The Trial of Images

“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images.” So states the second of the ten famous commandments given to Moses. Further stipulations state that this in­cludes likenesses of things in heaven, earth, and under the earth. “Under no circumstances can [poetry] be admitted to the city.” So states Plato in The Republic. These two bans share some similarities. Both are administered for the sake of Truth. God commands that the children of Israel should not pursue certain kinds of artwork which will turn them away from himself. Plato believes that artwork is thrice removed from Truth, an imitation of an imitation and will consequently turn those who love it from the pursuit of wisdom. However, upon further investigation we shall see that they diverge fundamentally. This divergence is grounded in a disagreement on the issue of materiality.

In Exodus, God commands that images should not be made. However, over the next few chapters God explicitly com­mands the creation of images: it is of things in heaven (cheru­bim) and things on earth (almond blossoms). He even explains that he has ordained Bezalel and Oholiab as chief craftsmen. These items are not mere decoration, they are holy and to be kept with reverence. One cannot even touch the Ark of the Covenant without forfeiting their life. So perhaps the second commandment is not to be taken seriously and only has some kind of metaphorical meaning? Not in the least. For while God is giving Moses these instructions, Aaron and the children of Israel are making an image for themselves. The infamous Gold­en Calf. What follows is a direct command for an extreme act of iconoclasm in which the calf is utterly destroyed and even eaten—a profound reduction for a rival god to be submitted to. So what is the reconciliation of the seemingly contradictory ban and command? I will turn to a rather simplified interpretation of Jean Luc Marion’s distinction of idol and icon to lead us through.

For Marion, a contemporary French postmodern thinker, the idol is “that which will fill the gaze” (Marion 1). The gaze is what makes the idol, and not the other way around. Therefore, the only invisible element to the idol is the gaze turned towards it. The idol has captured the gaze and reflects back the gaze. The gaze can go no further than the visible object that is the idol. Consequently, an idol is that which contains within itself a claim to truth and a final end. For Marion, the icon is the inverse. The icon refers to the invisible, and any attempt to make the invisible visible is unfulfilled. The icon, then, only points the gaze onward beyond itself (2). This is the difference between the ban and command of images in Exodus and Deuteronomy, respectively. The images in the tabernacle did not claim to contain an end in themselves; in fact, the very function of these images prove this. The altar is not something to be worshiped, but something on which to offer worship. The Golden Calf, on the other hand, was worshiped for its own sake. It claimed the gaze of the Isra­elite people. We might go as far as to say that God condemns images that claim an end in themselves, but not those which point to Himself. This is where Plato disagrees.

In The Republic, Plato almost laments the fact that he must ban the poets, admitting to his “love and reverence” for Ho­mer. However, he claims that the painters and the dramatists are both three steps from reality in their work. There is the true bed, which the carpenter copies to make a particular bed, which is what the painter copies in his picture. This is brought into sharper contrast by the fact that the painter must paint with only one perspective. A bed is the same bed no matter what angle you look at it, but the painter must settle for only one angle. In consequence of this limitation, only choosing a particular an­gle and ignoring all the others, coupled with the fact that even this limited perspective is still only copied with limited accuracy makes the painting an illusion of that which is “surely far from the truth.” He goes on to say that “the entire tribe of poets—be­ginning with Homer—are mere imitators of illusions of virtue . . . . They don’t lay a hand on the truth.” For Plato, in a certain sense, all of art is like Marion’s idol. It can only attract the gaze unto itself to delight the eye or ear, but it cannot point the mind towards truth. In fact, it does the exact opposite. However, there is no possibility of an icon for Plato. The more one is educated in the pursuit of truth, the more apparent the corruption of art truly is. I think we can follow this line of thought even further back than Moses and Plato to Abraham and Homer himself with the help of Erich Auerbach.

Auerbach was a twentieth century Jewish-German phi­lologist who was eventually exiled from Nazi Germany. Taking up residence in Istanbul, Auerbach penned his greatest work: Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. In the first chapter, Auerbach uses the stories of Odysseus’ scar in the The Odyssey and the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis to com­pare two utterly different perspectives of reality. For Homer the story of Odysseus’ scar is nestled in during the build up to the final conflict. However, it is not intended to build suspense, instead it is intended to “relax the tensions” (Auerbach 3). But more importantly, this digression back to Odysseus’ childhood comes from Homer’s impulse to “represent phenomena in a fully externalized form, visible and palpable in all their parts” (6). Nothing can happen in the epic without the reader knowing all there is to know about it, indeed there is “never a glimpse of an unplumbed depth” (7). Everything happens in the fore­ground. The reader of Homer is an objective viewer, an om­niscient being that knows everything that occurs in full detail; every thought, word, speech is told and explained. The Old Testament account could not be more different.

In contrast to the unified and single layer of Homer, the story of Abraham and Isaac has many layers and many unplumbed depths. At the beginning of the story, seemingly from nowhere, God calls Abraham. We are not told where he speaks from or what his reasons are for doing so. “He has not, like Zeus, discussed them in set speeches with the other gods in council” (8). We do not know much about Abraham’s where­abouts either, only his “moral” position in relation to God in his response of “Here am I.” The only thing we are told of Isaac is that he is Abraham’s only son and the one whom he loves. No description is given of Isaac’s features, personality, or indeed whether he had been scarred on his ankle at an earlier point—much less an account of how this might have happened. The reader is left with many questions and concerns about the story, much is left in the dark. “Since so much in the story is dark and incomplete, and since the reader knows that God is a hidden God, his effort to interpret constantly finds something new to feed upon. Doctrine and the search for enlightenment are inextricably connected with the physical side of the narra­tive” (15). This “physicality” is the key, I think, in understand­ing the core difference in the way one of the methods is iconic and one is idolic.

Homer’s highest end is to delight his audience. Auerbach says “The oft repeated reproach that Homer is a liar takes noth­ing from his effectiveness, he does not need to base his story on historical reality, his reality is powerful enough in itself . . . . And this ‘real’ world into which we are lured, exists for itself, [and] contains nothing but itself” (13). Auerbach, in a sense, agrees with Plato’s conclusion about Homer. Homer is not concerned with reality, but with aesthetic pleasure as an end to itself. However, the Old Testament is ultimately concerned with reality. Auerbach says that the Biblical narrator’s story “was not primarily oriented towards realism; it was oriented to­ward truth,” and furthermore they “are made concrete in the sensible matter of life” (14). This distinction aligns nicely with Marion’s differentiation of icon and idol. It also explains why the Old Testament law is capable of being more sophisticated with regards to the arts: it affirms materiality. Material things are capable of showing the way to truth, whether it be a golden ark, or poetry, or ultimately the Incarnation. The material can point in a reliable way to the invisible. For Plato, the visible is already at a remove from the truth, and artwork based on the material is at an even further remove and only strays from the invisible.

Both the Old Testament and Plato are concerned with the validity of image-making and artwork at large. They both recognize that images have the ability to lead people astray, and both demand banishment. However, the Old Testament rec­ognizes that artwork is not inherently corrupt, but only when it functions as an idol. In fact, when images are banned it is only because they have caused the people to stray from God. Whether images be literal stone and metal (Deut 7:25) or met­aphorical (Ezekiel 14:23), it is not their materiality, or the act of image-making that is banned, but idolatry. There are times when image-making is commanded with the intention to func­tion as icons—whether it be an altar or a brazen serpent. Plato cannot give material this privilege for it is all an illusion and he must forever part ways from his beloved Homer.



Marion, Jean-Luc. God without Being: Hors-Texte. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991. Print

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1991. Print.


Image: Altar Cross by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,