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The Iconoclastic Period

The Iconoclastic period was a sad time in Byzantine (Eastern Roman Empire)  history.  Many icons treasures of Byzantium were destroyed, and  icons were forbidden.   Even St. Sophia in Constantinople became a barren church as icons were stripped from its walls. 

In the Eighth century the emperor Leo III the Isaurian, placed a ban on all icons throughout the empire.  He felt that many people worshiped the images in the icons, and had caused the empire to fall out of favor with god.  The Iconocolastic controversy lasted from 726-843  and was a time of great toil in the empire, until it was brought to an end by the Empress Theodora in 843.

It began  as a result of continual loss of territory to the Muslims.   It was believed that the Byzantine empire  must have offended god and lost favor with him.  The loss of favor must have been the reason that they were losing ground against the enemies of the empire.  They Byzantines (East Romans)  looked far an wide and could find nothing wrong with their empire, nor their belief.  

Then came the dreaded idea that Christianity had moved towards paganism by adopting icons.  Icons were stripped from churches and monasteries and were burned in the hope that God would find favor with them once again.  The Byzantine  fear of the rising power of their enemies caused them to neglect  holy fathers such as St. Basil who wrote in the 4th century that even the first Christians had icons for the illiterate to glorify god.  Finally after 100 years iconoclasm was brought to an end by the empress Theodora.

The majority of the clergy and the monastic community opposed the ban on icons.  Many kept silent out of fear of the Byzantine Emperor.  Anyone who opposed the ban was persecuted by the Byzantine Emperor.  St. John of Damascus (675-749),  wrote many historic writings in defense of  Icons.  St. John was able to write freely  as he lived under Muslim rule beyond the reach of the Byzantine emperors.  Had St. John lived within the Byzantine empire, his writings would never have been permitted, and would have been destroyed. 

 

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