The Catholic Historical Review 88.1 (2002) 98-99
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The Forbidden Image:
An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm
The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm. By Alain Besançon. Translated by Jane Marie Todd. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2000. Pp. viii, 423. $40.00.)
Besançon is director of studies at L'École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, and expert in Russian politics and intellectual history. His entrance here into discussion of theological rejection of images is self-described as intellectual history, general history, or history of civilization, not art history or theology (p. 9). Thus, one may take with a grain of salt small specific errors such as a claim that the Pauline epistles and John's Gospel are the last written of the biblical books (p. 2) and a verbal confusion in discussion of Panofsky's analysis of differences between Cicero's notion of the artist's internal "idea" and Plato's Idea (pp. 44-45).
Besançon's book is a study of the doctrines which govern the accepted forms of representing the divine within the Greek and Roman, biblical, Early Christian, medieval, Renaissance and Baroque, and modern periods of specifically European civilization. Unusually, Besançon begins his modern section, by far the most extensive and vivacious portion of the work, with Calvin. In a move familiar among art historians, but perhaps less well known elsewhere, Besançon traces twentieth-century Modernist abstraction's roots in both the formalism of Picasso and in Russian, English, and German Romanticism, piety, and Pietism.
Besançon traces through European history the interaction of "two contrary imperatives" articulated by Plato as "two incoercible facts about our nature: first, that we must look toward the divine, that it alone is worth contemplating; and, second, that representing it is futile, sacrilegious, inconceivable" (p. 1). Overtly Christian controversies and solutions, then, become instances within a larger narrative.
Nevertheless, Besançon's own interest in his subject matter is most clearly expressed in assessments of the theological "orthodoxy," in Christian terms, of the theories and art he considers. These assessments sometimes seem tendentious. His discussion of Caspar David Friedrich's Teschen altarpiece seems to willfully dismiss as specious an apparently direct and clear articulation of traditional Lutheran faith in the effective mediatorial role of the crucified Lord in the [End Page 98] Eucharist presented by the painting and Friedrich's own description of it. But Besançon may, in fact, simply not know Lutheranism well enough to have considered such a reading plausible.
Besançon's broad approach leads to some broad difficulties. His claim that "Mondrian embraced iconoclasm" at the point where he turned his back on "tragic" nature serves as example of a larger set of problems (p. 377). Mondrian's concern was with subject matter. The concern of the eighth-century iconoclasts was with means--the Eucharist being for them the one appropriate icon of the Lord. In equating these intellectually different constructs, Besançon additionally makes too easy an equation between depiction, representation, affirmation of the goodness of creation, and the Gospel. In the Greek icon tradition, perduringly naturalistic in contrast to the more abstract Russian tradition (a contrast Besançon does not well articulate), painted images of the risen Lord and the saints in glory depict and represent neither creation nor ahistorical, amaterial forms, but the eschatological new creation. Similarly, Mondrian's later abstract art represents, even depicts, a new creation that Mondrian believed was leaving "nature" behind and bringing into being "a truly human life," within the temporal and physical world (p. 376).
Besançon's book is a serious engagement with issues of the meaning of depiction and abstraction in painting and deserves serious consideration. But he is not a sure guide for those not already familiar with the history of art and Christian theology.
Ann K Riggs
Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops