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The Case of Iconoclasm

Monday 28 January 2019

By Dr. Natalie Carnes, Associate Professor of Theology at Baylor University, currently visiting St. Andrews under the “Baylor at St. Andrews” program. She is the author of Image and Presence and Beauty

Though the term iconoclasm has expanded its meanings and associations over time, it still evokes a more Protestant than Catholic approach to church life. Not only are Protestants on the whole warier about the dangers of images, but Protestantism was birthed in the pangs of Reformation iconoclasm. Even Anglican and Episcopal churches, many of which today commission and display powerful art, refused for a time to tolerate anything image-like, including crosses. Queen Elizabeth was rebuked for the silver ones she kept in her chapel.

In my own Protestant upbringing, I attended a church that did tolerate crosses, but little else. A floor-to-ceiling wooden cross positioned directly behind the preacher was the sanctuary’s lone adornment. There were no paintings, no sculptures, not even any windows. The carpet and chairs were dark brownish-orange, as if anything pleasing to the eye might prevent worship of the invisible God.

Like all official determinations, these aesthetic decisions were made by the elder and deacon boards, comprised entirely of men. Sometimes the women rebelled against the bleak setting by arranging flowers for the front or sewing Advent banners. I remember my own mother on more than one occasion trying to brighten the pulpit by wrangling greenery around it. It was fake, of course, because there were no windows.

And yet despite the possibility that aesthetic anxiety can lead to such dreariness, I want to commend an iconoclastic impulse as salutary to image-loving traditions like Catholicism, even like much of twenty-first century Protestantism. I believe the iconoclastic impulse need not lead to visual austerity, for it can actually help Christians love images better—and might even help Protestants and Catholics find more common ground on images. Attempts to maintain a stark contrast between iconoclasm and iconophilia break down in a way that leaves room for ecumenical hope. Certain forms of iconoclasm, like many images, can be modes of fidelity to Christ.

In some ways, this argument for iconoclasm is easier to make now than it was prior to 2017. In the midst of a national conversation in the United States about Confederate monuments, iconoclasm is having a cultural moment. Tearing down or removing Confederate statues has raised for many the possibility that image-breaking might be salutary.

At the same time, players in the National Football League have claimed this fall that by kneeling during the national anthem—an action detractors have interpreted as an iconoclastic gesture against the symbol of the American flag—they intend to honour what that flag represents. It is, perhaps, an iconoclasm meant to express love for what it challenges. More than any other time in recent history, iconoclasm seems a credible strategy in political life.

But there have also been instances of iconoclasm less well received. The destruction of so much art and so many images by ISIS over the last decade, the Taliban defacement of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001—these iconoclastic acts have been roundly condemned by most Americans, including those who want to see Confederate statues destroyed. Then there are more perplexing cases. How do we understand the iconoclasm surrounding the 2015 Charlie Hebdo murders, or the 2005 Danish cartoon controversy regarding caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed in the Jyllands-Posten? The cartoonists in these cases were called iconoclasts, as were those calling for the images to be banned or burned. These events and many others are a snarl of competing iconoclasms.

We can begin picking our way through this thicket of iconoclasms by naming two broad types of iconoclasm found in many politically- and religiously-charged controversies. The first type targets images that the iconoclast believes testify to a power that is false or wicked. The iconoclasts attacking the Confederate statues and the Bamiyan Buddhas may have utterly divergent political agendas, but both see the statues they target as problematic for celebrating and instantiating a false power in communal life. The iconoclasts against Confederate statues might name that power white supremacy; those against the Bamiyan Buddhas, a blasphemous idea of the divine; but like most revolutionary iconoclasm, these iconoclasts want a different power honoured in place of the false one.

The second type of iconoclasm targets images that the iconoclast believes testify falsely to a power that is true. If the problem for the first type of iconoclast is what the image honours, the problem for the second is how the image honours. In much Reformation iconoclasm, the problem with the ‘how’ was simply the image itself.

Many Reformation iconoclasts saw images qua images as limiting God, wrapping God up in human ritual and convention to claim where God can and cannot be. But this kind of iconoclasm was not limited to the Reformers alone. Even some medieval traditions voiced concern over the wealth used to produce and adorn images. Bernard of Clairvaux, for example, excoriates ecclesial splendour that encourages attention to wealth rather than to the divine life it is supposed to signify.

In both types of iconoclasm, the iconoclast aims to rectify a situation in which images wrongly divert attention. The iconoclastic act attempts to redirect attention to what is worthy, significant, or true; it aims to focus and train attention rightly. The purpose of iconoclastic acts is to restore the gaze from that which siphons its energies, or to clear away that which blocks the gaze, hiding truth, justice, or even love.

There is something about this spirit of clearing away that finds resonance in the gospels. If your hand causes you to sin, lop it off. When you find moneychangers in the house of God, turn those tables over.

Jesus’s ministry could be described as an iconoclastic restoration of attention to God’s life in the world.

Criticized for gleaning wheat on the Sabbath, he replies that the Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath. In defense of healing on the Sabbath, Jesus points to the importance of saving life and doing good. Seeing the woman at Bethany criticized for lavishly anointing him rather than serving the poor, Jesus defends her act as intimate with the preaching of the gospel. Where people cling to rules, rites, and images as if they are Life itself, Jesus draws their attention back to the love, the Life, these conventions are supposed to signify and nourish.

Evoking such gospel iconoclasm, Pope Francis writes that Jesus can ‘break through the dull categories with which we enclose him and constantly amazes us by his divine creativity’. Perhaps it is unsurprising that Pope Francis has himself been called an iconoclast, most forcefully when he washed the feet of women and Muslims his first Maundy Thursday service as pope, starting a papal practice of washing the feet of the marginalized.

Pope Francis, too, wants to restore attention to what is most important—in this case, to the Christ-like love, humility, and mercy to which all Christians are called. Soon after, he named the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. The papacy of Francis suggests the importance iconoclasm can have for the Catholic Church as a way of turning the gaze of the heart toward Christ.

If, as I argued in the first part of this essay, iconoclasm redirects attention, so, too, do images. One particularly dramatic example of that redirection was pointed out to me by picture theorist Horst Bredekamp during a group tour of the Bode museum in Berlin. He took us to a twelfth-century sculpture called Madonna of the Seated Wisdom, which is meant to be hung on the wall, above the viewer’s head. Looking up at the sculpture, I first saw the Christ-child, reaching out toward me with one hand extended in blessing, the other holding the gift of bread. But as my gaze floated just above the head of the Christ-child, I faltered at the more forbidding visage of the Madonna, whose lidless stare seemed to prohibit my eyes from lingering. The Madonna warned me to look away, even as Christ blessed me for looking. Madonna of the Seated Wisdom both dispenses blessing and cautions that a captivated gaze may become idolatrous, destroying the blessing the viewer has received. The statue facilitates an encounter with Christ, but only if the viewer does not confuse Christ with the statue.

I offer Madonna of the Seated Wisdom as an example, not because it is an aberration among images, but because it is exemplary of them. It dramatizes what all images, to the extent they are successful, do. They present what they are not. An image gives more than it literally or materially is, more than its wood and stone and paint. The danger, though, is that we might confuse what the image gives—say, a particular type of encounter with God—with the image’s medium. Images are always in danger of degenerating into idols. Alive to that possibility, the artist created Madonna of the Seated Wisdom in such a way that it might remind the viewer to direct her devotion to the God it makes present, not to its wood and paint. The sculpture does what all successful images do. It directs the viewer’s attention to what is important and true.

Images work by this redirection. They image when they present what remains in some way absent. This is the negation at the heart of imaging: the image gives what it is not. In the Orthodox tradition, icons are often referred to as windows into the divine, giving Christ’s personal presence without being identical to Christ. There is a sense in which, in a different way, all images are like windows, revealing to us what we would not otherwise see and making something present to us which yet remains absent.

But what if, for some reason, the window is blocked? Perhaps, as iconoclasts against the Confederate statues might argue, the image does not reveal anything because it projects a false screen. Or perhaps, as the Reformation iconoclasts might contend, the image obscures rather than gives the divine countenance because it is treated as an idol, or because the divine countenance cannot be given as an image at all. What, in such cases, ought one to do?

One might clear away the blockage. That is what an iconoclast does. An iconoclast responds to the failure of an image by shattering blocked windows and false screens so that we can see again. An iconoclast, in the words of another pope, John XXIII, might ‘throw open the windows of the church so that we can see out’. Iconoclasm redirects attention, as a properly working image does. Iconoclasm mimics the logic of the image that negates itself to present what it is not; it externalizes the negation internal to images. As it imitates the logic of images, iconoclasm also makes images. When Reformation iconoclasts whacked off the tops of crosses, they left a landscape of decapitated cross images. When present-day iconoclasts toppled a statue of a Confederate soldier in North Carolina, they took selfies with the remains. The broken image becomes a new type of image.

But how can this be surprising, when at the centre of the Christian tradition is the cross, where the Image of the Invisible God is revealed most poignantly in the moment of brokenness? It is in that most horrific act of iconoclasm, when humans attempt to destroy the Image of the invisible God, that the God who is Love is most poignantly revealed to us. On the cross, we see love that goes all the way through death by torture and never turns from its character as perfect love. The God of love turns neither toward fear nor hate, remaining perfect, vulnerable, impassible love, even under the greatest pressure.

Iconoclasm yields images as the broken body of the Image reveals God’s love. And iconoclasm redirects attention that has become locked on the wrong thing, dissipated into many things, or diverted to a secondary thing. ‘He is not here!’ The angel at the grave on Easter morning declares the absence of Christ. Like the iconoclast who wants to claim or prove that an image cannot contain God, this divine messenger informs the women that the walls of the tomb cannot contain the one who is Life itself. Do not look for the living among the dead. The angel redirects the gaze of the myrrh-bearing women.

Were the angel’s statement a description of how God is absent in the world, it would be declaration of despair, an announcement that God is dead and we have killed him.

Similarly, when iconoclasm is untied from any specific affirmation of God’s presence, it can lead not only to a dreary world: It can lead to a world in which the ability to name God’s presence ebbs away. The God whose presence everywhere demands that God be present nowhere in particular runs the risk of at last becoming a God who is simply nowhere.

A flatly universal presence uninflected by locations of particular and special presences of God, risks degenerating into absence. Such blind iconoclasm directs attention nowhere.

But the angel’s declaration of absence is more than a description of divine absence. It is a way of redirecting the women’s attention from the dead to the living. The angel declares absence in order to proclaim a powerful new presence of Christ by the resurrection. The disciples’ first experience of the risen Lord is in absence.

Iconoclasm can be a powerful ally to both the Christian and the image. Certain forms of iconoclasm, as I claimed earlier, can be forms of fidelity of Christ, as they seem to be in the papacy of Francis I, as they can be for the church more broadly. There is work to do to distinguish iconoclasms that maintain fidelity to Christ and those that do not, but this work—rather than dismissing iconoclasm out of hand—is crucial to do. For, the iconoclast who clears away windows that have turned into barricades, or barricades masquerading as windows, imitates God. Such an iconoclast follows in the footsteps of Christ, who broke rules in order to reorient them to love, who overturned money pots to make space for true worship, who offered his broken body even unto death, shattering its power in a love that bent to no threat.


this essay was first published by Transpositions in a two part series, found here and here.


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