Broken images

POPE LEO may have put a crown on Charlemagne’s head on Christmas Day 800, and the people may have acclaimed him emperor, but he was not the only emperor on the block. Over 1,000 miles away, a succession of emperors and one empress who saw themselves as rightfully leading the Roman Empire ruled from Constantinople. They ruled over Byzantium (much of modern-day Greece and Turkey, and at points some parts of the modern Middle East and Eastern Europe.)

The east-west relationship had not been smooth since Constantine set up his imperial capital at Constantinople, not Rome, in the third century. East and west had different languages, cultures, and theological outlooks.

Tension grew when the Byzantine Empire failed to aid Rome against Lombard invasions in the sixth and seventh centuries—and in 756, when Charlemagne’s father Pepin the Short turned over lands he had reclaimed to the bishop of Rome, rather than to the Byzantine emperor. But Charlemagne’s reign would put another nail in the coffin of the east-west relationship.

Holy pictures?

Legends once told that what became known as the “iconoclastic controversy” started with a literal bang. In 727 the volcano on the Aegean island of Thera erupted. Supposedly seeing the eruption as a fiery judgment from God for people’s idolatry in worshiping created objects, Byzantine emperor Leo III ordered the removal of an icon of Christ from above the Chalke Gate (the main ceremonial entrance to the palace in Constantinople). This action inaugurated Byzantine “iconoclasm,” or the destruction of religious images, and caused the people of Constantinople to revolt.

In reality, the controversy emerged more gradually. Byzantines at the time called the debate iconomachy (“image struggle”); only in a handful of known incidents were images actually destroyed. But sixteenth-century historians later applied the label “iconoclasm” to the anti-image side, and it stuck.

Religious images, or icons, played a significant part in Christian life from at least the third century, and the practice of venerating them (i.e. kissing, bowing, and lighting candles) dated to at least the seventh. Veneration may have developed in part as a response to the incursion of Islam. Islam was “anti-iconic,” forbidding any representation of God in art; in response some Christians emphasized more strongly the fact that their religion allowed God-pictures.

Image struggles

But controversy dogged the practice. In the 720s and 730s, Germanos, the patriarch of Constantinople, chastised two clergymen for teaching against images and removing them from their churches. By the 730s anti-image sentiments were widespread in the east—even in Constantinople. But the anti-image position was never adopted in Rome.

In 741 Constantine V, Leo III’s son, became emperor, and in 754 he called a church council that banned the veneration of images and decreed that Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints could not be depicted in images. The council argued that it was impossible to visually represent Christ’s divine nature and that portraits of the Virgin and of saints were insulting to their now-eternal status in heaven.

But another side of the debate soon emerged. Iconodules or iconophiles, from the Greek words for honoring or loving images, asserted that icons were not idols but significant testimonies to the Incarnation: since Christ was God-made-man, he was image-able.

The debate was not academic. If you bowed before an image in worship, would you find someone coming from the emperor to arrest you? And would you incur the wrath of God either for venerating an idol on the one hand or for refusing to honor holy pictures on the other?

Following the death of Constantine V came a period of relative peace. His iconoclastic son Leo IV married an iconodule, Irene, and allowed exiled iconodule monks to return and others to keep their icons. When Leo IV died, Irene rose to power as regent for their son Constantine VI. She initially aimed for better relations with the west, even trying at one point to negotiate a marriage between her son and one of Charlemagne’s daughters, Rotrude.

Irene soon called the Second Council of Nicaea (787) to address the image controversy. It condemned Constantine V’s iconoclastic council of 754 and distinguished between the terms latreia (worship, service given only to God) and proskynhsis (veneration, prostration, gesture of respect). While only God is worthy of worship, the council said, holy images were deserving of veneration (respect) in the same way as the cross, the Gospel books, and saints’ relics, since the honor paid to a holy image passed on to the person depicted in it.

Following custom, notes and decrees from the council were translated from Greek into Latin and sent to the west, where Charlemagne read them. But the Latin translation failed to convey the Greek distinction between “worship” and “veneration.” It sounded like the council had approved the idolatrous act of worshiping images.

Charlemagne had a monarch-sized fit and ordered the Opus Caroli Regis contra Synodum (“The Work of King Charles against the Council”) to be issued. In 792 a draft of the Opus Caroli Regis was sent to Pope Hadrian in Rome for approval, which it did not receive.

The Franks may have been disappointed by the pope’s response. But they knew that the pope himself had sent legates and a letter of support to Nicaea. Because of the pope’s disapproval, the Opus Caroli Regis was hastily completed and permanently shelved in the Frankish royal archives. It would not be consulted again until Calvin wrote his Institutes more than 700 years later.

The Franks did not dare to contradict the pope directly. They nonetheless condemned the decisions in a council of their own, the Council of Frankfurt (794). While this council was primarily concerned with condemning a new heresy from Spain, it also declared Nicaea II a “pseudosynod,” denying it ecumenical status.

Through all this Charlemagne and his advisors asserted the superiority of what was at this point still merely the Frankish kingdom over the Byzantine east. The Opus Caroli Regis explicitly asserted that Franks took a middle way between iconoclasm and idolatry. It presented them not only as theologically orthodox rulers but also as the most qualified ones. Rome too would soon find it politically advantageous to switch gears. The crowning of Charlemagne as emperor in 800 by the Roman pontiff powerfully symbolized Rome’s independence from Byzantium.

Charlemagne’s proposal of marriage to Empress Irene might have bridged this divide, but she was still hesitating over her response when she was dethroned in 802. And after Charlemagne’s death, more nails were hammered into the coffin as further disputes arose between Rome and Constantinople.

Photius in, Photius out

In 858 Byzantine emperor Michael III deposed Ignatius, patriarch of Constantinople, and replaced him with Photius (c. 810–c. 895). When Ignatius refused to step down, Michael and Photius appealed to Pope Nicholas V in Rome. Despite the fact that his delegates had participated in the synod that deposed Ignatius, the pope declared Ignatius the rightful patriarch.

Photius, whose position as patriarch was not officially acknowledged until after Ignatius’s death in 877, had become unpopular with the pope for two reasons. In 867 he issued a letter criticizing the Roman church for its addition of the filioque phrase, “and from the Son,” to the Nicene Creed, saying the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and from the Son. . . .“ His letter also objected to western missionary efforts in Bulgaria, where Constantinople, Rome, and Charlemagne’s heirs in Aachen were all competing for converts.

All these questions of authority, and Rome’s assertion of its supremacy over the other major bishops of Christendom, eventually culminated in the two churches—Eastern and Western—anathematizing each other in 1054 (i.e., declaring each other to be heretical). Charlemagne was not alive to see it. But by laying the groundwork for a self-confident Western Christendom, he had paved the way. CH

By Jennifer Awes Freeman

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #108 in 2014]

Jennifer Awes Freeman is a doctoral candidate at Vanderbilt University specializing in the early Middle Ages.
Next articles

How they feasted and fasted

Everyday life in the eighth and ninth centuries

Jennifer Woodruff Tait

Charlemagne’s furniture

Whatever happened to the Holy Roman Empire?

David A. Michelson

After Christendom, what next?

A modern theologian reflects on where Christendom is today

D. Stephen Long

Recommended resources

Recommendations by CH editorial staff and this issue’s contributors

the Editors
Show more

Subscribe to magazine

Subscription to Christian History magazine is on a donation basis


Support us

Christian History Institute (CHI) is a non-profit Pennsylvania corporation founded in 1982. Your donations support the continuation of this ministry


Subscribe to daily emails

Containing today’s events, devotional, quote and stories