…of Christendom. No, this will not be a story of the Reformation.
The Age of Paradise: Christendom from Pentecost to the First Millennium, by John Strickland
By the middle of the eighth century, the southern territories of Christendom had been all but consumed by the conquests of the Umayyad Caliphate….
It will also not be a story of iconoclasm by the Muslims.
But first, a backstory. By this point, the integrity of the Roman Empire had been greatly compromised. Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa were all overrun by Muslim armies. Despite having second-class status, the Christians in these lands were granted some toleration as they constituted the majority in these lands and were necessary for effective administration.
They also had religious autonomy, however they could not convert Muslims, build new churches, even maintain existing churches. The cross could not be displayed, and bells could not be rung. Even with this, many of the Christian clergy supported this Arab colonization:
Bishops enjoyed a privileged status under the caliphate, being assigned the responsibility of overseeing their fellow dhimmis.
A large number of these bishops were Monophysites, persecuted under Byzantine rule; they saw the Arabs as a lesser evil. Becoming both agents and victims of this long-term subjugation, resistance to the pressures of apostasy would dissolve. The Syrian and Coptic churches survive to this day, but the numbers are rather insignificant.
The rest of Christendom would have suffered a similar fate if not for two men: Byzantine Emperor Leo III in the East, and Charles Martel in the West. In 718, the Arab forces against Byzantium finally relented; in 732, Martel was victorious in the Battle of Tours. European Christendom was saved, only to fall into another internally divisive period.
For Muslims and Jews, the making of images was precluded; however, icons were prevalent throughout Christendom. This would change under Emperor Leo III, who formed the conviction that the widespread use of icons was causing the empire to lose its faith. Leo decided in 726 to launch Christendom’s first iconoclastic movement, preceding the Reformation by about 800 years.
It began with the icon of Christ Pantocrator, standing at the top of the Chalke Gate. As the workers assembled to remove it, a riot broke out; the foreman of the crew was lynched. This did not dissuade Leo. He continued, persecuting and deposing any bishops who opposed him – no separation of church and emperor here.
Leo died in 740. His son and heir, Constantine V, only increased the policy; he convened a council of his bishops – not an ecumenical council, despite the claim. Suffice it to say, the vast majority of bishops did not agree with the conclusion.
The iconoclastic argument was refuted by John of Damascus. How did John manage this? He argued that as God commanded the Israelites to make graven images of cherubim, icons were acceptable. But what of Jesus? His humanity was as real as his divinity; the transcendent God had entered creation and assumed human form. It was this human form that was captured; the Incarnation was at the center of the defense of icons. In 787, at the Seventh Ecumenical Council, John’s arguments carried the day.
But this did not last long. Constantine VI and his mother, Irene, offered the latest chapter in Byzantine court intrigue. He an iconoclast, she an iconophile. As he was young, the two would be co-emperors – but such an arrangement wouldn’t last long.
In 790, Constantine would move to remove Irene from power, acting with great cruelty, blinding his enemies at the court, including his own uncle. His actions led to a return to iconoclasm, despite the ruling of the recent council.