Debate Over Byzantine Empire’s Sacred Image Shows Why It’s Hard For Any Side To Appease

An adjunct lecturer at Hamline University recently lost his job after showing an image of the Prophet Muhammad in an art history class. The university later retracted the Islamophobic accusation, saying in a statement that it “never intended to suggest that academic freedom was of lesser interest or value than students”, but nevertheless “Care” “does not replace academic freedom. They coexist.”

An earlier statement by Hamline President Fainies Miller said that “students do not renounce their faith in the classroom,” suggesting that classrooms should be visually attuned to their particular faith. was

As a historian of Byzantine art familiar with the heated debates over sacred imagery in the 8th and 9th centuries, I see Miller’s statement as a challenge to how students study religious imagery.

The very example of the debate in the Byzantine Empire shows how difficult it is to design spaces that correspond precisely to the specifications of a particular faith.

Controversy over the image of Byzantium

In the Greek Orthodox Church, the official religion of the Byzantine Empire, which lasted from 312 AD to 1453 AD, some factions opposed sacred images and some supported them. Factions opposed to statues argued that statues of Jesus Christ were unacceptable because His nature possessed both divinity and humanity.

This position, therefore, suggests that either the image of Christ exhibits only his divinity (which was impossible, since divinity cannot be expressed in ordinary man-made materials), or that such an image suggests that Christ is not divine at all. I insisted that I didn’t. heresy. The image of Christ could not be created or displayed as it would misposition the artist and the viewer regarding the Orthodox faith.

However, proponents of the image refuted this position, arguing that God or divinity took human form in the form of Christ. I justified creating the image because I made it accessible. This faction also claimed that sacred imagery was necessary because it would help remind viewers of the divine beings they portrayed, such as Christ, the Virgin, and the saints.

Contradictions admitted by both sides

The difference between the two factions was made clear at the Council of Hierea, summoned by Emperor Constantine V in 754 AD to set the terms of those who opposed the image. Despite stating that there is and should never be created, the faction still states:

“…we have decreed that those in charge of the church… dare not place their hands on the sacraments…because they are adorned with figures. concerning the robes, garments, and all things devoted to the service of God…”

The above statement contradicted the Council’s general position on images. These vessels may have been used at the altar table of the sanctuary, the most sacred part of the church.

Factions in favor of the image won the debate in 843 AD. It was the year that the Greek Orthodox Church officially ruled that sacred images, or icons, were integral to its faith.

It was decreed that sacred icons should not be worshiped for the wood, wax, color, or other material materials of which they are composed, or even the images they represent. There was a general idea that by putting on, kissing and touching, the worshiper was directing his attention to the material rather than the sacred subject. Or it was supposed to lead to a holy subject who is a saint.

In the 11th century, the Orthodox monk Simeon the New Theologian began to ignore this definition. Charles Barber, a historian of Byzantine art, argues that Simeon sought a spiritual experience beyond the issue of imagery in his prayers, even though he favored imagery.

Thus, each side of the Byzantine debate tacitly acknowledged the impossibility of a perfect and coherent theory of sacred images. I have shown that it is impossible to create a space that corresponds exactly to the position of

Visual sanctity in the classroom

Going back to the modern classroom, how visually controllable is this space?

All art history instructors can certainly curate their lectures. Curation here means necessarily including or excluding certain things. However, no degree or kind of choice is likely to fully satisfy a particular position regarding sacred images.

I believe that demanding a discipline like art history to maintain its visual sanctity in the classroom is tantamount to demanding the impossible.

Paroma Chatterjee is an Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Michigan.

The Conversation is an independent, non-commercial source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. The Conversation is solely responsible for its content. Debate Over Byzantine Empire’s Sacred Image Shows Why It’s Hard For Any Side To Appease

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