish inscriptions with Ora pro nobis and we beat down a great stoneing cross on the top of the church. (Haverhill, Suffolk, January 6, 1644)

Protestant Christianity, however, was not uniformly hostile to the use of religious images. Martin Luther, initially hostile, came round to the view that Christians should be free to use religious images as long as they did not worship them in the place of God. Calvin, Zwingli and others for the sake of saving the Word rejected all art; Luther, with an equal concern for the Word, but far more liberal, would have all the arts to be the servants of the Gospel.

File:Alterpiece fragments late 1300 early 1400 destroyed during the English Dissolution mid 16th century.jpg

Altarpiece fragments (late 1300 – early 1400) destroyed during the English Dissolution of the Monasteries, mid-16th century.

"I am not of the opinion" said Luther, "that through the Gospel all the arts should be banished and driven away, as some zealots want to make us believe; but I wish to see them all, especially music, in the service of Him Who gave and created them." Again he says: "I have myself heard those who oppose pictures, read from my German Bible. … But this contains many pictures of God, of the angels, of men, and of animals, especially in the Revelation of St. John, in the books of Moses, and in the book of Joshua. We therefore kindly beg these fanatics to permit us also to paint these pictures on the wall that they may be remembered and better understood, inasmuch as they can harm as little on the walls as in books. Would to God that I could persuade those who can afford it to paint the whole Bible on their houses, inside and outside, so that all might see; this would indeed be a Christian work. For I am convinced that it is God's will that we should hear and learn what He has done, especially what Christ suffered. But when I hear these things and meditate upon them, I find it impossible not to picture them in my heart. Whether I want to or not, when I hear, of Christ, a human form hanging upon a cross rises up in my heart: just as I see my natural face reflected when I look into water. Now if it is not sinful for me to have Christ's picture in my heart, why should it be sinful to have it before my eyes?"

Political and revolutionary iconoclasm

File:Johannes Adam Simon Oertel Pulling Down the Statue of King George III, N.Y.C. ca. 1859.jpg

The Sons of Liberty pulling down the statue of King George III on Bowling Green (New York City), 1776.

Revolutions and changes of regime, whether through uprising of the local population, foreign invasion or a combination of both, are often accompanied by the public destruction of statues and monuments identified with the previous regime. This may also be known as damnatio memoriae, the modern term used to describe the Ancient Roman practice of official obliteration of the memory of a specific individual. Stricter definitions of "iconoclasm" exclude both types of action, reserving the term for religious or more widely cultural destruction. However in many cases, whether in Revolutionary Russia or Ancient Egypt, this distinction can be hard to make. Examples of political destruction of images include:

Chinese Iconoclasm

During the Northern Expedition, in 1926 in Guangxi, Kuomintang Muslim General Bai Chongxi led his troops in destroying Buddhist temples and smashing idols, turning the temples into schools and Kuomintang party headquarters.[23] It was reported that almost all of Buddhist monasteries in Guangxi were destroyed by Bai in this manner. The monks were removed.[24] Bai led a wave of anti foreignism in Guangxi, attacking American, European, and other foreigners and missionaries, and generally making the province unsafe for foreigners. Westerners fled from the province, and some Chinese Christians were also attacked as imperialist agents.[25] The three goals of his movement were anti-foreigism, anti-imperialism, and anti-religion. Bai led the anti-religious movement, against superstition. Muslims do not believe in superstition (see Shirk (Islam)) and his religion may have influenced Bai to take action against the Idols in the temples and the superstitious practices rampant in China. Huang Shaoxiong, also a Kuomintang member of the New Guangxi Clique, supported Bai's campaign, and Huang was not a Muslim, the anti religious campaign was agreed upon by all Guangxi Kuomintang members.[26]

See also

References and notes

  1. Literally, "image-breaking", from Template:Lang-grc. Iconoclasm may be also considered as a back-formation from iconoclast (from Greek εἰκοκλάστης). The corresponding Greek word for iconoclasm is εἰκονοκλασία - eikonoklasia.
  2. [1]
  3. Robin Cormack, Writing in Gold, Byzantine Society and its Icons, 1985, George Philip, London, ISBN 0-540-01085-5
  4. C Mango, "Historical Introduction", in Bryer & Herrin, eds., Iconoclasm, pp. 2-3., 1977, Centre for Byzantine Studies, University of Birmingham, ISBN 0-7044-0226-2
  5. Byzantine iconoclasm
  6. Cf. (ed.) F. GIOIA, The Popes - Twenty Centuries of History, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (2005), p. 40.
  7. see Theophanes, Chronographia
  8. Cf. (ed.) F. GIOIA, The Popes - Twenty Centuries of History, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (2005), p. 41.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Tanner, Norman P., Alberigo, G., Dossetti, J. A., Joannou, P. P., Leonardi, C., and Prodi, P., Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils Volume OneNicaea I to Lateran V, p. 132-136, Sheed & Ward and Georgetown University Press, London and Washington, D.C., [ISBN 0-87840-490-2]
  10. Epitome, Iconoclast Council at Hieria, 754
  11. F.B. Flood, "Between cult and culture: Bamiyan, Islamic iconoclasm, and the museum", The Art Bulletin 84 (2002), 643-44.
  12. F.B. Flood, "Between cult and culture: Bamiyan, Islamic iconoclasm, and the museum", The Art Bulletin 84 (2002), 641.
  13. A. Grabar, L'iconoclasme byzantin: le dossier archéologique (Paris, 1984), 155-56.
  14. G.R.D. King, "Islam, iconoclasm, and the declaration of doctrine", Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 48 (1985), 276-7.
  15. al-Maqrīzī, writing in the 15th century, attributes the damage to Muhammad Sa'im al-Dahr, a Sufi Muslim fanatic from the khanqah of Sa'id al-Su'ada, in 1378.
  16. Independent Newspaper on-line, London, Jan 19,2007
  17. Islamica Magazine
  18. F.B. Flood, "Between cult and culture: Bamiyan, Islamic iconoclasm, and the museum", The Art Bulletin 84 (2002), 654.
  19. F.B. Flood, "Between cult and culture: Bamiyan, Islamic iconoclasm, and the museum", The Art Bulletin 84 (2002), 651-55.
  20. Fortress of the soul: violence, metaphysics, and material life by Neil Kamil p.148 [2]
  21. 1885 edition of the diaries of the English puritan iconoclast William Dowsing on-line from Canadian libraries
  22. Christopher Wharton, "The Hammer and Sickle: The Role of Symbolism and Rituals in the Russian Revolution" [3]
  23. Diana Lary (1974). Region and nation: the Kwangsi clique in Chinese politics, 1925-1937. Cambridge University Press. p. 98. ISBN 0521202043. Retrieved 2010-06-28.
  24. Don Alvin Pittman (2001). Toward a modern Chinese Buddhism: Taixu's reforms. University of Hawaii Press. p. 146. ISBN 00824822315. Retrieved 2010-06-28.
  25. Diana Lary (1974). Region and nation: the Kwangsi clique in Chinese politics, 1925-1937. Cambridge University Press. p. 99. ISBN 0521202043. Retrieved 2010-06-28.
  26. Diana Lary (1974). Region and nation: the Kwangsi clique in Chinese politics, 1925-1937. Cambridge University Press. p. 99. ISBN 0521202043.'s%20as%20a%20moslem%20other%20religions&f=false. Retrieved 2010-06-28.

Further reading

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