June 17, 2013

Case File #013.06.17: ICONOCLAST

The noun iconoclast is an Anglicized form of the Medieval Latin iconoclastes and literally means “image breaker.” The Latin was derived from the Late Greek eikonoklastes, which itself is a combination of the Greek noun eikon, meaning “portrait” or “image,” and a past-tense form of the Greek verb klan, meaning “to break.” During the eighth and ninth centuries, the Latin term was used as a designation for certain radical members of the Eastern Orthodox Church who believed the veneration of religious imagery was a form of idolatry and therefore sought to destroy such objects. And when iconoclast became a part of the English lexicon in the late sixteenth century, it was used in reference to extreme Protestants who, like the Eastern Orthodox radicals before them, vehemently and sometimes violently expressed their opposition to the use of graven images—and, for that matter, to any vestiges of papal practice—in churches and religious services. The now more common use of iconoclast in which it means “a person who attacks or seeks to subvert traditional or popular ideas and institutions” is relatively new, having first been recorded in the work of Elizabeth Barrett Browning circa 1842.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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