Saturday, June 15, 2019



Iconoclasm is the policy that favors destruction of visual images, and lack of tolerance for them.  While derived from two Greek roots, the expression is a modern term. The primary reference, however, was to two periods in Byzantine history when the use of religious images or icons was strongly opposed by the imperial authorities. In the Greek of medieval Byzantium, the overall conflict was termed Εἰκονομαχία, Eikonomachía, literally, "image struggle" or "war on icons.”

Over time, this negativity has taken various forms, an early instance being the Second Commandment of the Hebrew Bible:  “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” (NRSV; the texts in Exodus 20:4 and Deuteronomy 5:8 are identical). The word here rendered idol is probably more familiar in the King James rendering “graven image.” In Hebrew the word is “pesel,” derived from “pasal,” to hew, hew into shape. This usage implies that the banned objects were three-dimensional, opening the way for exceptions, honored in various times and places, allowing for flat images.

At all events the archetypal instances occurred in the mid-Byzantine empire. Byzantine iconoclasm surfaced in two periods in history when emperors, with the support of imperially-appointed leaders and councils of the Christian church, imposed a ban on religious images. According to the usual account, the "First Iconoclasm,” as it is sometimes termed, was imposed by Leo III in 726 or 730.  (Some scholars have questioned the reliability of this account, holding the iconoclasm began somewhat later.). Its ravages gradually mounted. Opposition increased, and a change in regime reversed the ban (in 787). But not definitively, as the "Second Iconoclasm” ensued in the years 814 to 842.

The two serious outbreaks of iconoclasm in the Byzantine Empire during the eighth and ninth centuries were unusual in that the role of images was the main issue in the dispute, rather than a by-product of wider concerns. While the actions of the iconoclasts caused the destruction of countless works of art, it is undeniable that the intensity of the conflict attests that both sides took art very seriously.  As no extended sources defending the iconoclast viewpoint have survived, historians depend on accounts by their opponents, the iconodules.

This negativity did not appear out of thin air.  The first Christians were slow to adopt visual art, with the first images surfacing around 200 C.E. Once the art appeared, the temptation to invest such works, especially icons, with special powers was hard to resist.  The later sixth century, a time of growing social insecurity, saw an increase in magical associations surrounding icons. The faithful were (it was charged) worshiping the icon rather than the holy figures depicted therein. Icons were held to be able to save cities and armies, and to protect individuals (as they were readily portable). Some of these objects were deemed acheiropoetai, not made by human hands. The apprehensions these beliefs caused fostered the rise of iconoclasm in the following century.

It has been suggested that a further causal factor was the need to combat Islam, which had its own traditions of distrusting images.  As a rule, modern scholarship discounts this explanation, viewing the emergence and progress of Byzantine iconoclasm as an internal matter.

The Western empire stood aloof from the iconoclastic fervor, and one motivation for ending the first phase of iconoclasm may have been to establish more cordial relations between Constantinople and Rome.

Iconoclastic destruction was immense.  Once the turmoil was over, figural mosaics could be recovered in some churches beneath the whitewashing.  Yet most early icons perished.  Only those outside the imperial jurisdiction survived - at St. Catherine’s in the Sinai and in Rome under papal rule.

By 842 C. E. the iconoclastic furor had spent its force.  The production of icons resumed, and to this day their legacy continues to be cherished in the Orthodox world.  The solution achieved served to reflect the sense that icons were at best a transitional stage on the path to true piety.  The devotion they evoke must pass to the prototype - that is, to the holy figures and events depicted.  Under cover of this rationale painting revived, while sculpture in the round, still retaining the stigma of idolatry, did not. 

The rise of the Protestant Reformation in Western Europe reopened the image question. Some territories that became Protestant stopped producing religious art. A few took more drastic action. so that a second great outburst of iconoclasm occurred in the 1560s in the Low Countries, stoked by Calvinist rigorism. Thus the only truly major works that survive by Hieronymus Bosch did so because they were secure in Catholic Spain and Portugal.

Apart from isolated outbreaks of vandalism, iconoclasm disappeared in Western Europe after that time. However, Stalin's Russia, officially atheistic, saw the destruction of many religious buildings and works of art. Yet after 1991 a number of churches, prominent symbols of Orthodoxy, were rebuilt.

The most recent period has seen jihadist attacks, by the Islamic State and other Muslim extremists, on works of art in areas under their control.

All these assaults were ideologically motivated.  In addition, there have been isolated instances of vandalism committed by disturbed individuals.  Because of the absence of any overarching rationale these are not generally regarded as iconoclasm.

Another possible connection is more remote.  Shortly after the year 1900 several pioneering European artists, including Hilma af Klint, Vassily Kandinsky, and Piet Mondrian, created an art of pure abstraction completely excluding any representational elements.  This approach, forms of which continue to this day, is not so much iconoclasm as image avoidance. 

Further Reading:

Charles Barber.  Figure and Likeness: On the Limits of Representation in Byzantine Iconoclasm, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Stacy Boldrick, et al. eds., Striking Images, Iconoclasms Past and Present,  London: Routledge, 2018.

Leslie Brubaker,  Inventing Byzantine Iconoclasm, Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 2003. [revisionist approach, with useful bibliographical references]

Anthony Bryer, and Judith Herrin, eds., Iconoclasm. Birmingham: Centre for Byzantine Studies, University of Birmingham, 1977.

David Freedberg,  The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

James Noyes,  The Politics of Iconoclasm:  Religion, Violence and the Culture of Iconoclasm in Byzantium, Christianity, and Islam,  London: I. B. Tauris, 2013.

Alice-Mary Talbot. Byzantine Defenders of Images: Eight Saints’ Lives in English Translation.  Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 1998.

Saturday, May 25, 2019


Ibsen's huge play, Emperor and Galilean, was completed in 1873 after a long gestation. It treats the late-Roman conflict of paganism and Christianity in the person of Julian the Apostate. The play is thought to have launched the idea of a "Third Realm," advocated by the philosopher Maximus as a moral and political ideal constituted by a synthesis between the realm of the flesh in paganism and the realm of the spirit in Christianity (det tredje rike).
A little later, the idea was advanced independently by Gottlob Frege to designate the sphere of abstract ideas. There is also Karl Popper's late formula of World Three.
Yet surely the idea is older, as when the Anglican church is termed the Third Way between Catholicism and Protestantism. (To be sure, the affinity with the "Third Reich" is unfortunate.) And a commonplace among the ancient Greeks was that there are three modes of life: competition, buying and selling, and contemplation. In Brand, Ibsen himself identifies three life-choices to be avoided: timidity, frivolity, and madness.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

The Bible - One book or many?

Sometimes grammatical distinctions, far from trivial, reveal larger concerns. One such is pertinent to my recent threads. That is, how is the root term BIBLIA (Greek and Latin) to be construed? Is it a feminine singular, designating one coherent entity? Or is it a neuter plural, "the books?" Today when we can buy various editions of the whole Bible in any bookstore, we assume that the former is correct - it is one thing. So too with the way that many read it, construing a single plot line throughout: the ways of the Deity in history - or for others, the manner in which believers have constructed this story.
Historically, full editions of the Bible did not become generally available until ca. 800 CE, during the Carolingian era. Even so, they were expensive, to be found in only a few wealthy monastic libraries. Pious lay people acquired partial editions such as the Psalter and the Gospels.
In my view a segmented approach remains preferable, for modern textual analysis has disclosed a range of autonomous entities therein. For example, modern analysis of the Pentateuch rejects any single author, instead identifying four source-streams, generally known as J, E, D. and P. So at the beginning of the Bible we find a composite: the books, as it were.
I thought of this approach in noting another thread hereabouts, one that reopens the old issue of the contradictions in Scripture. Unlike the usual generic approach, these anomalies are often best explained by invoking a piecemeal approach. For example, the book of Genesis begins with two separate accounts of the Creation. Since they were originally autonomous, we must expect discrepancies between the two. Yet when contradictions are found in a single installment, as does sometimes occur, that is significant.
Hence discussions of Biblical contradictions should be conducted within the arenas of individual text-clusters. In this way many otherwise troublesome variants become understandable. Over the centuries, the editors have sought to retain the integrity of the texts they were integrating, leaving be the discrepancies along the way.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Gothic

The tragic fire in Paris reawakened my interest in this older piece.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Changing one’s views

Sometimes my friends chide me for changing my views about various subjects. In response I quote my former boss, Jacqueline Wexler, president of Hunter College, to the effect that she changed her views when she had access to newer information. 

So it has been for me with libertarianism, where I was never, to be honest, a true believer - even though it had an impact on me back in the day. Now I feel no affinity at all. 

Libertarins, who have little electoral presence, did not create the present distressing income inequality.  But their ideas are no help.  Their free-market fundamentalism is actually casting gasoline on the fire of income inequality that is ravaging all our advanced Western polities.

Monday, February 25, 2019


Diglossia and modern art

In linguistics, diglossia is a situation in which two dialects or languages are used by a single language community. In addition to the community's everyday or vernacular language variety (labeled "L" or "low" variety), a second, highly codified variety (labeled "H" or "high") is used in certain situations such as literature, formal education, or other specific settings, but not used for ordinary conversation.[1] In most cases, the H variety has no native speakers.
The high variety may be an older stage of the same language (as in medieval Europe, where Latin remained in formal use even as colloquial speech diverged), an unrelated language, or a distinct yet closely related present day dialect (e.g. Standard German alongside Low German; or Chinese, with Mandarin as the official, literary standard and local varieties of Chinese used in everyday communication). Other examples include literary Katharevousa versus spoken Demotic Greek; literary Tamil versus spoken Tamil and Indonesian, with its Baku and Gaul forms;[2] and literary versus spoken Welsh.

With appropriate modification this binari sm may be useful in characterizing the art of the twentieth century, so often regarded as THE modernist century, with its procession of postimpressionism, fauvism, cubism, abstraction and so forth.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Ernst Gombrich

Inadvertently, a section on Sir Ernst Gombrich got left out of the printed version of my History of Art History. While this omission is unfortunate, the role of Gombrich as the world’s leading art historian has faded in recent years. Above all, his attempt to reorient the field in terms of perception proved a dead end. 
Here is the missing section. 
Sir Ernst Gombrich is mainly identified with London and the Warburg Institute in that city. While the precincts of the Institute are somewhat austere and generally attract only scholars, so that one could easily cloister oneself there, Gombrich made it a point to reach out to audiences at many levels. His avuncular, witty, and articulate manner became widely known.
Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich was born in Vienna in 1909 to a middle-class Jewish family. His father was a lawyer and his mother a piano teacher. Gombrich’s parents adhered to a humanistic culture centered on the writings of Goethe. In art this meant, above all, a reverence for the great masters of the Italian Renaissance and for classical antiquity. These attachments the schoolboy readily absorbed. At the same time he was aware that the increasing popularity of expressionism was calling older verities into question. This sense of an immanent, perhaps epochal change in art-historical orientation was, he has recorded, what most drew him to major in the field at the University of Vienna. 
In his studies in art history at the University he was confronted with a choice between two teachers, Josef Strzygowski and Julius von Schlosser. Strzygowski, who today would gain points as a multiculturalist, rejected classical art and Eurocentrism, emphasizing the creative influence of inner Asia. Gombrich attended his lectures and rejected him as a demagogue, so that he gravitated to Schlosser instead, a choice that proved decisive. As for Schlosser, his retiring personality restricted his pupils to a small number, but so solid was the formation he received that the young Gombrich felt that he had made the right choice. The older scholar emphasized the critical study of sources, the direct examination of objects in the museum, and specific historical problems, such as the history of ornament. 
For one semester in 1932 Gombrich traveled to Berlin to attend a special series of lectures by Heinrich Wölfflin, which he found disappointingly simplistic. Much more gripping were the rather technical presentations of the Gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Köhler. This encounter stimulated Gombrich’s interest in psychology. A little later he learned much from the tutelage of the psychoanalyst-cum-art historian Ernst Kris at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. 15 Interestingly, he was not so much impressed by Kris’s devotion to Sigmund Freud (about whom Gombrich has remained critical) as in his interest in academic psychology, and the way it can cast light on physiognomics, caricature, and perception. Here, as he has acknowledged, the key influence was Kurt Bühler, holder of the chair in psychology at the University of Vienna and author of monographs on speech and what would now be termed semiotics. 
Somewhat in this vein Gombrich chose to write his dissertation on Giulio Romano, whose mannerist effects in architecture and painting at the Palazzo del Te at Mantua he found disturbing but oddly captivating. This choice is perhaps partly rooted in his puzzlement with regard to certain developments in modern art, which he analogized with the Italian master’s work. Like many of the Transatlantic Migrators, Gombrich remained cool to the more advanced aspects of modern art, seeing them as somehow entangled with the spirit of irrationalism that had ravaged Central Europe in his youth. At any event he rejected the then-fashionable interpretation of mannerism as a tortured by-product of tension and angst. Similarly (though much interested in classical music), he felt no attraction to the twelve-tone precepts of Arnold Schönberg. A positive influence, subsequently reinforced in London, was the philosopher of science, Karl Popper. According to Gombrich, Popper’s 1935 book Die Logik der Forschung “established the priority of the scientific hypothesis over the recording of sense data.” 
As conditions in Austria deteriorated, Gombrich was fortunate in the fact that Kris found him a job (in 1936) at the Warburg Institute, which had just moved to London from its original home in Hamburg. (Since Aby Warburg had died in 1929, Gombrich, who was later to write a fine book on him, never met him.) This move decisively altered his destiny through two encounters: first, with the Warburg Institute under its gifted director, Fritz Saxl; and secondly, with the English language, of which he became a master. Most of the émigrés managed to write at least passable English, but two, Gombrich and Panofsky, excelled in their adopted tongue. Their linguistic feats were very different. Panofsky had a gift for acrobatic displays of irony and wordplay, salted with prodigious amounts of erudition. These verbal pyrotechnics were so brilliant that they sometimes distracted from the point that the scholar was making.
By contrast Gombrich’s talent lay in clarity of exposition - so that the reader is carried along almost effortlessly by the perfect choice of words, and the mellifluous sequence of ideas. Yet let me make a personal observation. This agreeable effect sometimes lulls one into accepting a conclusion that on reflection one does not share. Gombrich’s expository powers realize his commitment to the ideals of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment with its focus on the Common Reader. His seeking of the center in this way means that the reader often does concur, but perhaps not as often as the writer might have hoped.
Gombrich’s skills were honed by his accepting several jobs in England that involved teaching at a rather basic level. These successes (and an earlier children’s book on world history that he had written in Vienna) induced the Phaidon Press to commission The Story of Art. First published in 1950 and many times reprinted and enlarged, this book offered a genial text that served to introduce many on both sides of the Atlantic to the subject.
At the same time he continued to frequent the Warburg Institute, where his closest associates were the learned Otto Kurz, his old friend from Vienna, and Frances Yates, who almost single-handedly revived knowledge of the hermetic tradition. In 1959 Gombrich became the Institute’s director, serving also as Professor of the History of the Classical Tradition. At the same time he used his position to enlarge his interdisciplinary interests in the natural sciences. In the field of perception he avidly absorbed new discoveries in the physiology and functioning of the eye. He also cemented his alliance with his philosophical mentor, Sir Karl Popper, then teaching at the London School of Economics. In addition to their commitment to scientific method, Popper and Gombrich shared an aversion to Hegel, whom they blamed for laying the foundations for totalitarianism, in both its Nazi and Marxist versions. Later, however, Gombrich’s attitude to the philosopher was to mellow, leading him to accept the Hegel Prize of the city of Stuttgart in 1977. 
The pivotal event in Gombrich’s scholarly life occurred in his forty-sixth year. In 1956 he traveled to Washington, D.C., to give the Mellon Lectures, the most prestigious in the field. The result was the 1960 book Art and Illusion, which combined grace and accessibility, with erudition and innovation, making him for a time the hottest art historian going. This period was one in which art history had considerable appeal for the general public - witness the tremendous success of The Voices of Silence by André Malraux - that seems to have faded. Of course Gombrich has retained the esteem of art history professionals in a way that Malraux has not. If the research program that seems implicit in Art and Illusion, namely visual perception as the key to progress, failed completely to convince, Gombrich’s reputation as the “thinking art historian” has held. A revealing tribute came from a critic, Norman Bryson, who remarked in 1983, “The gap between philosophy and art history is now so wide that in practical terms it is filled almost by a single work; Gombrich’s Art and Illusion.” While this claim of uniqueness is overstated, Art and Illusion remains a milestone in the development of art history.
Ranging with great panache over wide provinces of the ancient Mediterranean and Western Europe, these lectures seek to explain the changing appearance of works of art. Indeed, perhaps the most challenging question Gombrich poses is “Why does art have a history?” That is to say, why is it that different periods have represented nature differently? Though simple to pose, this problem’s solution is by no means ready to hand. In order to address the issue more closely, Gombrich adopts the psychological concept of the “mental set” as a way of addressing the distinction between nature as an object of perception and nature as an object of representation. Of course, vision as such is a biological given, a physiological substrate which must always be factored in as the parameter-giving force - hence Gombrich’s interest in laboratory experiments concerning human perception. On this biological foundation are imposed ways of seeing. But here a dilemma appears. Are these ways of seeing simply modes of inflecting a basically unitary process (universalism) or are they something that differs fundamentally from culture to culture (culturism)? Strong arguments ca be marshaled for either assumption. Without solving this problem, Gombrich helpfully suggests that our expectations of what we will see play an important role; we see what we have been conditioned to see. In keeping with this premise Gombrich strongly denies that there can be such a thing as the “innocent eye,” a straightforward way of seeing, uncontaminated by preconceptions. Rather, “(a)ll culture and all communication depend on the interplay between expectation and observation.” In addition to perceiving products of our own culture with the mental set that has been given us, we are capable of adjusting our mental set so as to perceive a highly stylized medieval work, such as the Bayeux Tapestry, in terms of the mental set of the era that produced it.
In any event once we realize the need to adjust our mental set to accommodate works with different strategies of representation the need for periodization in art history becomes evident. A madonna by Cimabue requires one approach, a madonna by Raphael another, and a madonna by Tiepolo yet a third. We normally call the ruling conventions that characterize these works period style - in these instances Italo-Byzantine, Renaissance, and Baroque.
Many who have approached this problem have done so from the point of view of the observer, the “consumer” as it were of the art work. Gombrich of course does this as well, in his concept of the “beholder’s share.” However, he also addresses the question in terms of the producer - as did Wölfflin - bringing in the idea of a constant interplay between making and matching. Thus the artist makes marks on the surface, then he or she checks the marks - or “matches” them against the motif. This leads to a modification of the marks, a new making, and this in turn requires a new matching - and so forth. Put differently, there is a close relation between schema and correction. Successful negotiation of this process requires attention to the nature of the medium, so that in Constable’s landscapes, for example, the ability of oil paint to hold colors is crucial. 
It is evident that Gombrich has tackled a task of enormous proportions. It is the invitation to the artist extended, so to speak, by Renaissance illusionism “to paint everything.” Grandiose as this ambition of embracing the perceived world is, one must ask: is it all? What about symbolic contents that are not clearly coded in what we see? And what about the inherent interest of patterns, whether they are found in nature or not? The focus of Gombrich’s investigation accords well - some would say all too well - with his positive valorization of the Renaissance and of Greek art and his dismissal of medieval art (“pictographs”) and much modern art.
Historians of science speak of internalist and externalist accounts. The former treats a discipline as problems which are solved, leading to new problems and so forth. The externalist approach emphasizes societal and personal factors. 
With his dislike of holistic, Hegelian interpretations, Gombrich approaches the problem of why art has a history in terms of a unilinear internalism. This means that in his narrative the only significant factor is the variable of illusion. This monism contrasts, for example, with Vasari’s “market basket” of qualities, including disegno, invenzione, and grazia. Gombrich’s internalist singlemindedness leaves out effects that reflect the demands of society as seen through such content-driven elements as iconography, symbolic portraiture, and the like. Although elsewhere Gombrich tackles the symbolism of the Renaissance, in Art and Illusion he does not treat this fundamental theme. Another way of approaching the matter would be to say that medieval “pictographs” are poor in details but rich in intensive significance (the play of analogies through symbolic association). 
Recognizing the need for a complementary approach, Gombrich sought to deal massively with the “rest of art history” in his 1979 book on ornament, The Sense of Order, but these observations remain a foreign body with respect to the theory that made him famous. One is compelled to say that after his great breakthrough at the end of the fifties and its concretization in Art and Illusion in 1960,  he largely consolidated his observations, but without carrying the underlying theory further. 
Many scholars have taken exception to this or that aspect of Gombrich’s theory. The semiotician Norman Bryson has attempted a comprehensive critique. In Vision and Painting Bryson posits that Gombrich’s concept of the painting as a notation of perception recorded and dialectically modified is inadequate: it does not sufficiently recognize that perception is a complex undertaking, involving many factors and creating a dialogue between beholder and painting. Moreover, strategies of the gaze (as Bryson terms it) have changed over time. This criticism is cogent, for it acknowledges once more the paradox that the history of art is an amalgam of histories of art: the history not only of illusion, but of the gaze, subject matter, uses of works of art, and many other factors.