"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, March 23, 2012

An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm (I)

On the plane to Los Angeles last week and the fantastic Huffington Institute's 2012 symposium on Pan-Orthodoxy in North America, organized by the liturgical theologian and OCA deacon Nicholas Denysenko, I finally had a chance to dive into a book I've wanted to read for some time: Alain Besançon, The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasmtrans. J.M. Todd (University of Chicago Press, 2000 [2009]). 

The French original, published in 1994 as L'Image interdite: une histoire intellectuelle de l'iconoclasme, received wide acclaim, and justly so. This book is a magnificent survey of iconoclasm and iconodulia, starting with the philosophers Cicero, Aristotle, Plotinus, and especially Plato in the antique period; and, in the modern period, Hegel looms large. In his first chapter, on the philosophical history of images, the author notes that Plato is both "the father of iconoclasm" and also "the father of iconophilia." 

Along the way, Besançon examines the theological arguments for and against the use of images in Christianity, with a comparative glance at Judaism and Islam. Of these latter two he says, interestingly, that Judaism has to forbid images (the Greek eidolon for "idol" in the LXX apparently translates 30 different Hebrew terms) because God is so close to His people in the covenant that iconoclasm was almost a relief valve, a way of escaping from Him who is "everywhere present and filling all things" (as Byzantine Christians say of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Monday):  At the root of "iconoclasm, whether Christian or Jewish, is the overwhelming feeling of divine transcendence" (131). 

Of Islam he says there is no such problem: the God of the Quran is so far distant, so aloof, so transcendentally uninterested in being part of the world that the Quran does not even think to say anything about images. Islamic iconoclasm, then, must look to other sources for arguments and justification, chiefly the hadiths of the post-Mohammad period. 

The author examines four Fathers of the Church for their theology of images: Irenaeus, Origen (about whom, agreeing with Henri Crouzel's judgment, he says that the condemnations are virtually worthless), Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine. He never really explains why he focuses on these four other than saying apologetically he could not entertain all the patristic literature because it is so immense nobody can account for it. But it is more than passing curious why his list does not include such paramount figures as John of Damascus and Theodore of Studion, though these two will be briefly mentioned passim. 

Besançon notes that the usual argument put forward by Orthodox Christians justifying icons in terms of the Incarnation does little to solve the problem of iconoclasm: "the theological resolution of the problem, which entails a reaffirmation of the Incarnation, does not of itself guarantee that the image expresses and realizes the goal of the incarnation" (3). He also notes that the East and West will handle these problems by generating a different theology: "the Roman Church refused to view the image from the same metaphysical perspective as did the Greek Church" (4). 

When he gets to his third chapter on Christian arguments about images, Besançon begins by noting that the causes of iconoclasm "were so complex that they can dishearten the sage historian." He lists at least six: 
  • imperial agrarian policy attacking monasteries (because they were large, wealthy, and major centres of production of icons)
  • imperial centralizing policy
  • imperial religious policy on the Church-state divide, and the Rome-Constantinople divide
  • imperial foreign policy
  • Islam
  • and of course dogmatic arguments.
Besançon's treatment of the theological or dogmatic arguments draws heavily on Christoph von Schönborn, L’Icône du Christ : Fondements théologiques (Éditions Universitaires, Fribourg, 1976), published in English in 1994 by Ignatius Press as God's Human Face: The Christ-Icon.

In reviewing the arguments over the Incarnation, Cyril of Alexandria looms large here even if, in the author's words, "he was a dreadful person" (119)--or, as the great historian Robert Taft, not discussed here, has put it, Cyril was undeniably a thug. (Newman put it more delicately in noting that Cyril's sanctity could not be deduced from his actions!) Others of importance who are briefly reviewed include of course the great Athanasius as well as Maximus the Confessor. 

When he comes to the arguments of the early Byzantine iconoclasts, he notes that they did not forbid all art, but only certain types. The more iconoclasm succeeds in destroying Christian imagery, the more it also succeeds in reestablishing "pagan" art across the empire. 

In response to iconoclasm, the decrees of Nicaea II in 787 are "minimalist" and leave many questions unanswered. Nicaea II posits a balance that will forever elude most Christians: that between "the twin errors of iconolatry and iconoclasm. But it takes a considerable effort to remain upright on the precarious summit between them and not to slip down either of the opposing slopes....Simply put, in the place of iconophiliac equilibrium, one finds a mixture or unstable juxtaposition of iconolatry and iconoclasty" (142). 

Nicaea II's arguments will also have unintended consequences in different parts of the Church. In the West, he argues that "the poor reception of the Council of Nicaea II 'poisoned Western art at the source'," an argument also mentioned, but not developed, in Joseph Ratzinger's The Spirit of the Liturgy.

In his fourth chapter, on Western treatments of images in the Middle Ages, he notes that the West has been--not surprisingly--much more pragmatic and propadeutic in its assessment and use of images. The key text here, Besançon says, is a letter from Pope Gregory I to Serenus around the year 600 in which the pope makes the argument that icons are tools to instruct the illiterate and those too poor to afford books to read, prompting them to devotion: ex visione rei gestae ardorem componctionis percipiant. In time, this pragmatism will give rise to a greater freedom in the West, which insists far less on the holiness of the iconographer than the East does. Indeed, by the time the West reaches the Renaissance and Baroque periods, it will be accepted by many that beautiful and truthful art may be produced by those who are neither--personal morality, much less sanctity, is scarcely considered. Besançon notes the gains this freedom makes possible, but does not ask the question: what is lost with this approach?

The third part of this book focuses on modern iconoclasm, and here Besançon examines three pivotal figures: Calvin (who seems to substitute snobbery and sneering for serious arguments about images), Pascal, and Kant. Against these three, he will array the different arguments of Hegel, which we will review in due course. 

To be continued. 

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