The iconoclast controversy, the intense confrontation on the use of religious imagery that began in Byzantium around 730 and officially ended with the iconophile victory of 843, was frequently referred to by the Byzantines as the worst heresy ever to threaten the Christian Church. Iconophile sources describe fierce persecutions against the supporters of icon veneration and mention the destruction of a large number of religious images. Iconophile treatises present numerous theological and historical arguments that follow a long literary tradition of polemics against heretics as well as Jews and pagans, but they also add new elements specifically related to the function of imagery in the Christian religion. The three surviving ninth-century Byzantine psalters with decoration in the margins of their folios, probably produced in the circle of the iconophile patriarch of Constantinople Methodios (843-847), incorporate in their rich illustration numerous allusions to basic aspects of iconophile polemics. This paper examines in particular the meaning of those miniatures that present biblical confrontation of good and evil: from David fighting against wild beasts threatening his flock and idolatrous enemies attacking his people, to Christ expelling demons, curing illnesses, silencing storms and defeating death.
A number of reasons suggest that these miniatures were conceived and perceived by the ninth-century producers and users of the manuscripts as allusions to the contemporary confrontation between iconophiles and iconoclasts. Firstly, the Byzantines were accustomed to relate the conflicts mentioned in the psalms to the constant battle of good and evil they experienced in their own lives. This reading of the holy text was a basic element in the long literary tradition of psalm exegesis in Byzantium. Secondly, biblical conflicts were systematically used in Byzantine literature, and especially in iconophile writings, as analogies, types and metaphors of contemporary conflicts between good and evil, virtue and sin, orthodoxy and heresy. This juxtaposition between the biblical past and the Christian present was very frequently employed in Byzantine culture and reflected the basic belief of the Byzantines that they were the new chosen people of God, victorious over their enemies through divine aid. Thirdly, the iconographic and compositional peculiarities of many biblical miniatures in the ninth-century Byzantine marginal psalters seem intended to invest the scenes with an additional layer of meaning, a reference to the topical circumstances of ninth-century ecclesiastical history.
The above interpretative approach contributes significantly to our understanding of ninth-century marginal psalter illustration as one of the most impressive artistic and intellectual products of iconophile polemics, and a high achievement of Byzantine visual culture. The illumination of these manuscripts proves that in the aftermath of the iconoclast controversy images were not only restored as objects of veneration, but they were also used in a masterly fashion as a weapon with which to justify, safeguard, and celebrate the victory that had been won in their name. In this sense, the illustration of ninth-century Byzantine marginal psalters vividly exemplifies the creative aspect of religious conflicts: the development, redefinition and representation of self-identity as a response to the challenges of the opponent.