The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm

The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm

by Alain Besançon

ISBN: 9780226044132

Publisher University Of Chicago Press

Published in Arts & Photography/Religious

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

The Philosophical Critique of the Image


The plastic representation of the gods is a function of the conception that the commonwealth makes of gods. That theology was established by Homer and Hesiod, who gave the gods their characteristics, divided honors and abilities among them, suggested their shape. In the judgment of Kostas Papaioannou, Homer was the great religious reformer of Greece. He cleansed the Greek world of amorphous, zoomorphous, and monstrous gods, peopled it with "godlike" men and manlike gods.

It was not God who created the world. It was the world that gave birth to the gods. Hesiod: "From Chaos came black Night and Erebos. / And Night in turn gave birth to Day and Space / Whom she conceived in love to Erebos." Gods were born, engendered one another, proliferated, and, generation after generation, descended from Physis: Zeus, Poseidon, Heracles, but also Murder, Famine, and other children of Eris, thirty thousand nymphs, the Gorgons, Aurora, Helios. Physis and Moira--the impersonal and indifferent order--stand above the gods. They give gods their being, their shape, their powers.

Among living species, gods have a privilege: they are the ones who live "without toil." They are pure living things, to whom death is absolutely unknown. Pindar de?ned the distance between gods and men, and their proximity: "There is one race of men, another of gods; but from one mother we both draw our breath. Yet the allotment of a wholly di?erent power separates us, for the one race is nothing, whereas the bronze heaven remains a secure abode forever. Nevertheless, we do somewhat resemble the immortals, either in greatness of mind or bodily nature, although we do not know by day or in the night, what course destiny has marked for us to run."

Proximity and distance make prayer possible. Odysseus prays unceasingly, and it is a beseeching prayer, rather than a prayer of worship. His prayers are answered, since Athena keeps him safe amid the worst perils. There are good and bad gods, and they do not always get along. But the bad ones are good at least in the fact that they exist and are part of the order of the world, which is good. The gods are blissful. They are occasionally asked to intervene on earth to reestablish justice, but they are not obliged by nature to do so. Their nature simply impels them to contemplate the perfection of the cosmos, its intelligible reality, more easily than do men.

The gods of the commonwealth are more active, closer to the concerns of citizens, more likely to intervene in human affairs. But they do so "without toil," by virtue of their motionless being. They form a family, or rather a commonwealth, with men. They guide men in their efforts at contemplation. In fact, according to Aristotle, man must not limit his thinking to human things. He must "try to become immortal." In so doing, man can participate in divine bliss, by imitating the divine activity of contemplation.

The world has no purpose: it is enough that it is, and it is infinitely above men. Being, which is also Good, survives only precariously in our sublunary world, as the reflection from which earthly phenomena draw the reality and goodness they possess. It is up to man to "contemplate, in order to become like the object of his contemplation"; and, "holding converse with the divine order, he becomes . . . divine as far as the nature of man allows."

We stand at a crossroads. Contemplation so defined by philosophy can do without images and can finally renounce the image. And yet the idea of theoria, of the value of contemplation, belongs not only to philosophers but also to poets, artists, all the witnesses to Greek civilization. It is a fundamental element of its legacy.

The truth is that the Greek god was represented, was the most represented of all the gods, so much so that he was not really distinguishable from his representation. The mediation of the god contemplating the cosmos is of the same nature as the mediating act of representation, which is the act of the artist contemplating the god. That is why Hegel saw the artist as the true theologian of Greek religion.

Art was public, publicly exhibited. The state made commissions and it alone possessed artworks for the glory of the commonwealth, since there were almost no large private homes. Artists and the public agreed on the canons and on genres. It did not occur to the artist to overturn them or create new ones. He had the right only to perfect them, to modify them--since the tradition was designed to be enriched with accretions and new solutions. The attitude of the artist--even of the most notorious, the most "divine" artist--toward his art was "analogous to that of the priest in relation to sacred customs." Both celebrated a divine liturgy, and they did not impart their own state of mind to that celebration. "Artistic genres themselves were the sacred forms of a sacred tradition": that is why they survived until the end of antiquity, and well beyond the death of the commonwealth.

In reading late authors, we find that the "progress" of that art was the progress of exactitude. The rule of mimesis--art must imitate and represent nature--is interpreted as a perfecting of the techniques of illusion. According to Pliny, the painter Polygnotus was the first to represent human figures with open mouths and visible teeth; the sculptor Pythagorus, the first to show the lines of muscles and veins; the painter Nicias, the first to capture the outline of shadow and light. By means of this technical progress, an early form of historicism was introduced into art criticism, the first "already" and the first "not yet." Pythagorus already reproduced hair, but not yet as well as Lysippus would. Thus the direct, timeless link with the eternal cosmos, as postulated by theoria, was lost from sight. Artistic technique, valued in itself, provided a criterion that made it possible--and has made it possible for centuries, even to our own century--to classify Greek artworks as "archaic" or "classical."

But these considerations ought not to veil another periodization, the principle of which is not stylistic but spiritual. From the sixth century to the early fourth century (until the Peloponnesian War), a combined religious and civic life allowed the representation of living gods, of gods to whom citizens felt the need to give praise and to express their gratitude. After the victories of Salamis and Platea, Themistocles declared: "It is not we who accomplished this, but gods and heroes." At Delphi, at Olympia, on the Acropolis, the gods received their reward. During the time of Pliny and the Roman collectors, these same gods were only canonical motifs in artworks. Then the stylistic evolution took on meaning: it provided points of reference in the field of aesthetics. But it was no longer a matter of representing a god in the proper sense of the term. The god may have presided symbolically over the statue--that is why the Romans never tired of reproducing the classical models of Aphrodite--but the collector's piety was directed as much toward Praxiteles, Scopas, and Lysippus as toward the goddess.

The "reformation" of the pantheon carried out by Homer had left a few surviving monsters. Odysseus paid tribute to the divine Charbydis and the divine Scylla. The Greeks had recognized the role of shadow. Now these dark gods were about to be vanquished. On the pediment of the temple of Artemis in Corcyra, a young, beardless Zeus struggles against the Giants, and, in the center, Gorgo appears for the last time: after that, she was cast out onto the acroteria, her head cut off. The Lapiths conquered the Centaurs. In the late seventh century, classical "anthropotheomorphism" began to take root. In the sixth century, kouroi and korai were built throughout Greece. There was no clear and distinct line between the representation of the athlete, the warrior--man--and the representation of the god. All were depicted with a smile. All were equally young. Perfection was bestowed on them all.

Perfection extended to all beings. Its preeminent feature was a focus on the human, and preferably the male, figure. The only representation worthy of the god was a man's body. And when a man--hero or athlete--attained perfect beauty, divine energy entered him. What is divine about the large bronze god of Histaea, Poseidon, or Zeus? His very nudity is more divine than, for example, that of the ephebe of Kritios (480) or Doryphorus (about 450). True, nothing in the anatomy supports such an impression. The canon is similar: the torso has an athletic elegance, the attachment of the legs is emphasized by the muscular bulge of the groin and hips, the penis is small and, in both the god and Doryphorus, adorned with pubic hair arranged into tiers of curls.

Let us consider the head. Perhaps the treatment of the hair and beard marks the difierence in rank. The beard has two levels, two rows of deeply carved wavy locks, sometimes turning up and curling at the ends. Under the lower lip, two small locks form symmetrical curls, a "natural," not geometrical symmetry. The hair is encircled by a fine braid caught in the mass of hair and wrapped around it twice. Below the braid, the hair falls low over the forehead--but leaves the ears uncovered--in locks similar to those of the beard, each lock also carved and individualized. The god is truly a god. But he lives in the same cosmos as men, and he shares his perfection with men. One is tempted to link the words of Pindar--"We do somewhat resemble the immortals, either in greatness of mind or bodily nature"--to the words of the Psalm: "For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels." But the biblical "thou" is addressed to a god who lies beyond the cosmos. The dignity--or strangeness--of cherubim and seraphim lies in an unknowable God and in the message these angels transmit: they are far away from the men to whom they nonetheless speak. On the other hand, the great divine figures represented on the Parthenon possess a superhuman and yet human majesty within themselves. They do not need to speak, they have no message to transmit. Their self-sufficiency (aseitas) is silent and obvious. They may be mutilated, they may have lost their faces, like the great goddesses of the Parthenon; even so, their nobility shines bright from their divine knees.

Greek art was unique in the way it finessed the incarnation, or rather, the inhabitation, of the divine in the human form. When man is represented, he is theomorphic, and the god, anthropomorphic. That is why Schiller wrote: "Since the gods were then more human / Men were more godlike." Inhabitation assumes that the artist is the mediator--the priest and theologian--that the work of art is the sacrament of that mediation, that the god shares the cosmos with men, and that the artist is the instrument of the commonwealth. With all these conditions combined, the god depicted is a concentrated form of the macrocosm, and corresponds entirely to the microcosm of the commonwealth, or the microcosm of the citizen's body.

This perfect moment, for which every age has remained nostalgic, did not last. In fact, the art of the Parthenon was already losing some of its life in the fourth century and, even though it was repeated and copied indefinitely throughout the Hellenistic and Roman world, it rarely achieved its original vigor. This was, of course, a crisis of the commonwealth, but also a spiritual crisis affecting the idea of the body.

Man's body is subject to death, decrepitude, fatigue, sleep: because it is perishable, it is not a true body. The gods, who are an immortal race, possess complete, whole, definitive bodies. If that body bleeds, the life is not sapped from it. If the god eats, he eats ambrosia, and if he sits down for a meal, he does so for pleasure. "Man's body," writes Vernant, "turns to its divine model as to the inexhaustible source of vital energy. When that source comes to shine momentarily on a mortal creature, the brilliance of that body illuminates it, as a pale and fleeting reflection of the splendor that adorns the bodies of gods." The gods are not anthropomorphic; it is men who are at times theomorphic.

When the human hero dies or grows old, nature abandons him. What is left is the name and glory conferred upon him by the commonwealth. The body of a god possesses by nature a constant beauty and glory, and also a name and a form. This body has attributes that set it apart from the race of men, and sometimes place it at the far limit of what the word "body" signifies. It is larger and stronger than the human body. It can make itself invisible to men's eyes, can take the form of a mist, or a strictly human yet deceptive form. In hiding from mortal eyes, it protects them. For the Greeks, in fact, as in the Bible, to look directly upon the gods can be fatal. Because Actaeon saw Artemis bathing, he was metamorphosed into a stag, then devoured by his dogs. Because Tiresias saw Athena, he lost his sight. Divine splendor is blinding. Divine bodies have a dwelling place (the sea for Poseidon, hell for Hades, the woods for Artemis), yet they can appear anywhere, and their movements are as swift as thought.

Why, then, attach a corporeal form to the divine? According to Vernant, it is for the following reason: the gods form an organized society with difierent ranks. They need names and bodies, that is, recognizable traits that differentiate them from one another. That is why Hesiod's orthodox theogony provides a theological foundation for the corporeal nature of the gods. The gods emerged in their fullness, their perfection, their inalterability only because they were accompanied by the emergence of a stable, organized cosmos where every being --and in particular, every divine being--has a clearly defined individuality.

This is what the marginal sects and the philosophers protested: the source of evil in the world is the individuation of a plurality of beings. Perfection belongs solely to the One, to a unified being. The gods must therefore renounce their individuated forms and join the divine One of the cosmos.

From Anaximander to Plotinus, the question of the divine image, of the nature of the gods, is approached from the perspective of the cosmos, the human soul, the status of matter and of art. The innocence of direct representation, as it had been produced by the art of the commonwealth, was lost. In expanding the glory and grandeur of the divine, and hence the gravity of what was at stake, philosophical reflection--with few exceptions--no longer found any practicable path leading to an image that the divine could inhabit or that was worthy of sustaining the divine object.


Following Varro, Saint Augustine distinguished among three sorts of theology, defined as "the rational science of the gods": "mythical" theology, found especially among poets; "civil" theology, that of the common people; and "natural" theology, that of philosophers. In the first of these, again according to Varro, "are many fictions, which are contrary to the dignity and nature of the immortals." We find a god born from a head, gods who stole or committed adultery. The second form of religion is that which "citizens in the cities, and especially the priests, ought to know and administer. From it is to be known what god each one may suitably worship, what sacred rites and sacrifices each one may suitably perform."

The first form of religion is suited to the theater, the second to the commonwealth. But, notes Augustine, the theater is an institution of the commonwealth.

Civil theology is therefore identified with mythical theology, whose obscenities it shares. Thus there are only two theologies: civil and mythical, which is impure and unworthy of God; and natural or philosophical. All the images of the divine that art offers us belong to the first type of theology. What sort of image does the second convey?

Mythical and political theology, according to Augustine, is entirely artificial: it is a convention stemming from the human imagination. The other theology, in contrast, wishes to delve into the very nature of things, via the path of physis. Natural theology proceeds by way of abstraction. And abstraction does not favor the image.

According to Augustine--whom Werner Jaeger follows on this point-- philosophical theology does not begin with Plato but with the very origins of philosophy, with the pre-Socratics. These "philosophers of nature," or "physicists," agree with priests and poets on the fundamental status of the divine: it is situated in this world. Like Hesiod, they believe the gods came--or proceeded--from heaven and earth, the most noble and all-encompassing parts of the cosmos. Gods were engendered by the primordial generating force that is part of the world's structure: Eros. They are therefore subject to natural law, and the object of physics is to discover it. This physics should not be confused with modern physics, which is by nature positivistic and agnostic in matters of religion. This was a religious physics, as attested in the apothegm of Thales, the most ancient philosopher: "Everything is full of gods."

In Anaximander, we find the first system of the world encompassing all reality and based on a natural process of deduction capable of explaining all phenomena. There is no place in this system for the ancient gods, though their names and cults survive. At the origin of the world, there is a principle, an archeB/, which cannot be confused with any reality limited to this world--with water, for example, as Thales proposed--but which is nonetheless capable of giving birth to everything that exists. Characteristically, this archeB/ has no limits; therefore, Anaximander calls it apeiron. It is an infinite, inexhaustible reservoir that propels all change. But, as an apeiron, it is without delimitation, shapeless. Thus, Anaximander is the first to use the adjective as a noun, to say "the divine." He moves closer to the divine substance even as he makes it unrepresentable.

Xenophanes was an artist: he recited his own poems in person. But his theology obliged him to attack Homer as the one who had established religious education in Greece and who had taught anthropomorphism. Xenophanes' God is completely other. "One god is greatest among gods and men, / Not at all like mortals in body [form] or in thought." This is the very first formulation in history of negative theology. It means that the human form (and the form of the human mind) is incapable of receiving within itself the totality of the principle that philosophy recognizes as the origin of every thing. Xenophanes does not deny that God has a form, a notion a Greek might have found diiffcult to conceive. And he does not reduce God to the form of the world. But he positively denies him any human form.

Excerpted from "The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm" by Alain Besançon. Copyright © 2001 by Alain Besançon. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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