The Crisis of Word and Image
In accord with Gregory's letter, some early medieval images, such as the scenes from the life of Christ painted on the walls of churches throughout northern Europe, probably were used to educate the illiterate or the semi-literate. But as we saw in Chapter 2, Gregory's justification of images, even though it was often repeated, was irrelevant to many users of early medieval art, the literate clerical and secular elite. And as I argued in Chapter 3, early medieval images often did things that texts could not. This disjunction between the Gregorian theory of images as substitute books and the actual use and power of images brought about a crisis of word and image, a crisis with two contradictory outcomes: a renewed insistence by early medieval art theorists on the inferiority of the image to the word, resulting in new attempts by art makers to subjugate image to word; and a new theory and practice of images that attempted to separate them completely from the verbal realm. This chapter will examine both strategies.
The eighth and ninth centuries saw a remarkable debate in the Byzantine Empire about the status of the image. From the 720s until 787, and again in the first half of the ninth century, the Byzantine emperors supported iconoclasm, the destruction of images. Scholarly consensus has not been reached over iconoclasm's root causes, which were complex and extended far beyond concerns about image prac-