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The Phenomena of Iconoclasm


According to the dictionary meaning of an icon, it is an image, likeness or a figure. An icon is used to represent an object, imaginary things or an individual. Using of icon by different religions and tribes has been taking place for a long time. The act takes place because of the changes that happen in the religious group. People who support iconoclasm are called iconoclasts. The same term is applied to refer to an individual who challenges the use of icons or symbols in religion. Christians, Hindus, Muslims and other religious groups use icon as a way to express their faith. There is a crisis in various religious groups because of the use of icons. There are controversies in these religious groups because of the use of icons, which has led to their division. These groups include those who support the use of icons and those that criticize their use, especially in worshiping structure or buildings such as the temples and churches.

Use of icons for political motives has also been seen in different countries. In the world, there are different religious and political groups that practice their religion in thir own ways. Therefore, the use of icons for political or religious motives depends on how the group deals with its customs and beliefs. The use of icons has gained support from people, but it has also been massively criticized because of various reasons. Some religious groups such the Christians support the use of icons, while other religious groups oppose it. The image below is an icon of Jesus used in churches.

The study will emphasize on the history of iconoclasm. It will show the various religious groups that have adopted iconoclasm. The impact and effect of iconoclasm in the field of art will be also discussed. The history of iconoclasm will be discussed in details in relation to the different periods when it was practiced. The political and religious motives of the act of iconoclasm will be taken into consideration. In this paper, images of icons will explain the phenomena of iconoclasm in both art and religious groups. The main goal of the paper is to investigate whether the Hindus and the Muslim accept iconoclasm in the religious groups. Therefore, the paper will determine the main reason that makes them support the act since some of the religious groups such as the Christians do not support iconoclasm (Boldrick).

This research paper will use the secondary material to elaborate on the phenomena of iconoclasm. The work of different authors will be used to explain the mentioned notion. Basically, to explain the mentioned topic, the paper will focus on the three main notions, which are iconoclasm, iconoclasts, and iconodules. Throughout the paper, the word iconoclasm would refer to an act of deliberately destroying and vandalizing religious icons and symbols, which reflects some religious or political motives. Iconodules are the believers of a religious group that do not support the destruction of religious icons and symbols. Lastly, the notion iconoclast refers to a believer of a religious group that supports the destruction of religious icons and symbols.

Background of the Study

Iconoclasm can be defined as the act of vandalizing and destroying religious icons or symbols with a voluntary intension. Iconoclasm has brought about a dispute between different religious groups. It has also led to the arguments between people in the same religion; for instance, this can be noted in Christianity, whereby some people supported the use of icons in churches, while other people differed with their argument. Those who do not support use the Ten Commandments as a way to prove their argument. According to them, the use of icons in churches symbolizes idolatry. In the Ten Commandments, the use of icons or idols is a sin, and they represent other gods. Therefore, in Christianity, the act of iconoclasm is motivated by the literal interpretation of the Bible, whereby the Christians are forbidden from worshiping idols in the Ten Commandments.

The icons reflect different motives in the religious group. The iconoclasm has a significant impact on the field of art in different eras. It is an act that has taken place in different periods. Some of the periods include the Byzantine period and the Reformation period. In the Byzantine period, there was a debate between different groups in the church that had the same belief. During this period, the church banned the use of some icons and images used in the church.

The History of Iconoclasm

Iconoclasm is not a new phenomenon. Some religious groups supported the act of destroying the images used in their sacred place, while other did not support. Those who support iconoclasms have their own points of view about it, while those who do not support have their various arguments concerning iconoclasm. Apart from iconoclasm taking place in the early centuries, it can be traced in the 21st century. Although iconoclasm originated during the Byzantine Era, where it first emerged, it was also happening in other parts of the world in different periods (Azam).

There are about hundreds of different religions in the world, and people have different views and opinions of how they view and practice their religions; therefore, iconoclasm exists in different religions and political groups. Some of the greatest iconoclasm acts were during the Byzantine period and Reformation period as well as in the Muslim and Hindu religion. For example, during the Byzantine period, there was a theological debate between the Byzantine church and the state; they banned the use of figural images. Thus, they destroyed and plastered over the existing icons. In this paper, the history of iconoclasm will be shown in the Byzantine and Reformation period. The papers will also expound on the Muslim and Hindu iconoclasm. It will explain in details how these two religious groups practiced iconoclasm (Boldrick).

Byzantine Era

In the Byzantine era, iconoclasm took place in two periods. In this era, religious images were scrutinized by the religion, the imperial authorities of Orthodox Church, and the imperial hierarchy, which was temporal. The first iconoclasm occurred between 726 and 787, while the second iconoclasm occurred in 814 and 842. In traditional views, the byzantine iconoclasm involved the ban of images used by a religious group. The Emperor Leo III was the first one to ban the images used in churches, and after his reign ended, his successors supported this act. During his reign, iconoclasm was accompanied by the prosecution of people who differed with him, and it also led to destruction of the images. Some of the researchers that involved themselves in the study of iconoclasm in the Byzantine era include John Haledon and Leslie Brubaker. They challenged all the assumptions laid down in this period and explained their arguments in details.

The first occurrence of the Byzantine iconoclasm some time in 726 and 730 brought about a controversy within the Emperor. The Byzantine emperor Leo III authorized the removal of an image of Christ at the gate of Chalke. The gate was a ceremonial entrance to the great palace of Constantinople. The emperor replaced the image of Christ with a cross. Some of the people who were ordered to remove the image were murdered by the iconodules, who supported the use of the images of Christ at the gate. According to some researchers, the removal of the images was caused by the military reversal and the volcanic eruption of the island of Thera. Leo took this as an evidence for the wrath of God brought about by the iconoclasm. Leo described the use of the image as idolatry; therefore, his explanation was direct, and he did not have to consult with the church so as to destroy or remove the image. Leo was surprised since he faced a large population of people who opposed the act of iconoclasm. Some of the people include the Germanos I of Constantinople and Patriarch of Constantinople, who resigned since they differed with Leo. According to this, the act was provocative to the church since it showed that the church war in error for a long time. People who opposed the idea of iconoclasm did not appreciate Leo’s action. They took various steps such as going to the imperial court to persuade the authority not to support iconoclasm. Germano also wrote letters to his subordinates seeking to change their behaviors regarding the support of iconoclasm. During this debate, Leo became a target, and it is because of this that his views concerning iconoclasm are obscure. The image below shows the act of Byzatine iconoclasm (Brubaker).

Also, during the debate argument were viewed on the criteria of practical evidence rather than theological evidence. When the icons were destroyed, no church council or prominent religious members were informed. After Leo’s death, he was succeeded by his son Constantine, who also did not support the use of images in the church. Constantine was different from his father since he consulted with the church before putting down the rules pertaining to iconoclasm. He assembled with a number of bishops and banished the use of a lifeless picture with material colors to represent Saints. The council claimed this to be legitimate, but this was not legitimate according to other traditions. Constantine was less rigorous than his father since he tried to support his argument with facts (Brubaker 143)

The second period of iconoclasm took place in the year 815, and this was the period when Leo V was in power. He revived the act of iconoclasm by using various people who include the priest, monks, and the members of the senate. During his reign, he appointed monks who researched on iconoclasm. It is during his reign that iconoclasm was made official by a council of Constantinople in Hagias Sophia (Mango).

During the era of Byzantine, there were arguments that were against the use of icons and also there were arguments that supported iconoclasm. For the sake of this research, the arguments that supported iconoclasm are iconoclast arguments, while those that are against iconoclasm are iconodule arguments.

Iconoclast Arguments

The iconoclasm did not support the use of lifeless images because the scripture had declared that it is wrong. Therefore, the people who involved themselves in using lifeless images to represent Jesus or other saints were going against their own scripture. The scripture considered these individuals as anathema.

According to the iconoclast argument, a real religious image was supposed to be exactly the same as its prototype, which should be of the same substance. This was considered to be impossible, but the body and blood of Christ are considered to be the true icons.

The iconoclasts also argued that, for an icon to be fully acceptable, it had to present both the divine and the human nature of the individual. This was also considered impossible since the making an icon of someone like Jesus will separate him from his human and his divine nature.

The iconoclasts argue that the use of icons is inappropriate since it makes Christianity similar to paganism. Pictures placed in the church are objects that are worshiped and adored. This is inconsistent with what the Ten Commandments consider upright.

The Main Views of Iconodules

The Iconodules assert that the incarnation of Jesus superseded the commandment that forbids God’s images. They argue that Jesus is incarnated and since he is the second person of the trinity, representing God’s appearance in the flesh was not sinful. The iconodules used this argument against what the iconoclast considered wrong.

They also argue that idols and icons are different. They consider an idol as an object that depicts a person with no substance or reality, while an icon is a real person. They compared this with the situations in the old testament whereby people gave out burnt sacrifices only to one god but not to other gods.

The other point they present to support the use of images is cited in the Bible in Exodus, whereby Moses followed God’s instructions of making golden statues. This scenario was used to prove that the icons were not forbidden by God so using them in the church was not sinful.

The iconodules also argue that the use of icons was not recorded since it was an oral tradition. Lastly, the iconodules argue that it is the responsibility of the church and not the emperor to discuss the matters regarding the church. Therefore, the state should not control matters that take place in the church.

Reformation Period

In this research paper, the reformation period will involve the period that started after the ninety five theses nailed by the Augustian monk Martin Luther on the door of the palace church in Wittenberg. The thesis brought controversy, and he was called to defend them, but he refused to show up in Augsburg, where the debate was to take place. His thesis marks the beginning of the Reformation. His critics concern the Babylonian captivity of the church and the validity of the seven sacraments. According to him, a sinful man could not get salvation by his good effort or work, but only by God’s grace. He says that salvation was only granted if one believed in God himself. The objective of Martin’s doctrine was to demand the reformation of the church. At first, the emperor and the church did not want this to go to public, and it is because of this that there was an imperial ban on him and his followers. Luther escaped and went to Germany, where he began translating the Bible. It is due to this that reformation spread quickly in Germany. He had a significant effect on decisions that Emperor Charles V made regarding the religious peace of Nuremberg. Luther had an immense influence since he converted many people to the reformed faith (Berns 199).

The reformers mainly targeted the use of images in the Roman Catholic Church. According to the reformers, it was impossible to create an image of God. Moreover, it was blasphemous to try to create the image since it was biblically prohibited. The reformers strongly rejected the use of the colored images to represent God. They argued that the painted and curved images were not representing the God’s glory, but they signified the wealth of the donor and the strong social position. The supports of these images argued that God had taken his human form and representing him was not sinful. They went ahead supporting their argument that the images used were to help the illiterate people in the society in worshiping God. However, this argument did not have any explanation to what the reformers considered being wrong (Salmond).

Though the reformers had a main objective, which was to criticize the images of saint in church, they had a different opinion on how to remove the existing art work that filled the church. The theologians, who are reformers, took a violent stance on removing the images, but their colleague Luther used convincing arguments so as the images could be removed. The theologians rioted in Wittenberg, and they demanded the removal of the images and paintings in the church. They removed the painted images and torn them during the riot. It is because of this riot that there were attacks on other different places with art works. Although Zwingli was a reformer, he advised the reforms not to use such force in removing the images. He even demanded that such iconoclasts should be punished. In some cities like Zurich, mass sacrifices were abolished, and the removal of images in churches was carried out in an orderly manner. Another violent iconoclast was Calvin. In the year 1566, in the northern Netherland, he demanded the removal of images in churches in a radical way.

The church had different groups that differed in their opinion on presence of the images and paintings on the walls and ceiling of the church. It is because of this reason that the church separated in two groups, which are the Protestants and the Reformers. The protestants supported the existence of the images and paintings in the churches, but the reformers were against the use of images in the churches. They both had different arguments regarding the images of Saints or Jesus in the church.

Islamic Iconoclasm

In Islamic history, iconoclasm is a fundamental act. The Muslims avoid depicting of living beings in their sacred places. The Muslim religion does not support the use of an iconic figure even though they are contained in various traditions such as the Hadith. The act of iconoclasm by the Muslims first occurred in 630. In this year, the Arabian Delites statues housed in Kaaba, in Mecca, were vandalized. In this period, some Christians were under the Muslim rule. They had the freedom of using images as icons in their churches and sacred places. However, the Yazid II ordered the removal of the icon, crosses, and Christian images that were in the caliphate territory. His policy of destroying the icon was not implemented by his successors; therefore, the Christians ended up making icons without the interruption from the Muslims (Jokisch).

The Muslim iconoclasm can be traced in the mid 1300s, whereby the Muslim armies vandalized the Great sphinx of Giza. The icon has a missing nose, which is the result of the destruction. During this period, the Muslim armies converted some of the worshiping houses into mosques. A good example is the Constantinople that was converted by the Muslims into a mosque. Some icons were covered with plaster and others were removed permanently when the temple was converted into a mosque.

The recent act of iconoclasm that has been taking place is the destruction of the Buddhas by the Afghanistan government. The action brought a worldwide controversy because some of the Muslim organizations, including the Muslim government, did not support it. This was because the act had not theological motives, but was motivated by politics.

The image below shows the Buddha that was destroyed by the Muslims. In the early years, the use of figures in the sacred places by the Muslims was more complex and meaningful than it has been acknowledged today by the modern Muslims. Destruction of icons occurred during the military conquest and political changes, especially in the south Asia.

In the eleventh century, the Muslims involved themselves in the looting of icons and some of them were subjected to destruction while others were stored. During the wars, the Muslims would always loot the icons and would use them as evidence of victory they gained after the war.

Hindus Iconoclasm

Hindu is also a religious group that supported iconoclasm. Iconoclasm in Hindu is noted in the 1389 to 1413. It is in this year when Sikandar Butshikan, who was a sultan, ordered the destruction of golden and silver images. Also, in this year, Sikundur ordered the destruction of temples, which made him acquire the title a “destroyer of idol”. A good example of the destroyed temple was the Somanath temple, which was destroyed by Mahmud Ghazin (A?kabara).

Most of the Hindus temples were destroyed by the Muslims and were constructed again as mosques since Muslims did not support iconoclasts. Some of the destroyed temples could be traced behind mosques. The image below shows a Gyanvapi constructed between a temple and a mosque.


Iconoclasm is an act that originated from the early 720s, and it occurred in different religious groups. Some of the religious groups supported this act, while other opposed. Each religious group had its views on iconoclasm. The Christians had their own view of the act of iconoclasm, but, in other religious groups such as Islam, believers were supporting one concrete view. The Muslim and Hindu community support iconoclasm. According to the Islamic history, iconoclasm is a grave act. The Muslims avoid the use of images of living beings in their sacred places.

Christianity is one of the religions that had followers with different views on matters regarding iconoclasm since the 7th century. Those believers who support the use of icon or images in churches or sacred places are called iconodules. Iconoclasts are the believers who do not support the use of images to represent saints or other significant personalities in Christianity. The iconoclast and the iconodules differed in their arguments about the use of the icons, which brought about the controversy in the church. This is one of the reasons that resulted into separation of believers in Christianity.

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