Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition

March 14–July 8, 2012


The reign of the Byzantine emperor Leo III (r. 717–41) marked the beginning of a century-long debate over the appropriateness of religious imagery in the empire. Known as the Iconoclastic controversy (726–74, 813–42), this movement, closely linked to the emperor and the church hierarchy in Constantinople, was largely confined to the capital and its environs. In 842 Iconoclasm was officially repelled. A contemporary debate focusing on the use of figural imagery took place in the Christian communities of Byzantium's recently lost southern provinces. In a number of churches and synagogues in the Transjordan between the 720s and 760s, the tesserae in mosaic floors with figurative depictions were carefully removed and reassembled in a scrambled or transformed manner. The alterations were undertaken with such care as to suggest that the faithful did the work perhaps in response to aniconism in Muslim places of worship. Supporting this understanding are accounts by the Melkite theologian Theodore Abu Qurrah (ca. 777–ca. 830) of Christians refusing to venerate icons in response to Jewish and Muslim polemics. In contrast, in Egypt the vibrant frescoes of the Red Monastery and the icons of the Monastery of Saint Catherine at Sinai attest to continued respect for figurative images in other areas under Muslim rule.

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