St. Theodore the Studite (11th-century mosaic from Nea Moni monastery on Chios)
Steven Runciman’s fourth chapter, “The Working Compromise: The Limits of Imperial Control,” chronicles Byzantine Church-State relations from the time of the empress Irene to the Great Schism of 1054. The Empress Irene’s reversal of the iconoclastic policies of her predecessors posed a problem for the traditional Byzantine view of the Emperor as the Viceroy of God: “If a new priest-king were to promulgate a doctrine completely opposed to his predecessors’, there must be something wrong with the priesthood.” Fortunately, Irene was neither a king nor a priest, so the problem could be sidestepped. Since she served at this time only as regent for her son, not as Empress in her own right, she was forced to work through the Church in order to restore the veneration of icons. As a result, the balance of power between the imperial power and the Church was again tipped in the latter’s favor.
In 814, the recently-crowned Emperor Leo V summoned a group of bishops to the palace to discuss the propriety of icon veneration. When Theodore, abbot of the Studion monastery, perceived that the Emperor’s goal was to restore iconoclasm, he cried out “To you, Emperor, has been entrusted the political government and the army. Look after them, and leave the Church to its shepherds and teachers, as the Apostle ordained.” That Theodore could say this in the imperial presence shows how much influence over the Church that the state had lost: “never before had the ecclesiastical authority of the Emperor been so brusquely challenged to his face.” Leo exiled Theodore and many other pro-icon church officials and reinstituted iconoclasm. But he had to severely persecute iconodules in order to maintain the ban on images, showing that while the Church had not achieved independence from the State, it had nonetheless placed limits on imperial control over it. Leo’s successors moderated his iconoclastic policy as iconoclasm gradually lost the little support it had enjoyed among the populace. Finally, in 843, the Empess Theodora, acting as regent for her son Michael III, summoned a council which brought a permanent end to iconoclasm.