Iconoclast is a noun and is pronounced I-'kahn-ê-klæst. The etymology stems from Medieval Greek eikonoklasts based on eikon, meaning image or picture, and –klasts, breaker from klan to break. An iconoclast is a person who seeks to destroy religious images or opposes their veneration, or an iconoclast may be one who attacks settled beliefs or institutions.

Probably the the first iconoclast on the record was Moses, who came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments and found the Israelites worshiping a statue, broke the tablets and destroyed the idol. Plato wanted to ban figurative art because he believed it was deceptive.

It is around sometime in 1641 that iconoclast is first recorded in English in reference to the Byzantine iconoclasts. Later in the 19th century iconoclast took on the extended sense of "one who attacks orthodox beliefs or institutions" is first attested 1842. For example; iconoclasm of one generation tends to become the traditional of the next. Ten years ago body art was considered iconoclastic; today body piercing and tattoos have become a fad.

As one who destroys religious images, not long ago in the news were the iconoclastic actions of the Taliban when they destroyed the largest ones of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in March of 2001. Their prohibition on TV and motion pictures is also iconoclastic behavior.

While most modern iconoclasts only attack such things as ideas and institutions, the original iconoclasts destroyed countless works of art. The very first iconoclast was Byzantine Emperor Leo III during the 8th and 9th centuries. He issued a decree forbidding the veneration of images. This decision was condemned by the pope, however, the iconoclastic doctrine was rigorously enforced at Constantinople by Leo and even more so by his son and successor Constantine V (718-775), who declared the worship of images idolatry. In addition to destroying many sculptures and paintings, those opposed to images attempted to have them barred from display and veneration.

The most serious argument presented against iconoclasts was formulated by the Syrian theologian and Father of the Church John of Damascus was that it prevented one of the basic tenets of the Christian faith termed the doctrine of incarnation. According to the defenders of images, the fact of Christ's human birth made it possible that his representations share some identity in their prototype. The rejection of these images he argued was an automatic repudiation of their cause.

Understandably these conflicting doctrines greatly affected Byzantine art. The movement became weaker as it fostered a division between the empire and papacy who sought allegiance with the Franks. Both the Council of Nicea in 787 and the Council of Orthodoxy in 843 condemned the iconoclasts and their ideals but they were unsuccessful with their challenges to the imperial authority. Because the condemnation was ecclesiastical and the councils met under imperial orders. Even with the assertions of John of Damascus that the emperor had no right to interfere in matters of faith. The result of this conflict about the authority of the emperor in both secular and spiritual areas along with his control over the church emerged from the controversy perceptively stronger.

During the Protestant Reformation images in churches were again felt to be idolatrous and were once more banned and destroyed. Throughout history humanity has struggled between the catalysts of idolatry and iconoclasm. Both of which share the common belief that images have the power to bring about the divine, or to mislead into the worship of false gods.


Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "Iconoclasm," Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.



I*con"o*clast (?), n. [Gr. image + to break: cf. F. iconoclaste.]


A breaker or destroyer of images or idols; a determined enemy of idol worship.


One who exposes or destroys impositions or shams; one who attacks cherished beliefs; a radical.


© Webster 1913.

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