Michael Psellos › Alexios I Komnenos › Byzantine Icons » Origins and History

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  • Michael Psellos › Who was
  • Alexios I Komnenos › Who was
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Michael Psellos  › Who was

Definition and Origins

Author: Mark Cartwright

Michael Psellos (1018 - c. 1082 CE) was a Byzantine historian, writer, and intellectual. Michael acted as courtier and advisor to several Byzantine emperors, and he was the tutor of Michael VII. Writing between 1042 and 1078 CE, his texts combine theology, philosophy , and psychology, while his most famous work is the Chronographia , a series of biographies on emperors and empresses, which has proved an invaluable source on the Byzantine Empire of the 11th century CE.


Born in Constantinople in 1018 CE and given the name Constantine by his aristocratic parents, Michael later changed his name when he joined a monastery mid-career. Prior to that decision he successfully converted his early promise as a child prodigy when he was taught by John Mauropous (a future bishop), rose from the rather low starting point of a judge's clerk, and enjoyed a glittering career in the imperial administration in the capital of the Byzantine Empire , Constantinople. One of the court's intellectuals - and there were many at the time - Michael was an influential writer who combined both philosophy and theology in his letters and books which also encompassed a wide range of other subjects from rhetoric to law, medicine to history. He examined the psychological motivations of friendships and rulership, emphasised the importance of nature ( physis) in human affairs and revived an interest in Neoplatonism. He was a member of the vibrant intellectual scene of Constantinople for decades and counted the city ’s patriarchs (bishops) John VIII Xiphilinos and Constantine Leichoudes as his friends.
Michael, although his long presence at court made him a perfect advisor for many short-reigning emperors, was not always a favourite in every ruler's court in his lifetime. There was a falling-out with the emperor Constantine IX (r. 1042-1055 CE) which led to Michael becoming a monk in a monastery on Mount Olympus. However, in 1045 CE, there was a reconciliation and Constantine made Michael the head of the refounded University of Constantinople. The scholar was given the impressive title of hypatos ton philosophon or Consul of the Philosophers. At the university, he focussed particularly on Rhetoric. Michael wrote widely on an impressive range of topics, for example, publishing his letters, a topography of ancient Athens , a summary of Homer ’s Iliad , a treatise on alchemy, seven eulogies, countless poems, and a comprehensive list of illnesses. Michael died around 1082 CE, although some scholars prefer a later date of 1096 CE.


Michael Psellos' most famous work is the Chronographia (' Chronicle ') which covers the history of the Byzantine Empire from 976 to 1078 CE. It seemed that his time at court was mere preparation for his true vocation or, as the historian ERA Sewter puts it in his introduction to his translation of the Chronographia , “the unusual triumphs of a political career are surpassed by his brilliance as a scholar” (14).
Michael's vivid descriptions of Byzantine emperors examine what might have led to the dramatic decline of the empire following the reign of Basil II (976-1025 CE). As an advisor to several emperors and both tutor and then chief minister to Michael VII (r. 1071-1078 CE), Michael was able to draw on personal experience and his privileged access to the imperial court to give a unique insight into Byzantine politics. The historian's influence at court is illustrated by his persuasion of Constantine X (r. 1059-1067 CE) to appoint the previously unfavoured John VIII Xiphilinos patriarch in 1064 CE. Indeed, Michael had contributed to Constantine's accession to the throne. For this reason, perhaps, the work is often a personal one, written in the first person and openly expressing the writer's views. It is also well to remember, though, that Michael, besides being a remarkable scholar, was also “self-seeking, conceited, sanctimonious and untrustworthy” (Norwich, 230), as is obvious from many purple passages of praise in his biographies, and so his history is rarely a wholly objective one.
The Chronographia does lack a military perspective and a wider view of international affairs, focusing as it does on domestic policies and the personalities of the rulers, and how these may have affected their decisions and successes or failures. There is a curious omission of names at times and a definite selection of facts. Michael was also a member of the ruling aristocracy, even if it was the intellectual branch, and the Chronographia does lack any discussion of the lot and role of the peasantry within the Byzantine state. Still, these omissions are not unique for writers of his time, and the work as a whole is one of the most important on Byzantine history that has been handed down to us. Further, Michael himself states in a private letter that the work is not intended to be comprehensive history nor to present the whole truth:
As I say, I am not making any attempt at the moment to investigate the especial circumstances of each event. My object is rather to pursue a middle course between those who recorded the imperial acts of Ancient Rome , on the one hand, and our modern chroniclers, on the other. I have neither aspired to the diffuseness of the former, nor have I sought to imitate the extreme brevity of the latter. (16)
The Chronographia covers the following 14 Byzantine rulers (all quotes are from the ERA Sewter translation):
Basil II (r. 976-1025 CE)
Basil's character was two-fold, for he readily adapted himself no less to the crises of war than to the calm of peace. Really, if the truth be told, he was more of a villain in wartime, more of an emperor in time of peace.Outbursts of wrath he controlled and, like the proverbial “fire under the ashes” kept anger hidden in his heart, but, if his orders were disobeyed in war, on returning to his palace he would kindle his wrath and reveal it. Terrible then was the vengeance he took on the miscreant. (47-8)

Coin of Basil II

Constantine VIII (r. 1025-1028 CE)
A person of decidedly effeminate character with but one object in life - to enjoy himself to the full. Since he inherited a treasury crammed with money, he was able to follow his natural inclination, and the new ruler devoted himself to a life of luxury. (53)
Romanos III (r. 1028-1034 CE)
He had a graceful turn of speech and a majestic utterance. A man of heroic stature, he looked every inch a king.His idea of his own range of knowledge was vastly exaggerated, but wishing to model his reign on those of the great Antonines of the past, the famous philosopher Marcus and Augustus , he paid attention particularly to two things: the study of letters and the science of war. Of the latter he was completely ignorant, and as for letters, his experience was far from profound. (63-4)
Michael IV (r. 1034-1041 CE)
I am aware that many chroniclers of his life will, in all probability, give an account different from mine, for in his time false opinions prevailed. But I took part in these events, and besides that, I have acquired information of a more confidential nature from men who were his intimate friends…For my own part, when I examine his deeds and compare successes with failures, I find that the former were the more numerous. (109 & 118)
Michael V (r. 1041-1042 CE)
A second peculiarity was the contradiction in the man between heart and tongue - he would think one thing and say something quite different. Men would often stir him to anger and yet meet with a reception of more than usual friendliness when they came to him…There were several examples, of men, who, at dawn the next morning, were destined by him to undergo the most horrible tortures, being made to share his table at dinner, the evening before…The man was a slave to his anger, changeable, stirred to hatred and wrath by any chance happening. (125-6)
Theodora (r. 1042 CE & 1055-1056 CE)
Without the slightest embarrassment she assumed the duties of a man and she abandoned all pretence of acting through her ministers. She herself appointed her officials, dispensed justice from her throne with due solemnity, exercised her vote in the courts of law, issued decrees, sometimes in writing, sometimes by word of mouth. She gave orders, and her manner did not always show consideration for the feelings of her subjects, for she was sometimes more than a little abrupt. (261-2)
Zoe (r. 1042 CE)
Zoe was a woman of passionate interests, prepared with equal enthusiasm for both alternatives - death or life, I mean. In that she reminded me of sea-waves, now lifting a ship on high and then again plunging it down to the depths. (157)
Constantine IX (r. 1042-1055 CE)
In the emperor's case, the people were convinced that some supernatural power foretold him the future: because of this he had more than once shown himself undaunted in time of calamity. Hence, they argued, his contempt of danger and his utter nonchalance. (204)
Michael VI (r. 1056-1057 CE)
In the case of the aged Michael, the conferring of honours surpassed the bounds of propriety. He promoted individuals, not to the position immediately superior to that they already occupied, but elevated them to the next rank and the one above that…His generosity led to a state of absolute chaos. (275-6)
Isaac (r. 1057-1059 CE)
When dealing with ambassadors he pursued no set policy, except that he always held converse with them dressed in the most magnificent apparel. On those occasions he poured out a flood of words, more abundant than the rising Nile in Egypt or Euphrates splashing against the shores of Assyria . He made peace with those who desired it, but with the threat of war if they transgressed so much as one term of his treaty. (306)
Constantine X (r. 1059-1067 CE)
He was a keen student of literature and a favourite saying was this: 'Would that I were better known as a scholar than as emperor!' (344)
Eudokia (r. 1067 CE)
Her pronouncements had the note of authority which one associates with an emperor. Nor was this surprising, for she was in fact an exceedingly clever woman. On either side of her were the two sons, both of whom stood almost rooted to the spot, quite overcome with awe and reverence for their mother. (345)
Romanos IV (r. 1068-1071 CE)
With his usual contempt of all advice, whether on matters civil or military, he at once set out with his army and hurried to Caesarea . Having reached that objective, he was loath to advance any further and tried to find excuses for returning to Byzantium . (354)
Michael VII (r. 1071-1078 CE) - an unfinished biography.
I must first beg my readers not to look upon my version of the man's character and deeds as exaggerated. On the contrary, I shall hardly do justice to either. As I write these words, I find myself overcome by the same emotions as I often feel when I am in his presence: the same wonder thrills me. Indeed, it is impossible for me not to admire him. (367)

Alexios I Komnenos  › Who was

Definition and Origins

Author: Mark Cartwright

Alexios I Komnenos (Alexius Comnenus) was emperor of the Byzantine Empire from 1081 to 1118 CE. Regarded as one of the great Byzantine rulers, Alexios defeated the Normans, the Pechenegs, and, with the help of the First Crusaders, the Seljuks to put the empire back on its feet after years of decline. He would found the Komnenoi dynasty which included five emperors who ruled until 1185 CE. The emperor's life was recorded in the Alexiad , written by his daughter Anna Komnene.


Alexios came from a military family from Asia Minor , and he had royal blood for he was the nephew of Emperor Isaac Komnenos (r. 1057-1059 CE). Alexios' father was John Komnenos, a senior military commander of the imperial guard ( domestikos of the Scholai ), and his mother, Anna Dalassena, was from a respected aristocratic family. In 1078 CE he married Irene Doukaina, who was distantly related to two former emperors and an ex-Tsar of the Bulgars. Alexios certainly had the pedigree to rise to the very top. He excelled in the army and rose to the position of general under Emperor Michael IV (r. 1034-1041 CE), never losing a battle .
Alexios, still a general but aged just 24, led a revolt against Emperor Nikephoros III (r. 1078-1081 CE) in 1081 CE after a series of damaging military defeats shrank the empire and threatened even the capital Constantinople . The economy was also stuttering with Nikephoros forced to devalue the gold nomisma , the main coinage of Byzantium . The aged Nikephoros saw the writing on the wall and abdicated, later retiring to a monastic life. Encouraged by his mother and backed by an alliance of powerful aristocratic families, Alexios took the vacant throne on Easter Day 1081 CE and made Anna, his mother, his chief advisor, granting her equal powers with himself in an imperial edict. Known for her piety, she was, nevertheless, as ruthless and able a politician as any male member of the court.
Alexios' eldest daughter, Anna Komnene, was for a time his official heir following her marriage to Constantine Doukas, the son of Michael VII (r. 1071-1078 CE). In 1092 CE Alexios had a son, John, who became his chosen heir. When Constantine Doukas died an early death, Anna married the gifted general Nikephoros Bryennios the Younger and plotted with her grandmother, Anna Dalassene, to make her new husband the next emperor, although this plan failed, largely because Nikephoros remained loyal to the official heir John. Alexios' eldest daughter turned out to be a historian of note, whose work on 11th-century CE Byzantium has become an invaluable source for her modern colleagues in that field. Her Alexiad covers the period 1069 to 1118 CE and is principally a tribute to her father. The work is the only such book written by a woman in the Middle Ages.


The Norman Invasion
The Byzantine Empire had been shrinking during the 11th century CE, but Alexios would oversee a string of victories against the peoples harassing the borders of his kingdom. The first group to be driven back and the most dangerous were the Normans. These descendants of Vikings, who had already conquered Byzantine territories in southern Italy between 1057 and 1071 CE, were led by Robert Guiscard (the “Crafty”), the Duke of Apulia. Robert, having betrothed his son to a daughter of Michael VII, was doubly dangerous as he could turn into a rallying point for disaffected members of the Byzantine court. Robert conquered Bari in 1071 CE, Palermo in 1072 CE, and Salerno, the last Lombard stronghold, in 1076 CE. In 1081 CE Robert and his son Bohemund became even more ambitious and attacked Byzantine Greece .

The Byzantine Empire c. 1090 CE

Alexios held the Normans back in 1082 CE despite defeats in the field and forced Robert to return to Italy to defend his interests at home. Alexios had been the crafty one and had signed a treaty of alliance with Robert's rival Henry IV, the King of the Romans, and paid a hefty fee in gold to Robert's nephew Abelard to raise a revolt in Italy. However, Bohemund continued with successes in Macedon and Thessaly, and Robert's return saw a resounding defeat of Alexios' Venetian allies in 1084 CE.Then the tide began to turn when the Norman army was hit by a devastating wave of typhoid fever in 1085 CE and Robert was one of its victims. Alexios then managed to retake Dyracchion (aka Durazzo), an important port in Dalmatia, and the Norman conquest of Greece collapsed.
The Pechenegs
Between 1085 and 1091 CE the northern frontiers of the empire saw similar incursions, in this case from the Pechenegs (aka Patzinaks), a nomadic people of the Eurasian Steppe. In past centuries the Pechenegs had served as mercenaries in the Byzantine army and been, on occasion, a useful buffer against the Bulgars and Rus, but in the mid-11th century CE they crossed the Danube and attacked Byzantine Thrace. They attacked Thracian cities again in 1087 CE, and in 1090 CE, they besieged Constantinople. The Pechenegs were joined by their allies the Seljuks, but neither could make any impression on the capital's famous fortifications, the Theodosian Walls . Alexios then responded by joining forces temporarily with the Cumans (the Turkish-speaking nomads from central Asia renowned for their archery skills) and inflicting a comprehensive defeat on the troublesome nomads on 29 April 1091 CE at the battle of Mount Lebounion. Resettling some of the defeated warriors, others were incorporated into the Byzantine army as mercenaries.
The First Crusade
Bohemund the Norman would turn up again in Byzantine affairs 12 years after his last encounter with Alexios, when he led the First Crusade which arrived in Constantinople in 1097 CE. Actually, it was Alexios himself who had invited mercenaries from the west to help him reconquer Asia Minor by writing letters to both Count Robert of Flanders and Pope Urban II - and come they did, albeit with the grander aim of retaking Jerusalem for Christendom after its loss to the Muslims in 1077 CE. The first group to arrive in Constantinople was a rabble army led by Peter the Hermit. Pillaging and raping wherever they went, Alexios had them shipped off to Asia Minor as soon as possible where they met a predictably bloody end at the hands of the Seljuk army. The Seljuks were horsemen descended from a Turkish nomadic tribe, and they had formed the powerful Sultanate of Rum with their capital at Nicaea. The next wave of Crusaders to arrive in the East were a much more professional-looking group led by the finest knights and nobles of western Europe .
Initially, it seemed that the Normans and other Crusaders could usefully combine their forces with the Byzantine armies, Bohemund even swearing allegiance to the emperor along with the other Crusader leaders. Alexios used the Crusaders well, despite the rape and pillage perpetrated by the less pious members of the western armies which were causing chaos as they crossed Europe. Alexios may well have planned for a few new Christian kingdoms to act as a useful buffer on the empire's border, and so he directed them to free parts of Asia Minor from the Seljuks. With a mixed force of Crusaders, Alexios thus managed to recapture Nicaea in 1097 CE.
Antioch in Syria was the next big capture in June 1098 CE, but unfortunately for Alexios, on his way to support the siege he had met refugees from the area who wrongly informed him that the Crusaders were on the brink of defeat to a huge Muslim army and so the emperor returned home. Bohemund, not best pleased to find out his army had been abandoned by the Byzantines, decided to renege on his vow to return all captured territory to the emperor and kept the city for himself. The relations were thus irrevocably soured between the two leaders. Meanwhile, on 15 July 1099 CE, the Crusaders finally achieved their aim and Jerusalem was taken, the Muslim and Jewish inhabitants ruthlessly slaughtered.
The crises between the two halves of the Christian world deepened when the Normans headed back to Italy and began to plan for a Second Crusade, but this time against the Byzantine Empire whom western Christians always viewed with a healthy suspicion given their decadence and heretical religious practices. In 1107 CE the Normans, once more led by Bohemund, besieged Dyracchion. Bohemund's army was defeated, though, and the Norman leader was forced to sign the Treaty of Devol in 1108 CE, which effectively removed any Norman threat from Byzantine territory for half a century.


Alexios' policies towards Venice would have significant consequences. In 1082 CE the Venetians were granted unrestricted trade across the Byzantine Empire, exemption from customs duties (10% of sales at the time), and even the odd warehouse and quay in Constantinople. This was in return for their crucial naval help in battling the Normans, but it would prove to be an overly generous act which hurt the Byzantine purse for decades to come and allowed Venice to develop a damaging stranglehold on trade in the East, thus establishing itself as one of the great naval powers of the Mediterranean. Similar concessions, albeit lesser ones (including a reduction of customs duties to 4%), were later granted to Genoa and Pisa whose fleets had been ravaging the Ionian coast.


Once he had taken over the leadership of the Romans, being always a man of action, he at once became immersed in matters of state…Alexios, the master of the science of government, directed all of his innovations towards the good of the Empire itself.
Alexiad (in Herrin, 235)
Things were not always tranquil at home for Alexios either, with a revolt springing up in 1095 CE. Led by Nikephoros Diogenes, the plot was quashed, and emperor's mother had the ringleader blinded. Alexios, understandably, reorganised the Byzantine court titles as part of his restructuring of the state bureaucracy where he mainly placed family connections whom he trusted in positions of power. Those aristocrats loyal to the emperor were awarded land and tax-collecting rights in the provinces. Alexios also used marriage alliances to great effect to unify the realm, notably joining the two great and often-feuding families of Komnenos and Doukas.

Byzantine Hyperpyron of Alexios I

The emperor struggled to gain the necessary cash to pay the mercenaries he employed in his army, and for this reason, he melted down many Church valuables and raised taxes to four times their previous levels - payable in cash or labour.Compulsory military service was another unfortunate reality for much of the Byzantine peasantry. As part of his monetary reforms, a new coin was introduced, the hyperpyron (meaning “highly refined”), in 1092 CE. Made from electrum (a gold and silver alloy), it was worth one-third of the old standard gold nomisma, which had suffered under the fiscal policies of Alexios' predecessor. The hyperpyron became the new Byzantine coin standard against which all others were measured and valued until the 15th century CE.
Alexios was not shy about intervening in religious affairs, either. He re-established imperial control of the Church, reducing the power of the bishops, and he vigorously supported Orthodoxy, quashing any challengers to it. One notable group to be persecuted was the Bogomils which sprang up in Bulgaria renouncing all worldly affairs and proposing civil disobedience to its followers. Initially a movement aimed at Byzantine cultural imperialism, it spread across Western Europe and even to the heart of the Byzantine Empire. Alexios captured the Bogomil movement leader Basil - not so difficult considering they were pacifists - and had him burned to death in the Hippodrome of Constantinople.
Another target for Alexios' Orthodox zealousness was John Italos, the head of a school of philosophy in Constantinople.Considered a heretic for his Neoplatonism and picked out as a scapegoat warning for those who insisted on mixing philosophy and theology, John Italos was condemned in 1082 CE. On a more positive note, Alexios supported monasteries on Mount Athos in northern Greece and gave the island of Patmos in the Aegean to Christodoulos who founded the monastery of Saint John the Theologian in 1088 CE. The actual decree for this tax-free gift survives today in the monastery library archives.


When Alexios died of disease on 15 August 1118 CE, his son John became emperor as John II Komnenos. One of his first acts was to banish his scheming sister Anna to a monastery, but at least this allowed her to write her Alexiad history in peace.John reigned until 1143 CE, and he would continue the military successes of his father with victories in the Balkans and Asia Minor. The historian TE Gregory here summarises the accomplishments of Alexios I Komnenos:
He rescued the Byzantine state from the threat of imminent dissolution. He faced a series of serious military threats, and, through a combination of diplomacy, personal cunning, and his own military ability, he generally emerged the victor. By the time of his death Byzantium was once again the most powerful state in the eastern Mediterranean. (298)

Byzantine Icons  › Origins

Ancient Civilizations

Author: Mark Cartwright

Icons, that is images of holy persons, were an important part of the Byzantine Christian Church from the 3rd century CE onwards. Venerated in churches, public places, and private homes, they were often believed to have protective properties. The veneration of icons split the Church in the 8th and 9th century CE as two opposing camps developed - those for and those against their use in Christian worship - a situation which led to many icons being destroyed and the persecution of those who venerated them.

Jesus Christ


The word icon derives from the Greek eikon which is variously translated as 'image', 'likeness' or 'representation'. Although the term may apply to any representation of a holy figure ( Jesus Christ , the Virgin Mary, apostle, saint or archangel) in a mosaicwall painting, or as small artworks made from wood, metal, gemstones, enamel, or ivory, it is most often used specifically for images painted on small portable wooden panels. These panels were usually created using the encaustic technique where coloured pigments were mixed with wax and burned into the wood as an inlay.
The subject in icons is typically portrayed full frontal, with either the full figure shown or the head and shoulders only. They stare directly at the viewer as they were designed to facilitate communication with the divine. Figures often have a nimbus or halo around them to emphasise their holiness. More rarely, icons are composed of a narrative scene. Not produced for art's sake, they were designed for devotional purposes and to help people better understand the figures they were praying to, and bridge the gap between the divine and humanity.
The artistic conventions seen in icons such as naturalism and the hierarchy of figures would influence Byzantine art in general.Another development was the iconostasis, a free-standing construction with the express purpose of housing an icon. These 'image stands' were often set up in the countryside, sometimes to commemorate a particular event or the site of an ancient church. Another type of iconostasis is the tall wooden screen seen in eastern churches which stands in front of the altar and is decorated with several icons.
The most revered of all icons were those classified as acheiropoietos , that is, not made by human hands but made by a miracle. These icons were often believed to have protective powers ( palladia ) not only over individuals but also over entire cities during times of war . One famous example is the icon of the Virgin Mary which was held responsible for protecting Constantinople during the siege of 626 CE when it was paraded around the Theodosian Walls by the bishop of the citySergios. Indeed, this icon of Mary, in a pose where she holds the infant Jesus , known as Theotokos, gave rise to the city's second name as Theotokoupolis, "the city guarded by Theotokos". Byzantine ships frequently carried icons on their masts and armies carried them as banners in battle for the same reasons.
Finally, many ordinary believers had their own family icons in their homes or carried one on their person for divine protection much as earlier representations of pagan gods had been used and worshipped in a domestic setting independent of priest or temple . These small icons could take the form of miniature panels with a protective lid, necklaces, or pilgrim flasks made from clay or silver bearing an image of the holy figure subject to the pilgrimage made. As in churches, icons were prayed and bowed to, kissed, and had incense and tapers lit before them.


The veneration of icons in Christianity has always had an ambiguous history, with the practice receiving as many critics as supporters. Critics of the practice cite the instructions given to Moses by God that the people of Israel should not worship idols or graven images as recorded in the Old Testament book of Exodus (20:4-5 and 34:17) and then repeated exactly in Deuteronomy (5:8-9). However, icons are known to have been produced from the 3rd century CE and to have become popular from the 6th century CE.

Icon of St. Cyprian

In the 8th century CE, the Byzantine Church was rocked by the movement of iconoclasm, literally the "destruction of images" which peaked in two periods: 726-787 CE and 814-843 CE. The historian TE Gregory here summarises the debate:
Iconoclast theologians began to see connections with the theological disputes of the past 400 years: they argued that images, in fact, raised once again the Christological problems of the fifth century. In their view, if one accepted the veneration of ikons of Christ, one was guilty of either saying that the painting was a representation of God himself (thus merging the human and the divine elements of Christ into one) or, alternatively, maintaining that the ikon depicted Christ's human form alone (thus separating the human and the divine elements of Christ) - neither of which was acceptable. (212)
Defenders of icons insisted that God could never be captured in art anyway and an icon is only ever one person's vision of that God. Consequently, there is no danger of such works becoming universal idols as they are a mere imperfect reflection of the divine reality. In addition, they have a useful function in helping the illiterate understand the divine. Such iconophile scholars as John of Damascus (c. 675 - c. 753 CE) also insisted that there was a difference between veneration and all-out worship:
When God is seen clothed in flesh, and conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honouring that matter which works my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God. (Gregory, 205)
The debate raged on for decades; Byzantine emperor Leo III (r. 717-741 CE) and his successor Constantine V (r. 741-775 CE) were particularly vehement opponents of icons, with the former infamously destroying the largest icon in Constantinople, the golden Christ above his own palace gates. Constantine V was even more zealous and actively persecuted those who venerated icons, the iconophiles. The Pelekete monastery on Mt. Olympus was infamously burned down, and many others were stripped of their treasures. Mutilations, stonings, and executions were carried out on those who did not toe the line.

Byzantine Iconoclasm

A second wave of iconoclasm arrived in the first half of the 9th century CE, especially during the reign of Theophilos (829-842 CE). The emperor decided to attack the very source of icons: the monks who produced them and so such noted icon-painters as Theophanes Graptos and his brother Theodore had their foreheads branded as a warning to others.
The issue not only split the Byzantine Church but the whole Christian world, with the Popes supporting the use of icons. When Leo III formally decreed in 730 CE that all icons must be destroyed, Pope Gregory III responded by stating that anyone guilty of such destruction would be excommunicated. The fierce debate was fuelled by political rivalries and the ongoing wrestle for supremacy in the Church between the east and west.
As a consequence of the controversy, a huge number of icons were destroyed or defaced with many wall paintings repainted with simple crosses, the only symbol permissible to the iconoclasts. A large number of icons were, though, saved and spirited away to the greater safety of the eastern parts of the empire . The issue was settled by Michael III (r. 842-867 CE) and Theodora, his regent mother, who had the veneration of icons proclaimed Orthodox in 843 CE. This official ending of the icon debate is still celebrated by Eastern Christians today as the “ Triumph of Orthodoxy” on the first Sunday of Lent.

Theodora & Michael III


The Kamoulianai icon was considered to have been created by a miracle. The image of Christ appeared on a linen cloth when it was immersed in water and this cloth was then taken to Constantinople in 574 CE. Once there, it was held responsible for certain miracles and was called upon to protect the city against the siege of 626 CE by the Avars , which ultimately failed.
The Hodegetria icon (“She who points the Way”) of Constantinople was a painted image of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus in her left arm while she points to Christ with her right hand. It was housed in the Hodegon monastery of the capital. It was believed to have been painted by Saint Luke, even if that tradition only developed from the 11th century CE. Unfortunately, the icon was cut into four pieces by the Turks who stormed Constantinople in 1453 CE and has since been lost. The image was much copied in Christian art, one of the most famous being the wall mosaic in the Church of the Panagia Angeloktistos at Kiti, Cyprus .
The Mandylion icon (the “Scarf”) was another miracle icon, probably the first of its kind, which had the image of Christ on it.According to the legend which is first recorded in the 6th century CE, Abgar V, the 1st-century CE king of Edessa in Syriabecame seriously ill and he called on Jesus Christ to cure him. Unable to visit in person, Christ pressed his face against a cloth, which left an impression, and then sent the cloth to Abgar. On receiving the gift, the king was miraculously cured. The image was copied in many wall-paintings and domes in churches around Christendom as it became the standard representation known as the Pantokrator (All-Ruler) with Christ full frontal holding a Gospel book in his left hand and performing a blessing with his right. Two of the most famous instances of the Pantokrator were in the Pantokrator Monastery in Constantinople and the church at Daphne (c. 1100 CE), near Athens .

Icon of Christ Pantokrator

The Mandylion was often cited in theological arguments for Christ's incarnation as a real man, and it was also the basis of depictions of Christ on Byzantine coinage . The Mandylion was taken from Edessa in 944 CE when the Byzantine general John Kourkouas took it in exchange for lifting his siege of the city. From there it was taken to Constantinople and kept in the royal palace. During the Fourth Crusade when Constantinople was sacked in 1204 CE, the Mandylion was taken as a prize to France. Alas, this most precious icon of all was destroyed during the French Revolution.
Many other important icons are dotted around the world in churches and museums but an especially large number are to be found in Rome and at the Holy Monastery of Saint Catherine in Sinai which has several dating to the 6th century CE, including a magnificent Pantokrator, probably donated by Justinian I (r. 527-565 CE) to mark the monastery's foundation.
Article based on information obtained from these sources:
with permission from the Website Ancient History Encyclopedia
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