Early Jewish sensibilities regarding art…
We saw last week that the early church produced (or, at any rate, left us) very little in the way of art and that one of the possible reasons for this may have been its origins as a Jewish movement.
Judaism has a strong tradition of eschewing the use of images in worship, taking a sweeping interpretation of the prohibition on "graven images" in the second commandment. This commandment was the actually first to be broken — the Israelites made themselves a golden calf before Moses had even descended from Mount Sinai — and the Jews developed a very great sensitivity to even the smallest risk of the improper use of images.
In the time of Christ, for instance, when Pontius Pilate brought some military standards bearing an image of Caesar into Jerusalem, a large crowd travelled to his residence at Caesarea and surrounded it for five days, protesting. When Pilate sent in the troops to deal with the crowd, the Jews lay down and declared they were willing to die rather than to remain silent in the face of this offence. Pilate was forced to back down, and remove the standards from Jerusalem.
With their Jewish background, then, it is hardly surprising that the first Christians did not produce religious art.
The continuing tension; iconoclasm…
As Christianity became more cosmopolitan in outlook, however, this attitude began to relax, leading as we say first to the use of symbols — the fish, the cross — and in time to full-blown representational art.
But there remained a suspicion of art and a fear of idolatry, and in fact this has been one of the recurring tensions in Christianity, down to today.
"Iconoclasm" is the systematic destruction of religious images, done for a religious motives. It may seem contradictory that the same religious impulse can motivate both the creation of an object of beauty and its destruction, but history provides all too many examples.
The eastern churches are of course famous for their tradition of icons and more broadly, for their ornate and richly decorated church buildings. Yet in the 8th century eastern Christianity was riven between those who supported this tradition, and those who regarded it as idolatrous. When the Byzantine emperor turned against icons and ordered their removal from churches, there were riots and murders in Constantinople. Matters escalated, with the supporters of icons forming underground networks, and the emperor moving against the monasteries, throwing relics into the sea and forbidding the invocation of saints.
That particular episode of iconoclasm came to an end with the death of the emperor concerned. His successors were more favourably disposed towards icons. But the cycle repeated itself in the 9th century, when another emperor became convinced that his military reverses were due to divine disfavour, and that this in turn was the result of the veneration of icons. There was a second iconoclasm which, again, came to an end with a change of ruler.
It's easy to present these controversies as primitive, arising out of an essentially superstitious belief that:
- God is placated by the right actions and angered by the wrong ones, regardless of the faith or motivation of those involved; and
- he shows his favour or disfavour by distributing good fortune and bad fortune.
But, while there is some truth in this criticism, it overlooks deeper issues. The iconoclasts and their opponents were genuinely concerned with the reality of God.
- The iconoclasts' objection to images, essentially, was that they gave a false view of God; they were dishonest. They were lifeless, whereas God was alive. They could portray only human nature, whereas God was possessed of divine nature. We had been given the perfect icon of God in the Eucharist; what need had we of imperfect, false icons?
- The supporters of icons responded that the image presented by an icon was necessarily partial and incomplete, but that did not mean that it was false. They invoked the incarnation to show that God's human nature and material dimension was real and, they argued, it could be honestly depicted.
The Protestant Reformation…
In Western Christianity, the issue became a live one again at the time of the Protestant reformation. Some — not all — Protestant reformers took exception to the use of icons and images, and there was a widespread removal of them from churches and public places, with statues toppled and stained glass windows smashed. For the most part this was done in an orderly fashion by the civil authorities, but in many places there were riots, sackings and even murders.
We can see the legacy of this period in a church like the Oude Kerk of Amsterdam, which suffered an iconoclasm at the hands of Calvinists in the late sixteenth century. Today, the church's massive gothic windows are all of clear glass and the church is completely devoid of statues, pictures or decoration of any kind — except for the ceiling, which the iconoclasts were unable to reach. The faded remains of richly ornamented paintings can still be seen there.
Even today, the issue is not completely dead. Many Protestant traditions are characterised by an avoidance of religious imagery and decoration, and some of the more militantly fundamentalist Protestant movements still display a fixation with what they see as the worship of statues by Catholics.
It's fair to say that conflicts of this nature reflect no credit on Christianity, but they do underline the enormous power that art has over us. We can be moved by it. We can be inspired by it. But we can also fear and even resent its power. Art, in the form of cartoons and caricatures, can be an effective weapon of aggression. It can be used, quite deliberately, in the service of controversy.
And this is where the interaction of art and religion can be troublesome today. Next week, I'll take at a look at the issue of art which people find offensive to their religious beliefs.
ARTICLE NAVIGATION: PART I | PART II | PART III
Peregrinus is a lawyer recently migrated to Australia from Ireland. He has a seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of Catholic church history and the ability at short notice to put his finger on the facts that are needed in the many controversies that erupt on internet discussion forums.
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