Nathan Rees, assistant professor of art history at the University of West Georgia, says there has long been a tension of the depiction of religious figures – one that still continues.
“This struggle is, of course, not over,” Rees said during a talk at UWG’s Newnan campus.
About 50 people attended Rees’ talk, part of UWG’s The Other Night School series. A reception was held prior to Rees’ talk.
From a sculpture of a mother goddess, flanked by two lions, crafted 8,000 years ago to modern stained glass, religious images have been part of human experience.
Deities in ancient Babylon and Egypt often were depicted as part animal. In Greece, the images were human but with “attributes that set them apart from human beings,” Rees said.
“Then we come to something that is a little bit different,” he said, referring to images from the Jewish catacombs in Rome around 200 AD.
“There is a specific reason why you won’t see – hardly ever – images of people in the Judaic tradition. The reason why is that Second Commandment,” Rees said.
The Second Commandment – part of the Ten Commandments set out in the Old Testament book of Exodus – forbid making graven images of any being.
The word translated as “graven” refers directly to idols, something made by hand.
“How in the Judaic context did they interpret that? Very literally,” Rees said.
So for many centuries, the rule was no animals or people in Hebrew art.
The Dura-Europos synagogue in Syria, which dates to 244 AD, does have paintings that show people – characters in Old Testament stories. The only image of a deity, however, is the hand of God reaching down to Ezekiel in one panel.
Islam has “that same prosciption against any kind of image that can be idolatrous,” Rees said. He noted the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is elaborately decorated but with very few images of people or animals.
Early Christianity took a slightly different turn, coming both from Judaism and the Roman culture with its statuary and other art. In early Christianity, images were intended “to inspire devotion or to help teach you something,” Rees said, while avoiding the chance the artwork itself would be worshipped.
He pointed to a sarcophagus of a Christian in Rome from 359 that features numerous images – Adam and Eve in the garden, Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac, Jesus in the temple.
“My question is why is this OK when the concept of a freestanding statue of Jesus is not okay? What does this accomplish that that other type of statue would not?” Rees asked.
He said the purpose of the sarcophagus and most other Christian art of that period was to tell a story.
“Are stories important to Christianity? So important,” Rees said. He described Christianity as “a religion that is in so many ways built around a text.”
Since very few early Christians could read, “images played an essential role,” Rees explained, sharing “a story that could be taught many times much more effectively with images than with words.”
There were debates in the early church about whether such depictions violated the second commandment. Generally, the conclusion was that such images were all right if they told a story.
Eastern Christianity “developed a very rich tradition” with sculpture, mosaics and paintings that eventually developed into the style associated with religious icons today. Those images tended not to tell a story but to represent religious figures as a means for a Christian to focus devotion.
“Sometimes it can be hard to focus your thoughts or prayers or meditation if you don’t have an object in mind,” Rees said. “These icons became helpful embodiments of these religious figures.”
By the eighth century, however, there were those in the church who decided religious art had crossed a line and that many images had become idolatrous.
“You’d never believe art could stir up so much trouble,” Rees said.
Iconoclasm – literally the image struggle – resulted in the destruction of some images and the defacement or reworking of others. Rees showed a slide of a mosaic of a ship where the main image remains but it is clear tiles have been scrambled to get rid of images of people.
For a time, people who disagreed with the iconoclasts could be executed.
Ultimately, however, “the iconoclasts did not win,” Rees said. “As you are aware, Christianity has iconography today.”
Prior to the Renaissance, religious paintings often featured idealized pictures of a glorified Jesus, but the Renaissance brought back ancient Greek/Roman motifs that showed Bible characters who looked like human beings.
“Artists in the Renaissance felt the Romans and Greeks had it right. Images that look real can bring you in, in a way other images can’t,” Rees said.
Some Renaissance paintings included “all kinds of saints and angels depicted as nude figures,” Rees said.
As the Reformation got underway, loincloths were often added to those nudes.
“Lots and lots of people were concerned that the church had gone overboard. The church had devoted itself to luxury, and that luxury itself became idolatry,” Rees said.
Tensions over religious art have continued in Christianity. The Puritans and similar separatist groups “were absolutely opposed to religious imagery,” Rees said.
He said few churches in Newnan would have had stained glass windows in the mid-1800s. More affluent and educated congregations would more likely to accept artistic depictions, but that is “a tiny fraction” of religious people.