Image-Honor: The Perennial Use of Man's Art

Symbolic art has long been appreciated for its usefulness in religion. Many of the oldest works of art discovered in modern times are thought to have been created for religious purposes. Man has given art highest honor when he has used it as a symbol for God and sought to honor God by honoring the symbol. Man's desire to engage in this high use of art, though at times thought of as inadequate, or inappropriate, has proven to be a basic, and perhaps inalienable, pursuit of humanity.
The emergence of civilization, writing (thus history), and the religious use of art can be traced to the region known as Mesopotamia.
"Mesopotamian sculptors, particularly the Sumerians, were adept and sophisticated. They did not produce realistic representations of reality --that was not their purpose. Rather, they aimed at creating symbols of religious piety or political or military power. Sumerian statues tend to be stiff and solemn. The head and face are carved in detail, and the body is neglected and sometimes merely represented by a geometrical form (Noble 21).
From Mesopotamia, the Babylonians used symbols to represent God. The tablet below depicts the nature of Babylonian "Image-honoring." Note that the large figure is the anthropomorphic deity seated on a heavenly throne and represented to the priest, king, and (presumably) people by the symbol.
"The tablet of which a representation is given was erected by Nebobaladan, king of Babylon, an ardent votary of the worship of the sun-god, about 900 B.C. The god is seated on a square seat, placed inside a porch supported by pillars, and holds in his hand a ring and a short rod....Of the three figures standing with their faces turned toward the disc, the first is a priest, who holds the stool with his left hand, while with his right he grasps the left hand of the second figure--the king whose right hand is raised in adoration. Above the heads of the three figures three lines of inscription: 'The image of the Sun-god, the mighty lord, the dweller in the temple of Uri, which is within Sippara (Patrick 642).
Mesopotamia was also the seed-bed that produced the antithesis to this basic desire for "image-honoring." Abraham, the father of the Hebrews, came from Mesopotamia. It was among his progeny that Abraham's God gave (through Moses) the strict prohibition: "You shall not make for yourselves any carved image, or any likeness of anything...you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I the Lord your God am a jealous God...(Exodus 20:4,5)." This law becomes the foundation for sporadic resistance to "image-honoring" throughout history, in Judaism, Islam, and sometimes Christianity. The fact that the Christian, New Testament also prohibited idolatry resulted in a repression of art's highest place among the early Christians.
"For the first four centuries of the history of Christianity, the fear of introducing the pagan practice of idolatry deterred the use of images in churches (Morse 4816)."
This was the case even though a close reading of the Hebrew text would not forbid images, but rather the bowing before, or worshiping of them. In the Middle Ages, Roman Catholicism had to overcome the internal struggles of the Iconoclastic controversy in order to legitimately sponsor some of the greatest works of art of the High Middle Ages and early renaissance. At the second council of Nicea, in 787 c.e., the Catholic Church sought to deflect the pejorative use of the word "idolatry" by the Iconoclasts who had sprung up within her ranks. The second council of Nicea overcame the objections of the iconoclasts by two methods. One, by claiming that "...the honor given to the image passes to the prototype" (EOWA 811), and Two, by creating a distinction between "idolatry" and "image-honoring". This the Roman Catholic Church did without offering a sufficient apology for the Hebrew prophets, who refused to accept the Babylonian practice of worshiping the god through the image. Nor did those assenting to the council recognize that "idolatry" and "image-honoring" would have been synonymous at the time the New Testament was written.
During the Reformation "Protestant aniconism severed the bond between the visual arts and worship" (819). Nevertheless, an acceptance of "image-honoring" has prevailed among many of the Protestant churches, especially since the Romantic period. As the Anglican author Massey Shepard notes in his book titled "The Worship Of The Church": "The setting of liturgy may also be richly decorated and include a wealth of symbol carved in wood or stone....Ceremonial is thus intimately related to art. Hence ceremonial styles prevailing in the successive generations of history. The cut of a vestment, the ornament and decoration of a church, are obvious examples of the accepted art-forms of the period when they were made. But ceremonial gestures of reverence, such as standing, bowing, genuflecting, etc., also reflect the good manners of the age in which their use in church was introduced (Shepard 57-58).
So that finally, "great-tradition Christianity" serves as a narrower test case indicative of the broader streams of humanity's religious endeavors. Christianity, in its central form--most consonant with culture and the arts--affirms our thesis. The ancient practice of "image-honoring" supersedes the more strict dogma of written revelation. The idea that man's projected concept (god), should reveal a willful command against such a fundamentally desired practice is by and large extinguished. Humanity, since the dawn of civilization, has sought to bestow its highest honor upon both art and God; to symbolize God and God's presence, and then to honor God by honoring the symbol.
-Jeff Miller

Encyclopedia Of World Art: Volume 7. England: McGraw-Hill Pub., 1958

Morse, Joseph Laffan, ed. "Image Worship." Funk and Wagnalls Standard Reference Encyclopedia. New York: Standard Reference Works, 1959.

Noble,Thomas F.X., Carry Strauss, Duane J. Osheim, Kristen B. Neuschel, William B. Cohen, David D. Roberts, eds. Western Civilization. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998.

Patrick, David, and William Geddie, eds. "Babylonia." Chamber's Encyclopedia. London: The Waverly Book Co., 1925.

Shepard, Massey. The Worship of the Church. New York: Seabury Press, 1952.

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