This is one of several translated excerpts from Byzantine sources produced and mounted with historical introduction and commentary by Paul Stephenson.



Constantine V died in 775, and the five-year reign of his successor, Leo IV, “The Khazar,” is remembered largely for a victory at Germanikeia in 787. At his death in 780, Leo’s widow Irene ruled as regent for their young son, Constantine VI (780-97). She approached the Carolingian court in the West, with a view to arranging a marriage between Constantine and CKhludov Psalterharlemagne’s daughter Rotrud; and sought to improve relations with the papacy. Both western powers were opposed to the policy of Iconoclasm. More particularly, in seeking to consolidate her own control over the institutions of the state, and not to be sidelined by powerful vested interests represented by the former followers of her husband, Irene began to investigate ways to end Iconoclasm. She saw to the election of a sympathetic Patriarch of Constantinople, Tarasios, following the death of Patriarch Paul in 784. In 786 she attempted to convene a synod at Holy Apostles in Constantinople, which was disrupted by iconoclasts. Finally, in 787, she convened a synod at Nicaea, now known as Nicaea II, the seventh and last orthodox ecumenical council. The rulings of this council preserve the only records that we have of earlier Iconoclast rulings, which they overturned or scorned.

The iconodule interlude was to last until 813, in which period Irene’s attempts at rapprochement with the West came to naught, despite her best efforts. It was even suggested that Irene offered herself as wife to Charlemagne, but he had found an another way to secure the title emperor, having himself crowned thus by the pope in December 800. Byzantium, therefore, remained a cowed power, which was in P. Magdalino’s words (in C. Mango, ed., Oxford History of Byzantium, Oxford 2002, pp. 171-2) “afflicted by humiliating military defeats, usurpations and short reigns of emperors who all, apart from Irene, had bad relations with the church.” One character who fulfilled all these criteria was Nikephoros I (802-11), who ousted Irene in 802. A contemporary source, likely written very shortly after the events it describes, recounts Nikephoros’ defeat and death at the hands of the Bulgars in 811. We have translated excerpts of the so-called Chronicle of the Scriptor Incertus. The re-establishment of Iconoclasm in 813 is addressed polemically by Nicetas David Paphlago, in his Life of Ignatios the Patriarch.

The second period of political iconoclasm lasted until 843. Once again impressions of this period are provided by Iconodule sources, notably the Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor, and the Short History of Patriarch Nicholas. The hagiography, amounting to some two dozen saints's lives, is as suspect as that for the first period, lacking contemporary views. Most lives are written far later, employing motifs taken from the Life of Stephen the Younger, or fifth- and sixth-century confabulations concerning early Church martyrs. One also finds visual polemics in margins of psalters. Most famous, perhaps, are miniatures depicting the Patriarch of Constantinople, John Grammatikos, whitewashing image of Christ next to image of crucifixion and soldier with vinager-soaked sponge on a stick.

The end of iconoclasm, in 843, came to be known as the "Triumph of Orthodoxy." It resulted in creation of new icons in Hagia Sophia, hence the oldest suriving icon in that church is from 860s, being of the Virgin and Child in the apse. This was described by the Patriach Photios, who considered it as life-like. We can still see it, and may judge it differently. But the icon depicts a higher, unearthly reality, the “noetic,” which is beyond human comprehension.


Paul Stephenson, November 2006

Revised January 2009; January 2012.