Icons in the Byzantine Empire

The Influence of Iconoclasm on Icons in the Byzantine Empire

The Eastern Roman Empire, more commonly referred to as the Byzantine Empire, was one of the evolutionary cradles for the world of Orthodox Christian art. Byzantine icon tradition had a great influence on iconography and helped ordinary people better understand and interpret icons that became increasingly popular in the Late Byzantine period. However, there were some serious hardships that hindered the development of icons in the Byzantine Empire.

At some point in history, the Byzantium Empire had to go through the iconoclasm, the deliberate destruction of religious images and icons. There were two such periods that altogether lasted almost 90 years. What did happen?

The influence of iconoclasm on icons in the Byzantine Empire

The First Iconoclasm (730-787)

The first crisis was started by Leo III the Isaurian, the emperor who ordered to remove an image of Christ and replace it with a cross. The ruler considered it “a craft of idolatry.” Such a formulation caused a debate between different layers of society. The real problems started arising under the reign of his son, Constantine V, who summoned the Council of Hieria when 338 assembled bishops declared icon painting as an unlawful art of painting that contradicted the six holy synods. Following that, many religious relics were thrown into the sea, monasteries were secularized, and some monks were even killed. Icons in the Byzantine Empire were forbidden, and yet icon veneration reemerged, though not for long.

The Second Iconoclasm (814–843)

The second crisis was instituted by Emperor Leo V the Armenian. He was convinced by the iconoclasts’ arguments, which gave rise to new iconoclasm. One of such arguments was that icons in the Byzantine Empire were an inappropriate innovation of the Church, which actually meant a return to pagan practice. According to their set of beliefs, Byzantine icons were products of evil art and lifeless pictures that failed to represent the real virtues and were thus misleading. Iconoclasm didn’t last long, and icon veneration was restored by Theodora, the wife of another Byzantine Emperor, Theophilus. Since that time, the first Sunday of Great Feast has been celebrated as the feast of “Triumph of Orthodoxy.”


The Byzantine Iconoclasm wasn’t the only such phenomenon in the history of Christianity. There were many more acts of vandalism against religious icons even in Europe. While there is not a plain and straightforward solution to the problem, it does draw people’s attention to the conflicts sitting deep in Christianity. People fail to provide adequate forms of representation and interpretation of information. As a result, different groups of individuals struggle to find common and peaceful ground among themselves.