Gods and Idols: 'Idol Anxiety' Looks at the Relationship between Images, Artists and Audience

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Jan Gossaert's 1520 painting "St. Luke Drawing the Virgin" shows an angel guiding the kneeling saint's hand as he illustrates his vision of the Virgin, Child and five putti circumscribed by a circular cloud formation. But however encouraging the angel might be, a statue of Moses with horns sitting on a shelf above points disapprovingly at the Tablets of the Law, insisting on a strict interpretation of the Second Commandment that prohibits believers from making graven images.


Idolatry is a dirty word in academic and artistic circles, where it is viewed as a term imposed on objects that cannot resist the pigeonholing. One person's idol is by definition another's god. The Smart Museum's show "Idol Anxiety" at the University of Chicago explores this complicated relationship between worshiped objects, the artisans who create them and the audiences who experience them.

The exhibit's strength is its diversity. It gathers together a variety of pieces, including an Iraqi limestone statuette and a Syro-Palestinian bronze figurine from the second millennium B.C.E., a 19th-century Kabbalistic Hebrew ink diagram on parchment, and a second-century carved marble sculpture of Aphrodite from modern-day Turkey. According to Aaron Tugendhaft, who curated the show, the Christian works might be the most noteworthy for their invocation of the Incarnation.

"In many ways Christians have developed some of the most interesting strategies and have been attuned to some of the most subtle details that go into the avoidance of making idols," said Mr. Tugendhaft, a Hebrew Bible doctoral candidate at New York University. "At the heart of Christian doctrine is the belief that God took on flesh as Christ--altering the status of matter in the process."

Mr. Tugendhaft echoes the eighth-century monk St. John of Damascus' defense of icon-making. "Of old, God the incorporeal and formless was never depicted, but now that God has been seen in the flesh and has associated with human kind, I depict what I have seen of God. I do not venerate matter, I venerate the fashioner of matter, who became matter for my sake," St. John said, according to a wall text accompanying a 17th-century oil and tempera painting of Christ standing on a globe holding his hands up as if preaching. The work is titled "Christ Pantocrator," the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew "El Shaddai" (literally "God the Sustainer").

If St. John argued that the Incarnation rendered the second commandment outdated, Pope Gregory the Great insisted art can work in symphony with scripture rather than against it. According to the text accompanying a 1505-6 oil painting of "The Raising of Lazarus" by the Italian painter Bramantino, Pope Gregory thought that art presents the illiterate with the same opportunities that scripture offers scholars. Rather than reversing scripture or attacking it, art is scripture.

A third image by an unknown artist of "The Crucifixion" offers another strategy of circumventing idolatry. The 1350 tempera painting shows the Crucifixion from the perspective of a bystander, so that the viewer becomes part of the scene and sees Christ through his or her own eyes. …