Iconoclasts (Gr. from an image, and to break), in ecclesiastical history, the violent opponents of the veneration of images in the 8th and 9th centuries. The use of images which led to the iconoclastic troubles dates from very remote antiquity. The paintings which adorn the Roman catacombs are now attributed by such archaeologists as Lenormant and Marchi to the first three centuries of the Christian era; and those recently discovered in the cemetery of St. Cal-listus are thought by De' Rossi to belong to the 1st century. But it is still a matter of dispute when images were first introduced by Christians into public worship. The prevailing opinion is that they passed from the family into the temple at the end of the 3d century, and that their public use became general at the close of the 4th. The visible representation of the cross found its way earlier both into ecclesiastical and domestic life. This custom and the feeling out of which it grew varied widely among different nations. In Egypt and throughout Africa the use of images met with but little favor. Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Augustine discountenanced it.
Both the Greeks and Romans favored the fine arts, but there always existed among Christians an aversion toward anything which resembled the old pagan union of art and religion. The first note of the iconoclastic warfare came from Marseilles, where the bishop, Serenus, caused all images to be demolished and cast out of churches. For this he was twice censured by Pope Gregory the Great, who, while blaming the superstitious use of images, advised their employment as a means of instruction for the unlettered who could not read the Holy Scriptures. In the East, Constantine had embellished the public monuments and churches erected by himself in his new imperial city with representations of religious objects taken from the circle of the Old and New Testaments. Very soon this use became interwoven with the whole domestic and public life of the Greek and Asiatic Christians. Churches, together with their books, furniture, and vestments, private houses and public edifices, household utensils and wearing apparel, were profusely ornamented with images of Christ, the martyrs, and Biblical personages. Statues of costly materials adorned the public squares and the approaches to the imperial palaces. The people were not slow in going to extravagant lengths.
Reports of miraculous effects produced by some images attracted crowds of pilgrims. In the course of the 6th century it became a custom in the Greek church to make prostrations before images as a token of reverence to the persons whom they represented. The Manichaeanshad already characterized these practices as idolatry, and the Jews denounced them as an apostasy from the divine law. About the year 600 Leontius, a Cyprian bishop, wrote a treatise against the Jews and in vindication of the lawfulness of the custom. In the next century the Mohammedans wherever they prevailed forbade the worship of images. - Moved by these circumstances, the Byzantine emperor Leo the Isaurian issued a first ordinance in 726, directed not against the images themselves, but against such signs of an idolatrous homage as prostration and kneeling down before them. This measure, counselled by Constantine, bishop of Nacolia in Phrygia, and countenanced by a large number of other eastern prelates, met with resistance from Germanus, patriarch of Constantinople, and from the mass of the people. Besides serious disturbances in many places, the inhabitants of the Cyclades rebelled against the emperor and equipped a fleet.
This was destroyed by means of Greek fire, and a new imperial edict was issued in 730, forbidding the use of all images for religious purposes. Germanus now resigned his office and retired into solitude. Leo caused the statues in churches to be burned and the paintings on the walls to be effaced, and fearful riots and massacres occurred in consequence. Pope Gregory II. remonstrated in vain with the emperor, and the Romans refused to comply with the imperial edict. In 732 a council assembled in Rome by Gregory III., condemned Leo and his abettors, and decreed the validity of the relative honor paid to images. The emperor pursued his purpose with relentless severity until his death in 741, when it was taken up with no less zeal by his son Constantine Copronymus. He was opposed by his brother-in-law Artavasdes, who possessed himself of the throne and restored the worship of images. His death in November, 743, restored Constantine to power, which he used to exterminate images and finish the work begun by his father. He assembled at Constantinople in 754 a council of 338 bishops, who after a deliberation of six months pronounced all visible symbols of Christ, except in the eucharist, to be either blasphemous or heretical, and the use of images in churches to be a revival of paganism.
This decision was carried out by Constantine, one of whose last acts was to compel every inhabitant of Constantinople to take an oath never again to worship an image. Leo IV., who succeeded him in 775, was no less energetic in putting down image worship; but at his death in 780 the empress regent Irene concerted measures with Pope Adrian I. for the restoration of images. In 787 the second oecumenical council of Nice decreed that "bowing to an image, which is simply the token of love and reverence, ought by no means to be confounded with the adoration which is due to God alone." The same was also true of the cross, the books of the evangelists, and other sacred objects. The contest was prolonged in the East under successive emperors till Theodora assembled a council at Constantinople (842), which confirmed the decisions of the Nicene council, and established the veneration of images among the Greeks, though subsequently the Greek church took the position which it holds to this day that no carved, sculptured, or molten images of holy persons or things are allowable, but only pictures, which are held to be not images but representations.
Rome and Italy had already accepted the decree of the Nicene council, which the Latin church accounts the seventh of the general councils. - The term iconoclasts is also applied in history to those Protestants of the Netherlands who at the commencement of the troubles in the reign of Philip II. tumultuous-lv assembled and destroyed the images in many Roman Catholic churches. These tumults began Aug. 14, 1566, at St. Omer in Flanders, where several churches were desecrated, the images overturned and broken, and the pictures ruined. The insurgents next attacked the cathedral at Ypres, which they also stripped. The excitement speedily spread all over Flanders, Hainaut, and Brabant, and the churches, chapels, and convents of Valenciennes, Tour-nay, Menin, Comines, and many other cities and towns were sacked. At Antwerp shortly afterward a mob ravaged the cathedral, destroyed the statues, cut into pieces the paintings, the pride of Flemish art, demolished the great organ, the most perfect in the world, overthrew the 70 altars, and carried off the vestments and sacred vessels. The devastation of the cathedral occupied them till midnight, when they sallied forth to deal in the same way with the other churches of the city and its suburbs.
For three days these scenes continued at Antwerp, when they were stopped by a few knights of the golden fleece, who with their retainers attacked and dispersed the rioters. From Antwerp the excitement against images spread over the northern provinces, and throughout Holland, Utrecht, and Fries-land the churches were ravaged. At Rotterdam, Dort, Haarlem, and some other places, the magistrates averted the storm by quietly removing the images from the buildings. "The amount of injury inflicted during this dismal period," says Prescott, "it is not possible to estimate. Four hundred churches were sacked by the insurgents in Flanders alone. The damage to the cathedral of Antwerp, including its precious contents, was said to amount to not less than 400,000 ducats. The loss occasioned by the plunder of gold and silver plate might be computed; the structures so cruelly defaced might be repaired by the skill of the architect; but who can estimate the irreparable loss occasioned by the destruction of manuscripts, statuary, and paintings?" Motley, in his "History of the Rise of the Dutch Republic," maintains that the iconoclasts committed no act of plunder nor of outrage on persons. He says: " Catholic and Protestant writers agree that no deeds of violence were committed against man or woman.
It would be also very easy to accumulate a vast weight of testimony as to their forbearance from robbery. They destroyed for destruction's sake, not for purposes of plunder. Although belonging to the lowest classes of society, they left heaps of jewelry, of gold and silver plate, of costly embroidery, lying unheeded upon the ground. They felt instinctively that a great passion would be contaminated by admixture with paltry motives. In Flanders a company of rioters hanged one of their own number for stealing articles to the value of five shillings. In Valenciennes the iconoclasts were offered large sums if they would refrain from desecrating the churches of that city, but they rejected the proposal with disdain. The honest Catholic burgher who recorded the fact, observed that he did so because of the many misrepresentations on the subject, not because he wished to flatter heresy and rebellion." The whole time occupied by this remarkable outbreak was less than a fortnight. It was warmly disapproved of at the time by William of Orange, Egmont, and the other statesmen of the patriotic party in the Netherlands. Its immediate effect was to detach the Catholics from the national cause, and it was probably the principal means of preventing the southern provinces of the Netherlands from becoming independent of Spain in concert with the seven northern provinces.