Books: The ecumenicity of iconophobia

Christian, Jewish and Muslim anxieties about images

The intrusion of religious imagery between worshipper and divinity has frequently been a cause of tension and conflict, hence “Idol Anxiety” in Judaism, Islam and Christianity. This is a very diverse collection of essays, arising from an exhibition with the same title shown in Chicago in 2008, which was restricted to objects of a religious character. The contributions broaden out into such fields as popular music and racist imagery, but a considerable number relate to more conventional themes. There is an emphasis on German philosophy: no fewer than three of the 11 contributions to this collection discuss Heidegger.

The difficulty for those writers covering historical material is the compression into a page or two of complex problems. Jan Assmann, in “What’s Wrong with Images”, analyses the biblical commandment forbidding imagery, points out the substitution of the tablets bearing the word of God for cultic images and considers idolatry within the context of monotheism. But the Golden Calf episode was by no means the end of imagery in Judaism, as the numerous figural representations in medieval Hebrew religious manuscripts demonstrate, nor the end of compromise between artists and doctrine, as witness the extraordinary marginalia of the Bird’s Head Haggadah, painted around 1300, where the heads of birds have been placed on human bodies, presumably to circumvent religious prohibitions.

Following on from Assmann, in “The Christian Critique of Idolatry”, Marc Fumaroli is concerned particularly with early Christianity’s antipathy towards the fabrication of images, including the Brazen Serpent and the Golden Calf, and these developments of biblical prohibition are further analysed in W.J.T. Mitchell’s essay, “Nietzsche, Blake and Poussin”. As Mitchell points out, Nietzsche’s celebrated rant, “War against the Idols”, actually refrains from arguing for destruction and recommends instead delicate probing to reveal their true emptiness, a message that presumably would have cut no ice with the Taliban. The interest in German philosophy continues with Jean-Luc Marion’s account of the phenomenal in Husserl, Kant and Heidegger.

Elsewhere, David Summers summarises the Byzantine iconoclastic dispute, which began in Leo III’s edict of 726 forbidding religious representations. Summers addresses questions concerning the power of images: how long does this last, why are they preserved, what happens when they are carried off by conquerors? “At what degree of belief does the icon cease to be one?” he asks, arguing that the transcendent was eventually displaced from the image to the artist. For him, Christianity is a “narrative religion” centred around the Christ story: indeed, he sees the story of the Incarnation as, in itself, a paradigm and justification of imagery. The Byzantine dispute continued at least into the ninth century, but Summers allots less than a page to it, giving merely galloping glances at knotty questions such as the relationship of the veneration of the emperor to that of the persons of the Trinity.

As in Byzantium, Islam devoted much thought to imagery, and it is a pity that only one essay of the 11 included here, that by Mika Natif, discusses the Muslim contribution to the debate. She rightly stresses the richness of figural representation in Islamic art, but goes to an extreme in asserting that some early coins bore a representation of Muhammad himself. This was merely tentatively suggested in a review-article by Clive Foss (“The Coinage of the First Century of Islam”, Journal of Roman Archaeology, vol. 16, 2003, pp748-760) concerning coins issued some 60 years after Muhammad’s death. Representation of the Prophet, as distinct from other figural imagery, is very rare in Islam and putting forward possible examples should receive sharper consideration.

Overall, this collection of contributions from specialists in literature, music and philosophy as well as in art history brings together interesting ideas, but the ultimate decision concerning the “idolatrous” status of an object resides, of course, with practitioners of worship.

More solid ground is beneath the writer’s feet in Imago Dei, a welcome reprint of Jaroslav Pelikan’s A.W. Mellon lectures of 1987 with a foreword by Judith Herrin. The lectures were structured around a large tapestry (now in the Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio) depicting the Christ Child on the Virgin’s knee, which is in effect a woven icon. As Herrin says, the book is an extended commentary on the many figures and other elements in the tapestry.

Pelikan, who identified icon destruction as emerging essentially from an imperial political power struggle, died in 2006. His analysis of the Byzantine conflict shows us what we lost: the highest standard of scholarship expressed with perfect clarity.

o Josh Ellenbogen and Aaron Tugendhaft (eds), Idol Anxiety, Stanford University Press, 242 pp, £45.13 (hb), £18 (pb), £12.42 (Kindle)

o Jaroslav Pelikan, Imago Dei: the Byzantine Apology for Icons, Princeton University Press, 196 pp, £23.70 (pb)

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 236 June 2012