Archive for the ‘700s’ Category


An icon is a holy picture of Jesus, Mary, the angels or the saints used in Christian worship. The word comes from the Greek word eikon, which means image. Both Catholic and Orthodox churches use images but in the Orthodox church it is more developed.

In the 700s and 800s icons nearly tore the Christian world apart. The use of images was an ancient custom among Christians, yet it seemed to go against what the Ten Commandments says about making images.

On one side was the pope. He said that images were an ordinary and respectable part of Christian worship so long as one did not take it too far and start worshipping icons in and of themselves. This had been common sense among Christians for centuries.

On the other side was Leo III, who ruled the Byzantine empire. He headed the iconoclasts, the “image breakers”. He said icons were too close to idol worship, that Christianity in fact was losing to Islam because of it, that it was weakening the empire.

In 724 Leo outlawed icons. His followers entered churches and destroyed all the icons they could find. When the monks stood against him, they were attacked, thrown in prison or killed. When the patriarch of Constantinople stood up to him, he was removed. When the pope stood up to him, he was threatened. (The pope lived outside the Byzantine empire).

In time the iconoclasts came to oppose monasticism and praying to saints as well. It was all very Zwingli.

In the west images were seen as a way to reach those who could not read. They help us to remember the stories and heroes of the faith. They can move us to a deeper faith. They act as art.

In the east this was taken much further: God used them to work miracles, heal the sick, stop floods. Some icons came from heaven, some wore crowns, some were even godparents! People sang songs in their honour, kissed them, used them in prayer.

But some began to pray to them, as if icons could hear and had a power of their own, apart from God.

Things had gone too far.

Yet iconoclasm was a cure far worse than the disease. At root it doubted that God could and does work through material means. People like this wind up doubting the sacraments or even that God once became man as Jesus Christ.

By 787 bishops from all over the Christian world met at Nicaea to settle the matter. They said that the cross and images should be shown respect and honour because of what they represent. By honouring a picture of Jesus we are honouring Jesus himself. That is right and good. What is wrong is to worship an image in its own right, to believe it has a power of its own apart from God.

For most that settled the matter. But it was not quite the end: another period of persecution by the iconoclasts followed in 814, but by 842 iconoclasm was dead and gone.

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Byzantine empire


The Byzantine Empire (476-1453) never called itself that. That is a name made up by the French 400 years later. The Byzantines called themselves Romans: when Rome fell, in 476, the richer, eastern, Greek part of the Roman empire still stood. It did not fall for good till nearly a thousand years later in 1453. Its glory days were from 500 to 1000.

There is no real break between the Roman and Byzantine empires – they are just names. But because the Byzantine empire was Greek and Christian it is hard to see it as the same empire that Augustus had founded. And yet even Justinian, its most famous ruler, spoke mostly Latin and, unlike us, considered the loss of the west as only a passing thing.

At the heart of the empire stood the city of Constantinople. It was one of the largest cities in the world at the time. Constantine I had founded it in 330 as the “New Rome”. It became the seat of Roman power in the east.

Just as the law, religion and ways of Rome form the foundation of the West, so the Byzantine empire forms the foundation of eastern Europe and especially Russia. Russia is the daughter of the Byzantine empire and Moscow the third Rome.

The Western system of laws (except for the English-speaking world, which follows common law) is Byzantine. Justinian made Roman law into something that can apply to Christian society in his Corpus juris civilis.

The Byzantine empire was the universal state of the Christian world until two things happened:

  1. Charlemagne was made the ruler of the west in 800 by the pope.
  2. The Christian church broke in two in 1054 into Catholic and Orthodox churches.

From this point on the Byzantine empire was simply a Greek empire. Even its religion was no longer a universal faith.

In the 500s Justinian sent Belasarius to take back the west. He conquered quite a bit of it, but he left the cities of Italy in ruins. Most of what he conquered was soon lost.

The First Crusade was called in 1095 to save the empire: Romanus IV lost the battle of Manzikert to the Turks and was in danger of losing all of Anatolia and Constantinople itself. The Crusaders drove back the Turks before going on to the Holy Land to conquer kingdoms of their own.

The Fourth Crusade broke the empire’s back. The Crusaders took over Constantinople in 1204 and set up the Latin empire. It was short-lived – the Byzantines took back Constantinople in 1261. But from 1261 till 1453, when Constantinople fell to the Turks, the empire was no longer an empire – just a kingdom centred on Constantinople.

The Fourth Crusade also destroyed a great deal of Greek learning and literature.

Better dates for the Byzantine Empire would be from 395 to 1204. That is when it was an empire and when it had its own emperors. As late as 395 the western and eastern Roman Empire still had a common emperor.

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