medieval iconoclasm and modern prejudices

More than 1,000 years ago, the Christian world was consumed with a violent conflict over religious images: whether they should be venerated or destroyed as idols. That conflict, which brought down emperors, has resonances today. But even before the days of ISIS, modern historians were mining the obscure quarrels of medieval Christian iconoclasm for evidence of their own prejudices.

For instance, in this passage, John Julius Norwich (1929-) explains why iconoclasm declined during the 9th century:

The times, too, were changing. The mystical, metaphysical attitude to religion that had originally given birth to iconoclasm was becoming less fashionable every day. Of the eastern lands in which it had first taken root, some had already been lost to the Saracens; and the populations of those that remained, beleaguered and nervous, had developed an instinctive distrust of a doctrine that bore such obvious affinities with those of Islam. There was a new humanism in the air, a revised awareness of the old classical spirit that stood for reason and clarity, and had no truck with the tortuous, introspective spiritualizings of the Oriental mind. At the same time a naturally artistic people, so long starved of beauty, were beginning to crave the old, familiar images that spoke to them of safer and more confident days. And when, on 20 January 842, the Emperor Theophilus died of dysentery at thirty-eight, the age of iconoclasm died with him.

I don’t like to speak evil of the living, but this is pretty bad. I can pass over the undocumented and surely exaggerated claims (“less fashionable every day”; “so long starved of beauty”). I can forgive the emphasis on royal biography and chronology as explanations for larger trends, because the medieval sources focus on affairs of court. It’s much harder to ignore Viscount Norwich’s view of “the Oriental mind” as irrational and mystical.

Edward Gibbon, although just as judgmental as Norwich, organized his prejudices differently. In the Decline and Fall, he associates the veneration of images with the “long night of superstition,” when Christians forgot the “simplicity of the Gospel” for the “worship of holy images.” The “holy ground was involved in a cloud of miracles and visions; and the nerves of the mind, curiosity and skepticism, were benumbed by habits of obedience and belief.”

He is talking about the centuries when Norwich’s “old, familiar images” were still venerated. But then Leo III began the iconoclastic era. Although the emperor was less learned than a classical Roman, “his education, his reason, and perhaps his intercourse with the Jews and Arabs” made him criticize images. Leo came from the East and may have been influenced by the still-further-eastern Muslims. Yet Gibbon has no hesitation in claiming that Leo’s movement showed “many symptoms of reason and piety.”

Ultimately, it was a female ruler who restored the “idols,” which were always “secretly cherished by the order and the sex most prone to devotion; and the fond alliance of the monks and the females obtained a final victory over the reason and the authority of man.” A final victory, that is, until the “reformation of the sixteenth century, [when] freedom and knowledge had expanded all faculties of man: the thirst of innovation superseded the reverence of antiquity; and the vigor of Europe could disdain those phantoms which terrified the servile weakness of the Greeks.”

If you’re going to use medieval theological controversies to reinforce modern stereotypes, Gibbon’s version at least seems to make more sense that Norwich’s. Norwich tries to establish a spectrum from the iconoclastic East to the reasonable West. But consider the Pilgrim Fathers who founded New England. Surely they favored “tortuous, introspective spiritualizings”; and their churches were stripped of all images, even crosses. Their brethren in Cromwell’s England and Protestant Holland also smashed religious pictures, as did the later secular republicans of revolutionary France and civil war Spain. “According to Georg Kretschmar, ‘Calvin built up the most precise and radical position opposed to the icon theology of the 787 Council of Nicea.'” As a consequence [of Calvin’s iconoclastic writing] Protestant places of worship have a stark austerity in comparison to Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Churches.” Yet, according to Norwich, a starkly austere church is “oriental,” whereas one bedecked with sparkling icons recalls the “old classical spirit that stood for reason and clarity.”

The moral of this post is not that historians are biased or that orientalism prevails. I have cited just two writers, one of them dead since 1794. Real professional historians work hard not to let such prejudices determine their views. But Gibbon and Norwich are influential authors–the first redeemed by his superb style and enlightened spirit; the second, a poor substitute.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.