Griffins Without Faces
My 3-year-old grandson, Matthew, attends a pre-school in Bury St. Edmonds, Suffolk in the lovely land of East Anglia. To get there, we walk along a few quiet residential streets till we get to a narrow driveway defined on either side by tall lush greenery. At the entrance to the driveway stand two brick pillars. Atop each pillar is a small stone griffin. The faces of the griffins have been hammered off. From the aging of the stone, I’d say the hammering took place a very long time ago.
It is possible the griffins were defaced (literally) by random vandals, but is vandalism ever really random or does its very randomness express nihilism? Regardless, it was probably not random vandals but ideologically driven iconoclasts ridding the Emerald Isle of graven images.
After our recent visit to Matthew’s pre-school, we went to Stratford Upon Avon. The schoolroom where William Shakespeare began his formal study of words – and we shall return to words e’er long as they play a major role in this drama – adjoins a chapel constructed by the Guild of the Holy Cross 1418-1420. Restoration of the chapel in recent years displays lovely medieval iconography on the wall behind the altar. It features Christ crucified, John and Mary at the foot of the cross, and most recently discovered, John the Baptist to the side. The images of Jesus and the saints were covered over by plaster, but before that, there had been a serious effort to eradicate them. This occurred on the orders of Elizabeth I carried out under the direction of a Stratford public official John Shakespeare, William’s Dad. John was probably Catholic in his personal piety, but Elizabeth was paying two shillings for the job and this was part of changing the purpose of the place from visual art to words, those words John’s son mastered so remarkably.
The present restoration of the chapel is uncovering the visual expressions of Medieval piety. But pause a minute. This restoration is peeling the paint and plaster spread by John Shakespeare’s minions, right? Might we now be defacing the piety of the 16thCentury iconoclastic reformers?
After our time in Stratford Upon Avon, we visited the Victoria and Albert Museum. The display of Medieval art, on overwhelmingly Christian themes, was breathtaking – a profound expression of an idealized spiritual faith expressed through the genius of art. This is precisely the sort of thing that shocked the conscience of 16thCentury iconoclasts. The Renaissance Art was equally exquisite. Renaissance Art too was rich in Christian themes, albeit an earthier more human faith. But Renaissance Art included themes from pagan Antiquity that would have been smashed and burned by Early Christians and utterly verboten throughout the Medieval era. Both aesthetic apprehensions of what we observe and what we imagine -- Antique Pagan and Medieval Christian -- would come under attack from the iconoclastic hammer and plaster brush in a short while.
Whence cometh this seemingly irresistible impulse of our species to make meaning through art? What is it in us that is so threatened by such art that we react against it so violently? What is it that makes words less of a threat than paintings? Now in our time, words – logocentrism – come under attack from deconstructionists. Is the challenge to words and grammar the same as, similar to, or utterly different from the iconoclastic spirit that hammers away the faces of griffins? I suspect a connection but that the connection is more complex than I can sort.
The First Wave of Iconoclasm. There is a philosophical side to this question. But before the philosophy, let’s consider the story. My story comes down to an exegetical hypothesis on a piece of the Torah. It is somewhat interpretive, somewhat imaginative, but not an invention. It is within the realm of legitimate opinion, but it will be obviously shaped by the pastoral experience of an old cleric who has spent decades directing the sacred traffic of God’s very human people.
The history of the issue long precedes Medieval Art and the Reformation. Art was expressing religion back in the hunter gatherer and even cave dwelling days of our species. When religion grew institutional with the agrarian revolution and the rise of hierarchical states, art abounded. Language was a Johnny Come Lately to religion. We were painting divine, human, and animal stories long before someone in Sumer invented writing circa 3,000 BCE. Thereafter, words and images peacefully coexisted for nearly 2,000 years.
Then came Moses who took a radical stand against images and words alike. Were his reasons theological or philosophical? Perhaps, but I suspect they were political – and by that, I mean no criticism. I posit Moses was trying to clear the way for collaborative moral relationships among people.
There is no archaeological evidence of a massive exodus of slaves from Egypt. There is no evidence of a massive invasion of Canaan in the era of Joshua. There is no historical evidence of such events apart from the Bible. There is evidence of class conflict in Northern Canaan, which was subjugated by the Egyptians. It would seem that Egypt as an agricultural domination system had extended its empire over the fertile valleys and plains of Northern Canaan and forced the indigenous people into field labor. Their rebellion is documented by letters from the Egyptian military to the royal court describing how the insurrection of the apiru (Hebrews – not an ethnic category but a class category – it means the rabble).
It appears as if a future uprising may have had some success, that a significant number of the indigenous people in Northern Canaan followed Moses away from the fields, swearing to hoe no more fields for the man, and fled into the hills to take up a different life -- a pastoral life, to be ordered by egalitarian norms of freedom, justice, and equality – in marked contrast to the domination system of agrarian society. They had not previously needed to create ways to order their common life. The Egyptians had been ordering it for them. To create a free and equal society, new forms of unity were necessary. A common religion was the heart of it.
These people were not all of the same tribe. Tradition tells us there were 12 tribes. The idea that they shared a common ancestor and a common history before Egypt is a strained tale in Genesis, which would be written centuries later. It looks very much as if some tribes claimed ancestry from Abraham and others from Isaac. Genesis makes one the son of the other and both characters had at points similar stories. A narrative of common ancestry is part and parcel of weaving 12 tribes into one people.
It was a polytheistic world, but a tribe cold have a particular tie to one god who would look out for them if they were loyal to him(religion had become patriarchal in the Bronze Age). Naturally, the tribes worshiped different Gods. Some called their deity, El (translated in the Hebrew Scriptures as God). Others worshiped a god named Yah or Yahweh (whose name will be banned early in this story, so he will be referred to more obliquely asAdonai (generally translated as the Lord). The different tribes agreed to worship the same god but in an attempt to preserve their traditions, declared:
Shema ‘srael, Adonai Elohanyu Adonai echad.
It is vitally important to parse the Great Commandment in its context. Hear O Israel. Listen up Israel. Hear – as summons together. Then God bestows on them a single name – Judah, Benjamin, Ephraim, Manasseh, and the rest are subsumed under one name Israel. In Isaiah, it is said, you who were not a people are now my people. God through Moses forms a people by summoning them to hear and giving them a single name. Then God radically simplifies their theology: Yah (Adonai)and El (Elohanyu) are one (the same guy). Do not jump the gun. This is not monotheism. That is centuries away. The point here is to say that the different gods of these tribes are merged into a single god, Yahweh El, the Lord God, for a single people, Israel.
But – and surely you are not surprised – disputes over the name of God persisted. Why? I do not know. Is it that the one God manifests so variously in human hearts? I do not know. Differences persisted. Troubles continued – until it was decreed no name of God should not be spoken at all. We just won’t use words. That is from the days of the Hebrew Scriptures and is a silent shibboleth of Judaism, so that many orthodox Jews will not say any word referring to God but will point upward, or when writing omit the letter “o” and print “G_d” so that without a vowel no word can be pronounced. And yet as Judaism lives on, the Kabballah gives us Nine Names of God. Judaism has two traditions, one with emphatically no name for God and another that proliferates names.
But I am ahead of myself. Let us return to the innocent days when Yah and El were the same, so that one said Yahweh El (the Lord God) or did not say the name of God at all, how shall we represent God in our holy places –. Some tribes had worshiped a bull-god; others, a god who looked like a griffin. Who gets to paint God to look like the God their grandparents worshiped? We can easily imagine the fight over that one. And anyone who can imagine that will all the more easily imagine an exasperated Moses banning all images of God.
It didn’t work of course. The altar of the Ark of the Covenant had bull horns. Statuettes surmised to be of The Lord God have been found from various times of the Biblical era. But, in principle, the nameless, imageless God of Israel was sufficiently nameless and sufficiently imageless that other peoples called the Jews atheists.
We have no art from the brief period in which primitive Christianity was a Jewish sect. Quickly, the Christians became neither fish nor fowl – or part fish, part fowl – between Judaism and Hellenism. By the 2ndCentury, paintings of Jesus as a young shepherd appear. At first there was no sacred text beyond the Hebrew Scriptures. But by the 2ndCentury, a canon of Scriptures is forming from letters and the new literary genre of evangelion(gospel) written just decades before. It would be anybody’s guess whether the written words or the paintings came first. We can be sure, they were pretty much hand in hand.
It may (??) be important that in this formative era of Christian art and literature, Christianity was the faith of small collaborative communities reminiscent of Moses’ pastoral communitarian society. Then Christianity became the religious arm of the Empire, Constantine’s mother Monica discovered “the one true cross” and that which had not been a Christian symbol became the central Christian symbol erected in every place of worship. Cristian literature and Christian art went public together. Did the meaning attached to the art change when it became public art, the face of the Empire and its state religion, instead of the more personal art of small, marginal communities?
In the 6thCentury, the iconoclastic controversy arose – or not so much arose as went international. Syrian Christians had never warmed up to religious art. Iconography was all over Greece but not Syria. When Syrians surged in ecclesiastical influence, they launched a challenge to visual representations. It was a passionate fight. The more European sector of the Church regained control and decreed that icons are ok but attempted to smooth it over using words. Icons would not be worshiped but would be venerated -- meaning they are not gods but God can be encountered through them – which is not so different from how pagans had long understood the function of idols.
What was actually going on in the iconoclast controversy? What was going on with the iconoclasm of the 16thCentury? While it is often assumed that Henry VIII’s only purpose of a break from Rome was to secure and annulment of his marriage, he expeditiously banned votive images as such images were being destroyed in Protestant lands on the Continent. Edward VI launched an assault on all religious art, replacing it with Scriptural texts on Church walls. Yet there survived ample religious art to be destroyed by Cromwell in the 17thCentury. What stirred their passions against paintings of the Holy Family or the saints? What thoughts motivated whoever took a hammer to the 19thor 20thCentury griffins outside Matthew’s pre-school?
I know of strict Congregationalists who will brook no religious objects in the Church or elsewhere – meaning no cross. Other Protestants are perfectly comfortable with the polyvalent symbol of the cross, but nothing else. Then there are those who will endure a portrait of Jesus (preferably the one modelled on Pope Alexander VI’s dissolute son) but no one else. Others will accept other paintings of all manner of saints, but no statues of anyone. Then there are those who are ok with a sta e of Jesus only. Then some are ok with Jesus and other men, normally 4 evangelists; the quartet of Peter, Paul, Mosel, & Elijah; or the 12 apostles; and maybe more guys like Stephen or St. George. Interesting for our puzzlement about word and image, some will accept statutes of men referenced in the Bible but not saints from after 210 C.E. The foregoing are, as I say, comfortable with representations of men – but not women! No Blessed Virgin Mary for them – not in painting or statue but in the words of Matthew and Luke, she is acceptable. Then I have met a surprising to me number of people who are comfortable with Mary so long as she is white, but the Virgin of Guadalupe strikes them as idolatrous.
Flashback to the 6thh Century. Were the icons of that day Eurocentric? Did that Hellenistic hegemony implicitly stir the iconoclasm of the Syrians who had been rather marginalized in the Church up to then? This is pure speculation on my part, but I do wonder.
How are we to understand the stirring of art in the human spirit, a stirring that virtually compels us to express our faith in word, image, and song, but which also horrifies others? Is their horror a simplistic fidelity to “thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image” – how does that get to the ban on musical instruments (but not acapella singing) in some denominations?
I do not know. Truly, I do not know. But I wonder if it has to do with two things: the mystery of God and the continuing struggle to connect with each other.
Iconoclasm is primarily a concern for the Abrahamic traditions – but not exclusively so. In Buddhism, images of the Buddha were forbidden in practice for several centuries, then became omnipresent objects of devotion. The iconography of Tibetan Buddhism is as rich as that of Rome. But Theravadan Buddhism is simpler and Zen Buddhism is starkly simple. Very simple drawings characterize Zen, but so does the adage, if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. There is in Buddhism a concern that the sacred not be conflated with words, images, or even the person of the Buddha. I mention this because the universal ambivalence about artistic expression cannot be reduced to absolutizing a few Biblical texts.
Being and Void/Other/Differance
I preface all I say here with a deep thank you to Emanuel Levinas and Eberhard Jungel (and to David Ford for having struck them against each other like flint and steel). If I seem critical, it is as a gnat critiquing giants.
Over the centuries, Christianity came to experience God not as a superbeing but as Being itself, the suchness of things, but with the empathic point that Being is not an abstraction, not a mere quality of existing; rather Being is personal and intentionally procreative of beings. God is the intimate suchness of Reality itself. The core of all that is is Love.
That way of talking about God has been subjected to searing critique in the latter 20thand early 21stCenturies. It has been challenged by atheists of course but more interestingly by deconstructionist philosophy, negative theology (Marion, Cupit), and – in a category all his own – Levinas.
The Post-Modern challenge is a kind of iconoclasm, or more aptly logoclasm, an attack on words as such and an attack on the concept of meaning that words convey, a challenge to the notion of such a thing as meaning, what Derrida calls logocentrism. Nietzsche famously said in the 19thCentury,the reason we have so much difficulty getting rid of God is that we still believe in grammar. He meant we are beset with a sense of the order and purpose implicit in language. Post-Modernism challenges that sense of meaning and order. Marion notes that the whole scientific process rests on an implicit faith that there is an orderliness to reality. That is the implicit faith Post-Modernist philosophy smashes with the iconoclast’s hammer.
I do not mean to paint all these philosophers with the same brush. Their concerns are different, but they have a common enemy, the notion of Being as the source, destiny, and purpose of reality. Contrary to popular assumptions, this repudiation of God as Being or the Ground of Being (as Tillich put it) isn’t science. The intellectual champion of Western atheism, Anthony Flew, was converted to theism by the Big Bang Theory because it proved the Universe has a Source beyond itself. John Polkinghorne, Wolfgang Pannenberg, and other leading theologians rely heavily on science while leading scientists debate the philosophical and theological implications of their discoveries. (I am no scientist and so cannot rightly judge but my sense is that the philosophers and theologians have a better grasp of the science than some of the scientists have of the philosophy and theology – Paul Davis being one of the exceptions). Nor does the challenge come from a boldly optimistic humanism. That naivete is under the same critique. It seems to be the horrors of world wars, the moral shock of genocide, the persistence of war often cloaked in ideology, the randomness of violence -- all in all, the moral failure of the world that has turned our minds to a logoclasm to match old fashioned iconoclasm.
Moral protest certainly lies behind the philosophy of Levinas whose work is quite directly in response to the Shoah that so marked his life. Massive genocide led him to a radical critique of Western thought as such. As a Talmudic scholar employing the skeptical phenomenology of Husserl, he is adept at his critique. He rejects Western notions of Being, the Beautiful, the Good, the True, Aristotle’s virtues practiced in community, the whole tradition in favor of the discovery of morality when we encounter the shocking reality that we are not alone, but there are others. I am not prepared to replace the whole canon of Western intellectual history with Levinas, but his critique deserves to be taken seriously as he speaks in the tradition of Moses.
I would like to add to the mix the thought of Levinas’s Asian contemporaries, the Kyoto School of Philosophy, most famously Keiji Nishitani, Kitaro Nishida, and Masao Abe. Form their experience of World War II in Japan, it was not only Western philosophy that was the problem. They searched Eastern thought wondering how it could have culminated in the militaristic nationalism that propelled Japan into the World War and led many Japanese to engage in such cruelty.
As Western thought had focused on Being as the core of Reality, Eastern thought had focused on the Void. WW II led the Kyoto philosophers to study Western philosophy for a corrective. They were drawn particularly to Karl Barth, a theologian whose language has some kinship with that of Levinas. They continued to believe a great Void, or Emptiness, or Spaciousness lies behind all our experience. But they discovered that the Void was procreative, freely proliferating the Cosmos. As they looked at the Cosmos spinning out of the Void, it told them something of the nature of the Void. Yes, a Void can have a nature. They discovered that the Void was personal!!! – an idea akin to a nameless, imageless God who is Love. The Kyoto philosophers too deserve our respect and attention.
So Where Are We?Short answer: I don’t know. The impulse to find or forge meaning through art and language is so essential to human nature, we cannot stop it. But if I say, “I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in. I am worn out by holding it in. Indeed, I cannot. Jeremiah 20: 9. This is as true for the poet, the philosopher, the theologian, the painter, the sculptor, and the dancer as it is for the prophet. Art and language are as essential to our humanity as tools – maybe more so.
On the other hand, whatever we say, paint, sculpt, or in any way express of God is inadequate. We have such an urge to render God manageable, that we are apt to reduce the God of our imaginations to what we have expressed. We may worship our statues or our doctrines. It comes to the same thing. Stone and words alike are representations of God – essential because we cannot live without making meaning but dangerous because those stammering expressions of meaning are apt to shut down the ongoing process of feeling our way in the dark searching for God.
Where does that leave us? Might it be that art and iconoclasm exist in a necessary tension? If so, how are we to manage it? I truly do not know. But if those who forge meaning make a discipline of paradox, there is an implicit iconoclasm in the meaning. It is when the image or idea is comprehensible rather than suggestive that it is apt to shut down the search prematurely. It is paradox that holds the mind open. that props open the door of our hearts. What do I mean by paradox? The personal Void. God who is one and three. Jesus who is fully human and fully divine. Our tradition abounds in paradox, though we often flatten it out and explain it way. That is when the hammer comes out.