Theokiste instructing her granddaughters to venerate icons

The Iconophiles: Irene (c. 750-803) and (812/13-c. 860) Irene was an unlikely bride to the vehemently iconoclast Emperor Leo IV. He is portrayed, like his father Constantine V Kopronoymos, as a ruthless emperor, torturing and killing many iconophiles and icon painters. Irene, like the wives of her husband’s predecessors, was a pious icon venerator. While her husband was out persecuting iconophiles, Irene was secretly keeping painted icons (like the one pictured at right) in her quarters at the palace. The source Kedrenos states, “In the mid-week of Lent he found under the pillow of his wife Irene two icons….As for his wife Irene, he rebuked here severely and set her at naught, saying, ‘Was this what you swore to my father the Emperor upon the fearsome and pure mysteries of our faith?’ She affirmed that she had not seen them ]note: the icons 23 January 2004. He spurned her and hand no more marital relations with her.” Whether or not this account is true is disputable but it can be said that Leo IV so disapproved of Irene’s actions that when he died in 780, she changed direction of the empire entirely. In 776 Irene’s son Constantine VI was crowned at age five by Leo to ensure the passage of the throne through imperial lines. After her husband’s death, Irene managed to secure her place as regent for her minor son. She struck coins with her own image and name on the obverse and Constantine’s on the less important reverse. To secure their joint reign she arranged for her son a future marriage with Charlemagne’s daughter, Rotrud. Irene delegated responsibility to trusted eunuchs to cover where she lacked in military ability. She concealed her religious convictions for under a year so as to not raise suspicion with Leo’s loyal supporters, then a coffin was conveniently discovered bearing the inscription: “Christ will be born of the Virgin Mary and I believe in Him. O sun, you will see me again in the reign of Constantine and Irene” thus reinstating the authority of iconophile propaganda. After careful planning and negotiation, in 787 Irene successfully abolished iconoclasm during the Seventh Ecumenical Council. The decision was enthusiastically supported by the public and clergy and the imperial pair was exalted as the ‘New Constantine and New Helena.’ As Constantine became of age his marriage betrothal was broken off and he was consequently torn. Irene is credited with the first use of a bride-show in which the most beautiful and noble young ladies were brought to be judged by the empress for selection as the successor to her throne. By way of one of these productions and new bride was chosen, much to the dismay of Constantine. From this point on Constantine and his mother became more and more disagreeable and differed on almost all accounts. Constantine, now of age to take the throne, was prevented from emperorship by his insistent mother. Rifts continued to grow and hostility mounted. Soon conspiracy was thick in the air at the palace and Irene was getting nervous. She concocted a counter-plot and had her son blinded to rid herself of any threat. The act was atrocious and the public was astonished, but Irene maintained control and continued to reign. Charlemagne requested her hand in marriage to unify the Eastern and Western empires but before she could accept, she was overthrown in revolution and exiled in the late 8th century. Irene was acclaimed as the restorer of icons until policy reverted in 815. Theodora was also married to an iconoclast, Theophilos, in 830. The couple had five daughters and one son, all of whom were depicted on coinage at one time or another. The famous icon painter Lazarus was imprisoned under Theophilos. Theodora sent her daughters to their grandmother at a convent where she taught them to venerate icons (depicted at right), and this too was discovered by the emperor to his horror. The emperor’s jester is said to have discovered and revealed Theodora’s hidden icons, adding to the events putting strain on the union. Theophilos died of dysentery after a short reign of 12 years in 842 and Theodora was made regent with supervision until her son Michael became of age. She supported an ecclesiastical council in 843 which reinstated the use of icons. This action may have occurred through a belief that God no longer favored iconoclasm because of recent military failure. Theodora was not as power hungry as Irene and sincerely wanted her son to inherit the throne, but somehow he was convinced she was plotting against him and her most valued eunuch was assassinated. Ensuing treachery eventually saw the demise of her son and her power thwarted. Her restoration of the holy images remains here greatest achievement as it was lasting and memorable.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.