Images: Images, Icons, and Idols

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One way to categorize religious traditions is whether or not they accept or advocate the use of two- and/or three-dimensional objects to symbolize or embody the divine. Some traditions, such as temple Hinduism, Buddhism, and Orthodox and Catholic Christianity, see the use of such images as central to their theologies and rituals. In these traditions images can serve three functions. They can be understood to be representations or likenesses of deities, symbols of deities, or the deities themselves. Other traditions, such as some schools of Islam, Judaism, and Reformed Protestant Christianity, are iconoclastic or otherwise oppose the use of images. Still others, such as Lutheran Christianity and the Advaita Vedānta school of Hinduism, are ambivalent or indifferent to the use of images.

Scholars of art and religion generally prefer the use of the terms image and icon to idol, as they argue that the former terms are more objective and less judgmental. For most English speakers the word idol is inevitably associated with idolatry or heathen idolatry, and so brings with it theological implications of the biblical and Protestant critiques of images. Idolatry in this theological usage is just one of a number of forms of false religion, so one finds actions, beliefs, and ideologies as varied as market capitalism, warfare, violence, the contemporary U.S. military and its budget, nuclear weapons, undue reliance on technology, an individualistic focus on self rather than community, slavery, racism, apartheid, patriarchy, adulation of cultural heroes, contemporary mass media, National Socialism, Communism, nationalism, and even scientific objectivity decried by their critics as forms of idolatry.

Anthropologists, on the other hand, tend to be comfortable using the word idol and argue that it more accurately reflects the theological and ritual understanding of Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains who themselves use idol in English. Furthermore, they say not to use the term is to disrespect those who in good faith do use it, by implying that their use of the term betrays an ignorance of the negative connotations of idolatry in Abrahamic theologies. Still other scholars of religion prefer to use idol on the grounds that image is too neutral a term. These scholars argue that image does not convey adequately the depth of feelings aroused by idols in both devotees and critics. Notwithstanding the good arguments in favor of using idol, this essay will use image.

Types of Images

The difference between an image and an icon is in many cases an arbitrary one. In Christian usage, icon refers only to two-dimensional representations of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, or a saint, and so for many English-speakers icon calls to mind a two-dimensional object. Many scholars follow this theological distinction and use the term icon to refer only to two-dimensional objects. Most historians of art and religion use image to refer to any of many material objects, both of two and three dimensions, and restrict the use of icon to an image that is ritually consecrated and/or in some way participates in the divine substance of that which it represents.

Three-dimensional images can be of stone, metal, wood, lacquer, or clay. An image can be a figurative likeness (iconic) or abstract (aniconic). In India, the original image at a shrine is oftentimes an aniconic natural feature, understood to be a manifestation of divine power. As its popularity grows, patrons build increasingly elaborate shrines around the image and replace the original natural image with a humanly crafted iconic one.

Two-dimensional images generally are iconic. They can be on paper, wood, or cloth, and the figure can be painted, woven, or embroidered.

Some traditions, such as Buddhism and Catholic Christianity, employ both two- and three-dimensional images. Others, such as Hinduism and Jainism, exhibit a preference for three-dimensional images over two-dimensional ones. In Eastern Orthodox Christianity only two-dimensional images function as formal liturgical icons. Some objects, such as Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain maala s and yantra s, are low-relief carvings and castings that at the same time share visual features with two-dimensional icons.

Iconic images can be anthropomorphic and so represent a human form. Other iconic images depict animals, divine beings that combine human and nonhuman traits, or inanimate symbols such as a cross, a book, or a throne. The multiplication of images leads to issues of identity, as different forms are used to depict the same deity. Traditions with iconic images therefore develop an iconography, a detailed formal canon of distinguishing features of anatomy, color, clothing, ornamentation, and attributes held in the hands that allow the viewer to identify which deity or saint is depicted. The multiplication of images can also contribute to understandings of divinity as plural and diverse. Complex iconographies contribute to explicit polytheisms, with many deities, such as we find in the Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Shintō, Daoist, Egyptian, and Greco-Roman traditions. They also contribute to implicit polytheisms of minor deities and/or saints, such as we find in Catholic and Orthodox Christianity. In contrast, explicit monotheisms tend to employ a simplified iconography or be iconoclastic.

The physical nature of images connects them to many other objects in the material culture of religions, such as relics, shrines, altars, clothing, staffs, scepters, ritual implements, and books. Only some of these objects, such as images, relics, books, and in some cases clothing, engender long-standing and heated ideological disagreements. Images and relics in particular have been the focus of extended critiques and defenses, since they are most clearly tied to theological understandings of the relationships among divinity and humanity, and spirit and matter.

Images serve different functions in religious life. Some of them are visual symbols. They can be visual tools in the meditation of specially trained religious practitioners, who use two- or three-dimensional forms as props for visualization of deities. Images, especially two-dimensional ones with narrative themes, serve to educate people concerning essential religious truths or the history of a religious community. The Catholic pope Gregory the Great in the sixth century thus termed images "books of the illiterate." This equation of images with books is often found in elite criticisms of images as being suitable only for commoners or other more childlike and less-educated members of a religious community.

Images often appear on the outside of temples and shrines. Here they can serve as markers of sectarian identity. On the outside and inside of temples images can also serve an ornamental function, as they add to the grandeur of a building.


When images function as visual markers, there is usually no need to prepare the image through special consecratory rituals. But many other functions do require such rituals. In particular, the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions developed complex rituals whereby images are infused with divine presence or otherwise consecrated for ritual use.

Mesopotamian texts from the first half of the first millennium bce describe in detail a two-day ritual sequence for consecration that involved multiple mouth-washings (Babylonian mīs pî), each of which involved mouth-opening rites (Babylonian pīt pî). References to these rituals are found in texts from as early as the twenty-second century bce. Egyptian texts from the first half of the first millennium bce describe a consecration ritual also known as the opening of the mouth; some texts also describe these rituals as involving the opening of the eyes, nose, and ears of the image. Hindu images are consecrated in multiday-festivals that both install vital breath in the image (Sanskrit prāa pratihā ) and anoint the image with pure water and many other liquids (abhieka ). Jain consecration rituals distinguish between the enlivening of the image through opening its eyes in a rite called literally the "eye-needle" (Sanskrit añjana-śalākā ), and the establishment (Sanskrit pratihā ) of the image on an altar for worship. Buddhist rituals throughout Asia employ the two ritual paradigms of opening the eye of the image (Sanskrit netra-pratihāpana ) and anointing it (Buddha-abhieka ). In Tibetan Buddhist consecrations the focus is on the establishment (Tibetan rab gnas ) of the Buddha-nature (Tibetan ye shes sems dpa', Sanskrit jñānasattva ) in the image. Tantric Buddhist consecrations involve placing consecrated objects such as scriptures and relics inside the image. In East Asia, some images are consecrated by placing the cremated ashes and other relics of a deceased Buddhist master in a cavity in the image. The periodic reconsecration of the wooden image of the Hindu deity Jagannātha in Orissa also involves transferring a sacred object from the old image into a cavity in the back of the new one. These rituals show the overlap between icons and relics.

Images as Divine Presence

All these rituals effect the transformation of the image from a humanly manufactured object into a receptacle or real presence of divinity. In the Mesopotamian case the image is understood to have been produced by the cooperation of humans and gods. In many traditions there are stories of images that either were created by divine beings, or else were spontaneously material incarnations of the deity him- or herself.

This dual character of the image, as at once humanly created and a body for the divine, is reflected in various ways in the rituals. In the Mesopotamian ritual priests use a wooden sword symbolically to cut off the hands of the artisans, whereas the artisans themselves swear an oath that the image was made not by them but by their craft deities. In the Buddhist ritual in Sri Lanka the act of painting in the eye of the image to open it is considered so dangerous that no one can look at the image during this process, and even the craftsman who performs the act must do it with a mirror. This would appear to indicate a powerful presence in the image, greater than anything within normal human experience.

It is often not clear whether the image is a representation of a particular deity, or is the deity itself. The language of hymns and rituals, as well as stories concerning images, allow for both interpretations. Some paintings of images clearly depict an image in a temple. In others it is unclear if the painter has depicted the deity or an image of the deity.

A further ambiguity seen in consecration rituals is whether the image is the sole abode of a particular deity, or the abode of a deity who equally resides in other images. While the language and actions of the consecration ritual usually indicate that the image has now become a permanent abode of the divine, the language and actions of some daily rituals simultaneously indicate an understanding that the ritual practitioner invokes the deity into the image and then dismisses the deity at the conclusion of the ritual. Most images are the subject of annual or periodic rituals of purification and renewal. In some cases these rituals consist of a set of purifications; in others the image itself is repaired, reornamented, or even, as in the case of the Jagannātha, entirely refabricated.

In some traditions, such as the Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Hindu, and Mahāyāna Buddhist, there is little or no theological problem caused by positing the presence of the deity, either in whole or as a partial incarnation, in the image. But other traditions deny this possibility. In Theravāda Buddhism and Jainism the Buddha and the Jina, respectively, are understood no longer to be present in this world in a tangible sense. These traditions engage in more complicated explanations of what, if anything, is present in the image, and tie the presence to the intentions and actions of the Buddha or Jina several thousand years ago. Christian theology also denies the possibility of real presence in an icon or image, reserving this (according to the Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and some Protestant traditions) to the sanctified bread and wine in the Eucharist. A careful analysis of rituals and stories in traditions that theoretically deny presence, however, shows that many people act as if there were a divine presence in the image, so scholars must beware placing too much emphasis on theological arguments of absence.

Images and miracles

Stories of images frequently recount miracles. Some miracle stories account for the existence of the image itself, as the image or deity arranges for a person, animal, or deity to find or receive the image and install it for worship in a shrine. For example, in the early sixteenth century the image of Śrīnāthjī that had earlier appeared from within the sacred Mount Govardhan summoned the Vaiava saint Vallabhācārya (Vallabha, 14791531) and revealed its true identity, and in 1672 the image, which had been removed from the danger of spoilage by the Mughal rulers, indicated its eventual home in Nathdwara by preventing the bullock cart carrying it from leaving that site. In 1531 in Guadalupe the Virgin Mary appeared to the Mayan Indian peasant Juan Diego and left an image of herself on a cloth. In circumstances where there is extensive iconoclastic opposition to and destruction of images, many miracle stories relate how images saved themselves from destruction and thereby verified the theological correctness of the cult of images. Miracle stories also recount ways that images have saved cities and towns from hostile armies. The Hodegetria icon of the Virgin Mary was displayed by the emperors of Constantinople to help protect the city from invaders. Politically and socially important images also become the source of attention for the state's enemies. The Hodegetria was sought by the Venetian conquerors of Constantinople in 1204, and later cut into four pieces by the Turkish conquerors of the city in 1453. While the Venetians were unable to locate and seize the Hodegetria icon, they did seize another icon of Mary, the Nicopeia, which had been on the chariot of the defeated commander of the Greek army, and transported it and many other images back to Venice for installation in the cathedral of San Marco.

Most miracle images come to have a distinct personality that is indicated by its name. Examples of these are the Emerald Buddha in Thailand, the Zenkōji icon of Amida, Japan, the Jain Śakheśvara Pārśvanātha in Gujarat, India, the Infant Jesus of Prague, the Hodegetria icon of the Virgin Mary, and the Vladimir Mother of God icon now in Saint Petersburg, Russia. These images are readily identifiable to members of the religious community. Replicas of these images are known by the same name, and the spread of such images creates a replication cult. Replication cults appear to be most prominent in Buddhism, Jainism, and Christianity. As Hinduism has spread outside of India in recent decades, many temples built in Europe and the United States represent a replication cult, such as the temple outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that replicates the temple of Vekateśvara in Tirupati in southern India. Related to replication cults is the widespread practice of pilgrims obtaining inexpensive replicas of icons to take home and place in a household shrine. These reproductions tend to be two dimensional more often than three dimensional, and rarely undergo formal consecration rites. Just as consecrated images exhibit an ambiguity concerning whether they are the sole and unique abodes of particular deities, so also replication images at once share in the presence of the original and point away from themselves to that unique and easily identifiable original.

Images and religious conversions

Images often play an important role in the spread of religions and in conversions. Chinese texts call Buddhism "the teaching of the [Buddha] images" (xiangjiao ). The introduction of Buddhism into the Korean kingdom of Silla in the early sixth century was effected by a miracle, as the severed head of a pro-image martyr spouted a fountain of pure white blood. The introduction of Buddhism into Japan later in the same century was also effected by a miracle, as an image that opponents had thrown into a canal arranged for a commoner to rescue it and in return revived his dead son. Images have also proved to be bridges between different religious communities, such as the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe in Mexico, of whom there were different but overlapping understandings by the indigenous Mayans and the conquering Spaniards.

Ritual Uses of Images

Consecrated images are the foci of many rituals. Viewing an image is itself an efficacious ritual in many traditions, which leads to the elaborate ornamentation of images. In many cases, such as Hindu, Jain, and Christian images, the ornamentation is so extensive that it almost totally covers the image, so the image's identity is established more by the ornamentation than by the underlying "original" image. In Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism images are offered flowers, incense, lamps, edibles, and other physical substances. In Hindu Vaiava traditions the deity is understood to consume the subtle essence of the offerings that are then returned to the person as prasāda, literally "divine grace." In contrast, Jain and Hindu Śaiva traditions explicitly restrict such transactions. Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain rituals also involve the anointing of images with water, milk, and other liquids in a ritual idiom that shares much with the consecration of kings. In Christianity devotion to an image is usually expressed through kissing it and praying in front of it.

Rituals can differ according to the deity symbolized or embodied by the image. In Jainism, the eight-part ritual offering (Sanskrit aaprakārī pūjā ) is done only to images of the enlightened and liberated Jinas, whereas images of unliberated deities receive a different number of offerings. The Eastern Orthodox theologian Saint John of Damascus distinguished between veneration (Greek proskinesis, Latin dulia ) directed toward a saint, and worship (Greek latreia, Latin latria ), which is appropriate only toward Jesus as God. This distinction was adopted by Catholic theologians, who added an intermediate rite of special veneration (hyperdulia ) in which the Virgin Mary was named the Mother of God.

Image cults often involve processions, in which an important image is periodically taken out of the shrine and processed around the village or neighborhood. In some cases it is the central image of a shrine that is processed. In other cases the main image remains permanently in the shrine, and a portable image stands in for it in the procession. Processions spread the power and blessings of the image throughout the geographical area encompassed by the procession. In traditions such as Hinduism before Indian independence, in which entry to many temples was prohibited to some lower castes, the procession also allows access to the image on the part of the total population.

Vows taken before an image may have the same binding significance as those taken before the deity or a religious leader. In the Jain tradition, for example, a person should be initiated into monkhood by another monk, but several twentieth-century Digambara monks initiated themselves in front of Jina images. Shingon Buddhist monks in medieval Japan also performed self-ordinations in front of Buddha images to start new monastic lineages. Buddhist monks in many traditions perform rites of confession in front of Buddha images.

Commissioning and Making of Images

The most obvious reason people commission images for installation in shrines is devotion to and faith in the deity represented by the image, although in the case of replication cults this devotion may be directed to the particular icon as much as to the deity. This devotion may be a generalized response to the deity on the part of the donor, or it may be motivated by a request from the deity or other miraculous event. In many traditions the donation of images earns religious merit for the donor. Images are donated as the result of vows, in which a person pledges to donate an image in response to the fulfillment of a particular desire for health, success, or other form of well-being. Images can be donated to enhance the social prestige of the donor. This intention is often underscored by an inscription or other testimonial, such as inclusion of a portrait of the donor in the painting or sculpture, that publicly links the image to the donor's name.

In many cultures images are made by hereditary craftsmen. In India there is no requirement that the craftsmen be of the same religious tradition, so the Vaiava stone carvers of Jaipur also make images for Śaivas, goddess worshipers, and Jains, and in some places in India nonconsecrated images are even made by Muslims. In other traditions there is an expectation that the craftsman be within the same tradition, for the making of a religious image, especially one to be consecrated, requires a higher degree of moral purity or spiritual insight than making a nonreligious image. In some Tibetan Tantric esoteric traditions the painters of thangkas are expected to have taken formal initiation in the cult of the deity. Old Believers of the Russian Orthodox Church said that the only way to be sure that an icon was not actually an icon of the antichrist was to insist that icon painters live in a state of near-monastic spirituality and simplicity. Painters of Greek Orthodox icons are also expected to be in a condition of heightened reverence, for icon painting is understood not as a form of artistic self-expression, but as an act in imitation of the first image of Christ, the icon "made without hands" (Greek acheiropoietos ) or cloth true portrait (Greek mandylion ) made when Christ imprinted the features of his face on a cloth.

Iconoclasm and Justifications of Images

Traditions that devote extensive theological and ritual attention to images almost always generate countermovements in criticism or opposition to images. The destruction of images (iconoclasm) is oftentimes accompanied by criticisms of other aspects of the material culture of the religion, of priestly hierarchies with special prerogatives and extensive powers, and of theological decentralizing through either polytheism or the development of cults of multiple subsidiary deities or saints. In some cases, as in the critiques of the Ārya Samāj in Hinduism, the Sthānakavāsīs and Terāpanthīs in Jainism, and Lutherans in Christianity, iconoclasm is nonviolent and aims at convincing people to ignore and eventually reject images. In other cases, such as the Christian Iconoclastic Controversy of the eighth and ninth centuries and the Calvinist Reformation, the iconoclasm was more violent, with extensive destruction of images. Iconoclastic movements also lead to the development of self-conscious defenses of images and the cult of images. Saint John of Damascus and Saint Theodore of Studion articulated the Orthodox Christian theology of the image during the Iconoclastic Controversy, the Council of Trent confirmed the Catholic theology of images in response to the Protestant Reformation, and Mūrtipūjaka Jain thinkers developed their philosophy of images in response to the Sthānakavāsī critiques. Iconoclastic opposition to images can also come from outside a tradition. It can be physically nonviolent, as in the case of the Christian polemics against Hindu idols in nineteenth- and twentieth-century India, or it can result in the violent overthrow of images as witnessed most recently in 2001 by the destruction of the Buddha images at Bamiyan in Afghanistan by the Taliban.

See Also

Iconography; Icons; Idolatry.


The literature on images and icons is extensive, with significant contributions from historians of religion, art historians, and anthropologists. The following bibliography includes the most recent and authoritative sources, each of which contains further extensive bibliographies.

Barasch, Moshe. Icon: Studies in the History of an Idea. New York, 1992.

Belting, Hans. Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Chicago, 1994.

Bentor, Yael. Consecration of Images and Stūpas in Indo-Tibetan Tantric Buddhism. Leiden, 1996.

Besançon, Alain. The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm. Translated by Jane Marie Todd. Chicago, 2000.

Camille, Michael. The Gothic Idol: Ideology and Image-Making in Medieval Art. Cambridge, U.K., 1989.

Cormack, Robin. Painting the Soul: Icons, Death Masks, and Shrouds. London, 1997.

Cort, John E. Jains in the World: Religious Values and Ideology in India. New York, 2001.

Davis, Richard H. Lives of Indian Images. Princeton, N.J., 1997.

Davis, Richard H., ed. Images, Miracles, and Authority in Asian Traditions. Boulder, Colo., 1998.

Dick, Michael B., ed. Born in Heaven, Made on Earth: The Making of the Cult Image in the Ancient Near East. Winona Lake, Ind., 1999.

Eck, Diana L. Darśan: Seeing the Divine Image in India. 3d ed. New York, 1998.

Eckel, Malcolm David. To See the Buddha: A Philosopher's Quest for the Meaning of Emptiness. Princeton, N.J., 1992.

Eire, Carlos M. N. War against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin. Cambridge, U.K., 1986.

Faure, Bernard. Visions of Power: Imagining Medieval Japanese Buddhism. Translated by Phyllis Brooks. Princeton, N.J., 1996.

Freedberg, D. The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response. Chicago, 1989.

Gombrich, Richard. "The Consecration of the Buddhist Image." Journal of Asian Studies 26 (1966): 2336.

Halbertal, Moshe, and Avishai Margalit. Idolatry. Translated by Naomi Goldblum. Cambridge, Mass., 1992.

Hiromitsu, Washizuka, and Roger Goepper. Enlightenment Embodied: The Art of the Japanese Buddhist Sculptor (7th14th Centuries). Translated and edited by Reiko Tomii and Kathleen M. Friello. New York, 1997.

Humphrey, Caroline, and James Laidlaw. The Archetypal Actions of Ritual: A Theory of Ritual Illustrated by the Jain Rite of Worship. Oxford, 1994.

Image and Ritual in Buddhism. Thematic issue of History of Religions 34, no. 3 (February 1995).

Kailasam, Bala, dir. Vaastu Marabu. Watertown, Mass., 1992.

Kieschnick, John. The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture. Princeton, N.J., 2003.

Kinnard, Jacob N. Imaging Wisdom: Seeing and Knowing in the Art of Indian Buddhism. Richmond, U.K., 1999.

McCallum, Donald F. Zenkōji and Its Icon: A Study in Medieval Japanese Religious Art. Princeton, N.J., 1994.

Miles, Margaret. Image as Insight: Visual Understanding in Western Christianity and Secular Culture. Boston, 1985.

Morse, Anne Nishimura, and Samuel Crowell Morse, eds. Object as Insight: Japanese Buddhist Art and Ritual. Katonah, N.Y. 1995.

Ouspensky, Léonid, and Vladimir Lossky. The Meaning of Icons. Translated by G. E. H. Palmer and E. Kadloubovsky. 2d ed. Crestwood, N.Y., 1982.

Padoux, André, ed. L'Image Divine: Culte et Méditation dans l'Hindouisme. Paris, 1990.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. Imago Dei: The Byzantine Apologia for Icons. Princeton, N.J., 1990.

Schopen, Gregory. Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers on the Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Texts of Monastic Buddhism. Honolulu, 1997.

Sharf, Robert H., and Elizabeth Horton Sharf, eds. Living Images: Japanese Buddhist Icons in Context. Stanford, Calif., 2001.

Shepherd, Rupert, and Robert Maniura, eds. Depicted Bodies and Present Souls. London, 2004.

Strickmann, Michel. Mantras et Mandarins: Le Bouddhisme Tantrique en Chine. Paris, 1996.

Swearer, Donald K. Becoming the Buddha: The Ritual of Image Consecration in Thailand. Princeton, N.J., 2004.

Tambiah, Stanley Jeyaraja. The Buddhist Saints of the Forest and the Cult of Amulets. Cambridge, U.K., 1984.

Tarasov, Oleg. Icon and Devotion: Sacred Spaces in Imperial Russia. Translated and edited by Robin Milner-Gulland. London, 2002.

Tripathi, G. C. "Navakalevara: The Unique Ceremony of the 'Birth' and the 'Death' of the 'Lord of the World.'" In The Cult of Jagannātha and the Regional Traditions of Orissa, edited by Anncharlott Eschmann, Hermann Kulke, and Gaya Charan Tripathi, pp. 223264. New Delhi, 1978.

Waghorne, Joanne Punzo, and Norman Cutler, eds. Gods of Flesh/Gods of Stone: The Embodiment of Divinity in India. Chambersburg, Pa., 1985.

John E. Cort (2005)