EMPRESS IRENE & THE ICONOCLASTS

St Irene in Pala d'Oro Altarpiece

St Irene in Pala d’Oro Altarpiece, St Mark’s, Venice

RELENTLESS BEAUTY

 That there are faces at all on the walls of Hagia Sophia is due largely to Empress Irene of Athens, who ruled Byzantium at the turn of the eighth century to the ninth. Notice her shield and cross: she was a kind of warrior.

PORTALS TO POWER  Irene’s Emperor, Leo IV, was an Iconoclast. His father Leo III of Armenia, the first Iconoclast, is said to have been influenced by Islam in his abhorrence of icons. We all know icons as those little gizmos that pop up on your desktop, letting you know where to click to access all manner of things.

Mac Icons

Their origin, like so much else, is pretty much Byzantine. What the Byzantines were accessing was faith. Here are some religious icons.

Religious Icons

A modern program icon designer works with much the same limitations as the original religious painters. In a (usually) small space with limited colors you must create an instantly recognizable image that conveys a sense of where you want the viewer to go.  We icon designers want you to know you’ll be  transported to Desktop or Skype or Adobe Photoshop. The Byzantines wanted you to be transported into Faith. Faith that the saint represented by the icon would intervene with the Power of the Universe to help you. Come to think of it, they’re not so different.

Battle over Icons
Battle Over Icons, Medieval painting

DESTRUCTION OF ART Icons are a touchy subject. In Communist Russia you could get into a lot of trouble for possessing them. Many were said to perform miracles, survive all manner of cataclysm. In our time icon has come to mean a powerful representational figure, or face, like Hitler meaning Fascism, or Steve Jobs representing idealistic progress. The Byzantines prayed to pictures of the saints, lit candles to them, went on their knees before them, fought wars under and for them. The power was in the faith, but Emperor Leo believed that people worshipped the pictures themselves, so he destroyed them. All of them. Every icon, large and small, and then every pictorial mosaic, fresco and bas-relief went. Hagia Sophia is full of empty frames, carved marble around a vacant space, and lone, austere crosses. The original gold mosaic ceiling, with its geometric designs, was allowed to remain. After the Iconoclasts– the breakers of images– had done with the pictures, they started in on the artists. Leo is not my favorite emperor, but at least there aren’t a lot of pictures of him.

Ceiling Gold 370 Hagia Sophia
Ceiling Gold in Hagia Sophia

HELL HATH NO FURY… Irene his Empress was an Iconodule or Iconophile: she loved icons. She is remembered as a beauty: a tall noble brunette. One fable has Leo discovering some icons she’d hidden, and refusing to sleep with her afterwards.

Harun Al-Rashid
Harun Al-Rashid

Was she a woman scorned? Leo died in 775, and Irene set about gaining the throne. Beset by her own ministers, Bulgars, and Harun Al-Rashid, she never gave up…wait a minute. Worlds collide….Harun Al-Rashid? Isn’t he supposed to belong in Arabian Nights? Yes, and he did his best to invade Byzantium. Irene kept him out by paying him a whopping annual tribute. When the Pope refused to recognize her rule and crowned Charlemagne Roman Emperor, rather than sulking over the insult, she simply arranged to marry Charlemagne. But she was deposed first.

Pope Crowns Charlemagne Medieval Drawing
Medieval drawing of Pope Crowning Charlemagne

ECLIPSE OF THE SON Her son by Leo, Constantine VI, grew up in the shadow of his vivid autocratic mother. He too became an Iconoclast. When the inevitable clash came, Irene gave him short shrift: she seized the throne, and in the same porphyry chamber in which she had borne him, she had him blinded. He died of his wounds. This sickened the people, who proclaimed it “a horror of Heaven” and blamed on it a 17-day solar eclipse.

Byzantine Empress regnant Irene of Athens
Irene and Constantine VI by Hubert Goltzius 16th-Century

THE SKULL CARAFE Nevertheless Irene ruled for five years before being replaced by her minister Nicophorus. You remember Nicophorus? Driven insane by incessant warfare in Bulgaria, he wound up beheaded by Krum the Horrible, Khan of the Bulgars, who had a silver-lined beerstein made of his skull, and to the end of his days drank to his own health from the head of the Byzantine Emperor. That’s Nicophorus on the right, being carried in filled with beer.

Medieval drawing of Krum the Horrible with his famous Byzantine beerstein
Medieval drawing of Krum the Horrible with his famous Byzantine beerstein

THE SAINT The Iconoclasts stuck around until the mid-9th Century and finally petered out.  Irene ended life on an island, spinning to support herself, and in Hagia Sophia, the heart of the kingdom she ravaged her soul to protect, there is no image of her. I doubt there’s one in Istanbul. Fourth Crusaders carried them all off to Venice, the city of that Doge thrown out of the window. Yet Irene endures. As a matter of fact, she’s a saint, for she restored image worship in Christianity. 

Greek Orthodox Icon of St Irene of Athens
Greek Orthodox Icon of St Irene of Athens

Under her rule in 787, the Seventh Ecumenical Council at Nicea refuted the Iconoclasts, declaring that artistic materials merely represent the saints, a belief upheld to this day. The glorious pictorial mosaics of St Savior in Chora, as well as many surviving in Hagia Sophia, are all from after Irene. Throughout Christianity, religious art endures, and it always has a face.

Icon - EMPRESS IRENE & THE ICONOCLASTS

Worlds Collide in Hagia Sophia: Next: IT MUST BE ST NICK

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