Inventing Byzantine Iconoclasm.
This summary of Leslie Brubaker and John Haldon's Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era has the same primary purpose as that longer book: to show that what Byzantine sources and most modern scholars have said about iconoclasm is false. Although Haldon has complained that others have ignored this work, Brubaker remarks more diplomatically that "The new understanding of Byzantine iconomachy explored in this book has not yet reached most mainstream historical handbooks"; although Paul Speck asserted something like it as early as 1981 (7).
Brubaker is correct that the Byzantines, while often referring to "iconoclasts" (eikonoklastai, "icon-smashers"), used a word for the iconoclastic movement (eikonomachia, "fighting against icons") that is more likely "iconomachy" than "iconoclasm" (3-4). But "iconoclasm," not "iconomachy," has become the standard term in English and is no more misleading than calling Eastern Romans "Byzantines," another standard modern term that Byzantines never used.
Brubaker's really significant claims are that, contrary to what the sources say, the emperor Leo III [717-741] was not opposed to religious images, his son Constantine V [741-775] was only a moderate iconoclast, and monks particularly opposed iconoclasm. Her claims depend on ignoring the relevant sources: the letters of the Patriarchs Germanus [715-730], the chronicles of Nicephorus and Theophanes, and the Life of St. Stephen the Younger. The latter two, written around 814 and 809, respectively, Brubaker dismisses as late texts that were biased against "the emperor of [their authors'] youths, Constantine V," and by extension against his father, Leo (28). Since without them there is "no evidence" that Leo outlawed icons, she can redate Germanus's letter stating that Leo was no iconoclast to "the 730s" rather than the generally accepted date before 726, when other sources say Leo introduced iconoclasm (23-24).
The reliability of the Life of St. Stephen is admittedly dubious, but the best reason for doubting it is its frequent disagreement with Nicephorus (writing around 791) and Theophanes. Those chroniclers clearly shared an iconophile source, which was also used by the iconophile Council of Nicaea of 787 and was therefore composed before that date. Any iconophile writing before 787 had every reason not to exaggerate but to minimize the iconoclastic measures of Leo III and Constantine V so that the icons could be restored with minimal harm to the reputation of the reigning dynasty. After all, the empress-regent Irene had been chosen by Constantine V to marry his son Leo IV [775-780], to whom she had borne the next emperor, Constantine VI [780-797]. When the icons were restored a second time in 843, the empress Theodora insisted on protecting her dynasty's reputation by concocting the fiction that her iconoclast husband Theophilus [829-842] had repented of iconoclasm on his deathbed (a story never mentioned by Brubaker). Irene could only have allowed an account of Leo III's and Constantine V's iconoclastic measures to be circulated in 787 if they were then so notorious that they could not be suppressed.
The argument that Byzantine iconoclasm was "invented" is based on a fallacy and has been ignored for good reason.
Saint Louis University
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2013|
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