The word “iconoclast” means “a breaker of images,” from Greek eikon, image, and klastes, breaker.
It originated in a great struggle within the Christian Church, beginning in the eighth century and lasting for one hundred and sixteen years.
For a number of generations there had been discussion over the appearance of works of art, pictures and statuary, within church edifices.
Some held that they should be excluded, because they were reminiscent of idol worshiping; others held that they merely increased the spirit of reverence in the mind of the beholder. Among the latter was Pope Gregory the Great, who had said, “What those who can read learn by means of writing, that do the uneducated learn by looking at a picture.”
But the emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, Leo III, took the opposite view. He was a zealot, of such decided views that he had forcibly baptized all Jews and Mohammedans within his empire.
In 726, therefore, he decreed the abolishment of all paintings and images from the churches of the realm. The ensuing struggle, carried on even more aggressively in the reign of Constantine V, who succeeded his father in 740, assumed the proportions of a crusade. In 765, images and relics were destroyed on a great scale throughout the Eastern Empire.
The tide changed with succeeding monarchs, but the issue was not finally settled until 842 when the patriarch of the Eastern Church, assisted by clergy and court, solemnly restored the images in the church of St. Sophia in Constantinople.
The term iconoclast is now usually employed figuratively, and is applied to one who destroys cherished illusions or declares the falsity of long-credited beliefs or superstitions.