"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Iconoclasm in the West

Nearly 40 years ago now, the great historian Peter Brown observed that iconoclasm was a problem in the grip of over-explanation. Far be it from me to disagree with one of the most eminent historians of our time, but I am not entirely convinced by this thesis. Brown's article downplayed somewhat the uniquely theological factors in explaining the rise of iconoclasm in the East-Roman Empire. But he did help us to understand more deeply than we had hitherto the political factors behind the rise of the iconoclastic "party" and he also showed that the role of Islam was very much secondary and indirect. Other scholars before and since have shed further light, revealing just how much latent iconoclasm there was in orthodox Christianity in the first several centuries of its existence. Part of the explanation, it seems to me, lies in very legitimate, well-founded, and understandable fears on the part of some Christians that they had spent centuries being martyred for refusing the imperial ritual of "proskynesis" (lit. "kissing towards") which was a sign of obeisance towards the divine cult of the emperor. This was resisted as idolatry in refusal of which more than a few Christians went to their deaths. Now all of a sudden they were being invited to make this gesture towards icons, even icons of Christ? This was a bridge too far for some.

There was, of course, more going on than all this, even as iconoclasm remained--as did nearly all of the early controversies in the age of the Ecumenical Councils--a largely Eastern problem. The West did not know the same struggles, but that is not the same thing as saying it did not know iconoclasm, either in the 7-9th centuries, or especially later. It did and does. (I would suggest that there was a latent, perhaps  unconscious, stream of iconoclasm running through not a few of those Roman Catholic terrorists liturgists who destroyed "remodeled" RC churches after Vatican II.) But iconoclasm in the West has not been studied very well until now:

Thomas F.X. Noble, Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians (U. of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 488pp.

Noble is chair of the history department at Notre Dame. This is a major work that looks briefly at Byzantine iconoclasm but concentrates on the same time-frame in the West.  I will return to this book later, and it will be subject to a long review in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies in 2011.

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