The great complication in Christian art is the Second Commandment:
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them nor serve them; for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.(Exodus 20:4-5, King James version for all you Pietists).
An even bigger complication is the story of the Golden Calf. The Israelites demanded that Aaron make them a god from gold like the ones they knew in Egypt, a god they could see and worship. Aaron obliged and made them a golden calf, a god in their own image who would tell them all what they wanted to hear, whose voice was the promptings of their own imaginations.
So far it would seem that iconoclasm, the destruction of images, has won the war of the Biblical proof-texts. Then there are these passages from the opening of St. John's Gospel: "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us , (and we beheld His glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father) full of grace and truth." (John1:14). And there is this: "No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him." (John1:18). And then there are the numerous Gospel stories about the Resurrection appearances, especially the ones in Luke that insist upon Christ's physical presence in the room (Thomas touching the wounds, Christ eating a piece of fish). There are theophany moments when Christ reveals His divine nature before selected disciples, most famously in the story of the Transfiguration told in 3 of the 4 Gospels. All of these passages and more would be cited by the defenders of images in the long crisis of Iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire.
Christian religious imagery always carries with it the taint of the pre-Christian sacrificial religions with their images of very limited and local gods of towns, tribes, springs, forests, and hills; and of sacrificial votive images offered by supplicants seeking to influence them. There are also popular magical beliefs, which are probably older than religion itself, that attach themselves to images. The early 7th century monk John Moschos records a particular example of this magical role of images:
In our times a pious woman of the region of Apamea dug a well. She spent a great deal of money and went down to a great depth, but did not strike water. So she was despondent on account both of her toil and expenditure. One day she sees a man [in a vision] who says to her: "Send for the likeness of the monk Theodosios of Skopelos, and, thanks to him, God will grant you water." Straightaway, the woman sent two men to fetch the saint's image, and she lowered it into the well. And immediately water came out so that half the hole was filled.
This is something that pre-Christian societies would definitely recognize; the magical power of an image, the influence of a benevolent spirit. And yet, John Moschos (who certainly knew the Second Commandment) describes this woman as "pious" and makes no attempt to censure her for this act. Christian images were, and still are, used in ways that could only be described as pre-Christian. Towns and cities all over the Mediterranean world keep certain revered images as a palladium, a protective image to defend the town. The world palladium comes from the ancient wooden image of Pallas Athena that supposedly protected ancient Troy.
The Madonna del' Impruneta plays the role of palladium for the city of Florence. It is a "miracle working" image surrounded by testimonials to answered prayers; not unlike similar votive testimonials that filled the ancient Roman temples.
People used Christian images as talismans to ward off harm, just as the ancient Egyptians used a wedjet eye or an image of Bes. These uses perhaps come more from human need than from any kind of doctrinal perversity.
And still, there is the Golden Calf.
The Iconoclast theologian John the Grammarian and an Iconoclast bishop whitewash an image of Christ, from a 9th century Psalter.
The long Iconoclast crisis began in 726 and ended in 843. It began not with the theological objections of a bishop or a monk, but with the complaints of a military man, the Emperor Leo III, a soldier from Syria who fought his way up the ranks. Since the death of the Emperor Justinian and the end of his ambitious campaigns of conquest, the Eastern Empire saw a long string of reversals and catastrophes. Lombard invaders drove Byzantine armies from Italy. The Persians took Jerusalem and despoiled its churches in 614. In 620, the Avars laid siege to Constantinople and the Persians invaded Asia Minor. Worst of all was the sudden rise of Islam. Byzantine armies retook Jerusalem only to lose the city 18 years later to the armies of Caliph Omar. Within a few years, the entire former heartland of the Christian religion, the Levant, Syria, and Egypt, came under Muslim rule. Pious Byzantine military men like the Emperor Leo could not help but compare the long string of Eastern Imperial reversals with the amazing lightning success of Islam. The Emperor noted that the Muslims seemed to have a much more thorough and uncomplicated understanding of the Second Commandment. Believing that the widespread and popular veneration of images encouraged by the Church had displeased God, the Emperor ordered the icon of Christ removed from the Chalke Gate to the Imperial Palace. He then ordered religious images removed and their veneration banned throughout the Empire. When the Patriarch of Constantinople objected, Leo replaced him. Leo seemed to prove the correctness of his hostility to imagery by lasting on the throne for 25 years, about 5 times longer than his predecessor. His son, Emperor Constantine V convened a church council in 754 that declared iconoclasm to be Orthodox faith. It was at this point that images were not just removed, but destroyed. Panel paintings were burned. Mosaics were modified and frescoes were whitewashed. New churches were given only the barest of decoration.
One such church was built (or rebuilt) by Iconoclast Emperor Constantine V. The church of Hagia Eirene was destroyed by an earthquake in 740. Constantine V rebuilt it and had it decorated very sparingly. The church is still there in modern Istanbul near Hagia Sophia. Like Hagia Sophia, it was secularized by the Turkish Republic.
The interior still contains the very spare iconoclast decoration from Constantine V's reign.
The one bit of clear symbolism allowed by the Iconoclasts was the Cross which dominates the apse semi-dome of Hagia Eirene. The mosaic is original to Constantine V's rebuilding.
It was a dangerous time to be an artist, or a defender of religious imagery. Artists not only were put out of business, but penalized for what was once an honest trade. Some were tattooed on their foreheads with Iconoclast teachings. Others were imprisoned and even executed. Many fled west to Italy and to the rest of Europe. Some re-appear in Germany working in the court of Charlemagne.
There was a brief respite during the reign of Constantine V's successor, his wife, the Empress Irene who was an "iconophile," (lover of icons) and an "iconodule" (a server of icons). She convened a church council in the Imperial palace at Hiereia to condemn Iconoclasm. It was during this period that the major advocates found the courage to come forward.
Christian imagery was traditionally defended as an aid to religious teaching, as a way to reach the illiterate. In the wake of the success of Islam, this argument no longer held much weight. John of Damascus argued for images using the example of Christ's Incarnation. The Iconoclasts said that an image limits and circumscribes God, as well as parodies and insults God the Creator (Muhammad's objection). John of Damascus pointed out that God the Creator had circumscribed Himself when He took on a human nature in Christ. Christ the man was so much less than Christ the God, but it was Christ the man who is our most accessible and most perfect image of God. In the end, the argument for religious imagery that prevailed was a sacramental one. The image became the visible sign for an invisible Grace; just as the bread and wine of the Sacrament became the visible sign for the real presence of Christ; just as Christ Himself in His human manifestation in history became the visible expression of the unseen God.
The Muslim hostility to images became a liability for the Iconoclasts. They were forced to defend the idea of a hostility to imagery as being particularly Christian, when clearly that antagonism was not.
The icon of Christ went back up on the Chalke Gate.
Iconoclasm returned in 815 with the reign of the Emperor Leo V. Iconophiles were removed from their offices and sent into exile. The icon came down again from the Chalke Gate. The artists closed shop.
But the Iconophile arguments were out there, if driven underground. They would be there encouraging resistance to the Iconoclast regime.
The whole crisis came to an end in 843 with the reign of Theodora and Michael III. The icon went back up on the Chalke Gate to stay. The Iconophiles won the long struggle.
Religious imagery made a triumphant comeback in church commissions to replace destroyed artworks throughout the Empire, but especially in the all important imperial church of Hagia Sophia.
The mosaics in the apse of the Great Church of Hagia Sophia were destroyed by the Iconoclasts. A magnificent new mosaic of the Theotokos with the Christ child and two archangels was dedicated in 867.
Hagia Sophia began as the world's largest church and as the most important church in the Byzantine empire, the center of religious orthodoxy. In 1453, the conquering Ottoman Turks transformed it into the most important mosque in the Ottoman Empire. When Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent conquered the sanctuaries at Mecca and Medina, he claimed the title of Caliph of All the Faithful. Hagia Sophia returned to its former role as a center of religious orthodoxy. Today, it is a museum.
The mosaics are very large, but they appear small in the context of the immense church. The Muslim conquerors scrupulously preserved the Christian content of Hagia Sophia's decoration. The damage is not from vandalism (vandals always go for the face), but from water seepage. The walls of Hagia Sophia are notoriously porous.
At the feet of this magnificent image was once inscribed "The images which the impostors had cast down here pious emperors have again set up." Only fragments are left of this inscription, but it is recorded in numerous written sources.
Here is that magnificent archangel, the survivor of 2 that once graced the apse.
Here is a 14th century icon in the British Museum commemorating the 843 church council that ended the Iconoclastic Controversy in favor of the Iconophiles. The Empress Theodora appears at the upper left with the child Emperor Michael III. Art was here to stay in Eastern Christianity.
Art was here to stay, but under new controls and ecclesiastical regulations. Artistic invention was not encouraged. On the contrary, it was now actively discouraged. The decoration of churches, which once varied considerably from city to city and from church to church was now standardized by church regulations and theological doctrine.
Mosaics like these from the 11th century Church of the Dormition at Daphni near Athens now followed a clear traditional hierarchy. Christ Pantocrator occupied the highest vault of the dome at the center of the church. Mary as Theotokos now almost always occupied the semidome of the apse over the altar. The Incarnation became the symbolic prototype for the liturgical mystery of the Sacrament. Apostles and saints occupied semidomes, vaults, and arches in descending order of importance. Episodes, like the Transfiguration visible above in the semi-dome, were no longer parts of sustained narratives, but symbolic manifestations of Christ's divine nature in history.
This general formula remained true for churches in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, but outside the realm of the Byzantine Empire, especially those in Russia. The Russians kept those traditional formulas and elaborated on them. Christ Pantocrator dominates the dome of the 15th century Assumption Cathedral in the Kremlin in Moscow. He takes the form of a revered prototype, the miraculous image on St. Veronica's veil. Then there is an elaborate hierarchy of saints and symbolic stories in descending order, just as in the Daphni church in Greece from 4 centuries earlier.
An Orthodox monk paints an icon using egg tempera (pigment mixed with water and egg yolk for binder) on a panel coated with gesso (chalk mixed with rabbit skin glue). He is working on the final details with a fine brush. He uses a mahl stick with a soft bulbous top to rest his painting hand to steady it.
That highly formulaic liturgical art we associate with Byzantine Orthodoxy is a consequence of the Iconoclastic Controversy. From here on, liturgical art will almost entirely be the domain of the ordained and the religious, with priests and monks taking up the brush (the only exceptions were the Italians whose artists remained largely secular; Theophanes the Greek was the only icon painter in Russia I know of who was not ordained or under vows). The artist's materials and forms would be carefully regulated by doctrine and tradition. It took theological training to grasp the formulas as well as manual training in the craft.
Those images that commanded the most authority were those that were "uncreated," at least by human hands. There were "miraculous" images of Christ such as Veronica's Veil (The Shroud of Turin doesn't appear in the historical record until the 14th century; there were numerous other "shrouds" that claimed miraculous images). There were icons widely believed to be painted by angels. St. Luke, the author of the Gospel of that name, was believed to be an artist as well as a physician. Pious legend told how he painted the Virgin and Child directly from their miraculous appearances to him. Europe remains full of icons attributed to him by tradition from Our Lady Cambrai to Our Lady of Czectachowa. The artist was not expected to be original, but to look back to revered prototypes.
Critics of Byzantine art point to the variety and originality in surviving art from before the Controversy, and argue that the new regulations had a stifling effect. Perhaps, but they were not quite a strait-jacket. Brilliant, if not original, work continued to be done. The greatest artists were those who could breath a new life into the traditional formats; artists like Dionysus, Theophanes, and Andrei Rublev in Russia; or artists in Italy like Cavallini, Torriti, and Cimabue. The artists in the Imperial workshops of Constantinople did some of their finest work in the last 2 centuries before the Ottoman Conquest.
The image is "venerated," not "worshiped," in Eastern Christianity; a fine distinction to outsiders. The theology that came in the wake of the Iconoclastic Controversy taught that images painted according to Church teachings, and following revered prototypes, were a glimpse into the world of the spirit, a window into Heaven with its throngs of saints and angels in golden light.
This is strikingly similar to Hindu teachings about religious imagery. At first glance, the Hindu puja is a return to the ancient realm of sacrificial religion, of pleasing and trying to influence tempermental deities. But it is not. Hindus do not have anything like the Second Commandment or the story of the Golden Calf, but we would be wrong to assume that they believe that the Godhead is entirely contained in the image. The image is a means to an end, not an end in itself. One Hindu sage taught that the image is a hand pointing toward something beyond itself. Each of the thousands of gods in the Hindu pantheon contains the Godhead in its entirety. To revere any one of them, no matter how obscure, is to revere the whole Deity who is the source of them all. Like Byzantine Orthodox imagery, the making of Hindu images is tightly regulated by tradition and theology. The image is a means of communicating the worshiper's prayers, and the god's grace. The god bestows his grace on all who look at his image. The grace conferred by looking at an image is called darshan. Christian worshipers hope for a similar grace from venerating their images.
It comes as a surprise to learn how late religious imagery appears in India. There is almost no recognizably religious imagery or architecture until the reign of Ashoka in the 3rd century BC, and that is Buddhist stupas with only minimal imagery. Hindu imagery does not appear fully formed until about the 6th century of the Current Era.
The resolution of the Iconoclastic Crisis was once thought to have spared Christianity an art of pattern and calligraphy, as in Islam. That's not entirely true. Western Christianity had long before developed its own very different approach to imagery in keeping with its more secular understanding of the Faith as distinct from the Eastern Church's more theological understanding.