Iconoclasm is the social belief in the importance of the destruction of icons and other images or monuments, most frequently for religious or political reasons. Over time, the word, usually in the adjectival form, has also come to refer to aggressive statements or actions against any well-established status quo. It is a frequent component of major political or religious changes. The term does not generally encompass the specific destruction of images of a ruler after his death or overthrow (damnatio memoriae).
People who engage in or support iconoclasm are called iconoclasts, a term that has come to be applied figuratively to any individual who challenges "cherished beliefs or venerated institutions on the grounds that they are erroneous or pernicious". Conversely, one who reveres or venerates religious images is called (by iconoclasts) an iconolater; in a Byzantine context, such a person is called an iconodule or iconophile.
Iconoclasm may be carried out by people of a different religion, but is often the result of sectarian disputes between factions of the same religion. Within Christianity, iconoclasm has generally been motivated by those who adopt a literal interpretation of the Ten Commandments, which forbid the making and worshipping of "graven images or any likeness of anything". The Church Fathers identified Jews, fundamental iconoclasts, with heresyand saw deviations from orthodox Christianity and opposition to the veneration of images as heresies that were essentially "Jewish in spirit". The degree of iconoclasm among Christian branches greatly varies. Islam, in general, tends to be more iconoclastic than Christianity, with Sunni Islam being more iconoclastic than Shia Islam.
In the Bronze Age, the most significant episode of iconoclasm occurred in Egypt during the Amarna Period, when Akhenaten, based in his new capital of Akhetaten, instituted a significant shift in Egyptian artistic styles alongside a campaign of indifference/ intolerance towards the traditional gods and a new emphasis on a state monotheistic tradition focused on the god Aten, the Sun disk— many temples and monuments were destroyed as a result. Akhenaten's actions are described thusly:
"In rebellion against the old religion and the powerful priests of Amun, Akhenaten ordered the eradication of all of Egypt's traditional gods. He sent royal officials to chisel out and destroy every reference to Amun and the names of other deities on tombs, temple walls, and cartouches to instill in the people that the Aten was the one true god."
Public references to Akhenaten were destroyed soon after his death.
Comparing the ancient Egyptians with the Israelites, Jan Assmann writes:
"For Egypt, the greatest horror was the destruction or abduction of the cult images. In the eyes of the Israelites, the erection of images meant the destruction of divine presence; in the eyes of the Egyptians, this same effect was attained by the destruction of images. In Egypt, iconoclasm was the most terrible religious crime; in Israel, the most terrible religious crime was idolatry. In this respect Osarseph alias Akhenaten, the iconoclast, and the Golden Calf, the paragon of idolatry, correspond to each other inversely, and it is strange that Aaron could so easily avoid the role of the religious criminal. It is more than probable that these traditions evolved under mutual influence. In this respect, Moses and Akhenaten became, after all, closely related."
Byzantine Iconoclasm, Chludov Psalter, 9th century.
Although widespread use of Christian iconography only began as Christianity increasingly spread among gentiles after the legalization of Christianity by Roman Emperor Constantine (c. 312 AD), scattered expressions of opposition to the use of images were reported (e.g. Spanish Synod of Elvira). The period after the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian (527–565) evidently saw a huge increase in the use of images, both in volume and quality, and a gathering aniconic reaction.
In the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, government-led iconoclasm began with Byzantine Emperor Leo III, following what seems to have been a long period of rising opposition to the use or misuse of images. The religious conflict created political and economic divisions in Byzantine society. It was generally supported by the Eastern, poorer, non-Greek peoples of the Empire who had to deal frequently with raids from the new Muslim Empire. On the other hand, the wealthier Greeks of Constantinople, and also the peoples of the Balkan and Italian provinces, strongly opposed iconoclasm.
Within the Byzantine Empire the government had probably been adopting Christian images more frequently. One notable change came in 695, when Justinian II's government added a full-face image of Christ on the obverse of imperial gold coins. The change caused the Caliph Abd al-Malik to stop his earlier adoption of Byzantine coin types. He started a purely Islamic coinage with lettering only. A letter by the Patriarch Germanus written before 726 to two Iconoclast bishops says that "now whole towns and multitudes of people are in considerable agitation over this matter" but there is little written evidence of the debate.
Iconoclasm during Protestant Reformation
16th-century iconoclasm in the Protestant Reformation. Relief statues in St. Stevenskerk in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, were attacked and defaced in the Beeldenstorm.
Looting of the Churches of Lyon by the Calvinists in 1562 by Antoine Caron.
Destruction of religious images in Zurich, 1524.
Remains of Reformation iconoclasm, Clocher Saint-Barthélémy, La Rochelle, France.
Some of the Protestant reformers, in particular Andreas Karlstadt, Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin, encouraged the removal of religious images by invoking the Decalogue's prohibition of idolatry and the manufacture of graven (sculpted) images of God. As a result, individuals attacked statues and images. However, in most cases, civil authorities removed images in an orderly manner in the newly reformed Protestant cities and territories of Europe.
Significant iconoclastic riots took place in Basel (in 1529), Zurich(1523), Copenhagen (1530), Münster (1534), Geneva (1535), Augsburg (1537), Scotland (1559), Rouen (1560) and Saintes and La Rochelle (1562). In 1549, radical Protestant preachers in London incited a mob to destroy many of the interior decorations in Old St Paul's Cathedral.
The Seventeen Provinces (now the Netherlands, Belgium and parts of Northern France) were disrupted by widespread Protestant iconoclasm in the summer of 1566. This is called the Beeldenstormand began with the destruction of the statuary of the Monastery of Saint Lawrence in Steenvoorde after a "Hagenpreek", or field sermon, by Sebastiaan Matte. Hundreds of other attacks included the sacking of the Monastery of Saint Anthony after a sermon by Jacob de Buysere. The Beeldenstorm marked the start of the revolution against the Spanish forces and the Catholic Church.
The iconoclastic belief caused havoc throughout Europe. In 1523, specifically due to the Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli, a vast number of his followers viewed themselves as being involved in a spiritual community that in matters of faith should obey neither the visible Church nor lay authorities. According to Peter George Wallace:
"Zwingli's attack on images, at the first debate, triggered iconoclastic incidents in Zurich and the villages under civic jurisdiction that the reformer was unwilling to condone." And due to this action of protest against authority, "Zwingli responded with a carefully reasoned treatise that men could not live in society without laws and constraint."
The Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, who had pragmatic reasons to support the Dutch Revolt (the rebels, like himself, were fighting against Spain) also completely approved of their act of "destroying idols", which accorded well with Muslim teachings.