As dusk set on the ancient world and Christianity was becoming a major religious force across the Mediterranean basin, life as a pagan statue must have been extremely precarious. In fact, according to apologetic and hagiographic texts, from the early third century onward a wave of resolute bishops, deacons, and monks had already begun to attack temples and shrines physically, smashing the idols of ancient gods. Some of these men were destined to be included among the most venerated saints in Byzantium: at the turn of the fourth century, Theodore set the temple of Cybele at Amasea on fire, destroying the wooden cult statue; a few years later, Nicholas, bishop of Myra, razed the local temple of Artemis to its foundations and saved the citizens from the demons that had gathered there; and George was capable of pulverizing idols by his presence alone.
After increasing in popularity in the textual tradition, episodes of idol destruction also began to occur in the visual arts. From the eleventh century onward, such episodes proliferated in Byzantine hagiographical cycles and made their appearance in book illumination, icons, and wall paintings, eventually reaching Russia, Bulgaria, and Serbia, areas outside the empire but within the Byzantine cultural orbit. In depicting the confrontation between an early Christian saint and pagan idols, Byzantine artists needed to represent events that supposedly had taken place centuries before, in a period in which scenes of idol destruction were almost entirely unknown in the figurative arts. Despite the stereotypical nature of this iconographic motif, the artists provided a surprisingly broad variety of pictorial solutions that reveal a multifaceted attitude toward their late antique cultural and artistic heritage.
By taking into account a wide selection of examples in diverse media, this seminar will explore different patterns in the development of the motif of idol destruction in Byzantine art.