Images, Icons, and Idols

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Placing the words images, icons, and idols together as the subject of an entry that seeks to articulate the perspective of world culture suggests their intimate relationship. Such a grouping also demands that an emphasis be placed on the particular role biblical religions have had in the development and use of the last two terms, the ideas of "icon" and "idol" that play off each other and highlight a central idea of the "image" in the three traditionsJudaism, Christianity, and Islamcommonly characterized as monotheistic. While all three terms have come to be used by scholars in their analysis of many cultures, the terms icon and idol have a specific and central place in the discourse on images in the cultural history and the history of ideas in the West. The notion of idol and idolatry was carried to many parts of the world with the Christian and Muslim mission movements and entered local vocabularies through this means.

Sacred Image

The representation of gods, saints, and heroes, of mythic events and of formative historical events, has been a widespread phenomenon in the history of religion. Conventional notions suggest that some religions, for example Islam and prophetic Judaism, are aniconic, meaning that they are against the use of idols or images. At the iconic end of the spectrum we find Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism, traditions in which images articulate, order, and fill the sacred spaces of both temple and home. Scholars who adopt such a schematic approach place Protestantism, Vedaism, and ancient Buddhism toward the aniconic end of the scale and Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and the religions of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome toward the iconic end.

The historical study of religion, however, has shown that the understanding and use of images have been complex and have shifted in emphasis in various periods. Hinduism and its daughter Buddhism both appear to have started out without the use of images and grew into iconic faiths over many generations. The phenomenological study of religion shows that the veneration of images by a devout woman or man may vary, even dramatically, from what is said about the importance of the image or even about its sacred character. Theravada Buddhists, for example, may say that the image of the Buddha is simply a "representation" and that the historical Buddha died like any other person and is therefore obviously not present in any way in the image. Yet, they bow with reverence and make offerings to statues of the Buddha even if they encounter them in unexpected places far outside the traditional environment of the sacred. In a given tradition at any given moment, one often finds that the attitude toward images runs a remarkable spectrum of belief. Among Orthodox Christians entering a church for the Divine Liturgy on a Sunday morning, there will be many who take candles to the front of the church and offer them in memory as they pause to pray before the icons. Some will speak of the icon as miraculous while their neighbor will note its pedagogical role as a visual scripture or hagiography and others will say the icon is a "window of divine grace" or, in the case of the icon of Jesus Christ, an "embodiment of God" and witness to the Incarnation.

The image may also be understood as divine. Stilpo, a fourth-century- b.c.e. citizen of Athens, was banished for teaching that the Greek sculptor Phidias's statue of Athena was not a goddess, and the ninth-century South Indian mystic Andal is said to have married an image of Vishnu and miraculously been absorbed into the God's embrace. Images may become divine when they are initiated in and through a ritual. When images arrive for installation in Hindu temples they are initiated through the ritual of prana partista, and the "breath of God enters them" never to be removed. In ancient Egypt the high priest would enter the temple chamber in the morning ritual and take the statue of the god from its resting place, clean, clothe, and feed the deity and then retire from this most holy place until the following morning.

Perhaps one of the most widespread practices is the use of images as a focus for veneration with a clear sense that they function as a reminder of the deity's characteristics, inviting one to offer both one's struggles and joys, concerns and thankfulness, through prayer, meditation, or devotion. For the devotees the image is a way of engaging the holy. This, of course, makes the image sacred but not in and of itself a deity.

Icon as Revelation

While the Greek word for image, eikōn, has entered the common vocabulary of the English speaking world as icon and is applied to everything from pictures identifying computer programs to symbols from archaic cultures, it is in the Orthodox Christian tradition that iconography has received its highest articulation and where it occupies a central place in the life of worship. Holy icons are central to Orthodox theology and worship and developed over the better part of a millennium into a distinct form of liturgical art. In devout Orthodox households, whether in New York City or Romanian villages, one finds the "beautiful corner" with its icon of Christ and the Theotokos ("Birth-giver of God," or Virgin Mary) and various other icons adorned with linen drapery. A vigil lamp or candle may burn in front of the icons. In Orthodox churches the whole space is often completely decorated with icons, painted in fresco or secco, arranged according to a canonical program. The iconostasis bridging the nave and the altar area of the church holds various key icons both on the screen itself and on its various doors. The axis of the iconographic program in the church is formed by the large painting or mosaic of Christ the "All Ruler" (Pantocrator ) in the central dome and the Theotokos in the apse of the church. The porch is also painted, and in some Orthodox churches, particularly in Romania, the exterior of the church is covered with frescoes of saints, biblical and other sacred narratives, and occasionally images of pagan luminaries from Socrates to Petrarch.

An icon table close to the entrance or inside the church will hold the icon appropriate to the feast or saint's day according to the liturgical calendar. When the faithful enter the church they customarily venerate the image, making the sign of the cross and often lighting a candle as they pray for the living and the dead.

This highly articulated tradition of icon use is the result of generations of theological reflection in the Christian East. It was largely taken for granted until various Byzantine emperors initiated two iconoclastic periods, 730787 and 813843. During these periods an attempt, largely successful, led to the destruction of all images in churches in the empire.

The iconoclasts were not enemies of art but rather took exception to the presence of all images of Christ, the Theotokos, and saints in the church. The emperors at the forefront of this movement continued to promote imperial imagery on coins and banners throughout the empire. A striking parallel may be found in both the Soviet Union and the United States of America, where iconoclastic cultures have flourished along with the extravagant use of images of political figures in public places.

The controversy during this period was essentially dogmatic and centered on the heart of the Orthodox theological proclamation of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. It was rooted in the persistence of Hellenistic spiritualism represented by Origen (?185?254) and Christian forms of Neoplatonic thought seeking a return to pre-Christian notions of the separation of the spirit and matter. The followers of the iconoclastic movement saw the image as an obstacle to prayer and the spiritual life because the image was made out of "crude matter" and because its emphasis on the human body failed to privilege and grant the elevated place rightfully belonging to the spirit. This movement denied the Gospel witness to the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ as a restoration of all human beings to the divine image proclaimed in the Genesis account of creation.

This state-sponsored iconoclasm (literally "image smashing") was countered by John of Damascus (c. 675749), Germanus I, patriarch of Constantinople (c. 634c. 732), and Theodore Studites (759826), who marshaled scripture and theological thinking in favor of the use of icons in Christian worship. John of Damascus argued that God was the first and original image-maker of the universe and that the son of God was the living image of God in his very nature. Since Paul in the Epistle to the Colossians had written, "He is the image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15), the worship of the icon of Jesus Christ was not idolatrous, because, in the oft-quoted formula of Saint Basil of Caesarea (c. 329379) in De Spiritu Sancto (On the Holy Spirit), "The honor paid to the image [the Son] passes over to the prototype [the Father]." The Orthodox doctrine of the veneration of icons calls the faithful, not to a veneration of art or images in general, but to the veneration of the image of a person whose life has been sanctified and who has come to union with God through divine grace. It is a realization of Christ's words in the Gospel, "The kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:21). The icon expresses the Gospel precisely because it is a manifestation of the human nature having recovered its fullness in the divine life. It represents the patristic formula "God became man so that man might become God."

Orthodox iconography centers on the human person and its canons require that all that is depicted be rooted in the human story shown from the perspective of the human being's recovery of holiness. Icons are not "art" in the usual sense but liturgical aids to prayer orienting the mind and heart of the faithful to the kingdom of God, fulfilling Christ's words, "The glory which thou has given me I have given to them" (John 17:22).

The Orthodox veneration of images was called for by the revelation of the enfleshment of God. While the early Christian thinkers agreed that the God of the Hebrew Bible could not be portrayed, they went on to argue that since Christ is the incarnation of God and had taken on the fullness of human nature, it would be a denial of the Incarnation to refuse to portray Christ in images. Sacred images are a conjoining of the human and divine spheres and serve as indicators and vehicles of the kingdom of God, of all creation transfigured in Christ. The apologists for the icon used the arguments of earlier church fathers who had written on the Scriptures and sacraments and deployed these in favor of images. The biblical texts have long been talked about as a network of types, pointers, and connections to the presence of the "Word made flesh" in Jesus Christ. These arguments received their official sanction by the Seventh Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 787 and the icons were restored to the church permanently in 843 following a second series of iconoclast emperors.

Idol and Idolatry

The English word idol is a translation of the Greek word for "image," eidōlon. The word idolatry combines eidōlon with the Greek word for "adoration," latreia. The concept of idols and idolatry is central to the biblical narrative and to Jewish, Christian, and Islamic tradition. The richest home of this concept is in the Hebrew Scriptures, where we find the prophets engaged in a running polemic against the pagan worship of aspects of creation rather than of the Creator, and against the erecting, under Canaanite influence, images to Yahweh. The prophets address the predilection of the children of Israel to create images of divine beings in order to worship them, turning away from the proper worship of the "one Lord of all history." The second commandment of the Decalogue (Exod. 20:46; Deut. 5:810; cf. Lev. 26:1; Deut. 4:1523) prohibits the making of images of anything "in the heavens above, or the earth below, or the waters beneath the earth." This commandment passes into the Christian New Testament and on to the strict monotheism of Islam, where the concept forms one of the Five Pillars of the faith.

The word eidōlon is used seventy times in the Greek Septuagint to translate sixteen different Hebrew words, while the Latin Vulgate uses idolum 112 times and its corollary simulacrum thirty-two times to translate fifteen Hebrew words. The Hebrew Bible uses thirty different nouns in references to idols and names forty-four pagan deities throughout its various narratives. While the word idol or idolatry is not found in the Gospels, eidōlon appears in many of the Epistles of the Apostle Paul and in the book of Revelation. The Bible's preoccupation with idolatry rests on the notion that the many images of deities that have flourished in human culture are false, images in "word and stone," and that those who follow after them are engaged in a fantasy at best. In the writings of the Apostle Paul the word idol takes on the connotation of deception that is the work of demons who deceive the human mind and heart about their proper nature.

The polemic against idolatry continues in an unbroken stream in the Christian tradition in both the Greek and Latin apologists and church fathers. Saint Justin (c.100c.165) in his first Apology speaks of the error in creating human forms to replicate the divine, the lack of soul in base substance, and of how artisans and thieves use such objects to deprive people of their money. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150between 211 and 215) wrote his Protreptikos to persuade those who worshiped the embodiment of pagan mythic figures of the origin of such cultic practice. Partly inspired by Plato, Clement argues that such images are the result of the deification of human beings created by artists to honor kings. The gravity of such worship, Clement argued, is that it replaces the human compulsion to worship the true God with invented demons that are at best mere wood and stone and at worst excite the human passions.

When the Visigoths under Alaric conquered Rome on 24 August 410 c.e. the pagan subjects of the city accused their Christian neighbors of bringing the event about by destroying the worship of the gods. The Christians had chased away the divine protectors of the ancient and glorious city. Saint Augustine (354430) was called upon to answer this charge in what proved to be the last great apologetic work against paganism, The City of God. He begins with a critique of the Roman gods and the mythology that had shaped the identity of Romans for centuries and then examines the arguments of Varro, Cicero, Seneca, Euhemerus, Apuleius, and Plato. Augustine argues that idols are not neutral inventions but are harmful precisely because they are created out of the heart and mind, a manifestation of human aspiration, ambition, and illusion. In his works On Christian Doctrine and On True Religion he continues his substantial psychoanalysis of how the demonic, born of the human mind, takes on a character of its own. Idols are not without power for they receive life and force from the invisible numen born of their origin in human misunderstanding. While idols are false gods and as such not gods, they represent the enormous struggle in the human heart and mind to apprehend the truth about human nature, creation, and the divine.

The great controversies such as iconoclasm and the Protestant Reformation illustrate the struggle within the church over what constitutes idolatry. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries various Protestant theologians accused Roman Catholicism of replacing the proper worship of the divine with the idolatrous worship of Mary and the saints. The worship of idols has remained a perennial concern in various denominations of the Christian church as they expanded into Africa, Asia, and North America.

Islam and Shirk

Muslims around the world, both in the mosque and in their daily prayers, chant the creedal statement: "God is most great. There is no god but Allah. Muhammad is the Prophet of God." The Koran constantly speaks of God as the One, Al-Wahid, and the Prophet Muhammad's singular passion was to root out idolatry and the indigenous forms of polytheism in the Arab communities of his day. For Muhammad and for faithful Muslims ever since, the heavens and the earth are established on what we read in sura 112 of the Koran, "Say: He is God alone: God the eternal. He begetteth not, and he is not begotten; and there is none like unto him."

To See Her Face

I had met the local Hindu priest on two occasions in the 1970s. He had walked me through his plans for a new temple to serve the eclectic community of people with roots in India who had come to live in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and discussed how he planned to shape the sanctum sanctorum to accommodate the various devotions of a mixed community of Shaivites and Vaishnavites. Now we sat together in his home just to the right of his shrine to the Shakti, the Feminine Divine Energy and manifestation of Shiva, the deity that had captured his attention many years ago and come to shape his personal devotion. It was my first time in his home and our conversation had moved from his own spiritual formation in Ludhiana, India, through the trauma of the stillbirth of his first child and his entering the Shi Ramakrishna mission in England seeking solace for the loss of this child. He spoke of growing up under the influence of the Arya Samaj movement, of its iconoclasm as well as its place in the Vedic renaissance in India in the nineteenth century and how he came to devote himself to the ritual life centered on murti, the image of deities. He had talked affectionately about the worship of deities at some length and then, rather abruptly, turned to speak about the goal of the Hindu life: to finally come to worship the formless form, the Eternal Absolute beyond embodiment. This, he told me, would finally lead to moksha, the liberation that is the final release from the cycle of rebirth. After he had spoken for a considerable time on the formless form, distinguishing it from what he called "idol worship," I said to him that while this was a powerful idea I did not quite understand how it sat with his deep and faithful devotion to the beautiful embodiment of Shakti, a devotion he offered to her each morning and evening. What does the formless form have to do with her who is so beautifully formed and who has so completely won your affections? Tears filled his eyes. "In this life, in this round, all I hope for is just once to see her face. Just once to truly glimpse her beauty."

source: From the author's field notes.

In the religious world of Islam any association of other beings with God or of any human attribute with what belongs to God alone is the gravest of sins. Shirk, this type of grave sin, finds its polar opposite in tawhid, the declaration central to Muslim belief and prayer of the unity of God, a unity declared in faith and lived out in private and public life.

Muhammad inherited the opposition to idolatry from the Judeo-Christian tradition and saw Abraham as the prototype of the faith in one God. Abraham's firstborn son Ishmael faithfully followed in his father's footsteps in his rejection of local idols. Considerable attention is given in the Koran to Abraham's destruction of idols and Moses' attempt to call his people back to the worship of the one God (sura 26:6983; 21:53/5270; 25:35/4; 7:134/138). The propensity to associate a god or gods with God represents the gravest human struggle and Islamic law is clear and absolute about its many dangers and manifestations.

Idolaters are to be shunned and Muslims are called to fight against them (sura 9:36). One must never marry an idol worshiper and one must protect children from their influence. Idolatry is an insult to God for only God is the creator of the world and God is beyond image or representation.

In the last half of the twentieth century, archaeological work at the third-century Jewish synagogue at Dura Europos in eastern Syria helped us appreciate that the absolute prohibition of images in the law of Moses did not deter Jews contemporary with early Christianity from painting sacred images in their places of worship. Carl Kraeling argues that the Dura synagogue was one of the finest synagogues in ancient Judaism and that its decorative paintings are a forerunner of Byzantine art. While this discovery has demanded that scholars of image, icon, and idol become more complex in their application of these terms, it remains the case that the cultural history and history of ideas in the West, in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim circles, has been significantly shaped by the debate on the nature and meaning of images. This debate continues in the contemporary Protestant church considering what decorative program to adopt, as it does periodically in public discussion when an art gallery or a film shows images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, or a prophet that deconstruct some of the public's expectations.

See also Iconography ; Orthopraxy ; Religion ; Sacred Places ; Sacred Texts .


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David J. Goa