Claudius of Turin – an Iconoclast Bishop

“I found all the churches filled, in defiance of the precept of Truth, with those sluttish abominations - images. Since everyone was worshiping them, I undertook singlehanded to destroy them.” These were not the words of a Protestant Reformer. Their author was a ninth-century bishop, Claudius of Turin.

            A native of Spain, Claudius was instructed in Lyon, France. He later became chaplain to Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne and king of Aquitaine. Louis was especially fond of Claudius’s Bible commentaries, based on works of Augustine and other church fathers, and encouraged Claudius to write. When Louis became emperor in 813, Claudius followed him to Aachen, in today’s Germany (bordering Belgium and the Netherlands).

            In 817, Louis appointed him bishop of Turin, Italy. That’s when Claudius came in contact with Italian idolatry, which seemed to know no bounds. There was, during his time, a lot of talk about religious images, especially in the Byzantine church, where some emperors banned them and empresses reinstated them. Claudius didn’t spend much time in talking. He destroyed the images with his own hands.

            This iconoclastic reaction provoked a chorus of angry complaints. “Everyone opened his mouth to curse me and, had not God helped me, they might have swallowed me alive,”[1] he wrote. He compared himself to the prophet Ezekiel, living “among scorpions.”[2]

            But Claudius was used to fighting, and not only with words. As other bishops of his time, he did his part in guarding his region (which extended to the Ligurian coast) against the attacks of Muslim raiders. “Gone are the days of meditation,” he mournfully wrote to his friend, Abbot Theodemir, who was waiting for more of Claudius’s writings. “During the winter, I go back and forth over the imperial highways. In full spring, I march with the army to the seacoast, where I keep watch against Saracens and Moors. To redeem the time, I take my papers with me.”[3]

            As it turns out, Theodemir was not completely honest in his friendship to Claudius. Without the bishop’s knowledge, he sent Claudius’s writings to a church council at Aix, France, expressing doubts on Claudius’s orthodoxy.

            Claudius wrote a long response to Theodemir, expressing his disappointment and explaining his position. “Long” is an understatement (one of his enemies said it was longer than the whole Book of 150 Psalms, plus 50 more). Today, we only have a few excerpts, as quoted by his opponents, which are more than enough to understand his point.

             One problem with the worship of idols is that it takes people away from the reality. “God’s command is to bear one’s cross, not worship it,”[4] he explained. Besides, “if they want to worship every piece of wood in the shape of a cross because Jesus was hung on the cross, they should worship many other objects that have to do with his incarnation.” Taking this reductio ad absurdum to a greater extent, he added a long list of possible idols: mangers, virgins, swaddling clothes, boats (Jesus taught from boats and slept in a boat), donkeys (Jesus rode on one), rocks (Paul said, “The rock was Christ”[5]), thorns, lions (Jesus is called “the Lion of the tribe of Judah”[6]), and lambs (because John the Baptist said of Christ, “Behold the Lamb of God.”[7]) “But these followers of perverse teachings want to eat living lambs and worship those painted on walls,”[8] Claudius said.

            In the same work, he answered some of Theodemir’s accusations. It was true that he opposed prayers to the saints, which he considered idolatry. Besides, departed believers were not yet in their final state of glory and could not hear the people’s prayers. In this, he was not completely original. Augustine of Hippo had expressed the same doubt before. The difference is that Augustine eventually concluded that saints can hear human prayers.

            He opposed relics, not only because people turned them into idols, but because they distracted from worshiping God who is in Heaven. For this reason, he also insisted that believers pray by raising their eyes upward (as it had been customary in Bible times and in the early church) rather than bowing or prostrating themselves to the ground.

            As for pilgrimages to Rome, he was fairly neutral: “I don’t approve them nor disapprove them.”[9] But he asked the abbot a question: if going to Rome can determine one’s eternal salvation, why did he cause the perdition of so many souls by keeping them in the monastery? Shouldn’t he have sent them all to Rome?

            A trip to Rome was not in itself sinful, Claudius explained. A problem arose when people believed it could remit sins, earn merit, or secure Peter’s intercession. None of this was true.

            In the end, Claudius was not condemned and died peacefully in his post. This was probably due to the fact that these doctrines were still being discussed. He was however the fiercest western iconoclast. While other clerics and theologians toyed with subtle distinctions such as adoration and veneration or different degrees of worship, he condemned anything that was not the pure worship of the only God. And we owe a debt of gratitude to his enemies for preserving a good part of his apology, as they quoted his statements in order to confute them.

[1]Idcirco aperuetunt ombes ora sua ad blashemandum me et nis Dominus adjuvasset me, forsitan vivum deglutissent me.” Claudius of Turin, Apologeticum, quoted in Emilio Comba, Claudio di Torino, Claudiana, Florence, 1895, p. 64, my translation.

[2]In medio scorpionum,” Claudius, Preface to the Commentary to the Book of Kings, quoted in Comba, p. 26.

[3]Brumale tempus vias palatinas eundo et redeundo. Post medium veri, pergo at excubias maritimas, cum timore excubando adversus Agarenos et Mauros.” Claudius, Preface To The Corinthians, Augusta Taurinorum, quoted in Comba, p. 25.

[4] Deus jussit crucem portare, non adorare, quoted in Comba, p. 85.

[5] 1 Cor. 10:4

[6] Rev. 5:5

[7] John 1:29

[8] Quoted in Comba, p. 84.

[9] Ego enim iter illudnec adprobo nec improbo.


Simonetta Carr