Tearing up the 'Bible for illiterates'

The Forbidden Image
August 30, 2002

To kiss a snapshot is an act of idolatry; to tear it apart is iconoclasm. If images invite our veneration, it follows that they must also pay the price of our disenchantment. That double-bind is the nexus explored in this book, which traces both iconoclasm and "iconophilia" in Europe from ancient Greece to the early 20th century.

Eikon-klasmos : "image-breaking". Can it be true that all acts of iconoclasm essentially proceed from some fear of the power of images? Surely not. When the citizens of imperial Rome were licensed to take hammers to every marble bust of a particular emperor, that was part of a formalised attempt to erase collective memory, a damnatio memoriae . When German Protestants or English Puritans attacked statuary of the Madonna or frescoes of the saints, their motives may have been doctrinal, or else they simply joined a spree of sanctioned vandalism: either way, we need not suppose that such wreckers of art acted in awe of what they broke. Yet it remains tempting to rationalise iconoclasm as the expression of hatred towards an image - no less passionate and convinced than the loving cult that is iconophilia ("image-affection").

The late Alfred Gell added to this temptation when he made persuasive anthropological connections between puppet-pricking magic of the voodoo sort and the damage wrought in 1914 by Mary "Slasher" Richardson on the Rokeby Venus by Velazquez. Richardson was a suffragette, with a clear sense of righteous justification for her attack on the canvas in the National Gallery. ("I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the government for destroying Mrs Pankhurst, the most beautiful character in modern history.") But Richardson did not aim at the picture as such. Her knife was directed at the nude recumbent form of Venus. The deepest cut was made by trying to pierce the figure's heart. If the painting of a languid diva could arouse desire in its beholder, could not the same agglomeration of oils and pigment also be "killed"?

Alain Besançon is not concerned to provide instances of iconoclastic behaviour down the ages. On certain historical outbreaks of mass iconoclasm - the French revolution, for instance - he has no comment to make. The book cover features a serene Fayum portrait of a woman, which does no service to the argument within: Fayum portraits were never (so far as we know) "forbidden" nor subject to defacement. More important, they were records of mortals: but Besançon is addressing representations of the divine.

This is, then, an essay about theological aesthetics. Hegel supplies the epigraph, but equally apposite would have been one of the conclusive sentiments of Wittgenstein's Tractatus (6.522): "There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical."

How the Buddha came to be carved so large in the cliffs of Bamiyan, and why the Taliban trained their artillery on such images, is beyond Besançon's Eurocentric scope. He is content, however, to elide the debates about divine representation within the Classical and Christian traditions. This must be right, since so much neo-Platonist thinking filtered into the reasoning of the church fathers on the question of "animated" images. And Plato himself remains a consoling example of intellectual compromise on just that question. He belonged to a culture that was, as St Paul saw it, kata'eidolos , "images all over" - and most of those images purported to show the divine. Like certain pre-Socratics, Plato could not bring himself to accept that substantial forms of marble, bronze, or even ivory and gold could hold and present a deity to mortal eyes. But he recoiled from the sort of aniconism that prevailed among the Zoroastrian Persians, and clung onto a mediating function for statues by an altar. The gods were not in but beyond and through such images; they felt gratified, therefore, when mortals paid respect through these artful channels.

There is social snobbery in Plato's view: for the philosopher, it was well enough that a donkey driver prostrated himself before some shining idol of Apollo, believing the statue to be sentient, or else popular religious practice would fall apart. We find the same rather supercilious acceptance of divine images in Pope Gregory's famous blessing of pictures and statues as "the Bible for illiterates". Ultimately, the so-called iconoclastic controversy of 8th and 9th-century Christendom was more convincingly resolved by habits of the laity than decisions of synod. Later on, the Council of Trent exercised itself over the nature of religious imagery: but did any Venetian painters of the 16th century take heed of its pronouncements?

Being aware of the gap between "artists" and "thinkers", one cannot help yearning for a complementary survey of iconoclasm that would follow episodic programmes of religious image-breaking as they actually happened - in the England of Edward VI, for example - or even explored the archaeology of iconoclasm - as has been revealed, for example, at St Augustine's Abbey in Canterbury. But Besançon's exposition of the intellectual debates is always elegant and readable; and gains in cogency as it works towards modernism. It was the French "realist" Gustave Courbet who said that he never painted angels because he had never seen one. But other artists worked to precisely the vocation of expressing what could only be sensed, not seen. Besançon illuminates the effort of Caspar David Friedrich to invest landscape with the divine power (while at the same time showing churches in ruins); and he is enlightening, too, on the abstractionists Kandinsky and Malevich. For Kandinsky, the "pure inner working of colour" was a sort of mystic electricity: astatue of Zeus enthroned or Christ crucified would have been an impediment to belief, a mere lump of shaped matter.

The dilemma is residual. If art cannot give form to the spiritual, what is there to admire in it - or what reason to destroy it?

Nigel Spivey is lecturer in classics, University of Cambridge.

The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm

Author - Alain Besançon
ISBN - 0 226 04413 0
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £28.00
Pages - 423
Translator - Jane Marie Todd

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