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The ancient faults of the other: religion and images at the heart of an unfinished dispute

Maria Bettetini
p. 141-162


Nel saggio si analizza il ruolo dell’immagine nelle polemiche religiose della tarda antichità, quando spesso l’immagine è stata utilizzata come arma retorica per porre le corrette distanze tra fedeli e infedeli, chi è nel giusto e chi sbaglia, “noi” e “gli altri”. La polemica scoppia tra pagani fedeli alle tradizioni e cristiani da poco scampati alla persecuzione, come nel caso del carteggio di Simmaco e sant’Ambrogio: Simmaco chiede all’imperatore di ripristinare l’altare della Vittoria con la statua della dea in Senato, chiedendo una sorta di “tolleranza” (dissimulatio) ai cristiani. Ambrogio a sua volta chiede all’imperatore di non accogliere la pretesa pagana, perché in verità per i pagani le statue non rimandano al divino ma sono esse stesse oggetto di culto idolatrico. Su questa linea si colloca la guerra per e contro l’iconoclastia tra Roma e Costantinopoli, nell’ottavo secolo: era lecito adorare o venerare le sacre icone e le altre immagini sacre? Ancora una volta chi parla e scrive usa delle immagini come di una via per screditare “gli altri”: Bisanzio accusa Roma di idolatria, in nome di un platonico distacco dalla materia; Roma accusa Bisanzio di non aver compreso il valore delle immagini sacre, libri per gli analfabeti, aiuto nella preghiera. Il Concilio di Nicea del 787 sembrava aver chiuso la contesa sottolineando la differenza tra l’atto di adorare (latreia), riservato solo a Dio, e quello di venerare (proskynesis), riservato ai santi, alle reliquie e alle immagini sacre. In verità la non comprensione linguistica della differenza tra i due termini greci diede spunto a Carlo Magno per mettersi dalla parte della ragione, accusando “gli altri” (che stavolta sono i “Greci”, ossia l’Impero d’Oriente, e implicitamente anche il Papa e i padri conciliari) di sbagliarsi grossolanamente, appoggiandosi a una sorta di platonismo agostiniano. Il papato correggerà l’ardire di Carlo Magno, ma la vicenda delle immagini sacre continuerà a sostenere le divisioni tra “noi” e “gli altri”, ancora a Bisanzio nel IX secolo e poi con la Riforma.

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Note dell’autore

The original Concilia texts are in Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio, voll. 53, ed. J.D. Mansi, Parisii-Arnheim-Leipzig, 1901-1927 and in Conciliorum Oecumenicorum Decreta, ed. G. Alberigo, G.L. Dossetti, P.-P. Joannou, C. Leonardi, P. Prodi, H. Jedin, Edizioni Dehoniane Bologna, 1962, 20023. We translate some and we always avoid the term icon, as for the greek eikōn as well for the latin imago, because of the multivalency got from this word through the ages.

Testo integrale

1. Images as signs of diversity

1In recent years, we have been presented with many instances of the potent role that images play: statues and figures, from Bamiyan to the tragic death of Theo van Gogh, from the Danish satirical cartoons to the sad burnings of flags and effigies. Though we shall be looking at the eighth century, the controversy over images is not limited in time and space, but rather displays some of the same recurring features in every civilisation, which involve suspicion of the other and, as a result, the effort to stress one’s own identity and to crush others’.

  • 1 Naef 2005: 113-116.

2So as not to become like the Gentiles, who adore their kings; so as not to become polytheists like the Christians; so as not to fall under the influence of the Jews, who accept only temple images; so as not to be led astray, like the “Saracens”, as they are called by the Second Council of Nicaea, who razed the Christians’ churches and statues. The documents that have come down to us concerning the battle over images abound in expressions like these, inciting us to destroy or to save or to treat with prudence condescension material images. The motivations are full of interest and often have to do with avoiding tainting oneself with the faults of others. Philosophers speak of the various ways of understanding mimesis: in the Platonic-Augustinian line, there is the retreat from the truth, and so a deception that is close to blasphemy; or vice-versa, in the Aristotelian line, but also that of Plato, Plotinus and Dionysus, there is the fresh construction of an object that brings us closer to the truth and that speaks the truth if the object has been truly inspired by the truth. The theological debate moves the problem to that of the representability of what is divine and of the temptation of idolatry. Thus, while the Jewish world never revoked the prohibition contained in the Commandments, or rather “words”, not to make graven images, Christianity embraces a variety of positions, with a commemorative-instructional use predominating in the West and a devotional-emotive one East of the Alps. Not even Islām expressed a single view of the problem, so much so that we have recently read that «the question of images» is a «Western problem»1, while the Islamic world has always rejected the use of images in religious practice and in the places of worship, holding to more or less rigid positions as regards painting and the figurative arts in general, and in recent times not disdaining the use of video images. And this too is a saddening consideration because among such products, there have been no films in favour of peace.

2. In history: the value of “a piece of wood”

  • 2 Symmachus, III relatio, 3, 4.
  • 3 Ibidem 3, 10.
  • 4 Ambrosius, Epistolae, 18, 9.
  • 5 Ibidem 18, 2.
  • 6 Porfirius, Peri Agalmatōn (2012: 65).
  • 7 See Bonfiglioli 2008 e Paparella 2011.

3It is the year 384 and only in recent years have the Christians been free to practise their religion, which will become the state religion in 394, after Theodosius’ victory at Frigidus and the Edict of Thessalonica of 380. In 357 Constantius had had the Altar of Victory removed from the Senate; in 382 Gratian had also taken away the statue before which the senators made their vows and performed propitiatory rites at the beginning of each session. The pagan Symmachus who had just become Prefect of Rome called on Valentinian II that the Altar be replaced in the name of the safety of Roman tradition (Ambrose’s and Symmachus’ texts are in Dionigi 2006): «I beseech to make it so that what we inherited as boys we may as old me pass on to posterity»2. Indeed, Symmachus proceeds, «everything is full of god» and «so great a mystery cannot be reached by a single road»3: hence, the pagan altars should be maintained along with the Christian symbols. Ambrose, bishop of the imperial seat at Milan, replies with two letters to Valentinian, who will heed his bishop rather than his prefect. Ambrose’s text is weighed down with sad and recent memories of being persecuted and of not having altars raised, and invigorated with a view of the future of the youth of the new religion against the age of the ancient practices. But the real battle is to be fought over a different point from the claims of the past: we accept your statues because it is the statues themselves that you adore, the images are your gods. «You suppose your god to be a piece of wood»4, Ambrose claims: all the roads to god are open, yet the pagans «speak of god, but adore a statue»5 as if the many roads to arrive at the mystery of Symmachus’ religious syncretism had led one to be bound to devotion towards objects and not towards gods that remain “unknown” in the terms of a celebrated passage of Acts 17 (22-31), which recalls the practice of dedicating a temple in each city to the “unknown God”. Paradoxically, tolerance towards a variety of religions had led to attachment to certain objects of historical and symbolic value; on the other hand, what we nowadays would call the intolerance of the new Christians did not accept symbols different from their own and regarded them as objects of idolatry. And this despite the fact that, in his work on images of the gods (peri agalmatōn), we find in the first fragment of the pagan Porphyry of Tyre, writing at the end of the third century, that «it is no surprise that the most ignorant consider statues to be pieces of wood or of stone, just as those who do not understand writing regard columns as mere stones, tablets as just wood and the papyri of books as fabric»6, indeed, the invisible divinity can be rendered visible with fitting statues made of appropriate materials (gold, crystal, marble, ivory), which are not just bits of matter, but become agalmata7, which are signs that contain something of the divine power and are not idols but icons. For sure, this is the most refined effort to preserve that highest religious notions that Roman syncretism had produced in the face of the growing spread of Christianity. Indeed, as regards adherence to a creed or the acceptance of many, no faith has ever been able to discount the power of symbols, statues and flags.

4This does not give us the right to judge a period’s or a culture’s artistic production purely in terms of a contrast: it would be an exaggeration to read early Christian art just as a reply to the so-called “imperial mystique”, which certainly did exist, with its own precise structure, as scholars such as André Grabar (1992) and, more recently, Olivier Boulnois (2008) have shown. The theme of the imperial mystique, which is to say the direct move from kingship over the empire to that of Christ has been investigated by Mathews (2003), who, though he entitles his book “the clash of gods”, sets out not so much a contest to win spaces and devotees, but rather the effective intertwining and opposition between the worlds of imperial Rome and the nascent Church, for the destiny of a civilisation is not played out on the scale of posters, but rather on that of the programmes and their actualisation by the political challengers. Undoubtedly, Christianity sought to eliminate the sign of the preceding religiosity, and it took many of them over, but the Christian attitude to images is not so simple as an antithesis joined to an appropriation.

3. The early church: iconodulism or iconoclasm

  • 8 Registrum epistularum, IX, 209 and XI, 10.

5Like any other sign, an image needs to be interpreted: the limitation of an image is that it strikes the outer senses and reaches the mind only through sight, in line with the downgrading of sensible knowledge characteristic of the Platonists and of Augustine of Hippo. The most misleading image is the one that is most mimetic, as Isidore of Seville repeats in the Etymologies: «Pictura autem dicta est quasi fictura»: a picture is said like a fiction. The idea that “picture” resembles “scripture” is related to two roles: teaching and the recall of what has been learnt, even in the controversial letters of Gregory the Great. Indeed, after the invectives launched against images by the bishops of Elvira, Epiphanius of Salamis, Eusebius of Caesarea and others, the Latina world seems to have reached a balance in the famous and disputed words of Pope Gregory the Great (ca. 540-604) contained in the two letters that he sent to Serenus, bishop of Marseilles that tended towards iconoclasm in perhaps the first reflection elaborated in the West on the function of images as texts8. As Chazelle (1990) has suggested, Gregory’s theoretical inspiration may have been Augustinian texts, but also the Greek Fathers cited above, perhaps in translation or synopsis, or encountered in oral reports (thus Cavallo 1994).

  • 9 Registrum epistularum, XI, 10: 874: «In loci venerabilibus sanctorum depingi historias non sine rat (...)
  • 10 Frugoni 2005 has rightly pointed out in this connection that, in commenting on the Gregory the Grea (...)
  • 11 Registrum epistularum, V, 37: 309. We must not forget, though, that the second letter to Serenus, i (...)

6In the first letter, Gregory stresses the catechistic value of paintings in churches, which allow the illiterate to give an alternative “reading” of sacred history and of the teachings that relate to it. Bishop Serenus was destroying the pictures because he saw that the faithful were developing for them an idolatrous cult of the sort that, a few years earlier, they had reserved for the pagan idols. Gregory is aware of the weight of ecclesiastical tradition: «In past centuries, it was allowed, and not without reason, to paint the stories of the saints in venerable places»9 he writes in the second letter, where he draws the distinction between adoring a picture and being helped by it to understand what is to be adored. The painting offers to those who look at it the same contents that are offered by Scripture to those who read. Pictura and scriptura are regarded as equal in point of content, but the picture can be enjoyed by those who cannot read10. Gregory affirms that images are readable by the ignorantes, by the idiotae, by the populus imperitus, by the nescientes litteras, and by the gentes, which is to say people who are not yet Christians and who therefore have not read the Scriptures but can encounter pictures. All of these were helped to the “reading” of the images by the sermon, which often took on the vivid and concrete tone of an anecdote, but could equally often be made difficult by the difference between written and spoken language, the cultured – or at least literate – language of the clergy and the language spoken by the people, which was by no means correct Latin. Illiteracy and the difficulty of oral understanding thus made paintings a fundamental instrument in the catechism, a “mute sermon”, as Peter the Venerable would say centuries later in connection with the copyist’s task. Thus images seem to have been accepted not so much as a tool for greater understanding or even as a stimulus to devotion, prayer or contact with God, as rather a first encounter with sacred history and Christian dogma, aimed at the ignorant, both Christian and pagan, the gentes to whom Gregory had dedicated many letters, for all that he recognised that Europe «is now in the hands of the law of the barbarians»11. And this is a clear reference to the “others” from whom we must distinguish ourselves.

  • 12 For an analysis of the second letter to Secondinus and of the interpolation see Schmitt 1987: 275-2 (...)
  • 13 Registrum epistularum, IX, 148: 698-704, Appendix X: 1104-111, also in Patrologia Latina, LXXVII, E (...)
  • 14 Ibidem: «Et dum nobis ipsa pictura quasi scriptura ad memoriam Filium Dei reducit, animum nostrum a (...)

7Gregory also wrote a letter to the hermit Secondinus, of which we have a partially apocryphal version (with an eighth-century interpolation), which is of great historical interest, because it is the same text that was presented to the Lateran Council of 769 and that Hadrian I used to refute the Libri Carolini12. this is not a matter of illiterates or pagans: Gregory has satisfied the hermit’s desire to possess sacred images and justifies that possession with the elevation that viewing the image makes possible thanks to the contemplation of the life of Christ, per visibilia invisibilia. But at least three things must be borne in mind; first, that it is precisely the part where the value of sacred images is set out that is the interpolation that would later be used against the iconoclasts; second, that Gregory nevertheless uses the verb “recordare” to indicate the passage from the visible to the invisible13, which is not a mystical elevation, but always an aid to the memory, passing from the image to the facts of Christ’s life and so to sentiments of joy or pain14; and, third, that the subject is always sacred pictures, and not images or art works in general. The pictura quasi scriptura is in any case related to two roles: that of teaching and the recall of what has been learnt.

  • 15 Homeliae evangelii I, 13.

8Of these two, the Libri Carolini will allow only the second: bringing to memory what has been learnt by other means. Suffice to note that the Church of Rome took a positive attitude to sacred images, as is confirmed by the writings of the Venerable Bede (672-735) who, in a sermon affirms the usefulness of picturae sanctarum historiarum for those who cannot study lectio litterarum15.

9But, beginning in 727, the same cannot be said for Constantinople. In a moment in which the power of the basileus was being consolidated under Leo III (717-741) and then his son Constantine V (741-775), the making and owning of images of God and of the saints is prohibited. The formal act with which this iconoclastic campaign begins is the removal and destruction of the icon of Christ fixed above the Chalkē, which was the bronze gate that served as the main entrance to the imperial palace of Constantinople. Everywhere, but most particularly in the capital, sacred pictures and sculptures were destroyed and replaced by simple crosses. It was not the Patriarch but the Emperor who decided on this iconoclastic policy, for various reasons that are still the subject of scholarly debate, among them the following. There was the influence of Islamic and Jewish iconoclasm, which would have eased a cultural conciliation with an evermore insistent Islām. There was also the need to stress the religious side to imperial power by proposing as the sole symbol the cross, which was a sign associated with the tradition of Constantine and of the emperor’s role in religious affairs. And there was obviously the need to oppose the Church of Rome and for the Emperor to distance himself from the didactic tradition that had taken root in the West. But above all there was the need to hem in the power of the producers and propagators of sacred images, which is to say the very numerous, widely loved and tax-exempt monks.

  • 16 Contra imaginum caluniatores orationes tres, 1, 17: 93.

10The Patriarch Germanus opposed the iconoclastic positions of Leo III and was deposed. Among the defenders of images, we find John of Damascus or Damoscene (ca. 690-749), three of whose orations Against the caluminators or images survive and in which we seem to find concepts derived from Gregory. But John’s defence goes well beyond pedagogy because the doctrine of the pseudo-Dionysus concerning the manifestation of the invisible God in visible reality is applied to painting. On this view, it is sufficient that the image should resemble its prototype, for all that it differs in substance, for it to deserve veneration. Also in these orations, we find that «material things as such do not deserve veneration, but if he whom they represent is full of grace, it is in line with the faith to hold that they participate in that grace»16.

11Images are taken to be a go-between with the divine, participating the very divine grace that is present in the beauty of the created world, and are even closer to the transcendent than is a flower or a tree because directly inspired in the mind of a painter by a state of grace that itself has a supernatural origin. But Leo and Constantine did not listen to John and persevered with their iconoclasm.

4. The reactions of Rome against the iconoclasm of Constantinople

12The reaction in the West to the iconoclastic practices was immediate: already in 727, Pope Gregory II sent two letters to Leo III to persuade him not to continue along the path of iconoclasm, and, in 731, his successor Gregory III convoked a Council of ninety-three bishops in Rome which provided excommunication for those who denied the possibility of drawing comfort for the faith from relics and sacred images. In 769, a further Council, held in the Lateran basilica, reaffirmed the desirability of venerating «with the greatest honour» the relics and clothes of saints, the churches dedicated to them and also «the images and their faces that have been painted in any place whatever».

  • 17 Mc Cormick 1994: 130.

13Two years earlier, Pepin the Short had convoked a Council at Gentilly, of which we do not have the proceedings, but at which, according to the chronicle drawn up at the court of King Charles twenty years later, the Trinity and the images of saints were discussed. Nevertheless, a study has proposed that «the meeting at Gentilly had a double aim: a debate on the doctrine of images and the approval of a proposal of matrimony coming from Constantinople»17 between Constantine V and Pepin’s daughter, who were already betrothed but had never in fact married. The problem of images was in all probability considered only marginally, with a view to reconciling Rome with Byzantium (which was represented by a number of legates concerned with the marriage) under the protection of the king of the Franks, which had to deal also with the idolatry of the Saxons, which Charles was later to repress with force. The statues of the others had to be destroyed along with their houses, their villages and all the population.

  • 18 Mansi, Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio XIII, 672.

14Meanwhile, in Constantinople the iconoclastic policy had been taken up afresh and heightened by Leo’s son Constantine V (who was known to his enemies as “Copronymus”, meaning “dung-named”, and who ruled from 741 to 775). This line was based on the theological exposition exemplified in the Interrogations (Peusis), which was supposed to be a work written by the emperor himself, and which was justified and found its final expression in the decree (horos) and in the anathemas of the Council of Hieria in Bythnia convoked by Constantine in 754. At Hieria, images of Christ and of the saints were declared idolatrous: the former because they sought to represent the unrepresentable divine, separating the flesh from the divinity and so breaking the unity of the two natures; the latter, namely images of the Virgin and of the saints, because, insofar as they are material, they degrade the glorious condition of their models, just as Epiphanius of Salamis had maintained four centuries earlier, and hence are diabolically inspired. Of course, the intercessionary power of the Virgin and of the saints was not denied, and the value of the naked Cross, as the only acceptable image, was reaffirmed. In the proceedings of Hieria, images of Christ are described in the following terms: «The name of Christ means God and Man; hence also the image is an image of God and of Man», but a painter «following his vain opinion, has circumscribed the divinity, which cannot however be circumscribed within the limits of created flesh»18.

15One text that quotes verbatim what is, for us, Fragment N° 5 of Constantine V’s work runs as follows:

  • 19 Quaestiones, fr. 5 in Melioranskij 1901.

Since He possesses, united to the flesh, another immaterial nature and since He is one with these two natures and His person or His hypostasis is inseparable from the two natures, we do not accept that it is possible to circumscribe him, for what is represented in only one person. It is clear that he who circumscribes this person also circumscribes the divine nature, which cannot be circumscribed19.

16The proceedings of Hieria have come down to us only through the refutations of Nicaea, as is often the case with losers’ writings. Yet the fragments we have are enough to grasp the emperor’s determination to use military force to fight the opposition, which had arisen primarily among the monks. An oath was imposed not to venerate images; the opponents were killed or mutilated; the images were scraped off the walls or burnt, being replaced by vegetable or animal decorations or by the naked Cross.

5. Replies

17What we have here are political reactions that made a great impression on the history of art: Constantine V replace the scenes of the life of Christ in the churches of Constantinople with representation of trees, birds, animals, cats and gryphons. He has been criticised by history, which is to say the winners’ texts that have survived, for having turned churches into fruit stores and birdcages. But we cannot avoid asking about the mutual influences in this eighth century between the Islamic prescriptions and the new abilities that pictures and mosaicists had developed. No longer sacred history, but decorations of animals and vegetables. No longer idealised portraits of saints and emperors, but realistic scenes of hunts and gardens, leopards and peacocks, as we find in the rooms next to the Palatine Chapel at Palermo, which were produced by Byzantine masters in the twelfth century.

18After the death of Constantine, the doctrine of Hieria remained the official rule, but both Leo IV and Irene, who was regent from 780 for her son Constantine VI (whom she would later depose and have blinded), weakened their position so far as to convoke a new Council on the question of images. Fearing the consequence of obstinate opposition to Rome and aspiring, as history would prove, to a unification of the Western and Eastern empires under her rule, and after supporting the election of Tarasios, a layman in her service, to the Patriarchate, Irene convokes the Council of Nicaea, which took up eight sessions between 4 September and 28 October 787.

6. A first accord: Nicaea II

  • 20 Mansi, Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio XIII, 1 A.

19The Pope of Rome was represented by one priest and one monk, while only two monks represented the Patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, as we read in the proceedings: «There came the most devoted Peter, archpriest of the most holy church of Peter Apostle in Rome, and Peter, the most devoted priest, monk and hegumen of the venerable monastery of St Saba in Rome, on behalf of the apostolic seat of the very reverend and very holy Hadrian, archbishop of ancient Rome; the very reverend and very holy Tarasios archbishop of glorious Constantinople, the new Rome; an John and Thomas very devoted priests, monks and legates of the apostolic throne of the Eastern provinces»20 namely Alexandria, Antoich and Jerusalem. The number of the Byzantine bishops varied, but there were never fewer than two hundred. There were present also archimandrites, hegumens (heads of monastic houses, from hēgeisthai, to lead) and monks, all without voting rights but with an important role in the discussions. The conclusions, which were in favour of the making, the owning and the “veneration” of sacred images, were a victory for the religious world in general against the policies of the emperors who preceded Irene and Constantine. All the Byzantines present were favourable to iconodulia, and the Pope’s legates had not difficulty in having their own view prevail.

20The proceedings include also two letters from Pope Hadrian I to the emperors and to Tarasios. From these, it is clear that those present were taking part in an “ecumenical” Council with the participation of both the Eastern and Western churches. In this, it differed from Hieria, which was regarded as a Council of only the Eastern church; as well as from that of Rome of 731 and in the Lateran in 769, in which only the West participated. Only twenty-two canons have come down to us, and only five of these are wholly new, with the others repeating canons of earlier Councils. Not do we know in which sessions they were promulgated, though it is possible to reconstruct the themes of the sessions.

21The fourth session raised the question of images in Scripture and in the texts of the Fathers, and the decision was reached that Scripture prohibits images (for instance in Exodus 20, 3-4 and Deuteronomy 5, 7-10) only specific circumstances, which are historically justified, while the Fathers praised images. The examples were almost all taken from the books of the so-called Old Testament, which were regarded as texts in any case to be read in a figurative way, in line with the reading of Origen and the Greek Fathers as followed by Ambrose and Augustine. The allegorical reading had, in the first centuries AD, helped resolve the serious problem of the apparent inconsistency of the Old and New Testaments, which had led some groups of Christians (such as the Marcionites but also the Manicheans) to deny its authenticity or divine inspiration. In this way, one argument in favour of images was “scholarly”: the exegesis helps to give a correct interpretation of Scripture and to put in perspective and context the prohibitions that had been addressed to the Jews. To this was added an argument that was more popular: stories of miracles obtained by means of images of Christ, the Virgin and the saints became the subject of stories – collected in the proceedings – that were often told in an uncritical and legendary manner.

22In the fourth session the interrogation of the nature of images led also to the specification of the fundamental difference between the act of adoration (latreuein) and that of veneration (proskynein), with the former being due only to God and the latter directed to the saints, the Virgin, angels and images, which is to say both images of Christ and those of the saints. The confusion between latreia and proskynesis was at the root of Charlemagne’s reaction to the Council of Nicaea.

  • 21 Mansi, Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio XIII, 1 A.

23This distinction was taken up also in the Council’s horos, where, after exhorting the faithful to raise up “the venerable and holy images, both painted and in mosaic or in any other appropriate material” in the churches, in the streets and in houses, it recalled that «they may, by kissing them, be rendered honour, respect and veneration (proskynesis). But this is not truly adoration (latreia), which our faith reserves only for the divine nature, but is rather a cult similar to that bestowed on images of the precious and life-giving Cross, on the holy Gospels and on other sacred objects»21.

  • 22 Mansi, Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio XIII, 668.

24Could a picture or a statue show only the body and thereby hide the soul and, above all, the divine nature? In this connection Nicaea held that the image always refers to the “prototype”: “all the more that those who contemplate them are carried to the memory of and the desire and the desire for the original models (prototypoi)”, and we read in the horos the explanation that «following the pious custom of the ancients, the honour bestowed on the image passes to its model». Thus the image makes no claim to signify the whole of its model, but merely to refer to it and it in turn is recalled, desired and honoured. In this way the image of Christ represents his body, but does not on that account cancel his divinity: it is concerned with a body that Christ himself had chosen to take on and that is the only aspect of the Son that can be painted. Therefore, on the one hand, «the Word of God circumscribed Himself coming among us in the flesh» and hence, if someone «circumscribes» Him by painting his body, he does so in a way that is «absolutely just and good», because it matches what Christ made of Himself; on the other «no-one has ever thought to paint His divinity, for, as Scripture says, “None has ever seen God”: and for this reason He cannot be painted, nor seen, nor understood – except in His humanity»22.

  • 23 Ibid.
  • 24 Ibid.

25The image is similar to its model «not in substance but only in name and in the disposition of the parts that are depicted»23. Even when a man is painted, no-one claims to give a portrait also of his soul, and yet, this passage of the proceedings concludes that «no-one of good sense would think on seeing the image of a man that the art of painting has separated the soul from the man»24.

  • 25 Plotinus, Enneads V, 8, 1: 35-38: «The arts do not simply imitate what is to be seen, but rise up t (...)

26The image thus refers to the model, as do works of art for Plotinus25, and it remains of a different substance from it, resembling it only in name, as in the relation that the pseudo-Dionysus picked out between painting and painter, but also between holy man and God. The image recalls the model and, in showing what can be depicted, namely the body, calls to mind also what cannot be depicted, namely the soul for a man, the divine nature for Christ, and the glorious state for the Virgin and the saints.

7. The relation between image and Scripture

27A further point in the proceeding of the Council of Nicaea that it worth recalling here concerns the value of Scripture in relation to that of images. At Nicaea it was maintained that the same kind of knowledge can be gained from reading the Gospels as from looking at sacred images. Indeed, «as the things read, once they have been received into our ears, are transmitted to our souls, so the things that we see with our eyes in images are embraced by our minds».

  • 26 For instance 2, 11, 16ff. and 3, 25, 35ff.

28For the Carolingians it would be unacceptable to put the Holy Scriptures on the same level as paintings, for the former were produced by God Himself while the latter are made by the hand of man. In making this distinction, the authors of the Palatine School did not take account of a point amply grasped by the Fathers, namely the fundamental role of man in the composition of the revealed text of the Bible. In the Confessions, in the De Doctrina Christiana26 and in many other places, Augustine points out among the difficulties of exegesis precisely that of understanding the language of the sacred writer, who is inspired by God, but who then decides how and what to write according to his own understanding, his own ability, his own customs and of course his own era.

29This distinction is however probably more present at Nicaea, which distanced itself from the Islamic conception of the holy book as dictated word for word by God to His Prophet to such an extent that it becomes a sort of personification of God. Nicaea put at arm’s length both Jews and Muslims, and did not want to fall into their “faults”, making use both of historical data and legend without much discrimination. In the light of the Council’s eighth canon, which affirms that an unconverted Jew should be left in peace («Let them be openly Jewish, according to their religion!»), there is a point of interest in the story told by the monk Joannes. After he had succeeded Omar on the throne of Damascus to govern those Arabic and Saracen “Godless” and had failed to conquer Constantinople, Yazīd gave himself over to listening to diviners and astrologers. Among these stood out the impious Jew, “God’s murderer”, Sarantapechys, who seems to have suggested to the superficial (levis et movilis) Yazīd to destroy all the Christian images in return for a long life and thirty years of rule. Both within and without the churches, the images were destroyed, though, for all we know, this may have been only in Egypt or throughout the realm, and the destruction may have been no more than decapitation to ensure that they did not appear to be “alive”, in keeping with Islamic tradition. Two years later Yazīd died and his son took vengeance on the veneficus Jew; but by this time, as Joannes relates, the Christians had understood that, to get along with the Arabs and the Jews, they had to abolish images. This was the source of the iconoclastic attitude of the Eastern emperors between the beginning of the eighth century and the end of the ninth AD. The monk’s tale is certainly composed for effect and is probably a skilful mixture of some true elements with pure invention, but the basic idea remains: at the root of the struggle among Christians we find the “Arabs”, who are in turn ill advised by the Jews. And each refuses sacred images with a view to distancing themselves from idolaters, who are guilty of confusing the material representation with the divinity represented. This is the same accusation that, in the same years, Charlemagne levelled at the gentiles, the pagans who adored their mortal kinds and their idols of wood and stone. Christians should not adore material things and are not the dupes of the pagans’ “fables”. But nor should they altogether refuse images, lest they become like the Samaritans, who, according to Nicaea, are not merely Jews but heretics.

30Thus only one thing seems clear: that whoever is speaking is in the right. If he has erred, it is the fault of others. If he wants to act rightly, he must not take the example of others. Among the many issues that were raised for the various cultures, that of images appears emblematic of the continuous flux of ideas that are similar to each other from one continent to the other and about which the authorities would decide whether to claim the merit or discharge the blame. But the ideas were very much the same, as were the texts and original customs. In short, the Second Council of Nicaea was a victory for the reconciliation of East and West in the name of the Catholic religion sustained by Rome and by the Eastern monastic circles, accepted and supported by Irene, the regent for the emperor Constantine VI. It was also a way of taking a distance from Islam and of uniting against military power.

8. Charlemagne’s intervention

31Non-specialists have paid little attention to a work written in the years between 790 and 793 under the title Opus Caroli Regis contra Synodum, traditionally better known as the Libri Carolini. With sophisticated arguments and in an elegant language, the text supports a doctrine that aims to oppose both the Latin iconodules and the Greek iconoclasts, namely the inability of images to mean anything beyond the materiality of the object reproduced. In line with a sort of two-dimensional Augustinianism, images can only recall historical events and personages at the same time as decorating places of worship. The key role in this diatribe is given to the interpreter, he who knows how to read written texts, images and the Holy Scriptures. Recognising the cultural weight of the Holy Scriptures, late-medieval Europe was diffident of images yet attached to the saving and catechetical value of writing, and it may have found a concession to the use of images more in the censured Libri Carolini than in the orthodoxy of the Council of Nicaea. Insofar as they were freed from all otherworldly reference, images could not be good or bad, but became only useful or harmful, or, more especially, beautiful or ugly. Which is the way that they have been considered in Western culture over the succeeding thirteen centuries.

  • 27 Gero 1973: 9-14.

32The passages were as follows. The proceedings of the Second Council of Nicaea, composed in Greek, were sent to Rome, where Pope Hadrian I ordered a Latin translation to be made. We do not know whether they arrived in the form of a report or a transcription27, nor do we know the name of the translator. What is sure, though, is that the translator was not very familiar with Greek. For the Latin text does not mark the difference between proskynesis and latreia, using adoratio both for the adoration due to God and for the veneration owing to images. This was a little error in translation that led to important consequences. When, at some point between 789 and 790, the Latin text reached Charlemagne’s court, which had been excluded from the Council, the king took the occasion to present himself as the defender of the true faith against the errors of the “Greeks”, which the Papal legates had obviously been unable to put right. Confusing Hieria with Nicaea, Charlemagne called on the intellectuals of his court to draw up a text that would refute both the heresy of idolatry (the adoratio reserved to images) and that of iconoclasm (the prohibition of images).

  • 28 Patrologia Latina, XCVIII, 990-1248.

33Without raising the question of the real author of the Libri, which has been considered by more competent scholars, we may note that, at the same time, in 793, Theodulf of Orleans, or someone on his behalf, brought the work to a close and received the king’s and the court’s approval, and that a letter from the Pope arrived in the same court in refutation of everything in the Libri Carolini. Charlemagne certainly could not ignore a papal letter addressed to him personally, and so the Libri Carolini were taken out of circulation. Barely quoted in contemporary manuscripts, they were buried in some libraries and forgotten for almost eight centuries. Then in 1549 Jean du Tillet, future bishop of Saint-Brieux and later of Meaux, recovered a manuscript and published it at Paris under the pseudonym “Elias Philyra”28. Thereafter, the Libri Carolini took on a new lease of life in the works of Calvin, who used them as the theoretical underpinning for his attack on the cult of images.

  • 29 Mansi, Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio, XIII, 909 D.

34It is worth recalling that, in 794, probably with Hadrian’s letter in hand, Charlemagne convoked a Council at Frankfurt made up of bishops from all the Frankish lands with a view to condemning the adoptionist heresy. The Libri Carolini were not mentioned, but the Council’s second canon concerns images and quotes them almost word for word: «A discussion was held in the assembly about the Greeks’ synod, which had been convened at Constantinople to enact the adoration (adoratio) of images»29.

  • 30 Ibid.

35Nicaea is not named and once more the Council of Nicaea is superimposed on that of Hieria. In this council “at Constantinople”, an anathema is supposed to have been launched against «those who have not done service (servitium) and adoration (adoratio) to images as is owing to the Holy Trinity»30.

  • 31 Ibid.
  • 32 Ibid.
  • 33 Mc Cormick 1994: 144.

36Naturally the clergy of the Council of Frankfurt «resolutely refused this adoration and this service, and condemned them unanimously»31. The Carolingians had after all believed that the proceedings of Nicaea required the same adoration for sacred images as for the Trinity. And this explains also why Annales regni Francorum in the redaction of Gentilly had said that the meeting was de sancta Trinitate vel de sanctorum imagine: «Of the Holy Trinity and of images of the saints»32. The Carolingians’ mistake recurs also in their description of what had happened under Pepin when there was discussion not of the dogma of the Trinity but of images. And it is in the Libri Carolini that we find this supposed Nicaean proposal of the same kind of adoration for images as for the Trinity33.

9. The political value of the Libri

37Why did the question of images receive such attention in the Frankish kingdom? To understand this and to understand the Libri Carolini, we must bear two things in mind. The first is the absolute supremacy of writing over images in the culture and life of the High Middle Ages. The other is the role that Charlemagne, and before him his father Pepin, wanted to play in the Christian West.

38On the one hand, the eighth century saw a further retreat of literacy, as much at Byzantium as in the Roman West, due in part to the growing gap between the written language and the spoken. On the other, while the reference points were written texts, such as the king’s laws and the Scriptures, the West attributed to images only the task, as we have seen, of instructing, as a replacement for written texts for those who were unable to read. Moreover, an image can never be regarded as entirely autonomous because it always presupposes the support of an explanation whether oral or written, the tituli to which the Libri Carolini gave fundamental importance.

39We should not forget that in the years from 788 to 792 he supposed author of the Libri Carolini, Charlemagne, had to fight the Byzantines at the gates of his realm, in Italy, and he presented himself as the new David, the defender of the faith and of the Roman church. While the court clergy often referred to David, Rome preferred the model of Constantine, for these were the years in which the “Donation” of Constantine was being constructed. This was a very different way of viewing things from that which, according to Charlemagne, the Emperors of the East took of themselves, supposing, as was reaffirmed in official formulae, that they ruled with God and not for God. In the first chapters of the Libri Carolini, then, we find criticism of this way of placing oneself on the same level as God as Irene and Constantine VI had. The author of the Libri Carolini speaks always of rex and never of imperator, and stresses the difference between He who says of Himself, «I am that I am» and a man who, by comparison, is non-being (see II, 1). Charlemagne was troubled by the Byzantine Emperor’s claim to be almost “divine”, and desired to be in the first person king (or emperor, though, according to his partisan biographer Einhard, he would pretend not to be grateful for the title), who takes the side of God and His Church on earth, without the claims of the Orientals. The Frankish king wanted to show himself a good administrator of earthly things, devout to the right extent and the protector of the Pope. In these ways he was more Constantine than David, more a great man than a quasi-divine figure; and he despised the gold and the ceremonies of Byzantium, of the “Greeks”.

40For these reasons, the poor translation of the proceedings of Nicaea offered a good opportunity to refute the Byzantine claims and customs, including, in one direction, idolatry both towards images and, in the end, towards the emperor, and in the other an iconoclasm that perhaps aimed to overthrow all images and to leave only the emperors and their symbol, the Cross, as “signs” of the divine on earth.

11. The contents

  • 34 Gero 1973: 13, 18.
  • 35 Libri Carolini, IV, 23.

41The index of the four books with the titles of the various chapters that they contain sets out the contents of the Libri Carolini very clearly. Some scholars even think that this listing is nothing but the thin source material deriving from the proceedings of the Council of Nicaea34. A first reading of these brief titles gives an immediate impression of the mocking and ironic tone of the Carolingians towards the Greeks. the adverbs with which they lard their descriptions are stolide, minus docte, absurdissime, incaute, praesuntive, indocte, desidiose (lazily). The most serious error is that of not knowing how to read the Scriptures, but they are also credulous, for instance as regards miracle stories, and they dare to compare images with res sacratae, holy things, such as the Cross, holy chalices and relics. But above all, and for this they cannot be forgiven, they believe themselves to be God’s equals both in the kingdom and in the council: they speak superciliose35, which is to say, in an image that gives a sense of the Carolingians’ concrete writing, with the arrogant man’s raised eyebrows.

  • 36 Chazelle 1995: 2.
  • 37 De Trinitate 7, 12.
  • 38 Ibid.

42As has been rightly pointed out36, the theoretical core of the Libri Carolini lies with the relation between the spiritual world and the material world. What is presented is a reading of Augustine without Plato, a theory of images without Plotinus and, moreover, relative to the East, without the texts of the pseudo-Dionysus, for these would be spread in good Latin (after a failed effort by Hilduin of St Denis) only by John Scotus Eriugena thirty years after the Libri Carolini. Thus, if the East had elaborated a doctrine of images that fits easily into the chain of being that connects matter and spirit, and that allows ascents and descents from one to the other, the Latin world remained within the confines of the supremacy of the word, of the verbum that, for Augustine, is the only go-between to connect the sensible world, man and God. As we read in the ninth book of the De Trinitate: «Thus we see with the sight of the spirit in that eternal truth, in accordance with which all temporal things have been created, the form that is the model of our being»37. Again, «the true knowledge thanks to which we conceive comes to us a word, a word that we generate by saying it within ourselves and that, once it is both, does not separate itself from us»38.

43The inner verbum arises in virtue of the presence of eternal truth, the Verbum.

44For Augustine, a word taken on its own is nothing but a reference to knowledge already acquired, but when it is understood as derived from the divine Verbum it takes on the roles of a “bridge” between man and God. In the Libri Carolini, an image is understood like a word taken on its own, without a tie to the divine (like the word in the De Magistro), while a word is understood like the verbum in the De Doctrina Christiana as full of meanings, and especially in the De Trinitate. The Libri then maintain that, among sensible things, only the things that have been “touched” by God can refer directed to Him, and these are the res sacratae, such as the Ark of the Covenant, the Cross and holy chalices.

45The Libri begin by blaming the “Greeks” both of iconoclasm and of iconodulism, accusing them of the faults both of Hieria and of Nicaea.

  • 39 Mansi XIII, 909 D.

46«Before this time there was held in the lands of Bithynia [at Hieria] a certain synod, whose impudence was so barefaced and limitless as to abolish images […] and what God had established as regards idols, these established should be practised as regards all images»39.

  • 40 Ibid.

47And, relating the Nicaea: «About three years ago another synod was held in those places by the successors of those who had convoked the earlier one, and the participants at this synod were even more numerous. Although this diverges from the earlier one in its resolution, it nevertheless does not differ from it in the enormity of its error; and if the circumstance that generated it are different, it is nevertheless its equal in infamy»40.

12. The problem of matter

48The Libri Carolini deny that there can be any sort of “transposition” of honour from an image to the first form, the prototype, as the Greek Fathers, such a Basil of Caesarea, had claimed.

49«A very familiar argument used by those who have difficulty with the adoration of images, is that they believe and affirm that the honour rendered to an image can pass to the same form of which it is an image. How this could happen or whether it does happen is not proved by any reasoning nor approved by the witness of divine discourses» (III, 16).

50The sort of passing that is in question here would be possible if the true image were based on a resemblance that was also consubstantial with the prototype; since that is impossible, except in the relation of resemblance between the Father and the Son, no image can have ontological value. In an image, the relation between representation and the prototype is based wholly on the reproduction of man’s bodily appearance and his spiritual aspect is not reproduced at all: «Indeed it is true that images are without sense and reason, and it is false that men are» (I, 2).

51If the image is a mere material datum, the true expression of the spirit is to be found in a language other than that of images. The truth is in Revelation, which is manifested precisely through the verbal language of Scripture: hence, it is Scripture and not the image that is the place in which the truth is expressed and is the means by which the faithful can gain salvation. Nor is appeal to memory sufficient to know the content of an image. Understanding stops at the threshold of the outermost meaning of the sign and can grasp only the lowest level of the images sense, which is entirely ineffectual for religious purposes. The understanding of the sense does not come to the image from the graphic sign, but from the titulus, whose role is to clarify the content of the image for the faithful, but, at the same time, it places a limit on the communication that the image can offer. The Libri Carolini realistically recall that every pictorial or sculptural work can be evaluated as «precious, more precious or most precious»: «Thus we see that there are many images, of which some are composed with pigments, some amalgamated with gold or silver, some sculpted in wood with the sculptor’s chisel, some cut into marble and some modelled in plaster or clay» (I, 2).

52Here then is a “wordly” classification of art, which may not be “materialist” but at least surely attentive to materials and techniques. There is nothing new here: as in antiquity, painters and sculptors are regarded as experts in a technē, in an art that is not a mania, or divine inspiration of the sort attributed to poets in Plato’s Phædrus, but rather the possession of a technique like that of those who practise medicine as referred to in the first book of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Following the pseudo-Dionysus, Plotinus and, after him, the Eastern theologians regarded the art of painting as a privileged passage from the visible to the invisible, going so far as to define it as the ars pia. The Carolingians regarded it as an ability like any other.

53«Indeed they say that the painter’s art is pious, as if it, along with the other worldly arts, did not enjoy the communion of piety and impiety. For what it more pious about the painter’s art that those of iron-workers, sculptors, foundry-men, incisors, masons, joiners, farmers and all other artisans? All of the arts we have lists can be learned only by exercise, and can be carried forward either piously or impiously by those who exercise them, and their piety or impiety does not depend on them, but on the men who follow them» (III, 22).

54Thus moral judgement focuses on the use of the works produced in line with the arts: «As indeed iron is not said to be impious because men are killed with it, nor yet pious because it is used to make instruments for healing sword wounds, and men are protected and doctors provide for human health, likewise, the painter’s art is neither impious because it represents cruel events, nor yet by the same reasoning pious because it represents virtuous events» (ibid.).

55The only difference is the introduction of a judgement of aesthetic value: «Since images arise for the most part from the ingenuity of the author, so that sometimes they are well made and sometimes ugly, sometimes beautiful and sometime even horrible, some are very like what they are images of and some resemble very little indeed, some are resplendent in their newness and some are eaten up by age, we ought to ask which are the more worthy of honour: those that we know to be more beautiful or the more ugly?» (III, 16).

13. Censored Libri, but a probable cæsura with the history of European art

56The Libri Carolini constitute the definitive cultural manifesto of the Carolingian kingdom, the victory of the exegesis of the word, whether written or spoken, over the presumptive value of images, the conferral of absolute power into the hand of the literati, of Charlemagne’s courtiers and of those who, all across Europe, began to organise schools in his name, where the trivium and the quadrivium were studied. Alcuin of York, one of the promoters of this cultural programme, never missed an occasion to stress the function of the liberal arts in the search for truth and hence for understanding of the Scriptures. Cassiodorus, Martianus Cappell and Isidore of Seville became reference points, even if a privileged role among them was always reserved for Augustine of Hippo, who vouchsafed to the Middle Ages a key for reading the material world, which has value and is to be studied because it too is indispensable for understanding of the Scriptures. It is true that in the De Trinitate Augustine had also stressed the resemblance between God and the world, seeing in the latter the divine vestigia left at the moment of the Creation (in the threefold constitution of the inner man, but also in the numerical structure of the laws of nature). But the Carolingians preferred to limit themselves to the resemblance between the human verbum and the divine Verbum, leaving to matter only a role as an aide-mémoire and a decoration. Paradoxically it is from this point that a civilisation of the image takes its source, where the image is always accompanied by writing and by the discourses of learned men who are the chosen interpreters. the aim of the Palatine court might be summed up as a liberalisation of the image so that power could be maintained.

57And yet, leafing through these pages of cultured and correct Latin, with their ironic sallies and learned quotations, we cannot avoid the doubt: might it not have been precisely the censored pages of the Libri Carolini that opened the way to the figurative games of later centuries? Might it not have been this consideration of the image as an innocuous reminder whose role was to embellish churches, that made their use licit? Much has been written, for instance, on the multiplicity of meanings, which often cancel each other out, of the representations on the portals of the cathedrals and in illuminated books: the schematic mind of technological man searches in vain for a single meaning of girls with a fish’s tail, of lions, of nudity, of the beautiful monstrosities that decoration the great churches and the initials (not to say entire pages) of parchments. Perhaps the Libri were buried in some archive waiting for Calvin’s iconoclasm. But the ideas of the Carolingian court cannot be divorced from an artistic production that felt itself ever less bound to give a precise sense to images made in stone or with the brush, and that over time came to think of sacred history as ever more a pretext for proposing imagines formosæ, without of course letting ourselves be contaminated by the wicked ideas of “the others”.

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Primary Literature

Sancti Ambrosi opera, Pars decima, ed. M. Zelzer, Vindobonae 1982: Ambrosius, epistolae XVII-XVIII; Symmachus, III relatio

Confessiones, ed. M. Simonetti, Mediolani, Fondazione Lorenzo Valla, Milano, Mondadori, 1996
De doctrina christiana, ed. W.M. Green, Vindobonae, 1963 (CSEL 80)
De magistro, ed. K.D. Daur, Turnholti, 1970 (Corpus Christianorum: Series Latina 29)
De Trinitate, ed. W. J. Mountain/F. Glorie, Turnholti, 1968 (Corpus Christianorum: Series Latina 50)

Beda Venerabilis
Homeliae evangelii, ed. D. Hurst, Turnholti, 1955 (Corpus Christianorum: Series Latina 122)

Johannes Damascenus
Contra imaginum calumniatores orationes tres, ed. B. Kotter, Berlin - New York, 1975 (Patristische Texte und Studien, 17)

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Opus Caroli regis contra synodum (Libri Carolini), Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Concilia: T. 2; Suppl. 2), herausgegeben von Ann Freeman unter Mitwirkung von Paul Meyvaert, Hannover: Hahnsche Buchhandlung, 1998

Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio, voll. 53, ed. J.D. Mansi, Parisii-Arnheim-Leipzig, 1901-1927

Migne, J.P.
– 1844-1855, Patrologiae cursus completus, Ecclesia Latina, Paris

Opera, ediderunt Paul Henry et Hans-Rudolph Schwyzer, Oxonii et Typographeo Clarendoniano, 1964

Peri Agalmatōn, in Porphyrii philosophi fragmenta, ed. Andrew Smith, Stutgardiae et Lipsiae, 1993, now selected in Sui simulacri, introduction and commentary by M. Gabriele, traduzione di F. Maltomini, Milano, Adelphi, 2012

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1 Naef 2005: 113-116.

2 Symmachus, III relatio, 3, 4.

3 Ibidem 3, 10.

4 Ambrosius, Epistolae, 18, 9.

5 Ibidem 18, 2.

6 Porfirius, Peri Agalmatōn (2012: 65).

7 See Bonfiglioli 2008 e Paparella 2011.

8 Registrum epistularum, IX, 209 and XI, 10.

9 Registrum epistularum, XI, 10: 874: «In loci venerabilibus sanctorum depingi historias non sine ratione vetustas admisit».

10 Frugoni 2005 has rightly pointed out in this connection that, in commenting on the Gregory the Great’s words, care is needed in the definition of the visual medium that is available to anyone, placing it on a different level from a written text because the decoding powers of a medieval image, which call for highly elaborate conventions, are just as precious as those needed for a written text.

11 Registrum epistularum, V, 37: 309. We must not forget, though, that the second letter to Serenus, in which the contemplation of images is required to act as an admonition to the “ardour of compunction” towards the “adoration of the Trinity”: here too Frugoni notes that we find the conclusion of a pedagogic programme that is applicable wholesale to medieval images that insist on scenes of suffering, such as the Passion of Christ, the martyrdom of the saints and the torments of sinners, in order to stimulate a sense of guilt.

12 For an analysis of the second letter to Secondinus and of the interpolation see Schmitt 1987: 275-277. We are not in a position to tell whether the author of the Libri Carolini knew this epistle (cf. Freeman 1994: 172).

13 Registrum epistularum, IX, 148: 698-704, Appendix X: 1104-111, also in Patrologia Latina, LXXVII, Epistolarum libri, ep. LII, coll. 990-991: «Et nos quidem non quasi ante divinitatem ante illa prosternimur, sed illum adoramus quem per imaginem aut natum, aut passum, sed et in throno sedentem recordamur».

14 Ibidem: «Et dum nobis ipsa pictura quasi scriptura ad memoriam Filium Dei reducit, animum nostrum aut de resurrectione laetificat, aut de passione demulcet». In this connection Frugoni speaks of the image as «the fundamental emotive support for meditation» (Frugoni 2005: 914); yet it is worth stressing that the path to emovity for meditation is in any case of a rational nature, for it is not the image that brings about the devotion, but what it allows us to recall.

15 Homeliae evangelii I, 13.

16 Contra imaginum caluniatores orationes tres, 1, 17: 93.

17 Mc Cormick 1994: 130.

18 Mansi, Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio XIII, 672.

19 Quaestiones, fr. 5 in Melioranskij 1901.

20 Mansi, Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio XIII, 1 A.

21 Mansi, Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio XIII, 1 A.

22 Mansi, Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio XIII, 668.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.

25 Plotinus, Enneads V, 8, 1: 35-38: «The arts do not simply imitate what is to be seen, but rise up the rational principles from which its nature derives», the arts «create of themselves many things and, by possessing beauty, complete what is lacking in some respect».

26 For instance 2, 11, 16ff. and 3, 25, 35ff.

27 Gero 1973: 9-14.

28 Patrologia Latina, XCVIII, 990-1248.

29 Mansi, Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio, XIII, 909 D.

30 Ibid.

31 Ibid.

32 Ibid.

33 Mc Cormick 1994: 144.

34 Gero 1973: 13, 18.

35 Libri Carolini, IV, 23.

36 Chazelle 1995: 2.

37 De Trinitate 7, 12.

38 Ibid.

39 Mansi XIII, 909 D.

40 Ibid.

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Maria Bettetini, «The ancient faults of the other: religion and images at the heart of an unfinished dispute»Rivista di estetica, 56 | 2014, 141-162.

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Maria Bettetini, «The ancient faults of the other: religion and images at the heart of an unfinished dispute»Rivista di estetica [Online], 56 | 2014, online dal 01 juin 2014, consultato il 15 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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