A man whitewashes an image of Christ using a sponge on a pole paralleling the sponge on a pole used to offer gall to the crucified Christ.

“We do not adore the painted images” – Dúngal against iconoclasm

Simon Blackburn sardonically defines iconoclasm as “the odd pair of beliefs shared by enthusiasts including Cromwell and the Taliban, that while ‘false idols’ have no supernatural powers they are nevertheless so dangerous that they must be destroyed rather than ignored”1 Iconoclasm literally means image breaking and historically has been done for political reasons (as in the French Revolution) and for religious reasons2. In addition to the reformation, iconoclasm was a serious issue in the 7th and 8th centuries in the Byzantine Empire.

The end of the First Iconoclasm and the Frankish Response

At the last ecumenical council, the Synod of Nicaea in 787 which both representatives of the Orthodox and Western Christian Church attended, the issue was put to rest. Images not only could but should be displayed, for “the more frequently they are seen in representational art, the more are those who see them drawn to remember and long for those who serve as models, and to pay these images the tribute of salutation and respectful veneration”3 Byzantian iconoclasm, its forebears and its philosophical aspects are covered in this episode of the History of Philosophy podcast.

This provoked the writing of the Opus Caroli regis (or Libri Carolini) as the Frankish answer to the Synod. This was written by Theodulf of Orléans, assisted by others, at the request of Charlemagne4 Theodulf was hampered by having access only to a poor Latin translation of the Nicea encyclical, but produced a wide-ranging polemic that included discussions on aesthetics and beauty.

Unlike Nicea, Theodulf argued that images were not worthy to be venerated, though they might be used to beautify churches and in commemoration. Theodulf showed an indifference to religious art that might commend him to Simon Blackburn, which can be summarised as follows: “you can have it; you should not destroy it; you may not worship it.”5 He criticised the current Byzantine regime for calling their forefathers heretical, against the commandment to honour your father and mother. All the same, he effectively argued against many of the extant arguments for religious art. A picture cannot, Theodulf believed, reveal God, and “His power is to be adored not though a picture, but through His works.” God is to be sought “in the heart, not in visible things.” He thinks images are generally unnecessary from a religious point of view. Theodulf asked whether the saints, so humble in life, would desire veneration now they are in God’s presence6

While Theodulf apparently saw beauty as a good in itself and approved of it as such, he denied it can lead us to God, citing the apostle Paul’s statement, “for we live by believing and not by seeing” (2 Cor 5:7). He was unwilling to agree with the old argument that images can teach, and upheld the superiority of words and texts over images, in line with the neo-Platonic disdain for the material. The very accessibility of art meant bad art might mislead, Theodulf suggested, through spreading false ideas. Beautiful art can mislead in another way: if beautiful art is venerated more than ugly, are we equating beauty with holiness? What is it that makes venerating an image labelled Mary appropriate, while venerating the identical image labelled Venus would not be? Can the relationship between an image and what it is representing be only its label?7

Iconoclasm in the Carolingian Empire

Louis the Pious seated crowned and on a throne receives an envoy of bishops (on his left) with his court behind him (right)
Louis the Pious and envoys. fol. 139v (60 x 65 mm) Grandes Chroniques de France (BNF, FR 2813)
Source gallica.bnf.fr / BnF

This sets the Frankish position: it is wrong to destroy images, but also wrong to command their worship. The issue arose again in the ninth century after the Byzantine emperor Leo V once again made use of religious images illegal (though the images were not to be destroyed.) His successor Michael II send a letter to Louis the Pious looking for support in religious matters (with the case of images played down). Louis called the Paris Colloquy in 825 to discuss the matter8.

At this time, the Carolingian Empire also had its own homegrown iconoclast. Claudius, the bishop of Turin, started removing and destroying images and preaching against them there, possibly soon after his investiture between 816 and 818. His justification of his actions appears in his Apology and Response of Bishop Claudius of Turin against Abbot Theutmir. He claimed that arriving in Turin in the Kingdom of Italy he found all the basilicas full of “foul images” which he destroyed and replaced with abstract images based on the cross9.

Claudius rejected representational images based on the prohibition in Exodus against making presentations of heavenly or earthly objects, which he said must include likenesses of in honour of the creator. For Claudius, “to adore is to praise, venerate, ask, beseech, entreat, invoke, pour forth prayer”10. All of these actions in relation to images was objectionable. Claudius also rejected the cult of relics on the basis that after their deaths the saints knew nothing of earth, so their relics were inanimate and no better than animal bones. They were a distraction from true piety. He rejected pilgrimages to Rome: Peter was dead so his intercession might be sought anywhere. Finally there are hints of reservations about the cult of saints in general: he argued that salvation only came to those possessing the faith and righteousness of the saints, not through intercession of saints. On the whole Claudius’ position is an extreme version of Theodulf’s: true piety can only be gained by turning from the material to the immaterial. Claudius even directed believers not to bow down to the earth, but to “seek God in the heights.” 11

Claudius was not alone in his criticisms of the practises of his time. Alcuin had argued it was better to live well than carry saints bones, while the Council of Chalon criticised those who lived sinful lives and trusted in a pilgrimage to save them. Theodulf (as seen above) believed texts were superior to images in bringing people to God, and Paschasius Radbertus pointed to the need to imitate the saints rather than veneration of relics. It was the extremity of Claudius’ beliefs that was at issue, and threatened the religious communities of the Carolingian Empire12.

It appears that Theutmir brought the Apology to the court at or soon after 825. It’s likely Claudius’ actions were already known there, but after the spectre of iconoclasm had been raised by the letter from Byzantium, they could no longer be ignored. Claudius was invited to Paris to discuss the issue but refused, “calling their synod a donkey’s gathering” according to Dúngal of Pavia 13. (Dúngal is the Irish teacher we met previously explaining eclipses to Charlemagne and correcting the oldest surviving text of Lucretius.) Therefore Louis the Pious commissioned Dúngal of Pavia (the capital of the Kingdom of Italy, where Claudius was bishop) and Jonas of Orléans to answer Claudius14

Dúngal’sResponse against the perverse opinions of Claudius Bishop of Turin (written around 827) opens with a prologue that outlines the position in Northern Italy as he sees it. He describes a people divided on the question of images. “Dúngal makes the divisions sound sharp and the discourse acrimonious”15 This may be why he emphasises that he is writing in the name of Louis the Pious, and why one major role of his work is to undermine the persona Claudius builds up in his Apology of a learned man who is fighting heresy alone. His style of attack, use of mockery and preference for biblical quotations invokes the early martyrs battling pagan beliefs. Dúngal depicted him not as a lone martyr but as the head of a faction and the heir to previous heretics (the anti-relic Vigilantius and Eunomius, against whom Jerome wrote)16.

Like Theodulf, Dúngal’s major line of argument was based on tradition. He points out that the discussion of images in 825 should have cleared away any questions regarding images: the set position is that divine honours are due to God and that images made to the glory of God are not to be destroyed. Dúngal piles up citations on the use of images thoughout church history, leading to the question: if these teachings have been in place for over 800 years, how does Claudius justify his presumption in going against them? Dúngal argues that the prohibition in Exodus was given to the Jews of that time only, and cites specific instructions by God to Moses and Solomon to create images. The implication if that, if Vigilantius is on Claudius’ side, the Church Fathers are on Dúngal’s17 .

It would be interesting to know if Dúngal was aware of Theodulf’s earlier treatise, since the only classic argument for images he puts is one where Theodulf’s argument is weak: for the utility of images in reaching the ignorant and the illiterate. Dúngal particularly cites Paulinus of Nola, contemporary of Augustine and Jerome, not only an example of someone who used images, but as one who explicitly aimed in his use of images with explanatory text to draw the eye of peasants.

As Paulinus wrote, “When one reads the saintly histories of chaste works, virtue induced by pious examples steals upon one”18. Paulius’ practice suggests the argument that the link between images and what they represented was simply how they were named. Paulinus’ poem suggests too that images invoke contemplation in the viewer, and along those lines Dúngal also cites Gregory of Nyssa and the emotion invoked by an image19. The long tradition of images had a good reason behind it.

Images may be useful and licit in religious contexts, but should they be venerated? Dúngal’s argument here is linguistic, and deals with the difference between adorare (literal worship) and colere (worship in a more figurative sense, like veneration, or respect). The nuances Claudius disdained were in fact distinct precise differences in meaning, the lack of understanding of which stemmed from his faulty knowledge of Latin. This meant he misunderstood the second commandment. Dúngal links the issue of relics and images, and argues neither is idolatry20:

We on the other hand respond that we do not adore the painted images (imagines) of the saints on the walls, nor their bodies laid in tombs, as if they were God […] but we only venerate in God those whose likenesses (effigies) or bodies they are.

Interestingly, though, Dúngal’s eliding of relics and icons may suggest where Claudius’ original hostility came from. In Carolingian practice, the veneration of relics was carried out differently to that of images. Did the practice in Italy make this differentiation? But on the whole, Dúngal’s work adheres to the standard Carolingian line regarding icons: you may have them, you may venerate them, you may not worship them, you may not destroy them.

Dúngal’s was the only treatise that was probably completed in Claudius’ lifetime. Jonas of Orléans abandoned his work on the death on Claudius in 827, completing it later at the request of Charles the Bald. Agobard of Lyon and Walahfrid Strabo composed other writings on the subject. Claudius died without being summoned to court or to any synod, or deposed for heresy. His ideas, like those of Gottschalk on predestination were to reoccur and become wide-spread in the Reformation.

A man whitewashes an image of Christ using a sponge on a pole paralleling the sponge on a pole used to offer gall to the crucified Christ. Featured Image: Detail of iconoclast John Grammaticus whitewashing an image of Christ.
Miniature from the 9th-century Byzantine Chludov Psalter.
Wikimedia, Public Domain.

Facade of statuary, from the Cathedral of St Martin, Utrecht, from which the faces have been removed.
The marks of iconoclasm, Cathedral of Saint Martin, Utrecht
(c) Arktos/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.5)


  1. Simon Blackburn (2005) Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, Oxford University Press, pp. 176-7.
  2. “Iconoclasm” in Hugh Brigstocke (2001/2003) The Oxford Companion to Western Art (online).
  3. “Second Council of Nicaea – 787 A.D.” on Papal Encyclicals Online (online).
  4. Thomas F. X. Noble (2012) Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians, University of Pennsylvania Press, p. 1. See Chapter 4.
  5. Noble (2012), p. 220.
  6. Noble (2012), pp. 203, 220-1.
  7. Noble (2012), pp. 222-3, 203.
  8. Noble (2012), Chapter 6.
  9. Noble (2012), pp 287-8.
  10. Quote from Noble (2012), p. 291.
  11. Janneke Raaijmakers (2017) “I, Claudius. Self-styling in early medieval debate” Early Medieval Europe, 25 (1) pp. 70–84. See pp. 71-76. Quote from p. 74. Noble (2012), pp. 288-297.
  12. Raaijmakers (2017), pp. 74-5.
  13. Quote from Raaijmakers (2017), p. 71, and see 71n9.
  14. Noble (2012), p. 290.
  15. Noble (2012), p. 307.
  16. Raaijmakers (2017), pp. 81-83.
  17. Noble (2012), p. 307.
  18. Caecilia Davis-Weyer (1971) Early Medieval Art, 300-1150: Sources and Documents. NJ: Prentice-Hall, p. 19.
  19. Noble (2012), p. 308.
  20. Noble (2012), p. 308.
Scroll to Top