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Icon: Studies in the History of An Idea

Copyright Date: 1995
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 308
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Over the centuries, European debate about the nature and status of images of God and sacred figures has often upset the established order and shaken societies to their core. Out of this debate, an identifiable doctrine has emerged of the image in general and of the divine image in particular. This fascinating work concentrates on these historical arguments, from the period of Late Antiquity up to the great and classic defenses of images by St. John of Damascus and Theodore of Studion. Icon extends beyond the immediate concerns of religion, philosophy, aesthetics, history, and art, to engage them all.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-2334-0
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-x)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    The student of religious images will always wonder about the strange ambivalence, or even conflicts, in attitudes to the artistic depictions of the divine. On the one hand, we know that often in history such images have not been accepted as a matter of course. In many generations we find philosophers, priests, or political leaders who doubted or even attacked the validity and “truth” of holy icons, sometimes going so far as to describe them as “lies,” as “dead matter,” or even as outright representatives of the devil, or what in different societies passed as the equivalent of the devil....

  4. PART ONE Reflections in Classical Antiquity

    • ONE The Biblical Prohibition of Images
      (pp. 13-22)

      The student attempting to outline the intellectual background and sources of iconoclastic traditions in the West has a clearly defined starting point: it is the biblical prohibition of images. In the Middle Ages or during the Reformation, in the period between, say, Tertullian and Luther or Ignatius of Loyola, whoever dealt with images had to come to terms with the Second Commandment, to interpret it, and to assess its place in a comprehensive system of beliefs. Modern scholars are of course aware of the sources from which the biblical prohibition of images derived; they know that this prohibition had forerunners...

    • TWO Antiquity I: The Animated Image
      (pp. 23-48)

      No student of the ancient world, or of any field of inquiry that has some bearing on ancient culture, is in danger of forgetting the part that the images of the gods played in Greco-Roman Antiquity. There are too many texts that evoke one aspect or another of these images, and demand an explanation of their meaning and role. Whether we turn to fantastic stories of miraculous healings or to dreary documents attesting to the struggle over political symbols, whether we study mystery religions or the patterns and techniques of administrating distant provinces, whether we concentrate on art or on...

    • THREE Antiquity II: Against the Images of Gods
      (pp. 49-62)

      In a schematic map of the typical attitudes to the images of the gods in the Greek and Roman world the belief in the animated statue marks one end of the scale. It embodies the tendency to reduce the distance between the god and its portrait until it is made to dwell in the statue and to animate it. We are here close to identifying the image with the god itself. At the other end of the scale we commonly place the rationalistic, skeptical approach, an attitude that has much in common with the Enlightenment outlook and anticipates many modern...

    • FOUR Resemblance: The Internal Development of the Concept
      (pp. 63-92)

      In the preceding chapters I have tried to outline two extreme types of reading the image of God. To put it crudely, one of them conceived of the image as of the god itself, and the other saw the image as totally inadequate and alien to the god. I selected some salient texts and stories from ancient literature to illustrate these extreme approaches. Yet notwithstanding these literary examples, these types, as here outlined, in a sense remain constructions. The notion of the animated image, on the one hand, and the concept of the image as a lifeless, merely material object,...

  5. PART TWO The Icon in Early Christian Thought

    • FIVE Early Christian Apologists
      (pp. 95-107)

      Anyone at all curious about how believers in an invisible god react to the visible images of gods when they are confronted with them will be fascinated by the first attempts of Christianity to come to terms, within a conceptual framework, with the surrounding culture. If considered as mere theory, the literary records of these attempts—normally undertaken to defend the new religion in specific historical conditions—will not be counted among the most important of the documents discussed in this book. The reasoning is not always as strict as a critical reader might wish it to be, and the...

    • SIX Tertullian
      (pp. 108-126)

      In the spiritual world of early Christianity two approaches emerged, even if only vaguely, to support the rejection of images. One of them can be studied in the writings of Tertullian, the North African Church Father of the early third century. Tertullian, as is generally acknowledged, was the first great author to present the essentials of Christian theology in the Latin tongue. Perhaps more than any other author, he shaped the Latin ecclesiastical language.¹ Some of the basic doctrines of the Church, such as hereditary sinfulness, can be traced to his thought, and the impact it had on the theological...

    • SEVEN Origen
      (pp. 127-140)

      An argument, some philosophers say, may sometimes unfold in a historical process. Its contents, its various steps and aspects, are brought to light in stages, and each stage may last a generation or even longer. The evolution of the Christian rejection of images is an instructive example. After Tertullian completed his work, a new stage began, revealing another facet of the great problem that engaged the energy and thought of so many generations. That stage is well represented by Origen. Surviving Tertullian by about thirty years, Origen gave a new turn to the attitude towards images. This is not to...

    • EIGHT Eusebius
      (pp. 141-157)

      Eusebius, bishop of Cesarea, erudite scholar, and prolific writer, did not have any particular understanding of, nor any specific interest in, the visual arts. In his large literary heritage there are but few passages directly dealing with images, or with the problems they raise: the fragment of a letter, and some occasional observations on monuments he saw in the emperor’s domains. Nevertheless we must consider his thought on our subject, limited as it is, as a signpost on the road along which our problem developed.

      Eusebius, it is common knowledge, was intimately linked with some of the central historical developments...

    • NINE Dionysius Areopagita: “Poetic” Theology
      (pp. 158-182)

      In the preceding sections we have tried to follow the path, and mark the main stages, of articulations of views concerning the visible images of the invisible god. We have witnessed the unfolding of a paradoxical problem, and have watched the contradictions implied in the very nature of this problem becoming explicit and manifest. The dialectics of this problem come to a climax and are fully revealed, so it seems, in the writings of an author as mysterious as he was influential, Dionysius Areopagita.

      Whenever the question of the validity and “truth” of the holy icon came up in the...

  6. PART THREE The Doctrine of the Icon

    • TEN In Defense of Images: John of Damascus
      (pp. 185-253)

      We have now reached the concluding stage of the story this book has undertaken to tell. The debate over the image of God and the representation of the invisible, it goes without saying, continued to be waged. The headings changed, but the passion, sometimes even the violence, of the debate remained. In the present study, however, we have tried to examine its development only up to the stage when, in the Byzantine world, the question was pronounced resolved. So far we have been watching the unfolding of the different aspects of the argument over the question of whether there can,...

    • ELEVEN The Icon and the Doctrine of Art: Theodore of Studion
      (pp. 254-290)

      Around the turn of the eighth and ninth centuries what is called the Iconoclastic Debate burst forth again. Whatever the changes that had occurred in ecclesistical policy and in the attitudes of the rulers in preceding decades, whatever the final “truth” proclaimed by one party or the other, the icon did not cease to be a problem. The victory of the orthodox party may have suppressed for a while explicit expressions of iconoclasm, but, at least in intellectual respects, questions concerning the icon’s validity and truth remained alive, and continued to agitate people’s minds. Shortly after the death of John...

  7. Name Index
    (pp. 291-294)
  8. Subject Index
    (pp. 295-301)
  9. Back Matter
    (pp. 302-303)