Between 726 and 787 CE and again between 814 and 842 CE, the Byzantine emperors banned icons, seeming thereby to honour the second commandment. Icons were removed from churches and figurative mosaics were plastered over.
These two periods of iconoclasm were in part a response to economic and military hardships. As the empire lost territory, anxieties developed about a withdrawal of divine favour as a result of the improper use of images.
Then, in 843, Empress Theodora restored the making and use of images in an event called the Triumph of Orthodoxy, which is commemorated in the overtly iconophilic Icon with the Triumph of Orthodoxy.
The example from the British Museum, shown here, makes explicit reference to the restoration of icons by showing this Hodegetria icon being processed through Constantinople, as it was in the celebrations of 11 March, 843. Theodora and her son Michael III, champions of the iconophiles, participate. In the top register is the Hodegetria icon—an icon of the Virgin and Child believed to have been painted by St Luke. Below them is a group of saints, at the centre of which St Stephanos the Younger and St Theodore the Studite hold aloft an icon of Christ. Finally, at the left of the group, St Theodosia grasps another icon showing the Hodegetria image.
Icon with the Triumph of Orthodoxy is thus three icons in one. It unabashedly proclaims its support for icons, presenting the viewer with a profusion of figurative imagery.
This multiplicity of icons assured viewers that icons were pious. In the post-iconoclastic period, images that praised iconophiles and showed holy figures using icons convinced people of the trustworthiness of images.
This object, with its many icons within an icon, makes a strong case for iconophilia. After the Triumph of Orthodoxy, there was no fear of making the ‘likeness’ of the holy ones who were ‘in heaven above’ (Exodus 20:4). Images had been sanctioned by church and state, as visualized here; if the saints use icons, then they must be proper tools for worship.
Cormack, Robin. 1985. Writing in Gold: Byzantine Society and its Icons (London: George Philip)
Kotoula, Dimitra. 2006. ‘The British Museum Triumph of Orthodoxy Icon’, in Byzantine Orthodoxies: Papers from the Thirty-sixth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, University of Durham, 23–25 March 2002, ed. by Andrew Louth and Augustine Casiday (London: Routledge), pp.121–30
4 “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; 5you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.