Historical Sketch: Empress Irene and the Iconoclasts

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Secretum Meum Mihi Press

Historical Sketch: Empress Irene and the Iconoclasts

by Kristen West McGuire

Empress Irene, the first woman to rule the Roman empire alone, restored devotion to icons. Was it a pious gesture, or just politics?

She inherited a complex situation. The Byzantine emperor Leo III declared icons illegal in 730, in part as an emotional reaction to a volcanic eruption and tsunami in the Aegean Sea in 726. After all, marauding Muslims were routinely more successful on the battlefield. Could God be punishing the Christians for their “worship” of graven images? The Muslims thought so. Leo agreed. When his bishop demurred, Leo appointed his own church leadership, shocking Pope Gregory II into a declaration of schism.

Icons were zealously worshipped by the poor and illiterate, often near monastic centers of charity and piety. Furthermore, popular devotion turned ugly when an icon did not produce the desired effect. So, icon adoration cut both ways, and needed certain safeguards. Senior clergy probably welcomed the reforms.

When Constantine V took over in 754, he intensified his persecution of “iconophiles” (lovers of icons) in such a way that he alienated the monasteries, but won the respect of the military, who suddenly found themselves more successful on the battlefield. Obviously, God was with them. (He also restored fresh running water to Constantinople and constructed roads.)

Monks who were caught venerating icons were tortured, blinded and exiled, or, less often, forced to marry nuns. Popular dissent against the iconoclastic prohibitions was high. When Leo IV took the reins, his indifference to theological matters apparently encouraged some dissenters to return. Irene noticed this trend.

She became regent for her son Constantine VI, crowned at the age of nine when her husband Leo IV died in 780. At the time of her marriage, it’s unlikely she was an iconophile. Because she only had one son, and later claimed a miraculous healing from a hemorrhage, it seems likely that she suffered from some gynecological malady which prevented future heirs.

Leo’s half brothers (called caesars) caused several power plays, for which Irene had the caesars whipped, tonsured and sent to monasteries. Public spectacles were her specialty: she toured the empire tossing imperial coins depicting herself and her son from the royal carriage. (see below.)

She was close to her eunuch guards, promoting them in both military and church positions after her son’s accession. To head off the growing superiority of the Franks, she betrothed her son to Rotrud, daughter of Charlemagne. (The marriage never took place.)

Against this backdrop, her success in orchestrating the Second Council of Nicaea looks as political as it does pious. The bishops denounced iconoclasm and declared that icons should be venerated but not worshiped. Relations with Rome improved immediately, leaving Irene free to attend to military struggles in Bulgaria and internal rebuilding on the Turkish continent.

Meanwhile, her son Constantine VI had chosen a second (illicit) wife and banished the first with two daughters to the monastery of the Virgin of the Spring, where he also banished his mother in 790 at the behest of the military.

She managed to seize control again in 797. The thugs she sent to blind her son (to avoid another takeover) accidentally killed him. Viewing the Byzantine throne as vacant, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne the Roman emperor in the West in 800 to “fill the seat.” Thereafter, the Holy Roman Empire was centered in Europe.

Although venerated by the Greek Orthodox Church as a saint for supporting the iconophiles, Irene’s powerplay marked the end of Byzantine control of the Roman empire. Her gains were overshadowed by her personal and political losses. Pride goeth before a fall.

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