It's thanks to two women in the late 8thto 9th centuries that Iconoclasm never made it big. And it's thanks to a third, that New Rome was able to pull itself out of the ordure it had got stuck in, and make it to the big time again.
I am talking about the Empresses Irene, Theodora, and Ingerina. Their stories are textbook cases in what it mean to be a woman struggling for survival and control in the very male medieval world.
But first - why should we care today about Iconoclasm today? On the surface (literally!) it was a reaction against the worship of icons. But more fundamentally, I believe it was a reaction against the pseudo-deities personified in the icons, worshiped alongside God: the saints and martyrs and especially Mary. So it's hard not to see Iconoclasm as as a reaction against polytheism. But where does this human tendency towards the safety of pantheon worship come from?
For the Byzantines it was a double-whammy. They were the cultural and spiritual melting pot of the European world. Not only were they, as Romans and Greeks, direct cultural descendants of Zeus/Hera/Apollo or Jupiter/Juno/Minerva (depending on which mythology you adopted, Greek or Roman – it is interesting to note in passing that the Romans had two goddesses in their Holy Trinity while the Greeks had only one). But the Byzantines were very much spiritual descendants of the Hebrew faith of Yahweh as well, through their role in being the Christian church of the East.
In fact recent research shows that there is strong exegetical and archaeological evidence to suggest that the ancient Israelites were polytheistic, at least until the destruction of the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar. For this I refer the reader to the work of Francesca Stavrakopoulou at the University of Exeter who shows that the Temple was in fact the garden of Eden referred to in Genesis, and its destruction was an event which almost destroyed the Israelites to their core. (http://humanities.exeter.ac.uk/theology/staff/stavrakopoulou/)
You may have heard of Baal – one of those gods that got a lot of bad press in the Old Testament. In fact Ba'al is a generic term for lord or master in Hebrew, and frequently referred to other gods such as Hadad (in the Canaanite pantheon). What is perhaps less well known is that Yahweh is frequently referred to in the Hebrew scripture as El (whence Isra-El – the children of God). El was the Father deity in a pantheon of gods and Ba'al-Hadad was sometimes referred to as his son. And El's wife was Asherah (often translated as a sacred tree(!) In English translations for various reasons, for that was her symbol). That's right. Yahweh had a wife and a son in the Old Testament.
Naturally, as Christianity evolved its thinking over what we now call early antiquity, it had to get its deities in a row. But by the standards of the other strictly God-focused Abrahamic faiths of Judaism and Islam it ran a much more lax house. To the extent that, by the middle of the eight century, with Byzantium having lost most of its original territory to the Muslim hordes, its rulers began to think their lack of hard-core monotheism must be at the route of the problem. The ravages of Iconoclasm were thus born.
There are loads of discussions on the web about the events of Iconoclasm so I won't dwell on the details. Suffice it to say that it took that most unusual of things, a female Emperor, Irene, to revolt against it.
Irene came as a young girl to Constantinople (from Athens) to marry the Iconoclast Emperor Leo IV, but was banished from his bed when he discovered her passion for icon worship. When he died it was probably her ascension, that of a mere woman to the Imperial Throne, that gave the Pope the freedom to crown Charlemagne falsely as Holy Roman Emperor. The perception that Rome could be ruled by a woman and a eunuch (her minister Tarasios) must have seemed laughable to all the great male-dominated kingdoms of Europe and Asia
While it is commendable that Irene struggled bravely to maintain the integrity of Byzantium against rebellion and Muslim encroachment, and to restore icon veneration until her death in 803, she was an autocrat in all parts of her life, and history mostly remembers the brutal way in which she arranged a coup which led to her son and co-Emperor Constantine VI being blinded in 792 in order to prevent him from taking power. From her point of view she was probably being merciful at the time. She could have had him killed.
Monotheism reared its ugly head again after her death, until the start of the reign of Theodora, in 843. It was remarkable how history seemed to repeated itself. Another staunch Iconoclast dead (Theophilos). Another female Emperor in power with her cunning eunuch minister (Theoktistos). And her weak son Michael in the wings. The main difference this time was that Theodora was more collaborative and less autocratic, and she was an excellent businessman. She also had a brilliant and supportive set of brothers (which she did exile for various reasons – holding onto power was tricky in those days!). But she didn't count on a wild card – a hunky peasant from the provinces – Vassilis- who would turn her life upside down and capture the heart of her son.
Thanks to Theodora, icon veneration was restored once and for all, and the Triumph of Orthodoxy celebrates that on the first Sunday of Great Lent in the Eastern Church (that was March 13 in 2011).
Finally, we need to mention the little known Eudochia Ingerina, wife of Vassilis and mistress to Michael. Little is know about her except that she was half-Viking and half descended from Armenian iconoclasts, and that she became a court starlet of exceptional intelligence and beauty in the entourage of Theodora. Certainly it is hard to understand how a peasant such as Vassilis could have taken the Imperial Throne without her very definite and immediate help. But her role in ridding the throne of an ineffectual ruler (Michael III) and founding a dynasty that produced a golden age which lasted until the tenth century is not to be taken lightly.
Together, Irene's drive, Theodora's excellent husbandry (!) of Byzantium's wealth, and Ingerina's 'focused' motherhood transformed a chauvanistic, simple-minded monotheism into a once again vibrant polytheism that supported both the heart and the mind without undermining the unity of God.
For more on some of the great women of Byzantium, I heartily recommend Professor Judith Herrin's “Women in Purple”.
It is rare that I grant the near final word to that of a Pope, but Pius XII is to be commended in his definition, in 1950, of the dogma of the Assumption of Mary. Here we see more clearly than in any other Western thought the reestablishment of Her preeminence as the Mother Deity.
Hopefully this blog will set up an excellent gedankenexperiment for those of us in some countries today that celebrate Mother's Day: perhaps Mary of the many titles -- Theotokos (God-bearer), Mother of God, and wife of God – should shed those titles and be regarded as none other than God herself?