Monday, August 14, 2006

Distrust of images

Distrust of images has been widespread in a number of major religions. In the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, this distrust has been traced to the Second Commandment, which forbids the making of "graven images." This ban, which stems from the Hebrew Bible, has affected Judaism, Christianity and Islam. However, it has been differently understood at different times. According to some interpreters, "graven" refers only to images in the round, understood as idols. Idolatry is condemned in these traditions. But again, idolatry technically refers to worship of images, not simply their existence.

Discouraging images is one thing; destroying them is another. Those who smash images are called iconoclasts. Their defenders are iconodules.

As a general principle one can distinguish between absolute abhorrence of images and what has been termed “image shyness,” a reluctance to resort to them in particular contexts. This more limited avoidance of images is sometimes termed aniconism.

As a rule modern Judaism excludes images from houses of worship. However, this ban has not always been enforced. The wonderful murals of the Synagogue of Dura Europos in Syria (mid third century CE) depict a number of sacred themes from the Hebrew Bible. Other synagogues of the period were also decorated with figural representations. By about 600, however, this monumental tradition died out (though illuminated manuscripts continued to be made for private use). Today most Jews readily accept images in nonreligious contexts. In modern times significant numbers of leading artists and art historians have been Jewish.

Nonetheless, as noted above, the Hebrew Bible has been the source of a tradition of questioning images that has passed to the other two Abrahamic religions, Islam and Christianity.

Of the three Islam has been most rigorous in excluding images from houses of worship, and indeed from all public religious contexts. Still, images of religious figures, including Abraham, Moses, Jesus and others—-even Muhammad himself--appeared in manuscripts for private use. This ban on public display has stimulated the production of geometric and other abstract art, making Islam a great repository of perennial abstraction. Some modern artists have derived encouragement from the antinaturalistic assumptions underlying these works.

By contrast, Christianity seems to have been the most tolerant of images. Yet there were several periods where this acceptance did not prevail.

A thorough understanding of the Iconoclastic Period in the Byzantine Empire is complicated by the fact that much of what exists as accounts and arguments of the time comes to us through the filter of the writings of the ultimate victors in the controversy, the iconodules.

Sometime between 726-730 the emperor Leo III the Syrian or "Isaurian," (reigned 717-741) ordered the removal of an image of Jesus prominently placed over the palace gate in Constantinople. Writings suggest that at least part of the reason for the removal may have been military reversals in the fight against the Muslims and the eruption of the volcanic island of Thera, which Leo may have viewed as evidence of God's wrath triggered by image veneration in the Church. Leo is said to have described image veneration as "a craft of idolatry." He apparently forbade religious images in a 730 edict, which did not apply to other forms of art, including the image of the emperor, or even religious symbols such as the cross. Leo confiscated valuable church plate and other objects adorned with religious figures, suggesting that some of the motivation for the ban was economic.

The iconoclastic struggles raged through much of the rest of the eighth century.
The efforts of Leo IV (775-80) concluded this phase. Upon his death his icon-venerating consort Irene took power as regent for her son, Constantine VI (780-797). With Irene's ascension as regent, the first Iconoclastic Period came to an end.
This was not the end of the matter. Emperor Leo V (reigned 813–820) instituted a second period of Iconoclasm in 813, again possibly moved in part by military failures seen as indicative of divine displeasure. The final restoration was achieved by the empress Theodora, regent for Michael III. Like Irene fifty years before her, Theodora mobilized the iconodules and proclaimed the restoration of icons in 843. Since that time the churches of the Orthodox tradition have celebrated the first Sunday of Lent as the feast of the "Triumph of Orthodoxy."

Several main points emerged in the iconoclastic arguments. Iconoclasm condemned the making of any lifeless image (e.g. painting or statue) that was intended to represent Jesus or one of the saints. For iconoclasts, the only real religious image must be an exact likeness of the prototype--of the same substance--which they considered impossible, seeing wood and paint as empty of spirit and life. In a sense, for iconoclasts the only true (and permitted) "icon" of Jesus was the Eucharist, which was believed to be his actual body and blood. Any true image of Jesus must be able to represent both his divine nature (which is impossible because it cannot be seen nor encompassed) and his human nature (which is possible). But by making an icon of Jesus, one is separating his human and divine natures, since only the human can be depicted, or else confusing the human and divine natures, considering them one.

Iconoclasts viewed icon use for religious purposes as a corrupting innovation in the Church, a Satanic misleading of Christians to return to pagan practice. It was also seen as a departure from ancient church tradition, of which there was a written record opposing religious images.

The iconodule response to iconoclasm comprised several points. First is the assertion that the biblical commandment forbidding images of God had been superseded by the incarnation of Jesus, who, being the second person of the Trinity, is God incarnate in visible matter. Therefore, they were not depicting the invisible God, but God as He appeared in the flesh. This became an attempt to shift the issue of the incarnation in their favor, whereas the iconoclasts had used the issue of the incarnation against them. Moreover in their view idols depicted persons without substance or reality while icons depicted real persons. Essentially the argument was "all religious images not of our faith are idols; all images of our faith are icons to be venerated." This was considered comparable to the Old Testament practice of only offering burnt sacrifices to God, and not to any other gods.

Regarding the written tradition opposing the making and veneration of images, the iconodules asserted that icons were part of unrecorded oral tradition. Iconodules further argued that decisions such as whether icons ought to be venerated were properly made by the church assembled in council, not imposed on the church by an emperor. Thus the argument also involved the issue of the proper relationship between church and state. Related to this was the observation that it was foolish to deny to God the same honor that was freely given to the human emperor.

Because of the prohibition against figural decoration in Islam some Muslim groups have on occasion committed acts of iconoclasm against the devotional images of other religions. A recent example of this is the 2001 destruction of the colossal statues of the Buddha at Bamiyan in Afghanistan by the Taliban.

Historically, despite a religious prohibition on destroying or converting houses of worship, conquering Muslim armies would use local temples or houses of worship as mosques. An example is the Hagia Sophia, Church of the Holy Wisdom, in Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, which was converted into a mosque in 1453, when its mosaics were covered with plaster instead of being destroyed.

Historically, Islamic iconoclasm has been less systematic than one might expect. Despite denials, most recently in the controversy regarding the Danish cartoons, there is a long tradition of depiction of the prophet Muhammad. These images are, however, mainly found in small works for private use. They would not occur in a mosque, any more than any other anthropomorphic representations.

Some of the Protestant reformers, in particular Andreas Karlstadt, Huldrych Zwingli, and John Calvin encouraged the destruction of religious images by invoking the prohibition of idolatry and the manufacture of graven images of God found in the Ten Commandments. Following these teachings, statues and images were damaged in spontaneous individual attacks as well as unauthorized iconoclastic riots. However, in many instances images were removed in an orderly manner by civil authorities in the newly reformed cities and territories of Europe.

Significant iconoclastic riots took place in Zurich in 1523, and in the years following in Zurich, Copenhagen, Münster, Geneva, Augsburg, and Scotland. During the summer of 1556 the Low Countries, now the Netherlands and Belgium, were hit by a large wave of Protestant iconoclasm. This wave of violent attacks, the Beeldenstorm. marked the start of the revolt against Spanish domination and the Catholic church. Similar events occurred in seventeenth-century England.

These outbreaks notwithstanding, Protestant Christianity, however, was not uniformly hostile to the use of religious images. Martin Luther argued that Christians should be free to use religious images as long as they did not worship them in the place of God.

During the French Revolution there was considerable destruction of images, not only as monuments of Christianity, but in some instances as memorials of the hated aristocracy of former times. In the Soviet Union, especially during the early years, there was much destruction of icons and of churches containing religious frescoes.

There are also non-European analogues to restrictions on images. Some early Buddhist art in India was aniconic: the Buddha was only represented through his symbols (an empty throne, the bodhi tree, the Buddha’s footprints, the prayer wheel, or a simple plank). This avoidance of anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha, and the development of a range of aniconic symbols to avoid it (even in narrative scenes where other human figures would appear), may be connected to one of the Buddha's sayings, reported in the Digha Nikaya, that discouraged representations of himself after the extinction of his body.

Even in the early era the ban was not complete. Archaeological evidence shows anthropomorphic sculptures of Buddha actually existing during the supposedly aniconic period, which ended in the first centuries CE. Eventually the reluctance was overcome, aided by an influx of anthropomorphic images of the Buddha created in the Gandhara region under Greek influence.

Such aniconism connects to the larger issue of tabooing. For example, in many traditions it was forbidden to utter the name of a deceased ruler or other revered person. Thus the Judaic tradition imposed a ban on pronouncing the tetragrammaton, YHWH. Medieval Christian manuscripts sometimes write the word Deus simply as “DS” (with a line over the top, suggesting but not specifying the missing vowels).

It may be significant that both Piet Mondrian and Le Corbusier were brought up in Calvinist churches. Yet in their mature adulthood, when they broke through to an austere visual formalism, they had ceased to practice their denominational faith. Indeed, the later Le Corbusier showed a greater affinity for Roman Catholicism, as seen in his two masterpieces, the pilgrimage church of Ronchamp and the monastery of La Tourette. Some of his later buildings are in fact adorned with frescoes, tapestries, and relief sculptures showing human figures. However, these depictions present highly stylized renderings of human figures and symbols. They may be said to display a diminished iconicity.

This factor of diminished iconicity played a key role in the major pioneers of Russian abstraction, all of whom produced figurative work before making the passage to full abstraction. Contrasting with the naturalism of Western painting in the Renaissance tradition (practiced since the eighteenth century in Russia as well), orthodox icons show attenuated figures with little modeling, placed against minimal settings. Sometimes most of the surface of the icon is mostly protected with a metal cover, requiring to viewer to imagine what is below. With their repetitive, stereotypical figures and arbitrary treatment of perspective, Russian popular prints are possibly even farther from the canons of Western naturalism. Kandinsky had collections of both, and their role in guiding his preabstract work has been charted by scholars.

Using popular sources analogous to Kandinsky’s prints, Kasimir Malevich and Natalia Goncharova underwent a phase of nativist primitivism before they committed themselves to full abstraction.

Alain Besançon has posited that awareness of the old iconoclastic arguments facilitated the these artists’ shift from diminished iconicity to full aniconism. Perceptive as it is, this claim is hard to substantiate. What we can say is the diminished iconicity seems to have been a necessary stage on the way. One can perhaps posit a kind of camel’s-nose principle. Once iconicity had become problematic—as it definitely did in the work that departed from Western naturalism—how could one stop the whole camel from making its way within?

Invocation of “Abrahamic kinship” directs one’s attention simultaneously to Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. The role of the first two in the emergence of abstraction has received some attention, though more could be done. Still neglected is a vein of philo-Semitism in the Symbolist era. The artists of the Nabi group chose a name that means “prophet” in Hebrew. A man named Constant adopted the pseudonym Eliphas Lévi for his writings promoting hermetic and occult themes. (The possible role of Kabbalistic motifs in this period seems to be totally unexplored). Finally, Josephin Péladan, promoter of the Rose + Croix trend, called himself Sâr Péladan, using another Semitic title meaning roughly “prophet.”

REFERENCES. Alain Besançon, The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm, trans. Jane Marie Todd, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000; David Freedberg, The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989; Edward J. Martin, A History of the Iconoclastic Controversy, New York: AMS Press, 1978.


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