Anonymous: Chludov Psalter (9th century); Historical Museum, Moscow

Much of the art shown on this site owes its creation to religion, politics, or both combined. For ages, state and church have used the power of images and architecture to assert their status, teach doctrine and
generate devotion. For the same reasons, countless works of art were irreparably lost in times of conflict: buildings demolished, statues smashed, paintings burned.
Serious outbursts of iconoclasm - deliberate destruction of images - regularly happened in history. According to the (short version) of the Second Commandment, God forbids to make a ‘graven image’ of anything living. This has caused disagreement between Christian theologians for the past 2000 years. Some scholars believed the commandment only referred to images of pagan idols, while others took the strict view and included images of all creatures. Extended arguments flared up in the Byzantine Empire during the 8th and 9th centuries. Several emperors, possibly interpreting their military defeats against likewise iconoclastic Islam as a punishment by God, ordered icons and other religious images destroyed.
Obviously this provoked resistance from rivalling iconophiles - supporters of images. A contemporary, anonymous monk illuminated a page in this ‘Chludov’ Psalter - a book of psalms - of 850 AD with a polemic illustration pairing the whitewashing of a fresco with the Crucifixion. Next to the text ‘They gave me gall to eat, and when I was thirsty they gave me vinegar to drink’, a soldier offers Christ vinegar on a sponge attached to a pole, as per St. John’s Gospel. At the foot of Calvary, our satirical artist painted John the Grammarian, Constantinople’s iconoclast Patriarch, whitewashing over an icon of Christ with a similar sponge on a pole. Also his paint-pot and the soldier’s vinegar-pot are identical. While the analogy is acidly clear - iconoclasts are tormenters of Christ - the monastic rebel added insult to injury by giving the venerable Patriarch ‘funny hair’.
Leaving doctrine aside, our monk’s biting satire represents a powerful iconophile weapon in the arms race against iconoclasts: a picture is worth a thousand words.
(text: Jos Hanou)