The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm

By Riggs, Ann K. | The Catholic Historical Review, January 2002 | Go to article overview

The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm


Riggs, Ann K., The Catholic Historical Review


The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm. By Alain Besancon. Translated by Jane Marie Todd. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2000. Pp. viii, 423. $40.00.)

Besancon is director of studies at L'E'cole des Hautes etudes 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).

Besancon'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, Besancon 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, Besancon traces twentieth-century Modernist abstraction's roots in both the formalism of Picasso and in Russian, English, and German Romanticism, piety, and Pietism.

Besancon 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, Besancon'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. …

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