Account of a talk given by Dr Peter Brooke in Llaneglwys Village Hall, 23rd August 2015

In 787, a Church council was held in Nicaea under the auspices of the Eastern Roman Empire, centred on Constantinople, which authorised the veneration of religious images (‘icons’). The Western Roman Empire, centred on Rome in Italy, had collapsed over two centuries earlier but a new centralised political society was developing under the Frankish King, Charlemagne. In Charlemagne’s court a book was prepared which condemned the canons on the veneration of icons agreed at Nicaea. The book was called the Opus Caroli – ‘Charles’s Work’ – so it was presented as of it had been written by Charlemagne himself. It was an important project, part of the process by which a new Western Empire was being created with its own church, independent of the continuing Roman Empire and its church, centred on Constantinople.


In the event, the project of the Opus Caroli was aborted through the intervention of the Patriarch of Rome, the Pope, still anxious to maintain the connection with ‘New Rome’, Constantinople. Nonetheless a council of the Western Empire was held in 794 – the Council of Frankfurt – which condemned the Eastern council albeit in a much more ambiguous way than had originally been planned.


Obviously what was happening was political. But Peter argues that it also reflects an important cultural difference. The new Empire of Charlemagne was built on the basis of peoples – Irish, Angles, Saxons, Germans, Franks, Visigoths – who had never been subject to the old Roman Empire. Constantinople on the other hand was the continuation of the Empire and therefore heir to the classical tradition of Greece and Rome. The principle writings in defence of the veneration of icons by St John of Damascus and St Theodore the Studite, were never circulated in the West but if they had been, Peter argues, there would have been many people who would have found them quite incomprehensible.

One of their central arguments was that there was an ontological connection between an image (for example of Christ) and its prototype (Christ Himself), so that one could, through the image, venerate the prototype. This was an idea that was well established in the classical tradition but was quite alien to the artist-monks working in what is called the ‘insular’ tradition – the art, sometimes called ‘Celtic art’, that was being produced in the monasteries of Ireland and of the North of England. Insular art is ‘rhythmic’, it is an art that invites us to contemplate in silence the purely ‘abstract’ interaction of lines and colours. Where there are figurative images they are arbitrary and made to conform to the overall rhythm. Peter showed three examples of ‘portraits’ of Christ, from the Book of Kells – all completely different with no thought of producing a recognisable ‘likeness’.


The contrast between insular art and classical art is striking and insular art was widespread throughout Europe. There were other influences at work, including elements taken from the old Roman classical tradition, but the classical ideal was not sufficiently well established to produce the sort of argument on the relation between image and prototype that developed in the East.


Eventually the West produced the beautiful fusion between rhythm and representation that we call ‘Romanesque’ art. In the East too the classical tradition was modified by the influence of other, non-Roman cultures. Russia inherited its religion and its iconography from Constantinople but not the full pre-Christian classical heritage. The Russian icon (at least until the seventeenth century) is certainly figurative, affirming the relation between image and prototype, but there is a greater emphasis on purely pictorial, or ‘abstract, principles of construction. Round about the fourteenth century – but these would all be topics for other talks – the early Italian ‘Renaissance’ would be heavily influenced by classically trained artists and thinkers going West as the Eastern Roman Empire shrank before the advancing power of Islam. And in the seventeenth century the eastern icon tradition in both the Greek-speaking and Slave worlds, would fall (and what a fall there was!) under the influence of a later, almost photographic, ‘Italianate’ school of painting.