Iconoclasm: An Overview
ICONOCLASM: AN OVERVIEW
Iconoclasm can be defined as the intentional desecration or destruction of works of art, especially those containing human figurations, on religious principles or beliefs. More general usage of the term signifies either the rejection, aversion, or regulation of images and imagery, regardless of the rationale or intent. Any investigation of either the historical events or the concept of iconoclasm raises questions regarding the valuing and meaning of imagery, particularly sacred art and ecclesiastical doctrines. Traditionally, doctrinal pronouncements defined roles, functions, and meanings of art or iconoclasm within specific religious traditions.
Any study of iconoclasm is premised on the bifurcation of a historical event or a cultural attitude or idea. As a historical event, iconoclasm can be interpreted as being either active or passive. The former category includes legitimate accounts of the damaging of images; whereas the latter category corresponds to the promulgation and the contents of religious doctrines. Evaluations should incorporate motivations, meanings, and results of either form of the iconoclastic enterprise. As a cultural idea or attitude, iconoclasm requires analysis from the perspective of valuing art and imagery within the individual culture, the formative role of religious values on that culture, and the role of the visual within that religious tradition.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the English word iconoclasm is a composite formed from two Greek words: eikon (icon) and klasma (breaking); whose primary meaning is "[t]he breaking or destroying of images; esp. the destruction of images and pictures set up as objects of veneration; the attacking or overthrow of venerated institutions and cherished beliefs, regarded as fallacious or superstitious." With the same Greek roots, the Oxford English Dictionary 's primary definition of an iconoclast is as "[a] breaker or destroyer of images; spec. (Eccl. Hist.) One who took part in or supported the movement in the 8th and 9th centuries, to put down the use of images or pictures in religious worship in the Christian churches of the East; hence, applied analogously to those Protestants of the 16th and 17th centuries who practised or countenanced a similar destruction of images in the churches." The Oxford English Dictionary lists an important secondary definition to the broader concept of iconoclasm and iconoclast as "[o]ne who assails or attacks cherished beliefs or venerated institutions on the ground that they are erroneous or pernicious." The rarely invoked term iconomachy is delineated in the Oxford English Dictionary as being from the ecclesiastical Greek, eikonomachia is defined as "[a] war against images; hostility or opposition to images, esp. to their use in connexion with worship."
The primary reference for iconoclasm has been religion, and in particular, Western monotheism. This reference raises critical issues in any discussion of the meaning of iconoclasm in world religions. Foremost among these issues is the role of religious belief in the formation of cultural and individual identity. If the procedures by which an individual learns about, assents to, is initiated into, and becomes a member of a religious community is analogous to those for entry into political and social communities, then a socialization process orients perception. How we come to see and interpret what we see is predicated on our disciplined sense of values. Orientation into a religious confession privileges the acceptance of the normative and appropriate, and simultaneously defines the abnormal and inappropriate.
However, if Ernst Cassirer (1962/1944), Moshe Barasch (1992), Mircea Eliade (1992/1986), and Marshall G. Hodgson (1964), to name only a select few, are correct, then how do we resolve their commitment to the basic human activity of "symbol making" with the privileging status of religion in the process of seeing and the discussion of iconoclasm? If iconoclasm is limited to the preconceived categories of Western monotheism, then is it independent of the otherwise universal relationship between art and cultural memory and religious traditions? As the basic nature of human beings is to make symbols—visual as well as auditory and oral symbols—then imaging can be defined as a universal human activity.
All world religions have an attitude toward art and imagery; some have a bifurcated view, others a single lens through which they see and define art. The remaining religions vacillate throughout their individual histories as ambiguous or ambivalent toward imagery. Nonetheless, art and cultural memory are embedded within religion and encoded with religious meaning and value. This reality must be evaluated within the late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century recognition that there is no innocent eye; rather, feminist, deconstructionist, and postmodernist scholarship argues persuasively that le regard is more than an engendered gaze. Le regard offers a nonreligious basis for the recognition that there is a right and a wrong way to look and that the process through which one comes to see properly and to recognize impropriety is socialization, into a political, religious, or societal system.
General Perceptions of Iconoclasm
The general perceptions of iconoclasm, whether in Eastern or Western cultures, is that it is a religious phenomenon generated from a position of belief and right action as defined within that belief system. There is the recognition that the role of belief in defining cultural identity is primary, and trumps all other constructs of political, societal, and cultural values.
The multilayered syntax of iconoclasm, especially in the Western monotheistic traditions, provides a linguistic analogy to the complexity of its etymology, implementations, and functions. There is the internal correspondence between image and word within each religion. In those traditions in which image plays a primary or even a secondary role, iconoclasm is read as an attack on the orthodoxy of that religion. While in those traditions that question or deny the place or role of images, iconoclasm is not interpreted as a defense of religious orthodoxy.
Despite the placement of the visual modality within the religious hierarchy, the existence of images—especially icons as sacred portraiture of persons, events, or concepts—exists parallel with the fear of idols. Whether named image, icon, or idol, the visual object is presupposed by the believer to contain or partake of sacred energy and power. Whether that power is deemed as positive or negative expression depends on what is depicted.
The "power" of images is critical to iconoclasm as both an activity and a concept. Intrinsic to any image, power is the foundation for the fear in some cultures and/or religions results in the primacy of the word and the banning of images. If that power is characterized as sensual in nature, and thereby bifurcated in its moral character, the interpretation may be predicated on a generic cultural or religious distrust of what is seen—"the evidence of our eyes"—or of a fear of the sensory and the sensual.
The question of whether or not images have power, and the nature of that power, is elementary to the variations of cultural and religious definitions of iconoclasm. If a religion assumes that images have power, then iconoclasm is a necessary form of control of or deterrent to that power. How power is defined and manifested is characterized by its generative cause, in the arts named as creativity or the creative process. This power can be transferred either to, by, or through the artist whether native to the artist or gifted through an external source, and then transferred between the artist and the created object, or from the artist to the object, or from the artist through the object to the audience. Alternatively, this transmission could occur without the implied or actual presence of the artist who is merely a vehicle through which an external or other force operates. Thereby, power is exchanged from created object to audience, between object and audience, or from audience to object. In certain religions, this communication of power occurs only through the ceremonial or ritual function of the created object, or in coordination with its religious consecration. These multiple models for the transfer of "power" can be categorized within the discussions of the nature of creativity and the creative process, sacralization process, and response theory (see especially Freedberg, 1989).
Further questions arise either as to the appropriation or denial of the power of images, especially how that power is manifested, or used, in conjunction with cultural and religious interpretations of both images and iconoclasm. When interpreted as sacred energy, this power is transmitted in the form of healing, enlightenment, spiritual renewal, or protection. However, if initiated from a negative source, this power is interpreted as "misdirected" to effect harm, enchantment, danger, or subversion. Certain forms of religious iconoclasm are intellectual denials of the power or the existence of images.
Throughout his seminal text The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response (1989), David Freedberg expands the boundaries of his early historical studies of iconoclasm in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Holland into an analysis of the concept of iconoclasm. Essential to the "power of images" are the ambiguities that arise in any confrontation between fear and religious devotion. This form of fear is specific: what images might do if their usage, effects, and powers were unmonitored. For Freedberg, the iconoclastic motive is not universally and totally destructive of all images. It is a physical, oftentimes violent, response that operates within a series of parameters—geographic, chronological, social, and religious. Iconoclasm is not a total rejection, denial, or destruction of all images either for a particular historical moment or throughout history.
Another variant of iconoclasm is defined as iconophobia. This form of the iconoclastic enterprise is detailed in distinctively different studies by Patrick Collinson (1986), and Marshall G. Hodgson (1964). For the former, iconoclasm transmogrifies into a series of spirited "attacks"—verbal, visual, physical, or violent—on unacceptable images. This action is premised on a discernment of inappropriate or false images, although it is not a denial or repudiation of all images. Limitations on the types and styles of appropriate imagery permit visual delight within the iconoclastic hegemony of religion and religious values. For Collinson, iconoclasm moves from a "simple" distrust or suspicion of images and destruction of falsely identified "sacred art" to a complex "horror" or hatred of all imagery. Iconophobia is not an innocent "fear of images," but a total repudiation of all images that becomes a pervasive cultural attitude predicated on religious values.
Hodgson proffers an understanding of iconophobia as a "mistrust" of symbols that rooted simultaneously in religious values and class struggle. Emphasizing the connections between symbols, worship, and moral impulse, especially in the monotheistic traditions of Judaism and Islam, Hodgson correlates this mistrust of symbols to the distrust of the aristocracy as an exploitive, privileged class. The connector between aesthetic mistrust and social distrust is art. The foundation is in the unspoken realm of human feeling and emotions as symbols arise from the condition of being human, and art operates through symbols. As a transmitter of feelings and emotions, art, especially in worship, trumps the liturgical or ceremonial rites as it communicates directly and interpersonally. The primordial objections to idols are transferred to images and symbols, and then to art. Mistrust springs from the rigorous moralism found in the prophetic monotheisms of Judaism and Islam. Combined with the economic value of art, the native ambivalence of lower classes toward images becomes synonymous with economic and social status. Thereby, politics merges with religion as the privileged class is rejected by the populace, and the mistrust of images becomes iconophobia.
Prejudices about iconoclasm
Whether defined as a mode of behavior or a historical event, studies of iconoclasm are prejudiced by popular "misperceptions" of its origin, intent, and activity. The first misperception is that iconoclasm is an act of complete destruction, most typically described as "the smashing" of images. Second, that this destructive act is premised on a distrust, fear, and perhaps a hatred of images. Third, that iconoclasm is simultaneously a religious act that unifies all believers, regardless of class and gender, and that it is a monolithic response of that religion. Fourth, that iconoclasm is an activity with two historical Christian expressions: Byzantine and Reformation. Fifth, that Judaism is the original historically identified religious expression of iconoclasm. Finally, that twenty-first century demonstrations of iconoclasm by Islamic fundamentalists are solely religiously motivated acts as Islam is iconoclastic monotheism par excellence.
Although iconoclasm is identified as both a generic religious and a Christian attitude predating Byzantium, the most common reference is the Byzantine iconoclastic controversies of the seventh and eighth centuries. Without doubt, the basic tendency—cultural, philosophic, and religious—toward iconoclasm pervades all religious traditions and predates the foundations of Western monotheism. Normatively interpreted as an attack on religious imagery, iconoclasm is any attack on imagery whether works of "high," "low," or popular art. Consideration must be given to the related political issues of censorship and the affinities between religious and cultural definitions of le regard with its basic implications that there is a right and a wrong way to look.
The object of le regard is the work of art that engenders the wrath, admiration, or passions of viewers. The rarely discussed but regularly experienced "power of images" evokes a response through the mystery of the aesthetic dimensions. This evocation is associated with an energy or power beyond the human, so that the religious believer is divided between the divine and the demonic. Among iconophilist religions, the experience of spiritual affirmation through an encounter with art attests to its salvific value. While those images that excite the senses and exude sensuality are condemned in an iconophilist milieu but destroyed in an iconoclastic culture.
A primary consideration distinguishing images from idols is religio-cultural attitudes toward the human body, especially in terms of measure and form. Carefully rendered human forms, either life-size or monumental, create the experience of a direct encounter with another living being. The life-size depiction of a beautiful nude female or male figure awakens the senses, sensuality, and often sexuality of viewers. The more erotic, or exotic, the presentation of the human figure, the more heightened the viewer's sexual response.
The question is whether or not religious or sacred art requires the human figure for even geometric and abstract imagery can evoke an aesthetic experience or arouse human sensuality. A classic argument for the removal and desecration of images in iconoclastic religions is their conviction that the believer's attention is diverted from the sacred, the holy, or God by art. Thereby, the aesthetic experience trumps, and must be separated from, the religious experience.
Closely related to the "fear of the senses and the sensual" is the recognition that the violent acts wrought on art are generated by passionate and opinionated reactions that in combination with religious vocabulary and the religious impulse can only be manifested in a physical response. Perhaps inexplicable if related solely to intellectual or theological upheavals, the physicality of this heightened emotional state is a curiosity not yet fully comprehended or studied. An investigation of the modes by which an otherwise acknowledged inanimate object so inflames the human senses as to garner a physical response might provide a new foundation toward understanding iconoclasm. Interrelated issues include why such physical violence is identified as a "punishment"? What is the religious impulse that motivates an act of physical violence? Is physical violence, even unto the assault on inanimate images, a justifiable physical response to fear, especially to fear inspired by religion? The further reality is that acts of mutilation or destruction are levied against "generic" images—not identifiably religious in nature, motif, or iconography—simply because they are art.
Recognition of this tenuous but direct relationship between iconoclasm and physical violence orients attention to the modes of cultural and political behavior named censorship and vandalism. Throughout history and cultures, innumerable images, objects, and monuments—whether religious or secular in origin—have been replaced, relocated, renamed, modified, updated, defaced, stolen, confiscated, and placed in storage. Beyond the simple inquiry of how this happens, is the more significant issue of the meaning of such actions, and whether they are justifiably categorized as acts of censorship, vandalism, or iconoclasm. Recent commentaries in art history and visual culture note the affinities between censorship and iconoclasm (Hoffman and Storr, 1991b; Hoffman, 1996), and iconoclasm and vandalism (Boime, 1998; Gamboni, 1997). These homologous activities are organized within the matrix of art, politics, religion, and society delineated by Hodgson (1964) in his discussion of the role of art and culture in Islam.
Barbara Hoffman defines censorship as the "[c]ontrol of expression that is regarded as outside of and a threat to the religious, political, and social orthodoxy of the time" (1996, vol. 6, p. 174). Premised on the distrust of images—most cogently explicated by Plato (c. 428–348 or 347 bce) as the deception of forms and the ability to evoke human emotions, and later echoed in a variety of religious and secular documents in the West—iconoclasm as censorship is an expression of power, albeit political or moral power.
Even in the model secular society, the United States of America, prominent acts of public censorship executed ostensibly on behalf of the government and within the purview of the legal system, resulted in outcries of injustice and hegemony of the religious, especially fundamentalist Christian, values of the minority over the body politic. From the nationwide controversies provoked by the withdrawal of federal funding through National Endowment for the Arts grants, to individual artists like Andre Serrano for the creation of his now infamous Piss Christ (1989), or to museums that sponsor exhibitions such as the retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe's black-and-white photographs cancelled by the Corcoran Gallery of Art (1989), the overt concern has been violation of the individual's constitutional rights, while the sub rosa fear is the control of artistic expression by those religious individuals driven by a moral impulse that they identify publicly as patriotism but that is in fact a form of religious fundamentalism. The questionable act of government censorship in the threatened withdrawal of city funding to the Brooklyn Museum of Art by Rudolf Giuliani, the then-mayor of New York City, was because of the exhibiting of Chris Ofili's painting of The Holy Virgin Mary, which Roman Catholics found to be morally offensive. This "spin" was motivated as much by the mayor's own personal sense of affront as by the politics of his bid for reelection and his recognition of the meaning of Roman Catholic values (1990). This discussion of the affinities between religion and censorship through the formation of cultural values is advanced further with consideration of the fate of Serrano's infamous photograph. When Piss Christ was knocked off the wall of a public museum and damaged irreparably by visitors who identified themselves as "outraged believers" (1997), was this an act of public censorship given the public arguments over the allocation of public funds for this work, or was it an act of religious iconoclasm or vandalism?
It is difficult to decipher acts of vandalism as simple but senseless acts of destruction from iconoclastic events. Religious and moral values have motivated the destruction, or desecration, of images and monuments under the guise of "religious iconoclasm as a defense of orthodoxy" or "vandalism as a moral outrage" by religious believers and invading armies. If these are justifiably deemed as acts of iconoclasm, then what are we to make of the theft of the then recently restored Byzantine icons from Russian churches following the fall of communism (late 1980s–early 1990s), the exploding of the giant Buddhas at Bamiyan (2001), or the looting of the Baghdad museums and the toppling of statues of Saddam Hussein (2003).
One final variant of iconoclasm should be identified: The "silent iconoclasm" of those religious traditions that espouse a nonviolent rejection of images and icons as, for example, among the Āryā Samāj of Hindu India, the Sthānakvāśis and Terāpanthis of Jainism, and Lutheran Christians. This passive form of iconoclasm is doctrinally practiced and pronounced, and can thereby be considered a form of iconoclastic or religious censorship.
Process of defining iconoclasm
Throughout human history, culture has been organized around religious identity whether a named religion or a coalition of religions as in the Judeo-Christian tradition. This organizational schema privileges what is typified normatively as culture by religious valuing. Individual and communal discourses are embedded with religious references. The initial consideration is whether iconoclasm is a religious act or a religious act encoded with and motivated by economic, political, or societal purposes.
The integral elements in the process of defining iconoclasm range from the religious impulse to intellectual rationale. The arrangement, or rearrangement, of these elements in distinctive patterns is premised on religious and cultural values. Basic to any study of iconoclasm is a discussion of the meaning and purpose of images, especially with regard to the "power of images." Analyses of iconoclasm, especially with regard to religion either generally or specifically, become mired in the divisive dichotomy of image veneration versus image destruction. Consideration is not adequately given to the possibility that the iconoclastic impulse is native to human creativity and should be examined in relationship to the definition of art and artist with the exception of Freedberg's seminal study (1989).
As the visual definition of citizenship, public imagery illustrates the narratives of cultural history and national origin, and is recognized as the common denominator of national identity. These symbols and images envision the political and societal discourse of power, and during invasions or occupations need to be destroyed to "accept" the new government. Such acts of iconoclasm ostensibly motivated by political considerations are in reality deeply rooted in the socialization process from childhood through which an individual learns to accept or deny the "truth claim" of images. Cultures are oriented around religious values, discourse, and meanings, so that any act of political iconoclasm is not a simple secular performance. Similarly, iconoclasm is embedded in economic, societal, or political conflict whether that conflict is defined as class, race, or gender struggles or major cultural shifts such as the Renaissance. With the exception of the recent studies of Albert Boime (1998) and Dario Gamboni (1997), there have been insufficient studies of the consequences of the social and cultural function of imagery, especially of national symbols and monuments.
The term the artist requires careful attention. There is a history and an etymology to this word that has evolved, or been denied, through a variety of cultural and religious transformations, transmogrifications, and adaptations. For example, the Western apprehension that began with a coalition of artisan, craftsman, and teacher was transformed by early Christianity into a vehicle for divine expression, by the Renaissance into a cult of the genius, by the nineteenth century into a romantic rebel, and by the twentieth century into a critical, prophetic voice oftentimes self-defined as shamanic. Each definition or redefinition arose from a new way of seeing and valuing human experience. The sanctification of the artist initiated by the Renaissance cult of the genius, strengthened by the nineteenth-century rebel, and affirmed by the twentieth-century shaman, was cultivated in tandem with the secularization of Western culture. Iconoclasm as both event and ideology shifted from the political arena to the religious realm onto the national scene and, ultimately, to a religio-political enterprise.
Iconoclasm is a term loaded with diverse meanings from the "simple" whitewashing of images or placement in storage to the violent acts of total destruction. As both a term and an event, iconoclasm has traversed as complex and undulating a course as have the images and imagery it endangers. Whether the act of "smashing" is incited by the threat of idols to temple worship, by the power of the narrative of a living but particular image, or by the investment of imagery into political and societal narratives, the cardinal fear may be simply Plato's claim that images fail us by not telling the truth. Images must be apprehended with a hermeneutics of suspicion, thereby, an internal tension exists between iconic and iconoclastic, between image makers and image breakers.
A series of relationships, rarely studied before the initiation of the study of the previously marginalized in the late 1960s and early 1970s, should be amalgamated into the complex alliance of the disparate pieces of the puzzle named "iconoclasm"; for example, the association between class and "taste," or the affinities between gender and violence. Additionally, there is a cultural or a religious indifference to images. This is not to intend that "silent iconoclasm" of Lutheran Christians or the Brahmā Samāj, but rather an investigation into the indifference, if not, denial of the power of images wrought by the gluttony of images found among the populace through popular culture, mass media, and the information highway of the internet. The question becomes: Can an individual and a society become numbed by images, as Thomas J. J. Altizer argues happened with words?
Tangential to this anesthetic of images is the subject of the figure and figuration in the arts. The issue is whether or not religious art requires the human figure, and if it does, what type of human figure: idealized, realistic, to scale, or monumental—the possibilities are limitless, but the concept may prove limiting and maybe even threatening. If religious art were basically aniconic, then would it instill the same level of fear, anxiety, or danger within the eyes and hearts of those predisposed to iconoclasm? As with iconoclasm, not every religion or culture defines or delineates the human in identical terms. Rather, the actuality of a pluralistic world privileges a systematic analysis of cultural contacts and of mutual or contradictory concerns rather than a single explanation for phenomena as diverse as iconoclasm.
Historically, a distinction has been made by both art historians and historians of religion between the cultural and religious forms distinguished by the geographic and cultural categories identified as East and West. Among the most "glaring" distinctions is the minimal, if nonexistent, conversation about iconoclasm outside of Western monotheism. While there may be an intellectual and historical foundation to iconoclasm as it was identified and studied in terms of Western monotheism, it was not believed to exist in other religious traditions, whether indigenous, preliterate, native, or Eastern. Every religion and every culture has an attitude toward art and commensurately toward iconoclasm. The traditional "single explanation" for such diverse phenomena demands to be reframed and refashioned.
The following survey of cultural permutations of the idea of iconoclasm can be read as a series of suggestions that illustrate differing bases for the intellectual and emotional parallels identified in Eastern and Western religions. These attitudes suggest that there are differing forms of (religious) iconoclasm and that these differences can be clarified most sharply in coordination with examination of the relationships with culture, politics, and society. The distinguishing qualitative characteristic may be to paraphrase the art historian Oleg Grabar (1975), the simple difference between Iconoclasm with a capital I and iconoclasm with a lowercase i. Confirmation of the distinctions between iconoclasm as a historical event, mode of behavior, ideology, and attitude toward image must be carefully evaluated. The critical question is whether or not iconoclasm should be defined from the perspective of a cultural or religious entity, and equitably from the historical categories of geographic or religious distinctions.
Eastern permutations of iconoclasm
Whether perceived as a historic event, a mode of behavior, or an ideology, iconoclasm exists within the multiple cultures identified today as Asian. Culture is directly conjoined with religion, and thereby religious values become enshrined as cultural values. Violent acts of iconoclasm are not supported by or integral to either traditional Indian culture or orthodox Hinduism. As an abstraction without individual parts (Sanskrit niskala ), the Hindu divinity comes to be known through abstract symbols or figural absence as at Chidambaram. The constant flow of invaders entering the Indian subcontinent proffers an exemplum for cultural and religious syncretism. Investigations into the nature and meaning of iconoclasm need to detail the destruction, displacement, and replacement by invading groups. The absence of figurations or forms results in an aniconism understood as elemental in the historical displacement of indigenous icons by Aryan invaders in northern India (c. 1500 bce). The dearth of religious buildings and monuments can be credited to both invasion and construction from perishable materials such as light woods, paper, or clay; for single or minimal use; and then prepared for destruction and replacement. These practices remain prevalent in all parts and religions of India. Violent acts of iconoclasm such as the destruction of the temple in Somanatha built by Mahmūd of Ghazna (971–1030) were the results of Muslim invasions in northern India in the eleventh century. Such iconoclastic activity was spurred forward by a rigorous monotheism, a hostility to images, and the moral impulse.
From the eighteenth through the late twentieth century, there was a recognition of the irreparable damage "done" to Indian culture by invasions and invaders. The British occupation of India brought not simply a taste for British cultural values and political status, but an uncompromising allegiance to Protestant Christianity. Incorporating this Protestant indifference to images, the evolution of modern forms of Hindu esotericism, such as Advaita Vedānta, practiced a philosophic monism and rejected religious imagery. Nonviolent rejection of images, icons, and idols was found in the silent forms of iconoclasm as practiced by the Brahmā Samāj and the Āryā Samāj.
The geographic location of the Indian subcontinent made it an attractive site for multiple invasions, religious and philosophical cross-fertilizations, and cultural fusions. Several religious traditions originated or flourished simultaneously on Indian soil including Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, and Islam, as well as a variety of Christian traditions. This religious syncretism influenced both attitudes toward images and commensurately iconoclasm. Images whether free-standing forms, monuments, or carved or painted onto buildings reflect these varied religious and philosophical perspectives, multicultural aesthetics, and stylistic advances. Not all works were made for the ages; rather, some ancient monuments and temples were raised for new edifices while others made from perishable materials were regularly replaced (similar to the Shintō practice in Isē-shima, Japan). Individual representations of specific deities or spirits and sand or flower mandalas were created for a single occasion or rite, others for a few days or for several months. Images for popular worship and devotion made of clay, paper, or soft woods, necessitate a short life span. These temporary images were created for specific ceremonial purposes with the specified intention of ritual iconoclasm.
Tantrism affirms a theoretic commitment to interiorized forms of mental worship as the higher form of devotion, while external worship with tangible images is the lowest form. Daily practice is far from the espoused theory, as the Tantric tradition incorporates regular use of visual images. Initially a devotional and reformist movement within Hinduism, Sikhism partially distinguished itself by its iconoclastic ideology. As with other religions, this initial iconoclasm acceded to iconicism in which images of Gurū Nānak (1469–1539) emerged as a form of religious pedagogy and visual inspiration for piety and good works.
Buddhism encountered the spectrum of attitudes and modes of behavior toward images and iconoclasm ranging from the theoretic iconoclasm of Zen to the iconolatry of Hinayana and Mahayana. More icon or recipient of veneration, the image of Buddha became deified as an object of worship and provoked reaction against state-imposed Buddhism in a fashion reminiscent of Hodgson's (1964) discussion of the political rejection of art as a category of social privilege. The destruction of Buddha images in the Bayon temple at Angkor Wat by Hindu iconoclasts followed the death of the Mahayana Buddhist king Jayavarman VII (c. 1120–1215 or 1219). The doctrine that Buddha nature pervades all created things and beings affirms the practice of ritual iconoclasm throughout the Buddhist world. Given both the spontaneity and nonconformist mode of satori, or enlightenment, Buddhism aligns iconoclasm with the cessation of visualization during meditation, and the destruction of the canon. Written authority is replaced with the intuitive immediacy between student and master as in Zen Buddhism. The basic ambivalence toward images is in direct correspondence to the developmental stage of an individual's spiritual consciousness. Tangible images are necessary for the initiate to enter into the meditation, however, material objects of attachment, images are to be transcended. The Buddha counsels individuals to learn to extricate themselves from attachment to material objects like mandalas and images.
As practiced in monastic environments, Zen iconoclasm differs from other forms of Buddhist iconoclasm that occur in temples, urban and rural environments, and domestic settings. Accounts of the destruction of the objects ranging from Hui-neng's (638–713) physical shredding of scriptures (sixth century) to Tan-hsia's (1064–1117) incineration of a Buddha-image (ninth century) may be intended more as parables than as documented history. Images, whether text or artwork, are not to become either attachments or objects of worship; rather, they are simply reminders of the Buddha's way to enlightenment that each person must follow for him- or herself. Hui-neng's action was a model of Zen's rejection of written authority in favor of the monastic tradition of intuitive insight as taught by master to disciple. Similarly, Tan-hsia's story witnessed the Zen practice of nonattachment and the moving away from an external object as the entry point to meditation. Relics of the Buddha, like Buddha images, are accorded due reverence by both the Buddhist traditions and monastic disciplines. Humor is a normative vehicle for the vernacular of Zen iconoclasm. The Zen technique of relentless overthrow of idols employs laughter to effect positive response in believers and a not so positive response in the idols. The sound of laughter causes the idols to turn over on their heads, thereby removing their aura of dignity and simultaneously their claims of authority and truth.
The final, and not often mentioned, category of iconoclasm initiated on the Indian subcontinent is the silent iconoclasm found in both Hinduism—the Āryā Samāj and the Brahmā Samāj—and Jainism—Sthānakvāśis and Terāpanthis. This silent iconoclasm is characterized by a nonviolent rejection of all images, icons, and idols predicated on a religious moralism.
Western permutations of iconoclasm
Western understandings of iconoclasm have been deemed normative as historical events, modes of behavior, and ideologies, as well as subjects for scholarly evaluation. This privileging of iconoclasm by Western monotheism raises concerns for wider investigations. As iconoclasm is almost synonymous with monotheism, investigators must consider whether iconoclasm in all of its definitions and etymologies is simply a monotheistic entity; and not applicable to world religions and cultures. Most documentation, analyses, and scholarship related to iconoclasm discusses Christian, more specifically Byzantine or Protestant, forms of iconoclastic activities. This survey suggests additional modes of iconoclasm within Western religions.
The establishment of monotheism in the West transformed cultural attitudes, societal structures, and dispositions toward images. Dedication to the one God as the singular divine source reconfigured the conceptual and spiritual relationality with human beings. This exclusive deity was defined as unique in substance and as transcending traditional boundaries of gender, sexuality, and bodily forms, and was uncircumscribable in visual depictions or cognitive classifications. He spoke authoritatively and through his speech created the world, its contents, and human beings (Gen. 1–2). This emphasis on divine utterances enhanced the primacy of the word over the image in Western religions, the written scriptures over the icon.
Western monotheism was initiated by the "new religion" established by the pharaoh Akhenaton (r. 1379–1362 bce) in his devotion to Aton. Aniconism prevailed in images of Aton while figural depictions of pharaoh and his family were significantly transformed in bodily presentations from earlier pharaonic portraits on monuments and manuscripts. As Aton become singular and aniconic, Akhenaton, his wife Nefertiti (fourteenth century bce), and their children, were rendered naturalistically even unto physical characteristics of ageing from double chins to sagging bellies. This earliest Western monotheism humanized portrayals of the aristocracy while symbolizing a nonfigural deity without rejection or destruction of all images. Ironically, iconoclasm in Egypt occurred in the desecration of the monuments honoring Akhenaton and the only female pharaoh, Hatshepsut (r. 1503–1482 bce), whose portraits and written names were "erased" from all records of Egyptian history. Whether these acts were simply expressions of political power or religiously motivated, especially the restoration of the Egyptian pantheon and its priesthood, may be singular case studies in Western iconoclasm.
Western monotheism and its unique prophetic iconoclasm were instituted through the Old Testament religion of Israel. This specific iconoclasm was predicated on adherence to a strict moralism pronounced by a prophet, or series of prophets, inspired by the one God to reveal a message of hope, judgment, and obedience to the transcendent supreme creator. There is a qualitative distance between God and humanity. Faith in God involves fulfillment of moral demands as believers receive a direction and purpose to human history. The faith community is dependent on the commandments and laws that this God has directed be written in "the book." God is beyond any concepts or forms known to human beings; neither anthropomorphic imaging or identification is possible. Such religions abound with elegant verbal symbols and images in oral and written texts denying the visual.
Defining and differentiating Judaism from its neighbors, the religious hierarchy and prophets named its singular religious identity and ethical practices. As many scriptural citations (e.g., 3 Kings 11:5; Dan. 14:2; Judg. 10:6) affirm the neighboring cultic practice of worshiping idols, Judaism demarcates itself attesting to God's singularity, primacy of the Word, and obedience to a strict moral code. Judaism fostered the ideology of idolatry as "the other" necessitating rigorous iconoclasm. The normative interpretation of Judaism was a religion rich in verbal imagery and symbolism nurturing religious pedagogy, liturgical ceremonies, and spirituality. Archaeological excavations at Dura Europos and Bet Alpha, and cultural studies of Jewish history, question this traditional description of Judaism as a nonvisual culture (Julius, 2001; Mann, 2000).
Historically, Christianity has had a bifurcated attitude toward images that arose from the dual heritage of Hebraic (prophetic) iconoclasm and Hellenistic philosophy. Christian iconoclasm is understood by its two historical expressions: Byzantine and Reformation. However, the concept, if not the violence, of iconoclasm operates in all forms of Christianity, all geographic regions, and among all races, classes, and gender. With the exception of Byzantine iconoclasm, several of the other modes of Christian iconoclasm will be reviewed herewith.
Whether perceived or experienced as an idea or object, art is ambiguous. Although inanimate, art operated humanly communicating and evoking a response from viewers, and was interpreted as a danger as well as a delight. Evidence of this equivocal attitude is found in early Christian art, as there is no portrait of Jesus (c. 6 bce–c. 30 ce) rather visual symbols, allegories, and signs. The Council of Elvira (309) issued contradictory decrees in which idol worship and sacrifice were denounced, while the breaking of idols was identified as unwarranted according to the scriptures. Among Church Fathers, notably Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–between 211 and 215), Tertullian (c. 155 or 160–after 220), and Augustine of Hippo (354–430), there was affirmation of Plato's distrust of art as deception. The sensuality and superstition associated with images as idols that created the greatest apprehension within the early church. Initially, Christian iconoclasm included pronounced condemnations and physical removal or destruction of pagan idols and secular images. By the third century, images played an integral role in Christian worship and catechesis. Qualifications were announced in conciliar decrees, patristic texts, and sermons. Christian mistrust of images was reformed by the sixth century into a trust in images with achieropaeic (not made by hands) icons created through the direct contact with Jesus, especially the miraculous portraits known as the Mandylion of Edessa and Veil of Veronica. The seventh-century synod in Trullo (692) reaffirmed the doctrines of the incarnation and proscribed symbolic or allegorical images, such as the lamb, for Christ. Synodical documents demanded anthropomorphic images of Christ, although not necessarily in the politically motivated placement of his portrait on imperial coins by Justinian II (c. 669–711).
Contemporary to the Byzantine iconoclastic controversies is the little studied Carolingian iconoclasm. As early Christian iconoclasm must be studied in concert with the political and societal establishment of the church, Carolingian iconoclasm demands consideration of both political relations between Constantinople and Aachen, and the Spanish heresy of Adoptionism. The immediate effects of Carolingian iconoclasm are more evident than any permanent attitude or theological shift in Western Christianity. A survey of Carolingian art reveals the conundrum that although Charlemagne imagined himself in the mold of the Roman Empire, there are no surviving depictions of him in any court manuscripts. A similar near-total absence of illustrations of the life of Christ affirms Carolingian iconoclasm espousal of parallels between Christology and the image. Promulgated at the Council of Frankfurt (794), the Libri Carolini (Caroline Books) condemned Adoptionism and qualified images in terms of the spirit of Gregory the Great (540–604) as appropriate for pedagogy, aesthetic adornment, and moral inspiration, but not adoration. A conceptual debate on the Christian moral relationship between art and materialism might have occurred between Bernard of Clarivaux (1090–1153) and the Abbé Suger (1081–1151). Bernard, who vilified the expense of images, declared them a hindrance to the contemplation of the divine as witnessed in Benedictine purity and simplicity which cleansed abbey churches of stained-glass windows, wall paintings, and sculptures. Simultaneously, Suger proceeded with his design for the world's first Gothic cathedral, Saint Denis, an innovative model in elegant and inspired Christian aesthetics. The more pertinent theological issue of the abuses of devotional imagery led to violent iconoclasm in medieval Christianity.
Reform, especially as theological thinking on artistic imagery, was initiated in the fourteenth century, if not earlier. John Wycliffe (c. 1330–1384), the English reformer, and his "Lollards" (mumblers) debated the value of imagery and sought the destruction of human-figured forms. While the Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498) preached against materialism and the decadence of humanism, decrying, for example, the nude figure in Renaissance art and inspiring the infamous "Bonfire of the Vanities." Influential not only on a majority of Florentines, Savonarola motivated artists such as Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510) and Michelangelo (1475–1564) to mutilate or destroy their own works.
Sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers resurrected the prophetic iconoclasm of the Judeo-Christian foundations and inspired attitudinal reposition from iconoclasm to iconophobia. Like the Byzantine iconoclastic controversies, Reformation or Protestant iconoclasm was equitably motivated by economic, political, aesthetic, and theological issues. The central question of defining or redefining the God-human relationship affected both the concept and the violent acts of the iconoclastic impulse. Reformers were divided in their individual definitions: Martin Luther (1483–1546) acknowledged the didactic use of religious art and decried the "destructive cleansing" advocated by Bodenstein von Karlstadt (c. 1480–1541). John Calvin (1509–1564) initially defended religious art as didactic but later opposed images given the tendency toward veneration; however, like Luther, he did not support violent iconoclasm. Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531) banned religious art as a distraction from worship and supervised the closing and cleansing of churches by whitewashing the interior walls and removing all statues, images, and stained-glass windows. Proponents of the Church of England advocated public spectacles such as the "Bonfire of the Virgins" (July 1538) to champion the reform process. Calvin's and Zwingli's followers were driven by the "horror of imagery" to destroy not simply individual religious images but entire buildings but to move toward iconophobia as an attitude and activity destructive of all images.
The Christian iconoclastic impulse extended into the colonizing of Latin and South America in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The danger, or threat, of idolatry was transformed by European missionaries and explorers to the New World into native images as purveyors of false religion. The destruction, either physically or by assimilation into Roman Catholic imagery, of native religious art signified the concurrent replacement of popular religion with Christianity. The European interpretation of indigenous religion was colored by the perception of art as "craft" and as inferior in quality to the "high art" of the West. This relating of image with religion colored the inculcation of "European" culture and religion on the Americas.
Further violent acts of, or inspired by, Christian iconoclasm include the transformation or "secularization" of Western culture through political and social revolutions from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. Foremost is the spontaneous and wanton destruction of religious art and monuments by the lower classes in establishing the secular state of the French Revolution. This havoc was motivated by the economic, political, and societal abuses the aristocracy and the church—identified as one and the same entity—wrought on the working poor. Similarly, the political and ideological "revenge" of the Russian people, or at least the leadership of the new Russian government, against the czar and the church was the establishment of a secular state and the disestablishment of a state church.
Given its theocentric universe and resolute avowal of monotheism, Islam interpreted the existence of images not merely as simple idolatry but as an assault on the integrity of God. Aware that he is the sole eternal creator, the qualitative difference between God and humanity becomes immense. Beyond the boundaries of human limitations and descriptors, there is no attempt to humanize God as this would be interpreted as both an act of idolatry and tantamount to the unforgivable sin of shirk. Although there is no formal condemnation of the visual arts or of images in the Qurʾān, neither is there affirmation. The Qurʾānic silence on art, human creativity, and the visual modality is interpreted through the lens of inference, so that the passages, for example, such as those relating Solomon's wealth and power (34:12–13), Abraham's opposition to idols (6:74), and Jesus' transformation of the clay bird to life (3:43) attest to a disapproving attitude toward representation. As God is the creator, any discussion or description of the artist as a "creator" proclaims a competition that is not permissible. The Prophet Muhammad (c. 570–632), who denounced the indigenous Arabic customs of idol worship, is credited by tradition with pronouncing that artists as they perceive themselves as "creators" will be severely tested and punished on Judgment Day. Angels, he is further credited with saying, would neither enter or protect a home with pictures or images. Several hadiths identify the artist as a deceiver or idolater, while a variety of texts—Arabic, Persian, and Turkish—of both Sunni and Shīʿah origins, denounce both the artist and art as blasphemous.
Grabar (1975) espouses the position that early Islam was indifferent to images, however, there is reference to an Islamic opposition to representation and to the artist as competing with God in the texts of Thawdhurus Abū Qurrah (c. 750–825). Except for legendary references and a contested episode in the life of Muhammad, there is no public or authoritative "debate on images" in Islam similar to those in Christianity, especially the Byzantine iconoclastic controversies. However, for some commentators the simple historical synchronicity of the rise of Islam during the latter Christian crises is a signifier of a homogeneous ethos or intellectual disposition.
The Islamic rejection of figural representation transformed the art of writing, whether inscriptions or calligraphy, into an artistic vehicle for theological expression. Similarly, abstract, geometric, and floral pictoriality defined the otherwise "religious" arts of Islamic cultures. Aniconism may have so dominated the Islamic attitude toward art that critical issues such as the amorphous relationship between the act of representation and the object represented, and the forms of possible representation of the divine or abstract concepts, were rarely, if ever, discussed. Rather, Islamic art reflected the cultural matrix of a social and moral ethos and denied expression in figurative forms. Nevertheless, within Islam's earliest centuries, iconoclasm flourished sporadically, depending on local interpretations of the Qurʾān and hadiths, economic and political struggles, and moral affirmation of the integrity of the one God. Islamic iconoclasm, if this is a justifiable phrase, is an umbrella term for a variety of phenomena ranging from wanton destruction or vandalism in military campaigns to the whitewashing of images of other religions or cultures. Historically documented violent acts of Islamic iconoclasm were related most often either to conquests or to transformations of buildings in central Asia (Buddhist), India (Hindu), Anatolia, Turkey, and Al Andaluz, Spain (Christian). Whenever adherents rigorously define Islam as the prophetic witness to the one God, who is the transcendent and invisible creator, and who cannot be restricted by or contained within figural images, such a theological position with which the Taliban might identify itself, then the violent acts of iconoclasm such as the destruction of the giant Buddhas at Bamiyan (2001) may be interpreted as self-justification.
Further Considerations for the Study of Iconoclasm
Studies of iconoclasm as a mode of behavior or an ideology converge with the issues and methodologies employed in the analyses of response theory (Freedberg, 1989), optics and vision (Elkins, 1996; Kemp, 1990), and the dynamics of class, race, and gender, especially through the lens of visual culture and popular culture (Morgan, 1998; Nochlin, 1998/1995; Plate, 2002/2003). Early twenty-first century history including the destruction of the giant Buddhas at Bamiyan heightens the recognition of the affinities between iconoclasm and violence and points toward both psychologically and religiously based analyses. The censoring of "religious art" such as Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary motivates in-depth examinations of the affiliations between iconoclasm and censorship. Clearly, both relationships sharpen interest in the connectives between the economy, politics, and religion as the integral matrix sustaining iconoclasm, particularly violent iconoclasm.
The more complex nature of iconoclasm particularly as a religious act requires a thorough investigation into the patterns of iconoclasm in both Eastern and Western religions. A comparison of variations according to cultural patterns, religious values, political structures, and gender and class struggles provides a methodology for examining iconoclasm as both a mode of behavior and historical event. The basic nature of the iconoclastic impulse is clarified by detailed comparison of the singularity of the Western model in and against the global evidence for iconoclasm as a value larger than the limitation of Western monotheism.
Despite its universality within world religions, the predominant number of texts on iconoclasm focus specifically on Christianity, in particular either Byzantine or Reformation studies. The following texts analyze iconoclasm within other religious traditions but not comparatively between traditions. The discussions of iconoclasm by Mircea Eliade, Marshall G. Hodgson, Albert C. Moore, and more recently Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, are singular in their approach toward the religious meaning of iconoclasm and in their employment of a comparative methodology.
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Apostolos-Cappadona, Diane. "Iconoclasm." In The Dictionary of Art, pp. 78–82. Vol. 15. New York, 1996.
Apostolos-Cappadona, Diane. "Picasso's Guernica as Mythic Iconoclasm: An Eliadean Interpretation of the Myth of Modern Art." In Myth and Method, edited by Laurie L. Patton and Wendy Doniger, pp. 327–351. Charlottesville, Va., 1996.
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Diane Apostolos-Cappadona (2005)