The three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) have long had a problematic relationship with the portrayal of religious figures, with Islam taking a robust a doctrinaire approach, and Judaism mindful of the clear instruction to be found in the Book of Exodus (20:2-5); “I am the Lord your God, who broght you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likenes of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the eath beneath, or that is in the water under the eath; you shall not bow down to them or serve them…”. Christianity’s position has varied considerably over the last two thousant years, with their being a rich historical tradition of artistic portrayals, often associated with the fact that many Christian believers were illiterate, and thus gained a better understanding of the stories of the scriptures through visual representations in the form of icons, sculpture, wall paintings, carving, and stained glass amongst other means of expression.
At various times there were periods of intense religious fervour and bouts of splenetic self-righteousness that resulted in the wholesale destruction of works of devotion. This iconoclasm (Greek for “image breaking”) had various causes, which in themselves tell us much about the preoccupations of mankind. Let us take for example the so-called Byzantine Iconoclasm which was carried out on the expressed order of Emperor Leo III the Isurian who attributed a series of military setbacks and failures to Divine displeasure, the believed cause of this being the ‘worship’ of religious images, for example, icons. It is important to appreciate that icons are a means by which a person contemplates as a vehicle to prayer. In 730 AD Emperor Leo III banned the ‘worship’ of religious images, with this including the veneration of icons. Some have posited that this controversial move might have aimed at ameliorating and placating Muslim subjects within his Empire. A move of this nature not only resulted in the loss of many examples of religious art, some of which are likely to have featured the Penitent Thief, it also caused considerable distress with leading clerics voicing their criticism of the iconoclasm and resigning in protest, only to be replaced by biddable individuals happy to tow the official line. The Council of Hieria (754 AD) endorsed the Imperial position, and declared religious image worship a blasphemy. Icon worship was again permitted following another religious council, this time at the Council of Nicaea (787 AD). A Second Byzantine Iconoclasm was initiated in 814 AD by Emperor Leo V the Armenian, again triggered by the believed causes of a series of military failures; this lasted 842 AD when yet again both the Byzantine rulers and the Church authorised a volte-face on the issue. What the Byzantines called iconomacy (struggle over images) was not their sole preserve and was going to become just as much of the debate and actions of the churches in Western Europe.
Whilst the iconoclasm of the Byzantine Empire was driven and authorised by those at the apex of power, namely the Emperor, in the West, those arguing for change were lowly monks and clergy, theologians, academics and those who viewed the Pope as someone heading up a church in desperate need of reform. Some people were firmly of the opinion that the Roman Pontiff, as one who was at the Head of a Church that had permitted centuries of the accumulation or wealth and religious and secular power to obscure and corrupt the true nature and message of Christianity. These Reformers or Protestants as they became known were for a simpler form of worship, in buildings freed from the distractions that might foster idolatry and the cult of saints. Martin Luther (1483-1546) a key figure in the Protestant Reformation spoke of the need for a Bild sturm (Picture storm) that would see the removal or destruction of that which might distract worshippers or be a focus of excessive veneration or idolatry. As the Reformation took hold attitudes varied, the Lutherans took a milder line over religious imagery, whilst follows of Calvin and Zwingli were determined to destroy and expunge every last vestige of that which might result in idolatry or superstition. On Continental Europe countless works of devotional art were destroyed, similarly in England the Dissolution of the Monasteries witnessed state vandalism on an extraordinary scale, with later Protestants determined to ensure that even the smallest of places of worship had not been visited and ‘cleansed’ of what were believed to be Popish fixtures and fittings. Rood screens were pulled down and burnt, wall paintings whitewashed over, and statues disfigured, and Roman missals destroyed. One cannot help wondering how many visual representations of Dismas were lost. Later anti-clerical movements in France, Spain, Russia etc. did no end of damage.
We would do well to reflect on that which has been to iconoclasm, whether this be driven by religion or of regimes such as those that existed post-revolutionary Russia that seemed hell-bent on denigrating and destroying the Church and any form of religious observance. Suffice it to say that the flame of faith has not been extinguished. Enough has survived to set the curious thinking about the thief who turned to Christ.
Scripture quotation from the Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible.
Painting image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Image of the journal cover taken by the author.
Recommended reading: Icons and Iconoclasm in Byzantium www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/icon/hd_icon.htm