Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians

Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians

Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians

Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians


In the year 726 C.E., the Byzantine emperor Leo III issued an edict declaring images to be idols, forbidden by Exodus, and ordering all such images in churches to be destroyed. Thus commenced the first wave of Byzantine iconoclasm, which ran its violent course until 787, when the underlying issues were temporarily resolved at the Second Council of Nicaea. In 815, a second great wave of iconoclasm was set off, only to end in 842 when the icons were restored to the churches of the East and the iconoclasts excommunicated.

The iconoclast controversies have long been understood as marking major fissures between the Western and Eastern churches. Thomas F. X. Noble reveals that the lines of division were not so clear. It is traditionally maintained that the Carolingians in the 790s did not understand the basic issues involved in the Byzantine dispute. Noble contends that there was, in fact, a significant Carolingian controversy about visual art and, if its ties to Byzantine iconoclasm were tenuous, they were also complex and deeply rooted in central concerns of the Carolingian court. Furthermore, he asserts that the Carolingians made distinctive and original contributions to the whole debate over religious art.

Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians is the first book to provide a comprehensive study of the Western response to Byzantine iconoclasm. By comparing art-texts with laws, letters, poems, and other sources, Noble reveals the power and magnitude of the key discourses of the Carolingian world during its most dynamic and creative decades.


Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything
that is in the heaven above or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the
water under the earth

—Exodus 20.4

In the history of European art it is difficult to name any one fact more
momentous than the admission of the graven image by the Christian

—Ernst Kitzinger, “The Cult of Images”

GOD’S WORDS TO Moses, with Kitzinger’s gloss, take us to the heart of a long, sometimes bitter, and always fascinating chapter in the histories of art, of Christianity, and of Western culture. This book focuses on one important but neglected and misunderstood segment of those histories. Between 790 and 840, in differing circumstances and with differing aims and intentions, Carolingian writers produced hundreds of pages of intelligent, interesting, and not infrequently polemical writing about Christian art. This book studies and interprets those texts. In about 790, Theodulf of Orléans, with the aid of several of his contemporaries, and on the express command of Charlemagne, began to write the Opus Caroli. This was a treatise of several hundred pages that ostensibly formed a response to the decisions of the Second Council of Nicaea of 787, a great assembly that had put a temporary end to Byzantine iconoclasm. Just after 840 Jonas of Orléans—that he and Theodulf were bishops of the same see is purely coincidental—put the finishing touches to his De cultu imaginum. Jonas’s treatise, originally begun at the request of Louis the Pious in 827 and completed on the order of Charles the Bald, responded to the iconoclasm of Bishop Claudius of Turin and to much else besides.

Writings about Christian art, or about what visual arts Christians might . . .

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