Iconoclasm; Yours or Mine? An Essay on Imagery and attachment by Brian Keeler
Updated: Sep 24
Who are you calling an Iconoclast anyway! Well, now that I’ve been reading about iconoclasts or image smashers, it seems that the term is bandied about with great abandon, usually as badge of honor these days. Iconoclastic is often times used to describe someone who is blazing a trail courageously and bringing down the outworn or hackneyed. For example in a review many years ago, Frank Zappa was described as an iconoclast. I’ve read that there is a television series of the same name. Even more pervasive these days is; iconic. It seems that whenever somebody wants to pay a high tribute; "it is iconic" is the go to phrase for praise. So, it is an odd mix we have here, of incensed religious zealots of medieval times, rock stars of today, and no, entering into the fray, those demanding that historical reprobates; (confederate generals for instance) not be valorized in bronze on state capitol lawns. Well, many or us agree in this last instance.
Statues toppling, borders crossed, civilities and the modes of polite society are transgressed- or simply put; there are no structures left to rely on- or so it would seem. Actually the tumult of life on the street seems to offer a more clear-cut ideal of comportment than seems apparent at first glance. I will argue here that deeply held structures are underscored and strengthened rather than subverted.
I have included some charcoal drawings here that illustrate a time in renaissance history when these issues of iconoclasm were at the fore. They are to accompany an historical novel of renaissance Italy, the Verrocchio studio in Florence that I am beginning to work on. They are preliminary studies for future oil paintings to work out the concepts and staging.
We do have the perfect anti-person to use as the litmus test if we’re ever in doubt of what constitutes clear cut virtue or comportment in general. Whatever action taken, position espoused, rhetoric rumbled by the DT, we can place the safe money on it being an absolute example of the wrong course. Is he an iconoclast, merely because he is undermining hundreds of laws written or unwritten? That would be too easy and too charitable. He is merely without moral compass of any sort.
I wrote an essay recently on how statues of war criminals are justifiably controversial and how those dubious statues underscore theories of racial supremacy. I argued that they are long due for removal. Honoring the promulgations of slavery in America is hardly a cause to get behind. Most of us know this to be true.
However, with all the deserved discourse in our op-ed pieces and in the media in general, there seems to be one major aspect that is missing. That would be iconoclasm.
Yes, the intersection of religion, art, politics, social interaction, racial tensions and so much more can also be attributed to the volatile arena of iconoclasm. The destruction of entire nation states and melting down of great works of art has a long history, (all related to iconoclasm) all fraught with so much strife that it is surprising to me that this aspect of our current political situation has not been broached. So I have been inspired to do some sleuthing.
So where does one start on such a febrile and polemically charged subject? Well, how about the Bible? Idolatry and the Golden Calf where Moses rebukes his flock for worshiping false Gods of money is as good a place as any. Today we think of Pope Francis intoning and reminding us all, that we too are traipsing down the same slippery slope. All this attention to profit at the expense of the Earth and environmental responsibility is rife with transgressions and there are indeed apt parallels to those in the Old Testament who were deluded by gilded idols. Then there is the mention of craven images in the Ten Commandments and the jealous God stuff.
My initial point of reference for iconoclasm however is in the Renaissance with what could easily be considered a benchmark, if not the pinnacle of sorts, for iconoclasm. I am referring to Florence in the late 15th century when a certain Dominican friar named Girolamo Savonarola appeared, first to poor reviews, and then later to overflowing cathedrals, with the Florentines hanging on his every word. This phenomena in Italy at the height of an expansion of rationality, clear thinking, flourishing of the arts, sciences and virtually all human endeavors known as The Renaissance and humanism begs for inquiry. In Fact, there has already been a lot of ink spilled on the subject. I have availed myself of some of these accounts in recent books about the period, some novels and others- biographies and historical novels.
Many of us have heard of, or read or we’ve viewed the movie based on Tom Wolf’s novel, Bonfire of the Vanities. Well the original bonfires of the vanities (plural note) occurred in Florence under the influence of Savonarola. Books were burned, famous drawings and paintings destroyed by such luminary artists as Botticelli. It presaged the Catholic Church’s infamous Index of Prohibited Books and it also was a fore echo of book burnings by the Nazis. Thus the practice of censorship and pandering to the powers that be enters the soup.
The rub or dichotomy of Savonarola’s mission is brought into high relief by the fact that it occurred during this efflorescence of the human experiment. The bubonic plague was survived and the centuries long endurance of the same Byzantine images had finally run its course. Humankind was now embarking on a new path or resurrecting the path of the ancients that had been buried, destroyed and forgotten.
Savonarola’s mission was not without legitimacy however, which adds a grey area, an ambiguity of sorts that makes a completely clear cut verdict elusive. The Pope was a scoundrel and materialism was on the upswing as were vanities like gambling and ostentatious dress and conspicuous consumption. Savonarola’s critics claimed that he was trying to make all of Italy into a convent. OK, well taken. Still, with the Pope being complicit in the infamous Pazzi Conspiracy, where the Medici Brothers were attacked, and one brother, Guiliano, stabbed to death in Santa Maria Del Fiore, the main cathedral in Florence on Easter Sunday of 1478. This is the moment of the Eucharist, where Christ is actually supposed to be present. Talk about disconnect!
An important part of the history of icons not covered in Carnes book is the actual creation of art, which is where the genesis of icons is located. The craftsmen of the early years of Christianity who churn out small paintings of the Madonna and child that do not change much for centuries, is where the icons begin to be part of our collective history. It is the workshops or bodegas of the renaissance that hold the most interest for me. This is where the art, such as the statues of David by Donatello, Verrocchio and then Michelangelo are created. And so many other works of painting and sculpture that have entered our world stage, so much so as to be ubiquitous almost. The word iconic applies here in our modern sense, which is to become so recognizable that we all contain the particular art within our psyche. This is why I have illustrated Verrocchio’s studio (shown here) in Florence in the late quattrocento. These workshops like Verrocchio’s, Perugino’s, Raphael’s and Ghirlandaio’s are creating what would become masterpieces of art. They have come down to us as gifts expressing a humanness and often times a divine essence; a vision of the sacred in other words. These iconic images are certainly not restricted to scenes from the Bible. Many remarkable works of myth are part of this too. For example, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus or Bernini’s Daphne and Apollo statue are images in art that represent the classics of myth. And as we have seen, many of these images have been torn from the walls and pedestals by irate mobs in later spasms of iconoclast fervor, such as in the low countries a few centuries later.
But on to more- about the juicy subjects of heresy, iconoclasts and blasphemers. My search led me to a recent book on the subject that is brimming to overflowing with research and study of iconoclasm. This book by Natalie Carnes, titled “Image and Presences” with a subtitle of: Christological Reflection on Iconoclasm and Iconophilia” is as fertile, erudite and thoroughly researched as one could hope for. It is dense with content and rich with contemplative material. If you like books that require lots of referrals to the dictionary, as do I, then this book will intrigue you. Carnes takes this to a fault however, as we readers tire of what seems to be gratuitous obfuscation. We like to stretch ourselves, but when an author serves up a continuous convoluted prose for its own sake, it wears thin.
Anyway, Carnes outlines some of the many manifestations of imagery and the pros and cons of various thinkers over the centuries. For starters, there are inconophiles, inconodules. Iconomachs, iconoclasts, aniconists, etc that show that the variety of religious experience is virtually never ending. The historical context supplied by Carnes is engaging. From early Christian debates that seem arcane at best are covered. Then on to Martin Luther, The Spanish Conquistadors killing Native Americans for their supposed idolatry are but a few.
The subject of image smashing, intolerance and what is actually sacrosanct gets much more pertinent when we bring in recent history. Carnes does this from the get go. For example the horrific episode of free press and personal expressions with cartoons hits a wall when we reflect on the not-too-distant atrocities associated with the French Magazine Charlie Hebdo. Or before that, on the person of Salman Rushdie for his novel, The Satanic Verses. Another recent flash point of controversy involved the museum world and modern art with the fractious image of the “Piss Christ.” We are all aghast at these transgressions by religious fundamentalists, no matter what the stripe. The visual provocateurs in our museums are another mater; seemingly transgressing decency for its own sake or for pursuing novelty and notoriety as career advancement. In fact, these acts of anti-wisdom lead us to common cause with outspoken commentators of our era, like Christopher Hitchens and his book, God Is Not Great. More appropriate here in regards to art, would be the aesthetic ideas of the art critic Hilton Kramer, who also decries transgressive art.
Here’s a passage from Carne’s book in regards to the Charlie Hebdo atrocities;
“… the attack on Charlie Hebdo was uncommonly viscous because it targeted both individual citizens and an institution that was part of making France, France.”
Carnes further unpacks this incident as a clash of cultures and moreover, an attack on free speech as well. In short, a Byzantine religion of the dessert with outmoded morality is confronting the modern idea of discourse and tolerance.
There is an aspect to these vile acts of terrorism by religious fundamentalists and those consumed by ignorance that works counter to their mission. And that is these very acts draw much more attention to their own backwardness and ironically, it serves to strengthen the very images which they seek to destroy.
And to further underscore the fraught nature of our times we see the fellow in the Whitehouse undermining and subverting our free press in way that was unthinkable just a few years ago. His own gargantuan and continuous untruths stand in stark contrast to most members of the free press revealing the emperor with no clothes. Who is the iconoclast really here, the press that reports fact and breaks the straw dogs of deceit and reveals a buffoon that obfuscates all manner of truth.
Carnes book, pays off for me with how she goes deeply into spirituality and art history with some insightful looks and famous works from art history. For example she delves into Fra Angelico’s famous fresco from San Marco in Florence of the Annunciation. Also discussed is Gruenwald’s Isenhiem altarpiece and the Supper at Emmaus, which includes the painting by Caravaggio. The Crux of so much of these art works and the furor of some, is making visible what is supposed to be sacred and beyond the image. The Supper at Emmaus is a visual illustration of just that process; after Christ has been crucified, he suddenly surprises his disciples incognito. They refuse to believe it. Caravaggio brings the passage to us in gritty realism that still offends the clergy. Of similar narrative is the oft-painted scene after Christ’s resurrection of- Don’t Touch Me or known more commonly by the Latin, Noli me Tangere- with Titian’s canvas being a memorable expression.
I think it necessary for an inclusion of Carne's definition of an icon. If not the final word, at least this is part of her unpacking the term for us.
"In bearing witness to the next world, the icon makes the presence of that world visible to the current one. At the same time, it also makes the next world more present to the current one. Icons are often called windows, which captures the way they make the divine visible to us, but inasmuch as a window offers a view of only what is alway already there, the analogy misleads us about how icons also make the divine present to us. Other common analogies for the icon as threshold, border, or entrance perhaps describe the presence better."
Not broached by Carnes is an episode in art in 20th century, this one in Italy prior to World War II. I am referring to the art movement known as Futurism. Its credo was the destruction of all previous established norms for art including museums and galleries. It was more anarchism in art rather than iconoclasm- but still related. I have come to love the visual efflorescence of their technique and imagery- if those can be separated from their manifesto. Boccioni’s vibrant canvases pulse with vitality, color and content. Gino Severini, another member of the Futurist school, waxed traditional at times with his lovely canvas of a mother nursing her child, which has been admired too during my trips to Tuscany. This painting viewed on several occasions in situ in the museum in Cortona. Still, the Futurists too were essentially iconoclast in nature as they were attacking all of their predecessors. Their aesthetic was also wrapped up with the myth of the machine age and unfortunately it was also intertwined with fascism and Mussolini.
I recall an adage that has guided and informed me at various times. And that it is;
“Tradition sustains innovation and innovation invigorates tradition.”
We can see that we need our trailblazers as much as our established models.
I am also recalling other spiritual traditions too in regards to imagery. For example, there is a well-known adage in Buddhism that goes;“If you see the Buddha, kill him.” The implication of course is, perhaps to see the incarnation is to somehow miss or distort the point. Then there is the aspect in ancient Greek mythology, that if a God or Goddess is actually seen by a mortal it will prove fatal and the human will be incinerated on the spot for such an act. The 20th century philosopher and author Paul Brunton, of course has volumes to say about deity, whether in painting, icon form or flesh. Here is a passage from his book, The Wisdom of the Overself;
“ The moment we try to reduce the Supreme Mind to finite space-time by which we ourselves are confined, we betray it. It must exist for itself and not for something much less than itself. We have no right to confine its character within the limits of man’s little field of personal consciousness. Who are we to drag it down to such a level?”
There are so many examples of splintered factionalism in the history or religion, with burning at stakes, the torture during the Spanish inquisition and public hangings of transgressors. One such incident that comes to mind is with Giordano Bruno, a free thinker in Rome in the 17th century. His statue in Campo di Fiori in Rome, one that I have painted under, is an homage and record to him- his statue is a reminder of intolerance to all who amble there.
Carnes makes and reveals so many arcane disputes and controversies that wracked early Christians that we yearn for a simplified creed or anti creed perhaps. One such fascinating wrangle was over images of breastfeeding – of which there are many examples from early Byzantine Icons up to stellar examples by Jan Van Eyck in the Lucca Madonna. Part of the harangue has to do with Mary, the human, giving the milk of life to God incarnate. Apparently some did not like the idea of God being dependent on a woman. Again, it all seems like splitting hairs and so arcane and irrelevant.
Well it must be apparent by now that when we wade into these millennium-long theological disputes it could easily become a quagmire. The goal, as with all study of history, and perhaps spirituality and religion too is too seek the wisdom and lessons from the past. I’ve heard it said that the study of history for merely antiquarian purposes is not the point, that is to say, study of history merely for the sake of hearing a list of facts. The goal we would hope, is to find relevance in history, if not lessons in wisdom to apply to our lives today.
The subtitle of my essay mentions whose iconoclasm is it? In other words, one man’s iconoclastic furor over an image, is to another fellow, just a polemical dispute that is overblown and of little consequence.
The drawings shown here were all created from the artist's imagination and each one measuring 24" x 24". Some photo reference was used for certain figures, but for the most part the scenes, figure arrangements, lighting, compositons and portraits were conceived in the imagination. These drawings are done with vine charcoal, compressed charcoal and graphite pencils. They were done as preliminary studies and as explorations of ideas for a novel about an artist in the Renaissance who studies in Verrocchio's workshops with Leonardo, Ghirlandaio and many others. These works are exercises in exploring the concepts, spaces and dynamics for possible oil paintings of the same subjects.