Penn Press logo
Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians

In eighth- and ninth-century Byzantium there arose a heated controversy over religious art, known as the "Iconoclastic Controversy." Analyzing hundreds of pages of art-texts, laws, letters, and poems, this book examines the wider context of the debate by providing the first comprehensive study of the Western response to Byzantine iconoclasm.

Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians

Thomas F. X. Noble

2009 | 496 pages | Cloth $69.95 | Paper $32.50
View main book page

Table of Contents


Chapter One: Art, Icons, and Their Critics and Defenders Before the Age of Iconoclasm
Chapter Two: Byzantine Iconoclasm in the Eighth Century
Chapter Three: Art and Art Talk in the West in the First Age of Iconoclasm
Chapter Four: The Franks and Nicaea: Opus Caroli Regis
Chapter Five: Tradition, Order, and Worship in the Age of Charlemagne
Chapter Six: The Age of Second Iconoclasm
Chapter Seven: Art and Argument in the Age of Louis the Pious



Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


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 Church.—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 have and how they might use them, began with the apologists in the second century. Yet not until the eighth century did the Byzantine world sustain a serious discussion of the appropriateness of Christian figural art. The so-called iconoclastic controversy—as always the victors got to name the battle after the losers—has been called "one of the greatest political and cultural crises of Byzantium." More than this, it was "undoubtedly one of the major conflicts in the history of the Christian Church. . . . All levels of life were affected by the conflict, all strata of society were involved in the struggle. The fight was violent, bitter and desperate." Not surprisingly, then, a major authority can say that the iconoclastic controversy was "arguably the major manifestation of change and continuity in early medieval Byzantium."

Byzantine iconoclasm ran two courses. The first lasted from 726 to 787 and the second from 815 to 842. As noted just above, Theodulf wrote the Opus Caroli to respond to the council that put an end to the first phase of iconoclasm. Did a Western controversy exist? If so, was it a great crisis? Did it shake the (Western) Christian Church to its foundations? Does it reveal significant forces of change?

Usually the answers to these questions are all in the negative. The Western image discussions are seen as a Nebenerscheinung, as a "side show," to the Byzantine main event. It is usually argued that the Carolingians in the 790s simply did not understand the basic issues involved in the Byzantine dispute. In the harshest telling, the Carolingians are alleged to have lacked Greek books and learning, as well as an understanding of the philosophical and theological traditions of the Greek Church. In the mildest telling, the Carolingians had poor translations of the acta of II Nicaea, perhaps indeed a mere extract from those voluminous documents. Carolingian writings were, in any case, without discernible influence on the continuing course of Byzantine iconoclasm and, say what one will about the Nicene acta, the subsequent writings of ninth-century Byzantine image theologians were either unknown or unremarked in the West. Although thirty years ago Peter Brown said that the iconoclastic controversy was "in the grips of a crisis of overinterpretation," no one could then or would now say the same about the West. To this day there exists neither a comprehensive description or explanation of the Western response to Byzantine iconoclasm or a thorough account of Carolingian reflections on images. This book constitutes a first such attempt.

There was, in fact, a Carolingian controversy about visual art but its ties to Byzantine iconoclasm are tenuous and complex. Thus there is an opportunity to ask what the Carolingian discussion actually is linked to. I do not deny that Theodulf took it as his first task to respond to the second Nicene council. But I do assert that his response is rooted deeply in central concerns of the Carolingian court in the years between about 780 and 800. Goaded by II Nicaea the Carolingians expressed themselves in distinctive ways about problems that were important to them and that were fundamentally different from many, but not all, of the problems that exercised the Byzantines. Viewed in this way, the Opus Caroli becomes less an incompetent or uncomprehending response to Byzantium than a cunning, albeit unfinished and unpolished, statement of basic Frankish concerns.

When the Franks returned to the subject of images in the 820s, they were prompted to do so by the Byzantines and, as in the 790s, traced a distinctive path. Emperor Michael II, a mild iconophobe, wrote to Louis the Pious to enlist his aid and support and to explain his own actions in the East. Louis assembled his theologians. At Paris in 825 they produced a large dossier of materials that seem to respond only partially to the letter of Michael II and to correspond only in oblique ways with the issues that had attracted the attention of Theodulf and Charlemagne's other key advisers. Once again, however, the context for the treatises written at Paris in 825 is to be sought amid major preoccupations of Louis the Pious and his key associates in the first fifteen or so years of the reign of Charlemagne's heir.

At just about the time when Louis's theologians were gathering in Paris the Frankish world encountered a home-grown altercation. Claudius of Turin, the Septimanian, probably Visigothic, bishop, theologian, and arch controversialist, went on a rampage of image destruction and iconophobic propaganda. Louis directed Jonas of Orléans, who had presided at the Paris deliberations, to respond to Claudius. He did so by beginning his De cultu imaginum but under slightly mysterious circumstances laid it aside, unfinished. Other writers, however, took up pens—one almost said cudgels—against Claudius: Theodemir, the abbot of Psalmody and Dungal, the chief schoolman in Pavia, most prominently. Agobard of Lyon, meanwhile, weighed in on his own with a treatise that expressed reservations about Christian art much graver than those articulated by the Paris theologians, Theodimir, or Dungal, but less reckless than those of Claudius. Still other writers—Hrabanus Maurus, Einhard, and Walafrid Strabo, to mention the three most prominent ones—wrote on art too but did so in terms more approving than those expressed by Agobard and Claudius, yet quite different on key points from those of Jonas and Dungal. The context for this Carolingian logomachy is the turbulent world of the 830s when the Franks fought civil wars, endured foreign attacks, and attenuated the buoyant optimism that had characterized the reign of Charlemagne and the early years of Louis the Pious.

Standard works on Carolingian art history rarely discuss the treatises and documents just mentioned. To a degree this neglect is justifiable because many of these Carolingian texts about Christian art seem to have very little to do with art per se. As I shall repeatedly argue, controversies that were sparked by some problem having to do with art turned into major statements of or else quarrels about contemporary issues that did not have Christian art as their primary subject matter. Perhaps this is not so odd. Throughout history, heated debates about artistic representation, and the actual destruction of public and private works of art, have been by-products of other kinds of social, political, or religious movements. One thinks immediately of Protestant iconoclasm in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; of the political iconoclasm of the French Revolution; of the ideological iconoclasm of both Fascist and Communist states and their successors; or of contemporary American disputes over flag burning and public subsidies for artistic work that some people deem blasphemous or obscene. The iconoclastic moment in these movements almost always provides the careful observer with a sharp view of the stresses and tears in the social fabric of a given place or time. In short, I shall ask the reader to look with me at certain problems in Carolingian history in ways that would seem perfectly normal to historians of other times and places. That is the broad view. In the narrow view, Carolingian historians may discover new things here as I invite them to reflect with me on neglected texts and problems. And I hope to persuade art historians to think in new ways about the subjects of their investigations.

Thus far the large issues to which this book is addressed. The next few pages provide a chapter-by-chapter orientation to how the book actually proceeds. Chapters 4 to 7 form the heart of the book. The first three chapters are not merely introductory, however. By looking in detail at the period from the fourth century to the eighth, these chapters establish the language, issues, and ideas which the Carolingians answered, modified, neglected. The chapters are long, but each addresses a basic and coherent bundle of problems within specific cultural and chronological contexts.

The first chapter turns to the ancient and late antique Mediterranean homeland both of Byzantine and Frankish art and of Christianity. I treat several issues in summary, synoptic fashion. What kinds of discussions about art took place in the Mediterranean world before the outbreak of Byzantine iconoclasm? What exactly are sacred icons, and what place do they occupy within the larger context of figural art generally, of support for or opposition to such art, and of religious practices in the East and in the West? What kinds of discussions of art took place in the West before the outbreak of iconoclasm and what cultic practices, if any, can be associated with works of art in the West? Without here anticipating the discussion that will follow, for the purposes of this study I acknowledge that any image could be an icon, but posit that sacred icons are not images of a particular style, size, or location but instead images that did, or that were expected to do, something. They were images to which cult was paid. These are huge subjects with elaborate, complex, and contentious bibliographies. Our aim here will merely be to pick out certain key themes so as better to understand some basic Carolingian positions. In sum, Chapter 1 asks what language, texts, and precedents were available to be accepted, rejected, or modified in the eighth century.

Chapter 2 opens with an inspection of a few battle sites in the guerre des savants over Byzantine iconoclasm. Everyone agrees that the Byzantine iconophilia following the first phase of Byzantine iconoclasm occasioned the Opus Caroli, so it is imperative to explore what else Theodulf and company could have responded to. This chapter extends the discussion begun in Chapter 1 of how East and West were alike and different in daily cult practice as well as in theological speculation. Another important objective of this chapter is to remind readers more familiar with the West than the East that recent scholarship has decidedly reduced the magnitude of the Byzantine controversy, the above quotations from Ladner and Florovsky notwithstanding. Byzantine iconoclasm was uneven, episodic, and never as devastating in human or material terms as formerly believed. Proceeding to the Carolingian world with this new understanding of Byzantium in mind will help us to see that we are not dealing with the bizarre and inexplicable asymmetry of a civilizational shock at one end of the Mediterranean that produced only a ripple at the other end. Finally, another important objective of this chapter will be a slimming of the intellectual, primarily theological, aspects of eighth-century iconoclasm, East and West. For too long scholars, mostly Byzantinists and most prominently the Russians among them, have gotten away with both proleptic and cataleptic readings of the eighth century that permit virtually all understandings of sacred icons to have been present then. If one assumes that the soaring theological flights of ninth-century writers such as the Patriarch Nicephorus and Abbot Theodore of Studion were already present in the early and middle decades of the eighth century, or that the lofty early eighth-century theology of John of Damascus was pervasive at the time of II Nicaea, then it is easy to portray Theodulf's theology as an ugly, flightless bird. We shall try to interpret the history a little closer to the order in which it actually happened.

Chapter 3 provides a discussion of the Western background to the Opus Caroli. The Anglo-Saxon Bede (673-735), whose writings were well known to the Carolingians, expressed himself on art several times in a variety of contexts. We shall find traces of his influence. The popes, moreover, with whom the Franks entered into a solemn alliance in the 750s, were deeply distressed by Byzantine iconoclasm and explicitly objected to it on numerous occasions. From Gregory II (716-31) to Hadrian I (772-95) popes wrote frequently about the image crisis and held a series of councils that addressed images-among other things. Beginning in the 730s the Franks and the popes entered into increasingly intense relations with one another. There is some evidence that the Franks began taking notice of Byzantine iconoclasm in the 750s but the surviving sources convey little sense that images represented right away an important or interesting problem for the Franks. One task of Chapter 3, therefore, is to explain the differing perspectives of the popes and of the Franks on Byzantine religious policy in general, and on religious art in particular, in the central decades of the eighth century. Problems of rulership and church government were critical to those perspectives, but so too were cult practices associated with art. How was art actually used in the Frankish world, in Rome, and in Byzantium? In what ways did the Franko-papal alliance condition the partners' reactions to art, to Byzantine iconolcasm, and to one another? By the end of Chapter 3 the textual, political, and devotional scene will have been set with sufficient precision and clarity to make possible an understanding of Theodulf's work in his place and time.

Chapter 4 offers my reading of the Opus Caroli within the specific context of the Carolingian court during the most decisive, creative, productive years of the reign of Charlemagne. The chapter begins with a discussion of the making of the Opus Caroli that depends heavily on the magisterial work of Ann Freeman but that adds to her findings some perspectives and interpretations that arise from the wider view being taken in this book. The chapter continues with a lengthy summation of the contexts of the Opus Caroli, a treatise that has never been translated into a modern language and that has been more discussed than read, more often characterized than carefully studied. Next the reader encounters a delineation of the major arguments and themes that run through the Opus.

After Chapter 4's account of the major arguments in the Opus Chapter 5 turns to the wider Frankish context by measuring themes in the Opus Caroli against annals, capitularies, diplomas, law codes, letters, poems, and works of Carolingian art and architecture. By reading the Opus Caroli against both the immediate Frankish context and a full understanding of the non-Frankish contexts, it will become possible, for the first time, to explain the central concerns of Theodulf's writings. Was he really out of step with Byzantine art talk in general? Did the Opus really accord badly with what was said and done at Nicaea? Does the Opus evince contention between the Carolingians and the very papacy they had pledged to love and defend? What religious value did the Carolingians assign to the visual arts? Does the Opus shed light on important contemporary issues? Do those issues help us to understand the Opus?

Chapter 6 opens with a discussion of the renewed outbreak of iconoclasm in Byzantium, explores some of the intellectual dimensions of and changes in Second Iconoclasm, and goes on to describe how and in what form "Second Iconoclasm"—as it is often called—came to the attention of the Franks in 824. The chapter continues with a presentation of what the Franks did in 824-25 by interpreting the lengthy dossier of materials produced in connection with the 825 Paris Colloquy-for it was not a council, as is usually maintained. The chapter examines the central themes in that dossier own their on terms and then compares those themes to contemporary Byzantine ideas and practices and to previous Frankish positions.

Chapter 7 then passes in review the major participants in the ninth-century image quarrel in the Frankish world and tells how they became involved. Their writings are summarized and their major arguments highlighted. The chapter moves to its conclusion by interpreting those themes in light of some of the major preoccupations evident in the sources for the reign of Louis the Pious. As with the Opus in Charlemagne's time, now the Paris dossier and the remnants of the Carolingian logomachy are read against other historical and artistic sources from the reign of Louis the Pious. This chapter's attempts, finally, to show that an understanding of the Frankish world during Second Iconoclasm depends on disentangling the Franks' thoughts and actions from what was going on around them.

The way I read the central texts relevant to each phase of the Carolingian image discussion permits me to situate them within a series of broader discourses that were prominent in the Carolingian world. By "discourse" I mean no more than the shared information, attitudes, and modes of expression among the Carolingian elite. I have in mind something like Brian Stock's "Textual Communities," that is, groups of people united by common understandings of, and perhaps actions mobilized by, textual materials that were not necessarily known directly by all members of the group. That such a discourse existed remains to be demonstrated. I do not wish to imply that I am claiming to have identified the mentalité of the Carolingian world. The discourse of which I speak was horizontal, not vertical, although I believe, and will try to show, that it was very wide. Also, as Stock demonstrates, people whose understandings were formed by common texts and experiences do not necessarily agree with each other all the time. But they do understand each other. We will discern sharp disagreements grounded in shared knowledge and understanding. If we listen carefully to fifty years' worth of Carolingian discourses about art, we can hear them talking about many of the things that were most important to them in the dramatic half-century bracketed by Charlemagne's greatest exploits and the civil wars and treaties that carved up his empire.

Three discourses recur in the art texts around which this study is organized. The first, labeled "tradition," concerns the attempt by the Carolingians to situate themselves in historical and ideological time. At one time or another the Carolingians thought of themselves as heirs of the Hebrews, of the apostles, and of the Romans. Because Theodulf and his contemporaries thought it important to deny that the Byzantines might have the same inheritances, the Opus Caroli is stridently anti-Byzantine. While the traditional discourse is the most powerful one in the Opus Caroli, it becomes a soft voice in the Paris chorus and is sometimes inaudible in the battle of treatises inaugurated by Claudius.

A second discourse gets the label "order." When we listen to this one we can hear the Carolingians talking about how to order a state or a church, asking questions about authority and legitimacy. What makes a good ruler? A good bishop? How is the business of government rightly conducted? Theodulf was, at least to some degree, concerned to refute the decisions of a council whose legitimacy the Carolingians doubted. He was also concerned to show how and why Charlemagne was the right kind of ruler while Byzantine emperors could not be, and why Carolingian bishops were proper churchmen whereas Tarasius, the patriarch of Constantinople, was not. Order was a major theme for Theodulf, second only to tradition, but it became the major theme at Paris in 825. Relations with Byzantium and with the papacy were discussed at length, along with the legitimacy of conciliar action and problems of consensus and dissent. Order diminishes slightly as an issue in the writings of the ninth-century authors provoked by Claudius. It is a commonplace in the scholarship on the Carolingians that they promoted "reform." Among other things, reform aims to remedy disorder. The Carolingian image texts identify and discuss disordered thought and practice. Other sources do the same thing.

The third discourse I call "worship." I array under this heading most of what the sources actually say about art. This discourse is rich with ironies. At Byzantium the cult of images was in dispute. Presumably this cult is what Theodulf attacked. Yet, as we shall see, there was, in reality, no cult of images in the West. Although Theodulf has some interesting and important things to say about worship, some fascinating things to say about Christian art, and a number of reflections on aesthetics, the ostensibly fundamental topics of his Opus Caroli—those touching the cult of images—are actually less prominent than the tradition and order discourses to which he contributed. In the Paris dossier, worship plays an exiguous role. The emperor and his theologians were attracted much more to the matter of who got to make decisions than they were to the particular decisions that were made. Order becomes central here. In the ninth-century logomachy worship, faith, belief, and the religious education of ordinary people are the basic concerns. For the first time, the cult of images receives serious and focused consideration in its own right. Tradition and order were the discourses of the optimistic in the late eighth century. Worship was the discourse of the cautious, perhaps of the pessimistic, in the middle of the ninth century.

During the great Carolingian century, from the elevation of Pippin to the Treaty of Verdun (751-843), the Carolingian elite continually asked, Who are we? What are we to do? How are we to do it? The art texts that undergird this study permit us to listen to some members of the Carolingian elite proposing answers to those questions. By comparing the art texts with laws, letters, poems, and other sources produced by and for the elite, we can judge the power and magnitude of the key discourses of the Carolingian world during that world's most dynamic and creative decades.

Penn Press | Site Use and Privacy Policy
Report Accessibility Issues and Get Help | University of Pennsylvania
Copyright © 2021 University of Pennsylvania Press | All rights reserved