Literally, iconoclasm is the destruction of religious icons and other sacred images or monuments, usually for religious or political motives.
People who engage in such practices are called iconoclasts, a term that has come to be applied to any person who breaks or disdains established dogmas or conventions. Conversely, people who revere or venerate religious images are called iconodules.
Iconoclasms can be carried out by people of a different religion, but are often the result of sectarian disputes between factions of the same religion.
The first iconoclastic period: 730-787
Emperor Leo III the Isaurian (reigned 717-741) banned the use of icons of Jesus, Mary, and the Saints and commanded the destruction of these images in 730. The Iconoclastic Controversy was fueled by the refusal of many Christians resident outside the Byzantine Empire, including many Christians living in the Islamic Caliphate to accept the emperor's theological arguments. St. John of Damascus was one of the most prominent of these. Ironically, Christians living under Muslim rule at this time had more freedom to write in defense of icons than did those living in the Byzantine Empire. Leo was able to promulgate his policy because of his personal popularity and military success - he was credited with saving Constantinople from an Arab siege in 717-718 and then sustaining the Empire through annual warfare.
Leo III's son, Constantine V (reigned 741-775) was challenged at once by a general who used Iconophilic ("Icon-favoring") propaganda, but his military success against this threat cemented his own position.
The first Iconoclastic period came to an end at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787, when the veneration of icons was affirmed, although the worship of icons was expressly forbidden. Among the reasons were the doctrine of the Incarnation: because God the Son (Jesus Christ) took on flesh, having a physical appearance, it is now possible to use physical matter to depict God the Son, and to depict the saints. Icon veneration lasted through the reign of Empress Irene's successor, Nicephorus I (reigned 802-811), and the two brief reigns after his.
The second iconoclastic period: 813-843
Emperor Leo V (reigned 813-820) instituted a second period of Iconoclasm in 813, which seems to have been less rigorously enforced, since there were fewer martyrdoms and public destructions of icons. Leo was succeeded by Michael II, who was succeeded by his son, Theophilus. Theophilus died leaving his wife Theodora regent for his minor heir, Michael III. Like Irene 50 years before her, Theodora mobilized the iconodules and proclaimed the restoration of icons in 843. Since that time the first Sunday of Lent is celebrated in the churches of the Orthodox tradition as the feast of the "Triumph of Orthodoxy".
Because of the prohibition against figural decoration in mosques - not, as is often said, a total ban on the use of images - Muslims have on occasion committed acts of iconoclasm against the devotional images of other religions. An example of this is the 2001 destruction of frescoes and the monumental statues of the Buddha at Bamiyan by the Taliban, an element of the Islamist movement.
In a number of countries, conquering Muslim armies tore down local temples and houses of worship, and built mosques on their sites. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem was built on top of the remains of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Some ultra-religious Jewish messianic groups believe that only by similarly demolishing the Dome of the Rock and rebuilding the Jewish Temple, can the messiah come to earth. This has led to frequent tension between religious Jews and Muslims over the site, with the (mostly secular) Israeli government often in the middle trying to keep the peace and maintain the status quo.
Similar acts of iconoclasm occurred in parts of north Africa under Muslim conquest. In India, numerous former Buddhist monasteries and Hindu temples were conquered and rebuilt as mosques. In recent years, some Hindu nationalists have attempted to tear down these mosques, and replace them with Hindu Temples. This is part of the current conflict today between Indian Hindu nationalists and Indian Islamists.
Some of the Protestant reformers encouraged their followers to destroy Catholic art works by insisting that they were idols. Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin promoted this approach to the adaptation of earlier buildings for Protestant worship. In 1562, some Calvinists destroyed the tomb of St. Irenaeus and the relics inside, which had been under the altar of a church since his martyrdom in 202.
The Netherlands (including Belgium) were hit by a large wave of Protestant iconoclasm in 1566. This is called the Beeldenstorm. This event marked the start of the revolution against the Spanish forces and the Catholic church.
Bishop Joseph Hall of Norwich described the events of 1643 when troops and citizens, encouraged by a Parliamentary ordinance against superstition and idolatry, behaved thus:
- 'Lord what work was here! What clattering of glasses! What beating down of walls! What tearing up of monuments! What pulling down of seats! What wresting out of irons and brass from the windows! What defacing of arms! What demolishing of curious stonework! what tooting and piping upon organ pipes! And what a hideous triumph in the market-place before all the country, when all the mangled organ pipes, vestments, both copes and surplices, together with the leaden cross which had newly been sawn down from the Green-yard pulpit and the service-books and singing books that could be carried to the fire in the public market-place were heaped together'.