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Elizabeth A.Sackler Center for Feminist Art

Irene

b. circa 752, Athens; d. 803, Lesbos

Irene married the Byzantine emperor Leo IV and, upon his death in 780, became co-emperor with her ten-year-old son Constantine VI. The most significant contribution of her reign was the restoration of icon (image) worship, which had been prohibited since 730 in the great wave of Iconoclasm. Irene called two church councils to decide the question; at the second, in 787, the cult of images was officially reinstated. Meanwhile, she had fended off an attempt to depose her; by 790, her son had joined her enemies and he was declared sole ruler. The matter rested until 792, when Irene successfully ousted her son with the aid of religious allies; Constantine was arrested and his eyes gouged out. Irene then ruled undisturbed for five years, titling herself emperor rather than empress. The growing displeasure of the Roman Catholic Church at power being held by a woman fueled the courage of conspirators, and in 802 Irene was deposed. She died in exile on the island of Lesbos.