Art History Lab

Shattering Idols: A Journey Through Iconoclasm and Its Impact

Iconoclasm: Understanding the Historical Context and Biblical Roots

Have you ever wondered about the concept of iconoclasm and its historical significance? Iconoclasm, which means “image-breaking,” involves the destruction of icons, images or statues, and has been prevalent throughout history in various contexts.

In this article, we will explore the definition and historical periods of iconoclasm, as well as its biblical roots.

Definition of Iconoclasm and Iconoclasts

Iconoclasm refers to instances in which people have destroyed icons, images, or symbols. Iconoclasts, on the other hand, are individuals who engage in iconoclasm or who actively oppose the use of icons in religious practices.

The term originated in Byzantine times when the Eastern Orthodox Church abandoned the use of icons in worship. This led to a period known as the Iconoclastic Controversy, during which a series of councils were held to decide whether or not icons should be used in religious practices.

Historical Periods of Iconoclasm and Iconoclastic Acts

Christian history of icons

In Christendom, iconoclasm existed for over a thousand years, beginning in 726 AD in the Byzantine Empire. The Emperors in the Byzantine Empire ordered the destruction of all religious images, considering them pagan and idolatrous.

The controversy ended finally in 843 AD, with the restoration of religious icons.

Protestant Reformation


Protestant Reformation, which began in 1517, also contributed to iconoclasm, as Protestants rejected Roman Catholic religious images, considering them idolatrous. The destruction of religious images became a standard practice in the

Protestant Reformation across Germany and Switzerland.

French Revolution

During the

French Revolution, which began in 1789 and lasted until 1799, there were determined efforts to rid the country of religious symbolism and old structures, including destructions of religious images and statues. The revolutionaries recognized the symbolic authority of the church and believed that the oppressive regime was a force of aristocratic corruption rather than a republican democracy.

Communist rebellions


Communist rebellions that took place in the 20th century were also characterized by acts of iconoclasm. Communist regimes in countries like China, North Korea, and Vietnam aggressively worked to eradicate religious practices and symbols.

At the heart of communism is a belief system that emphasizes state control and focuses on the individual as part of a collective that celebrates the state.

Biblical Iconoclasm

Examples of Iconoclastic Acts in the Bible

The Bible records several instances of iconoclasm in the Bible, most of which are instances of the Israelites destroying the icons of pagan gods that they came across. For example, in the book of Exodus, after Moses received the Ten Commandments, Aaron made a Golden Calf for the Israelites to worship in defiance of God’s command.

Different Types of Iconoclasm in the Bible

There were also different types of iconoclasm recorded in the Bible, from the Israelites demolishing pagan deity altars, as seen in Leviticus 26, to the demolition of Israelite pillars and icons praising Yahweh, as seen in Numbers 33:52 and Deuteronomy 7:25. These were often symbolic acts of loyalty to God, reflecting the belief that The Almighty was the only true Deity that they could trust and worship.


Over the course of history, iconoclasm has been employed as a tool for religious change and political control, with societies engaging in image-breaking activities to either eradicate religious symbolism or establish new religious traditions. Biblical iconoclasm can provide insights into how these acts should be understood.

While the destruction of icons can be seen as either liberating or oppressive, depending on the context, the historical and biblical roots of iconoclasm help us understand the importance of symbols and the power they hold in shaping a culture.

Christian Traditions of the Early Period

When Christianity was still in its early stages, there was no consensus regarding the use of icons in religious practices. Some Christians venerated images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints, while others detested depictions of pagan gods, considering such images to be idolatrous.

In this section, we will investigate the early Christian practices and attitudes towards icons and examine Christian iconography and iconoclasm in the Roman and Byzantine empires.

Early Christian Practices and Attitudes Towards Icons

Christianity has its origin in Jewish traditions, which prohibited the use of images in worship. The early Christians, therefore, shared similar attitudes towards visual depictions in religious practices.

Some early Christian writings, such as the Didache, a manual of Christian ethics written in the first century, indicate that Christians already had some images of Jesus.

The veneration of icons gradually became more popular and widespread in Christian practices.

In the early centuries, Christians in the Roman Empire attacked symbols that represented pagan worship, such as destroying the statue of Serapis in Alexandria in 389 AD. Christian communities produced holy images for private devotion, while other Christian sects preferred to avoid the use of depictions of the divine in their worship, and still, others believed that any kind of material representation was blasphemous.

The theological discussions concerning the use of icons continued until the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787 AD, which affirmed the use of sacred images in Christian worship. The council declared that the depiction of Christ and other holy figures honored them as long as the images were not worshipped, and that believers could use these visual aids as a means of expressing their faith.

Christian Iconography and Iconoclasm in the Roman and Byzantine Empires

The use of Christian iconography in the Roman and Byzantine Empires was prevalent and approved of. The rise of Christianity led to increased Christian attacks on pagan symbols, resulting in the conversion of religious spaces being converted to Christian ones.

Christians began constructing and decorating churches decorated with icons to celebrate their faith and beliefs. The Byzantine Empire helped to shape Christian iconography.

Their theology had a significant influence on the development of Christian iconography. The empire recognized the symbolic and sacred power of icons, which were prevalent within every Christian domain, from the chapel to the palace.

Saints and holy individuals, distinguished in the public memory, became the subjects of icons – glorious and divine representations of their likenesses. Diverse and decorative iconography went beyond religious tradition and into everyday living.

Muslim Iconoclasm

Islamic Prohibition on Visual Depictions

Islamic tradition prohibits visual depictions. This prohibition goes back to the early years of the Islamic faith, when the Prophet Muhammad carried out various campaigns to remove pagan idols from the Ka’aba, the most sacred site in Islam.

This early action conveyed the importance given to religious symbols in the Islamic faith. Muslims believe that creating images of deities, particularly in human form, is tantamount to idolatry, which isn’t to say that geometric, which are merely decorative, doesn’t have significations in the Arabic-Islamic world.

Incorporation of Christian Iconography and Iconoclastic Instances in Muslim History

Despite Islam’s prohibition against visual depictions, the Islamic world had a high degree of tolerance for Christian icons. Under Muslim rule, Christian places of worship were preserved, and many Islamic empires were known for being open to religious plurality, despite political upheavals.

At times, Muslim political authorities esteemed Christian religious icons as an indispensable part of a thriving multiconfessional environment, allowing them to be created and safeguarded by Christian populations in modern day places like Lebanon, Syria, and Israel. In conclusion, the use of icons and attitudes towards visual depictions in Christian and Muslim history has been a source of conflict and debate for centuries.

In the Christian world, attitudes towards icons were initially divisive, with some sects rejecting images entirely while others embraced them in worship. In both the Roman and Byzantine Empires, depictions of Christ, Mary, and other religious figures played a vital role in the practice of Christianity.

In contrast, the Islamic world has traditionally prohibited visual depictions, but it remained open to religious plurality. The incorporation of Christian iconography and iconoclastic instances in Islamic history demonstrates how Muslims value religious tolerance despite Islamic tradition’s prohibition on images.

Byzantine Icons and Iconoclasm

The Byzantine Empire was one of the most significant empires in history when it came to iconography, theological debates, cultural and political upheaval. In this section, we will examine the causes and context of Byzantine iconoclasm, as well as the debates, figures, and events related to Byzantine iconoclasm.

Causes and Context of Byzantine Iconoclasm

Byzantine iconoclasm began in the 8th century and lasted until the 9th century. There are various reasons for the rise of iconoclastic movements during the Byzantine Empire.

One of the primary reasons for this movement was the cultural conflict with Islamic beliefs and practices. Leaders of the Islamic world of that period held a strict prohibition on living beings being depicted in art.

Consequently, Byzantine leaders who sought to show their disconnection from their Arab conquerors also saw that requiring the same prohibition on their Christian subjects could reinforce Byzantine cultural and political independence. Additionally, the physically aggressive threat of the Muslim empire posed a genuine threat to the Byzantine Empire, who saw the ban on religious icons as a form of purging their society of possible subversive, idolatrous influences.

Theological debates on the nature of Christ and the proper method of worshipping biblical figures also played a significant role in the debate. Finally, the influence of Islamic iconoclasm, which swept through North Africa and the Levant in previous centuries, cannot be overlooked as a factor.

Debates, Figures, and Events Related to Byzantine Iconoclasm

The debate surrounding Byzantine iconoclasm involved various figures, including Emperor Leo III Isaurian, Patriarch Germanus I, and monastic resistance. In 725 AD, Emperor Leo III created an edict banning the use of icons in religious worship.

Patriarch Germanus I opposed the edict, claiming that it was an attack on the church’s traditional practices in favor of the emperor’s personal beliefs. The urban masses also disagreed with the emperor’s edict, leading to violent conflict between the emperor and the people throughout the empire.

Meanwhile, monastic resistance was strong against the attack on holy relics and icons. Many monasteries refused to abandon their veneration of icons, despite being punished for it.

The second council of Nicaea was held in 787 AD and marked a defeat for the iconoclasts. The council affirmed that the use of sacred images in worship was orthodox and the veneration of holy figures through the use of divine images was central to Christian practices.

Examples of Iconoclasm Throughout History

Reformation Iconoclasm

The Reformation period in Europe ignited challenges to religious icons for the same reasons of the previous discussions above–exorcising holy images was seen as removing religious corruptions from their respective societies during the Protestant revolts. Leaders of the Reformation, such as Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin of Switzerland, led the way for the destruction of religious icons, altars, and other symbols seen as superfluous.

Secularist Iconoclasm

More recent instances of iconoclastic acts include those performed during the

French Revolution, Russian Communist Revolutions, and Chinese Communist upheavals. For example, the

French Revolution aimed to replace religious symbols with secular values.

During this period, many Christian artifacts and religious art were destroyed or seized as part of the broader destruction of religious symbols and ideals associated with the Catholic Church.

Similarly, communist revolutions in Russia and China aimed to replace traditional religious belief systems and artifacts with more secular, ideological ones.

During the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, many churches were destroyed, and religious art and artifacts were seized by the state. In more recent times, Mao’s communist government carried out the Cultural Revolution in which groups of Red Guards vandalized cultural sites and religious institutions throughout China.

In conclusion, from the Byzantine Empire to the Reformation period to the modern-day secularist actions, iconoclasm is no stranger to human history. It’s a powerful tool to regulate and integrate public piety, artistic movements, and ideological values, yet it’s no less divisive and destructive when functioning in isolation or exploitation by despots.

Iconoclasm, indeed, carries incredible power, one which necessitates care and caution whenever it’s employed as a tool for monumental change.

Philosophical Iconoclasts

Philosophical iconoclasts are individuals who challenge established ideas and institutions, often pushing the boundaries of conventional wisdom. These iconoclasts question the status quo and seek to challenge prevailing beliefs or practices.

In this section, we will explore the definition and characteristics of philosophical iconoclasts and examine various examples that illustrate their impact and influence. Definition and Characteristics of

Philosophical Iconoclasts

Philosophical iconoclasts are individuals who challenge the norms and question long-held beliefs.

They bring fresh perspectives and disrupt traditional ways of thinking. These iconoclasts possess intellectual curiosity, a willingness to challenge existing paradigms, and a desire to make a positive change in the world.

One notable example of a philosophical iconoclast is Albert Einstein. Einstein’s theory of relativity revolutionized our understanding of time, space, and gravity.

Einstein challenged the established Newtonian physics and presented a new worldview that questioned the absolute nature of time and space. Another influential figure is Martin Luther King Jr. King challenged the prevailing system of racial segregation in the United States.

His philosophy of nonviolent resistance and his passionate advocacy for civil rights challenged the deep-rooted prejudices and discriminatory practices of the time. Varied Examples of

Philosophical Iconoclasts

The examples of philosophical iconoclasts are as diverse as the areas they challenged.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s fight against segregation in the United States serves as a powerful example of an iconoclast challenging the societal norms of racial discrimination. His activism and ability to inspire change through nonviolent resistance ultimately contributed to the progress of civil rights in the United States.

Another example of philosophical iconoclasm can be seen in the context of right-wing Hindu nationalism in India. Certain groups and individuals promote exclusive religious ideologies, seeking to establish Hindu orthodoxy and marginalize religious minorities.

This ideology challenges the pluralistic ideals of secular India and seeks to redefine the social and political landscape.

In conclusion, philosophical iconoclasts are individuals who challenge established ideas and institutions.

Their ability to question the status quo and push the boundaries of conventional wisdom can lead to transformative changes in society. Examples of such iconoclasts, like Albert Einstein and Martin Luther King Jr., have reshaped our understanding of the world and have sparked movements for justice and equality.

It is through their courage and willingness to challenge existing paradigms that progress is achieved. In this comprehensive article, we have explored the concept of iconoclasm throughout history, ranging from religious iconoclasm in the Bible and Byzantine Empire to reformation and secularist iconoclasm.

We have also examined the role of philosophical iconoclasts, who challenge prevailing beliefs and institutions to bring about positive change. Overall, this discussion highlights the significance of iconoclasm in shaping societies and ideologies.

By questioning established norms and embracing new perspectives, iconoclasts have the power to challenge and transform the world we live in. Let us remember the importance of critical thinking and the potential impact of challenging the status quo.

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