Images: Veneration of Images

views updated


The veneration of images involves humans or other subjects showing respect and homage to objects that visually represent, point to, or embody sacred beings or realities held to be especially worthy of honor. While such practices have been disputed in many religious traditions and decisively rejected by a few, the veneration of images has been a remarkably widespread form of ritual practice throughout history in many parts of the world.

The English terms used here, veneration and image, both derive from Latin, but they may be adequately used to translate such indigenous terms as the Indic mūrtipūjā. Deriving from the same etymological root as Venus, goddess of beauty and love, veneration refers both to feelings of deep respect and reverence toward some person or thing and to practices by which that respect and reverence are demonstrated or enacted. These practices may be bodily gestures, physical offerings, verbal expressions, emotional dispositions, or mental presentations. The subjects making these acts of veneration are most often humans but may also include animals, semidivine beings, divinities, other images, or even nature itself. Recipients may be venerable living persons like kings or religious teachers, remains or relics of venerable persons, images of divine or human beings, other objects considered particularly sacred such as holy books, or invisible presences. The range of religious practices of veneration then is very broad, and the veneration of images is only one part of this larger category.

The term image comes from Latin imago, which denotes an imitation, a copy, a likeness, among several other meanings. In its earliest English usage, image referred to a fabricated imitation or representation of the external form of an object and applied particularly to sculpted figures of saints and divinities that were treated as objects of religious devotion. As an ideal type, the veneration of images may be taken as venerative acts directed toward physical icons that represent divinities or other sacred beings anthropomorphically. However, divine beings are notoriously multiform, and they are promiscuous in making themselves present in a great variety of objects. Not just sculpted images but paintings and drawings, abstract forms, diagrams, stones, trees, and other physical objects as well as mentally projected visualizations may serve as objects of veneration. More than simply signifying those beings, icons are often considered and honored as living beings, animated by the actual presence of the beings they represent.

In every ritual culture that engages with images, venerative practices take on a distinctive pattern in accord with the broader practices and premises of that tradition. Some ritual cultures may specify, for example, who is eligible to perform image worship according to criteria of birth, gender, age, initiatory status, or special training, whereas others leave the practice open to all devotees. Some may require that the worshiper undertake special preparations, such as physical purifications or mental concentration, before entering into worship, or that one wear special clothing. So too ritual cultures may prescribe how the image is to be prepared: its conception, fabrication, consecration, and regular maintenance as a venerated object. Ritual cultures may differ from one another as to the specific vocabulary of actions one should employ in venerating images and in the degree to which they formalize a prescribed etiquette of veneration. Religious traditions may develop distinctive theological understandings of the relationship of the image to the deity it represents, instantiates, or embodies. They may ascribe agencymoving, talking, miracle workingto the image or to the deity acting through it. Finally, different ritual cultures understand the efficacy of venerative practices in varied ways.

Widespread and varied as it is, the veneration of images has been a fiercely disputed practice. Even within ritual cultures strongly attached to the worship of images, adherents debate not only proper methods and understandings of such practices but also their ultimate value. Greek philosophers like Xenophanes and Heraclitus and Hindu ones like Śakara sought to deprecate or delegitimate the venerative practices of their own societies. In some cases religious traditions have defined themselves through a shared opposition to the worship of images. Around the sixth century bce Israelite prophets began to articulate a critique of the image-related practices of their Near Eastern neighbors, and this decisive break with image veneration subsequently became a defining feature of Judaism. Similar critiques were later deployed by the other Abrahamic monotheisms, Christianity and Islam, in their own moments of self-definition. Among all religions, Christians have shown perhaps the most complex historical ambivalence toward images, and this has led to several episodes of intense internal controversy and iconoclastic destruction.

Critiques of image worship originating with the Greeks and the Israelites have also had a decisive impact on the scholarly study of religion, as many scholars have observed. Earlier generations of comparative religionists constructed teleological schemes in which the veneration of images figured lower on an evolutionary scale than aniconic forms of religiosity. Others developed what Peter Brown calls "two-tiered" models, where intellectual elites allegedly detach themselves from such popular practices as the worship of images. More subtly, as Leo Oppenheim noted in 1964, a scholarly ambivalence toward "idols" has often led scholars away from the serious investigation of image veneration in other religious traditions and toward the study of religious practices considered more comprehensible and acceptable in Western terms.

Only in the last two decades of the twentieth century, with calls to "rematerialize" the study of religion, did the exploration of the veneration of images, in its great historical and ethnographic variety as well as its history of dispute, become a more central topic in the history of religions and related disciplines. In his wide-ranging study The Power of Images (1989), the art historian David Freedberg seeks to identify and substantiate an innate human responsiveness to the image. At the other pole, the intellectual historian Alain Besançon, in The Forbidden Image (2000), traces a common philosophical disposition toward the absolute underlying the history of Western opposition to images from the Greeks up to twentieth-century Russian painters. In between the iconophilic and the iconoclastic, many scholars working in particular religious traditions have begun to explore more deeply the multiplicity of image-venerating ritual cultures. Drawing on this scholarship, this article outlines several examples of historical traditions that have practiced the veneration of images. It is not intended as comprehensive, but it does aim to illustrate some of the variety this practice takes in different settings and some of the ways it has been disputed.


Among the earliest known religious images are numerous female figurines, commonly called Venuses, found in European, Asian, and Middle Eastern archaeological sites and dating to the late Paleolithic and Neolithic periods. Some scholars have seen these as icons in a widespread cult of the "Great Goddess" linked to fertility and the emergence of agriculture. While they are intriguing as possible evidence for the ancient veneration of images, indications of how or even if these objects were employed ritually remains sketchy.

The earliest full evidence for image veneration comes from the early urban civilizations of Mesopotamia. Archaeological evidence, inscriptional records, and later texts all point to a ritual culture centered around images starting as early as the Sumerian period of circa 2500 bce and continuing for nearly two thousand years. Within the Mesopotamian ritual culture, images that represented the gods were consecrated through a rite of "mouth opening," then were maintained inside temples with regular offerings, and were processed outside their temples for annual festival celebrations. The best documented of these involve deities closely associated with city-states, such as Marduk in Babylonia and Anu in Uruk. Cults of these palladial deities were highly institutionalized and closely related to the political order.

In Mesopotamia the key ritual by which a human-made wooden statue was transformed into an animate divine icon was known as "opening the mouth" (mīs pī). As cited by Christopher Walker and Michael B. Dick in "The Mesopotamian mīs pī Ritual," "The statue cannot smell incense, drink water, or eat food without Opening the Mouth." Motifs of gestation and birth appear throughout the mouth-opening rites, for the ritual sought to give birth to the living presence of the deity. Moreover the ritual distances the image itself from any suggestion of human fabrication. Artisans would have their hands symbolically cut off with a wooden sword, and they were required to swear that they had not created the image. Rather, they averred, the patron deities of their guild had done so.

Once consecrated, the image took its place on a pedestal in the temple, often located in an elevated part of the city. The wooden image would be plated with gold, dressed in sumptuous clothing, and adorned with jewelry. It would be surrounded by other images that composed the god's family and court, much as a king would sit in state surrounded by attendants. The daily services for such divine rulers were carried out by ritual specialists and consisted chiefly of elaborate feasts. At Uruk the god Anu ate twice a day. His meals, specified in detailed texts, included milk, beer, and other drinks; meat; bread; cake; fruit; and sweets. Musicians played during the repast, and priests burned incense to perfume the sanctum. After the god had eaten his fill of the offerings, the remainders were taken to the king as particularly potent nourishment. Receiving god's leftovers was a definite marker of royal status.

Kings were also present in the temples in the form of royal images. Starting around 2100 to 2000 bce, consecrated images of ruling kings were introduced as both venerators of the gods and recipients of veneration. A standing figure of the king might offer worship to the seated image of the god, while a seated image of the king could receive worship from his human acolytes.

In addition to the regular patterns of daily worship, the divine images celebrated special festivals. Central to many of these were public processions. If cultic practices within the temple were restricted to the religious and political elite, processions were occasions for much broader participation. The image-deities would leave their private temple-palaces and journey through the streets of the city to a festival temple in the countryside. On such occasions the more general public veneration reasserted the special relationship between deity and city-state.


In the Iliad, Homer describes Hekabe's veneration of an image. The Trojan warrior Hector, Hekabe's son, leaves the battle to ask the women and elders of the city to solicit the aid of the gods. Hekabe calls together the women and then selects her most beautiful brocaded robe as a presentation. The women process to the temple of the goddess Athena, on the Troy acropolis. The temple priestess Theano allows them to enter, and while the women cry out aloud, Theano takes Hekabe's robe and places it on the seated image's knees. The priestess petitions Athena. If the goddess favors the Trojans by "breaking the spear" of their fierce opponent Diomedes, she prays, they will sacrifice twelve young heifers on her altar. Athena evidently does not agree to the terms, for as Homer relates, she turns away her head. Deities may be swayed by offerings but remain ultimately autonomous in their powers.

From Homer's time through the classical period (roughly 800300 bce), the Greek gods and goddesses were present in anthropomorphic forms in myriad temples throughout the Greek world. Some ancient icons, like the famous olive wood Athena Polias in Athens, were said to have "fallen from the sky," whereas others were explicitly associated with their human sculptors, such as the Athena Parthenos, also on the Acropolis in Athens, made by the celebrated Pheidias (between 447 and 438 bce). The purpose of images was to make the gods visible to humans and to facilitate interactions between them. As Pythagoras is supposed to have said, "People who enter a temple and see the images of the god close up get a different mind" (Burkert, 1988). Greeks interacted with their gods in three ritual ways: sacrifice, votive offerings, and prayer.

Of these, animal sacrifice was preeminent in Greek ritual culture. Sacrificial altars were placed before the images in their temples. However, sacrifice does not require image or temple. A sacrifice offered on an altar in the open air could just as easily reach the gods dwelling on Mount Olympus. Greeks also made offerings of more permanent objects in association with vows. As Hekabe presented her brocaded gown to Athena, petitioners offered all sorts of valuable items to the gods in their temples: garments, vessels, weapons acquired as war booty, bronze tripods, gold bricks, statuettes, and votive tablets. Votive offerings (anathema ) were showpieces meant to delight the recipient deity as well as to impress other human visitors to the temple. The gods and goddesses evidently enjoyed seeing themselves, for many of the tablets featured their representations along with the donor in the act of prayer or sacrifice. Greek temples often filled up with these showpieces, so much so that it might become difficult to see the deity. The sumptuous wealth deposited in the temples also made it necessary to protect them from thieves and looters. A common depiction of the temple priestess shows her holding a large key.

Beyond these special acts of worship, scholars know something about the ordinary etiquette of the Greek cult of images. Water basins near the temple entry indicate that physical purification was a prerequisite to entering. Once inside, worshipers greeted the divine image by falling to their knees and sought physical contact by touching or kissing it. Bodily acts of bathing and dressing the image were common venerative practices. Ritual specialists mediated these acts of worship between humans and the gods, as the priestess Theano did with Hekabe's exchange with Athena. Unfortunately, however, Greek ritual specialists did not leave behind records of their priest craft. Scholars do not know exactly how they performed the ritual of installation for new images or the daily liturgical routines for maintaining deities in their livelihood. And while Greek authors copiously recorded the mythological deeds of their gods and goddesses, they wrote little about the theological conception of the divine image. Much of what is written moreover is the work of critics.

To subvert the image worship of their fellow Greeks, the pre-Socratic philosophers Xenophanes (c. 560478 bce) and Heraclitus (c. 540480 bce) presented two primary arguments. According to Xenophanes, humans project their own attributes, with all their human flaws, onto the gods. If horses had hands and could create images of the gods, he argued, gods would appear as horses. Images are projections of humanity, not true representations of the divine. Heraclitus focuses on the materiality of images. To pray to a sculpted image is like trying to hold a conversation with a house; the image does not hear and does not give. Later Greek satirists picked up on the theme of an image's inanimate helplessness. So in parodies like "The Battle of the Frogs and Mice," Athena complains that mice are nibbling away at her garments and fouling up her garlands. It is not possible to say how broadly these critical views were shared among Greeks of the classical period, though it is certain that many continued to address prayers to images and to present new robes to Athena.


The earliest Indic inscription to refer to a venerative icon, dating to the first century bce, concerns an image of Mahāvīra called the "Kalinga Jina." The inscription reports how this icon, evidently of political import, had previously been taken away by the Mauryan ruler and was now recovered and ritually installed by Kharavela, ruler of the Kalinga territory. In addition to inscriptional evidence, archeological finds and early Jain texts indicate that the Jains developed and maintained a flourishing culture centering around the worship of Jina images in the early centuries ce.

Early Jain texts prescribe worship practices similar to those later classified as the eightfold pūjā, which is still the central form of worship among the majority Śvetāmbara Jain community. The eightfold pūjā is an individual form of image veneration. After first purifying himself or herself, a Jain worshiper enters the temple, approaches the image of worship, honors it with mantras, and circumambulates it in a clockwise direction. Worshipers mark their foreheads with sandalwood paste and then offer the eight components of worship. The first three offerings are applied directly to the body of the image: worshipers pour bathing water over it, smear marks of sandalwood paste on its limbs, and adorn it with flowers. The following five offerings are made in front of the image, not onto it. Worshipers offer incense, lamps, broken rice grains, food, and fruit before the image. After these physical offerings (dravya-pūjā ) have been given, worshipers should perform mental veneration (bhāva-pūjā ), an inward contemplation of the exemplary qualities of the Jina.

Among Jains, the dominant understanding of these venerative practices is reflexive. Because the Jain Tīrthakaras are fully liberated beings who do not engage in the world after liberation, Jain worshipers do not expect them to inhabit their icons, and they do not expect them actually to consume food or fruit. Nor do they seek direct aid from the Tīrthakaras in their lives. Jains view the veneration of images as an act of renunciation that is valuable for a worshiper in the shedding of karmic bondage. During each offering, worshipers recite verses that interpret the actions in terms of key Jain values and the worshipers' own states. While offering food, worshipers identify the Jina as the "noneating one" and express a wish that through renunciation they might also reach this state.

This austere conception of image veneration did not prevent Jains from developing an opulent temple culture, which reached its apogee in the image-filled hilltop temple cities of Shatrunjay and Mount Abu. Nor did it preclude lively devotional practices, such as the Jain laywomen who sing hymns of praise to accompany rituals of worship.

However, the issue of image worship was central to the primary sectarian split among the Śvetāmbara Jains. Starting from the critique of the fifteenth-century monk Lonka, the faction that came to be called the Sthānakvāsins argued that image worship is a feature of a corrupt world age and advocated instead mental worship and the veneration of living ascetics. The majority group remaining loyal to their image practices came to be called Murtipujakas, the image worshipers.


Buddhist traditions often ascribe the first images of the Śākyamuni Buddha to the founder's own lifetime. When the Buddha left Kausambi to teach elsewhere, the story goes, King Udayana requested that the monk Maudgalyāyana supervise the fabrication of a stand-in image so that the king might continue to pay respects to the teacher during his absence. Thus was made the "Udayana Buddha." When Śākyamuni returned to Kausambi, the animated image rose to honor its prototype. But the Buddha understood the pedagogic value of the image, for he honored it in return and predicted that it would play a great role in disseminating his teachings.

Modern historians of Buddhism have usually discounted such claims. While the question of the "origin of the Buddha image" has long been a topic of vigorous scholarly debate, a general consensus ascribes the earliest three-dimensional images of the Buddha to the period of the Kushans, who ruled during the first through the third centuries ce. The innovative step of fabricating physical icons of the Buddha was taken, more or less simultaneously, in two centers of the Kushan dominion, the Gandhara region of northern Pakistan and the city of Mathura.

Whenever the Buddha image did appear historically, the etiquette of veneration was already well established within Buddhist ritual culture. The earliest recipient of such honor was the Śākyamuni Buddha himself. Early Buddhist texts are replete with accounts of humans, animals, semidivine Nāgas and Yakas, divinities like Indra and Brāhma, and even nature itself demonstrating veneration to the body (śarīra ) of the Buddha through acts of prostration, circumambulation, flower garlanding, gift giving, and reciting of verbal praises. With the Buddha's parinirvāa and cremation, Buddhist venerative practices shifted to the Buddha's physical remains (also called śarīra ) and other objects or places associated with this life. His relics were interred in moundlike stupas. These became flourishing cult centers of Buddhist veneration at least by the time of the Mauryan emperor Aśoka (r. 260230 bce). Worshipers honored the stupas, enlivened by the presence of Buddha's remains, much the same way they had once honored the teacher: with prostrations and circumambulations, flowers and incense, banners and parasols, and food offerings. More ambitious donors might arrange to have the entire stupa decorated with lamps or to have musicians serenade it. These appear to have remained relatively spontaneous and unstructured practices, because there are few liturgical prescriptions within the early Buddhist literature.

The introduction of the Buddha image offered another way of making the Buddha present. But there were debates over the degree of this presence. Worshipers might address the image as if it were the living Buddha, but as with the Jains, they generally understood the efficacy of veneration to reside not in the recipient but in the karmic benefits of the pious act itself. The image of the Buddha was a particularly fertile "field of merit" in which to sow the seeds of generous acts, but the Buddha did not directly reward such acts.

On the other hand, by the Gupta period in the fourth and fifth centuries ce, inscriptions point to a greatly enhanced sense of the Buddha's presence. During this period Indian monastic layouts regularly set aside a special cell, facing the entrance, where the Buddha image resided. Monks were assigned to tend to the needs of the Buddha, and endowments provided for the regular supply of flowers, incense, oil lamps, and other requisites to the Buddha. Moreover the inscriptions speak of the Buddha as the owner of the monastic property. Clearly the Buddha image became more fully established as a real living presence in the institutional life of the monastery. This significant change in Buddhist ritual culture may correspond to the introduction of new, more expansive philosophical ideas about the nature of Buddha's personhood.

Buddhist image practices figured prominently in the spread of Buddhism from India to other parts of Asia. According to tradition, Emperor Ming (r. 5875 ce) of the Han dynasty had a dream of a radiant golden Buddha flying through the air and promptly sent emissaries to India to bring back Buddhist Scriptures and the famous Udayana Buddha. Images were so central to the early implantation of Buddhism that the Chinese referred to Buddhism as the "religion of images." The wealth of Buddhist imagery and venerative practices appear to have stimulated other competing ritual cultures of China, including Daoists and Confucians, to integrate some aspects of image veneration.


Modern Hinduism may well feature more venerated images per capita that any other religious tradition. This was not always the case, though. In early India the primary forms of public religion receiving elite patronage were aniconic. The Vedas (composed roughly 1500300 bce) prescribed an elaborate program of fire sacrifices to deities who remained invisible. The earliest images of recognizable Hindu deities date from the Kushan period, contemporary with the early Jain and Buddhist images, and the earliest texts describing protocols for image worship appeared still later, around the fifth and sixth centuries ce. By the early medieval period (7001200 ce), however, Hindu elites and ritual specialists had positively embraced the icon as an instrument of religious practice, and the veneration of images became the normative ritual culture of the public sphere.

In the early medieval period Hindu priests articulated new theologies and elaborate ritual programs for their divine images, and their formulations have continued to be influential over many centuries. For these Hindus, images are understood as one of the means by which a deity who is both transcendent and immanent makes himself or herself present and accessible to human votaries. Vaiava theologians speak of Viu's "incarnation as an image," parallel to his other incarnations (avatāra ). Just as Viu manifests himself in human and animal bodies, so he can also enter into fabricated physical representations of himself.

Hindu image veneration places much emphasis on the act of seeing, known as darśana. A physical representation enables worshipers to see their god, who might otherwise remain beyond their ken, and the beauty of the divine body attracts their gaze and awakens their devotion. But the gaze is reciprocal; the god looks back. The key moment in consecrating a new Hindu image is not opening the mouth, as the Mesopotamians would have it, but opening the eyes. So Hindus often refer to the act of worship as "taking darśana," seeing and being seen by the deity present in the icon.

Hindu image veneration is offered daily, both by devout worshipers in private home shrines on their own behalf and by priests in public temples on behalf of the entire community. Prescriptions in medieval Śaiva priestly guides, for example, call for elaborate preparatory purifications. The worshiper, the place of worship, the icon, the substances to be offered, and even the mantras to be used in worship must all be purified. The priest approaches the primary icon, the abstract Śiva linga. Though Śiva is considered to be already present in the linga, the priest performs a detailed invocation, such that Śiva becomes "specially present" there for the duration of worship. At this point the offerings or services (upacāras ) that are the core of Hindu image veneration may begin.

Through these services, the worshiper treats the divine person present in the icon as an especially esteemed guest or as the sovereign lord of the cosmos. Priestly guides suggest that one may offer five, eight, sixteen, or as many as twenty-five services, depending on one's resources and ambitions. Among these services are many of the same offerings employed in Jain and Buddhist worship, such as flowers, incense, lights, prostrations, hymns, and food. If they share some of the venerative vocabulary, though, Indic ritual cultures have different ideas about many details, such as food offerings. According to Viu worshipers, that god partakes of the subtle portion of the food, and the substantive remains of Viu's meal, transfigured by contact with the divine, are then distributed to the community of worshipers as a physical manifestation of Viu's grace, called prasāda. Śaiva Siddhāntins also believe Śiva eats the subtle portion of food offerings, but they consider food that has come into contact with Śiva too powerful for human consumption. In Śaiva temples leftovers are passed on to another image, one of Śiva's semidivine followers, who is better able to handle them.

In medieval India, with its great temples, image veneration became the most visible manifestation of Hindu religiosity but not without opposition from other Hindus. Those loyal to the earlier Vedic practices of aniconic sacrifice fought a long discursive battle against the veneration of images. Others, like the devotional Vīraśaivas, satirized the cult of images in favor of more spontaneous and unmediated expressions of devotion (bhakti ). Still others, like the nondualist philosopher Śakara (c. 700750 ce), advocated more "subtle" forms of practice as superior, such as "mental pūjā " offered through meditation to a nonsubstantive and imperceptible Supreme.

Hindus have selectively adapted new technologies to their practices of image veneration. New print technologies were adopted in the late nineteenth century and the twentieth century to enable the mass reproduction of inexpensive lithographic "God pictures," which pilgrims can purchase and incorporate into their home shrines. Large temples employ monitors to televise the venerated image so that a larger audience may partake of darśana. And with the development of the Internet, prominent Hindu temples in India have developed websites so that far-flung worshipers can offer cyber veneration.

Over the centuries, despite internal and external critiques, Hindus have maintained their practices of image veneration, modifying and transforming them along the way. When Hindus emigrated from India in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, images traveled with them. The multitude of new temples that Hindus constructed throughout the United States and the United Kingdom in the late twentieth century demonstrate the flexibility and vitality of Hindu venerative practices.

Incas and Andeans

In the fifteenth century and the early sixteenth century the Incas of Cuzco (Peru) built a large empire, subordinating more than one hundred different ethnic groups over an area along the Pacific Coast and through the Andean Highlands. Within this newly established empire the Incas promoted a central state religion. They recognized a hierarchy of gods, in which the highest were Viracocha, the creator, and the Sun, first descendent of Viracocha. This imperial cult, however, coexisted uneasily with the ritual traditions of the conquered cultures, who had their own divine figures and practices. Both the Incas and their subjects venerated images.

In the center of Cuzco the Incas constructed a massive temple for the Sun, whom the Incas took as their own ancestor. Within the temple the Sun appeared in the form of a young boy made of pure gold. The image was put to bed at night and awakened in the morning. At noon women brought him his meal: a dish of maize, a serving of meat, and a cup of maize beer. After the Sun had consumed what he would of his meal, the remainders were burned in a silver cauldron, and the beer was poured into a drain through which it nourished the earth. Officiants then raised their hands to the Sun and proclaimed their gratitude. Normally access to the inner sanctum was highly restricted, and ritual officiants observed high degrees of personal purification before entering. On special occasions, however, the Sun image was brought out into the central square of the city and received his meal in a more public setting.

The Incas constructed new Sun temples in areas they brought under control, and they required their subjects to show veneration to the Sun. Often these Sun temples competed directly with the shrines of local deities, called huacas. In Cajamarca on the coast, for instance, one of the most powerful of the huacas, named Pachacámac, occupied a massive pyramid temple. The Incas built a still taller temple to the Sun next to it. Local stories reflected the tension that subsisted between these two cult deities in which Pachacámac reluctantly ceded his preeminent status.

Huacas had once been superhuman beings walking the earth, and they were responsible for creating the landscape. But after completing their creative deeds or through conflict with another deity, the huacas turned into stone, sometimes in icon form and other times simply as prominent parts of the natural landscape. In such physical forms they lived on and continued to play a role in human affairs. Huacas were unpredictable. They were benevolently responsible for the health and prosperity of the community, but they might also bring disease, earthquakes, and crop failure. Therefore it was wise to attend to their needs assiduously.

Pachacámac resided in his pyramid in the form of a wooden pole whose top was carved in the figure of a man. Here too access was strictly limited. Priests fasted for a year before they could enter the inner sanctum. Properly attended and solicited, this deity, like many other huacas, could speak. Pilgrims from throughout the area brought him gifts of gold and textiles, conveyed their messages to Pachacámac through the priests, and hoped to receive an answer. In addition to the local huacas, Andeans also venerated special lineage gods in icon form and household deities who appeared as small animal-shaped stones.

The Inca Sun, the more localized huacas and other deities, and their icons were all part of the complex ritual culture of the Andean region that the Spanish conquistadores encountered in 1532. As Catholics, the Spaniards brought with them a different attitude toward images.

Critics of the Image: Jews, Christians, and Muslims

Most image-venerating ritual cultures coexist with their critics, as shown, for the public worship of images seldom appears as an uncontested practice. It is possible also to trace a more sustained critique of images and their veneration in the West, deriving from both Greek and Israelite sources. Early Christian critics of the image drew on Greek writings as well as the Hebrew Bible in formulating their positions, and later the Islamic founders adapted them to their own theological vision.

Scholarship suggests that the strong monotheism and vigorous prohibition of image veneration in the Hebrew Bible may reflect the triumph of one group of "Yahweh-alone" partisans among the Israelites in the wake of the disastrous events of the sixth century bce. After the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 bce and the debilitating exile, this group advanced its own vision of the Israelite past and its notion of a proper Israelite ritual culture by exercising a dominant role in editing the Bible.

The Hebrew Bible opposes the veneration of images in two main ways. One is through direct prohibition. The Israelites were surrounded by ritual cultures, such as those of Mesopotamia and Egypt, that represented their gods in image form. In the second commandment Yahweh distinguishes himself as the God who refuses to be so represented. An insistence on Yahweh's exclusive divinity in the first commandment coupled with the prohibition of images defines a distinctive identity for the Israelites and helps insure that they will not assimilate the cults of their neighbors. The second method of articulating opposition was through prophetic parody, such as those of Jeremiah and Isaiah. Jeremiah carefully describes all the steps in fabricating an icon: the cutting of the tree in the forest, carving the wood into an image, decorating it with silver and gold, and nailing it into place. However, he asserts, these practices are false. With its material roots, the image is "only wood." There is no breath of life in it. Like Heraclitus, the Hebrew prophets argued that an image of wood or stone, fashioned by human hands, necessarily remained inanimate and could not serve as a vehicle for a god like Yahweh.

Early Christians, true to their Jewish legacy, maintained a critical attitude toward the use of images. Paul's encounter with the Greek images of Athens, recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, serves as a paradigm. In Athens, Paul was revolted by the sight of "a city given over to idolatry." However, in his speech to the Areopagus council, he did find one monument to praise: an empty altar inscribed "To an Unknown God." In Paul's view this unrepresented divinity is the one the Christians worship. God does not reside in human-made shrines or images, because God is not dependent in any way on human hands. Following Paul, the early Christian writers of the second and third centuries ce attacked image veneration from several different angles. Justin Martyr (c. 100165 ce) argued that images are without souls and cannot represent God. As essentially demonic forms, they constitute an insult to God. Tertullian (c. 155220 ce) focused on the social dangers of idolatry and held that image veneration could unleash unwelcome emotional outbursts. Moreover in Tertullian's view idolatry was an index of pagan culture, and it was crucial for Christians to distinguish themselves from the dominant Roman culture.

A more complex attitude began to develop in the fourth century ce, as Christianity itself became the dominant culture. With Emperor Constantine's conversion around 313 ce, the Christian movement became an imperial religion. Whereas early Christians had been criticized for their impoverished ritual culture, with no altars and no temples, now Christians began to develop their own architecture and art. They also destroyed competing pagan images, such as those of Zeus. The introduction of a Christian representational art was also criticized from within. Augustine (354430 ce) disapproved of those who would look for Christ on painted walls rather than in his written word. Other Christians looked for ways to accommodate the didactic value of Christian institutional imagery with the negative attitude toward images. Most influential was the distinction articulated by Pope Gregory I (r. 590604 ce). Images are placed in churches, he ruled, not for worship, but solely for instructing the minds of the ignorant. Christian images would be officially educational and not venerative in purpose.

Gregory's distinction provided one important legitimation but did not finally resolve the issue for Christians. The greatest debate, usually known as the Iconoclastic Controversy, began in the next century. By the eighth century the veneration of iconspainted images of holy persons regarded as particularly powerful and efficacioushad become widespread throughout churches and monasteries. Worshipers prostrated before the images, kissed them, and solicited their aid. During the same period the Byzantine Empire suffered political reversals at the hands of an expanding Ummayad Islamic polity, and this sense of threat from a more iconophobic religious community contributed to the vigor of the debate. Some argued that God was using Islam to punish Christians for having fallen into idolatry.

Similar to the Israelites, early Muslims insisted first on the principle of tauhid, the exclusive divinity of Allāh. Images pose a threat to that divine hegemony, for there is always a danger that humans may come to venerate those images rather than Allāh. Moreover Muslims identified Allah as sole creator. The adīth traditions therefore especially condemn those who make images, because they seem to be laying claim to the creative prerogative of Allah. Later Muslims in some settings adopted more relaxed attitudes toward representational art, but the Islamic prohibition on the veneration of images remained firm.

Against this political background, Emperor Leo III initiated the controversy in 726 ce with an effort to purge from the church "the idolatry of image worship." The iconodules, notably John of Damascus (675-749), responded by defending the "relative worship" of images without idolatry. As representations of the material appearances of Jesus, Mary, and saints in the flesh, their images could suggest or evoke for viewers spiritual realities that lay beyond. Leo's next move was more forceful. In 730 ce he ordered all holy images removed from churches and all recalcitrant bishops removed from their positions. This put Christians in a new position altogether, for it required that they destroy not only pagan images but also statues and paintings of Jesus Christ and revered saints. The battle was joined for several decades, with repeated episodes of iconoclasm and persecution. Finally, in 787 ce the iconodule Irene (acting as regent for her son Constantine and later as empress) convened a council at Nice with monks sympathetic to her cause and issued a new decree. Holy images of Christ, Mary, and the saints may be set up in churches and honored with relative worship, though the highest form of veneration would be reserved for the imageless divine nature alone.

The unstable position of "relative worship" did not prevent further debates among the Christians. However, it did provide a reasonable legitimation for the icon-veneration practices as they developed in the Eastern Church, and it also laid the groundwork for the main institutional position of Western Christianity during the medieval period. With the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the battle of images surfaced once again. Starting in the 1520s Christians in many parts of Europe acted to reform their ritual culture by entering churches and cleansing them of images and other sacerdotal objects.

Conquest, Centralization, and Accommodation

Images and the ritual practices of veneration do not exist in isolation. They enter into larger religious debates about divinity and the world and into political struggles as well. In Kings and Councillors (1936), the anthropologist A. M. Hocart observed that religious iconoclasm and political centralization have gone hand in hand throughout history. In Hocart's genealogy of iconoclasm, the Egyptian king Akhenaton (fourteenth century bce) is the earliest recorded opponent of image veneration and the first to seek a single unified divine cult. This went with Akhenaton's attempts to unite Egypt politically. Hocart followed his observation into the twentieth century and British-ruled Fiji, where the centralizing agenda of the Colonial Office sought to suppress the dispersed icons of the local spirit cults. Powers committed to colonial control have oftenthough by no means alwaysopposed the image venerating ritual cultures of the colonized.

In the Andes region, when the Incas conquered their neighbors, they extended their state cult into the region, but this did not entail the suppression of local huaca cults. Both groups of icons could live side by side, albeit in a hierarchical relationship. When the Spanish arrived in 1532, however, they proceeded along different lines. The public extinction of all prominent sites of indigenous idolatry was a key element in the policy of conquest. In Cuzco they systematically looted the Temple of the Sun, desecrated it, and converted it into a monastery. In Cajamarca, they broke down the door that kept Pachacámac sequestered and erected a tall cross on his shrine.

The Spanish victory in the Andes was rapid, and the Inca Sun images in their highly visible temples quickly succumbed. Many of the more deeply rooted local huacas were not so easy to conquer. By the seventeenth century the veneration of huacas was still widely practiced, though now their rites were performed in secret. Believing the process of Christianization incomplete, church authorities initiated a series of inquisitions to extirpate idolatry. Their task had become complex, however, for the boundaries of what were initially distinct ritual cultures had become permeable. Many Andean peoples viewed Christianity not as an exclusive salvific message but as one new source of spiritual powers among many. They incorporated Catholic practices with older local ones, even as the old ways were adapted to fit new circumstances. Ritual healing specialists might maintain icons of Jesus Christ and Mary along with those of huacas and lineage gods to employ their powers in curing the sick. Christian celebrants might venerate the local huacas with offerings of guinea pig and llama blood at the start of the feast of Saint Peter.

To the inquisitors all this appeared as idolatry. They collected the idols and publicly destroyed them. But even as they did so, other churchmen recognized that the links their parishioners made between Catholic statuary and their long-standing deities enhanced religious devotion. Statues of the Virgin Mary might take on characteristics of Pachacámac, Andean goddess of the earth, and the Inca Sun might lend its rays to Jesus' halo. Devotees believed that notable images like the Virgin of Copacabana performed miracles and made pilgrimages to solicit their help. The new venerative practices might not meet Pope Gregory's principle concerning pedagogic imagery only nor qualify with John of Damascus as relative worship. Yet out of these mutual accommodations Catholic churchmen and local Andean converts constructed a new ritual culture in which the veneration of significant Christian images played an important role.

Veneration in the Secular World

At first glance modern secular cultures might not seem hospitable to the religious veneration of images. Yet scholars have persuasively argued that venerative practices of a ritual character may be found in many secular locations.

In the context of national struggle, a religious image like the Virgin of Copacabana in Bolivia may come to be revered as a popular icon of nationhood without leaving her cathedral. Political elites in many secular polities generate their own iconographies of the nation in the form of flags, statues, and monuments intended to symbolize or embody founders, leaders, and national ideals. Examples range from the ubiquitous personal imagery and the extraordinary Victory Arch erected by addām usayn in Iraq to public monuments like the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore in the United States. Such national icons have their own venerative rites: ceremonial dedications, pilgrimage itineraries, and on-site guides who enforce proper decorum and instruct viewers on their meaning. Likewise acts of iconoclasm directed at these instantiations of the nation, from flag burning to the toppling of usayn's statue during the U.S. invasion of 2003, take on an iconic significance of resistance or conquest.

Visitors to modern art museums may also recognize that they are entering settings for secular ritual. In these temples viewers are asked to observe respectful conduct and to pay close, contemplative visual attention to the images they encounter there. Indeed many of the objectsparticularly those in the Mesopotamian, classical, medieval, and non-Western sectionsformerly resided in religious institutions, where some of them received their proper ritual offerings. Now relocated to the comprehensive institutions of the West, these same images are understood by new audiences to embody the collective artistic accomplishment of their cultures and of humanity as a whole. Museum viewers may hope for a transformative experience not through the intervention of Athena or Śiva but through a kind of communion with the artists and cultures of the collective human past.

See Also

Icons; Idolatry.


General comprehensive studies of image veneration are rare. David Freedberg, The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response (Chicago, 1989), is an ambitious attempt to explore a broad panorama of image-related practices. Alain Besançon, The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm (Chicago, 2000), represents an erudite attempt to trace a Western genealogy for the critique of images. Among calls for the rematerializing of religious studies, Joanne Punzo Waghorne, The Raja's Magic Clothes: Re-Visioning Kingship and Divinity in England's India (University Park, Pa., 1994), is broad and persuasive. Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (Chicago, 1982) presents the notion of "two-tiered" models in the study of religion. The term ritual culture as used in this article is drawn from Lawrence Alan Babb, Absent Lord: Ascetics and Kings in a Jain Ritual Culture (Berkeley, Calif., 1996).

A fine overview of image-veneration practices in Mesopotamia is A. Leo Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization (Chicago, 1964), pp. 183198. The volume edited by Michael B. Dick, Born in Heaven, Made on Earth: The Making of the Cult Image in the Ancient Near East (Winona Lake, Ind., 1999), contains valuable articles, including a detailed study of the mouth-opening consecration, by Christopher Walker and Michael B. Dick, "The Mesopotamian mīs pī Ritual," pp. 55121. Also important are two essays by Irene J. Winter, "'Idols of the King': Royal Images as Recipients of Ritual Action in Ancient Mesopotamia," Journal of Ritual Studies 6 (1992): 1342, and "Opening the Eyes and Opening the Mouth: The Utility of Comparing Images in Worship in India and the Ancient Near East," in Ethnography and Personhood, edited by Michael W. Meister (Jaipur, India, 2000), pp. 129162.

An excellent brief introduction to Greek temple culture is Walter Burkert, "The Meaning and Function of the Temple in Classical Greece," in Temple in Society, edited by Michael V. Fox (Winona Lake, Ind., 1988), pp. 2747. Burkert's Greek Religion, Archaic and Classical (Oxford, 1985), remains the standard overview; whereas Jan N. Bremmer, Greek Religion (Oxford, 1994), provides a valuable supplement to Burkert based on continuing research. For a detailed treatment of votive offerings, see F. T. van Straten, "Gifts for the Gods," in H. S. Versnal, Faith, Hope, and Worship (Leiden, Netherlands, 1981), pp. 65151.

Earlier scholarship on the Jains most often viewed the worship of Jina images as a borrowed and nonessential practice within the Jain tradition. John E. Cort's article, "Bhakti in Early Jain Tradition," History of Religions 42 (2002): 5986, provides an important revision, demonstrating that venerative practices were an integral part of the Jain tradition from an early period. Valuable studies of Jain ritual culture utilizing both ethnographic and textual materials are those of Babb, cited above, and John E. Cort, Jains in the World: Religious Values and Ideology in India (Oxford, 2001). Also noteworthy for its treatment of devotional practices among Jain women is M. Whitney Kelting, Singing to the Jinas: Jain Laywomen, Mandal Singing, and the Negotiations of Jain Devotion (Oxford, 2001). For an overview of Jain disputes over image worship, see Paul Dundas, The Jains (London, 1992).

For Buddhist traditions concerning the earliest Buddha image, see Martha L. Carter, The Mystery of the Udayana Buddha (Naples, Italy, 1990). The scholarly literature on the origins of the Buddha image is vast. Works of John S. Strong are particularly valuable for their description of the ritual culture of early Indian Buddhism. See especially Strong's "Gandakuti : The Perfumed Chamber of the Buddha," History of Religions 16 (1977): 390406. On the Buddhist cult of relics, a useful starting point is Kevin Trainor, Relics, Ritual, and Representation in Buddhism: Rematerializing the Sri Lankan Theravāda Tradition (Cambridge, U.K., 1997). Donald K. Swearer, Becoming the Buddha: The Ritual of Image Consecration in Thailand (Princeton, N.J., 2004), considers many issues surrounding the veneration of the Buddha image in the Theravāda school and provides a detailed ethnographic account of an image consecration. The essays of Gregory Schopen have significantly altered the study of Indian Buddhism and its material practices. Many of these essays are in Schopen's collection Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers on the Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India (Honolulu, 1997). On the role of images in East Asian Buddhism, see the volume edited by Robert H. Sharf and Elizabeth Horton Sharf, Living Images: Japanese Buddhist Icons in Context (Stanford, Calif., 2001).

A good point of entry into the ritual cultures of Hindu image venerators is the collection edited by Joanne Punzo Waghorne and Norman Cutler, Gods of Flesh/Gods of Stone: The Embodiment of Divinity in India (Chambersburg, Pa., 1985). Diana L. Eck, Darśan: Seeing the Divine Image in India (Chambersburg, Pa., 1985), explicates this important underlying concept in Hinduism. For a more detailed explication of Hindu worship as practiced by the Śaiva Siddhānta school, see Richard H. Davis, Ritual in an Oscillating Universe: Worshiping Śiva in Medieval India (Princeton, N.J., 1991). Among many valuable ethnographic accounts of image worship in Hindu temples, one of the most comprehensive is Françoise L'Hernault and Marie-Louise Reiniche, Tiruvannamalai: Un lieu saint śivaïte du Sud de l'Inde, vol. 3, Rites et fêtes (Paris, 1999). On Hindu disputes over the veneration of images, see Richard H. Davis, "Indian Image-Worship and Its Discontents," in Representation in Religion: Studies in Honor of Moshe Barasch, edited by Jan Assmann and Albert I. Baumgarten (Leiden, Netherlands, 2001), pp. 107132.

For the Andes, Kenneth J. Andrien, Andean Worlds: Indigenous History, Culture, and Consciousness under Spanish Rule, 15321825 (Albuquerque, N.Mex., 2001), offers a good starting point. Sabine MacCormack, Religion in the Andes: Vision and Imagination in Early Colonial Peru (Princeton, N.J., 1991), reconstructs Andean religion at the time of Spanish conquest and offers a nuanced portrait of Spanish perceptions of indigenous ritual culture. Verónica Salles-Reese, From Viracocha to the Virgin of Copacabana: Representation of the Sacred at Lake Titicaca (Austin, Tex., 1997), stresses continuity in the complex interactions of the huacas and the inquisitors in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. See also Kenneth Mills, Idolatry and Its Enemies: Colonial Andean Religion and Extirpation, 16401750 (Princeton, N.J., 1997).

Moshe Barasch, Icon: Studies in the History of an Idea (New York, 1992), provides an excellent brief account of Western critiques of the image, ranging from Greeks and Israelites through the iconoclastic controversy. For a more detailed exploration of the biblical view, see Michael B. Dick, "Prophetic Parodies of Making the Cult Image," in Born in Heaven, Made on Earth, edited by Michael B. Dick (Winona Lake, Ind., 1999), pp. 153. Two works reconsider early Christian art in light of disputes over the image, Thomas F. Mathews, The Clash of Gods: A Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art (Princeton, N.J., 1993); and Paul Corby Finney, The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians on Art (New York, 1997). Works on the iconoclastic controversy are too numerous to mention. Among several works that explore iconoclastic practices of the Protestant Reformation, a noteworthy study is Lee Palmer Wandel, Voracious Idols and Violent Hands: Iconoclasm in Reformation Zurich, Strasbourg, and Basel (New York, 1995). David Morgan addresses the Christian ambivalence toward images in Visual Piety: A History and Theory of Popular Religious Images (Berkeley, Calif., 1998). A. M. Hocart, Kings and Councillors: An Essay in the Comparative Anatomy of Human Society (Cairo, 1936, Chicago, 1970) discusses iconoclasm and political centralization.

Among studies of secular iconography of the nation, Samir al-Khalil, The Monument: Art, Vulgarity, and Responsibility in Iraq (Berkeley, Calif., 1991), explores the significance of addām usayn's Victory Arch; whereas Albert Boime, The Unveiling of National Icons: A Plea for Patriotic Iconoclasm in a Nationalistic Era (Cambridge, U.K., 1998), traces the history and interpretations of five key American icons: the flag, the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, the Marine Corps Monument, and the Lincoln Memorial. In Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums (London, 1995), Carol Duncan analyzes art museums as ritual settings for the visual contemplation of art objects. Richard H. Davis, Lives of Indian Images (Princeton, N.J., 1997), follows Hindu religious objects as they are relocated and reinterpreted in Western museums and other settings.

Richard H. Davis (2005)