Holy icons act as signs that point to the immediacy of the depicted. The icons present to the beholder a way of being in relation with the signified. It is precisely this intimacy which many find troubling. The on-off Iconoclastic Controversy in New Rome on the Bosporus that spanned nearly a century (AD 726–87 and 815–43) centered on the claim that representations of sacred persons were idolatrous. The suspicion was (and is) that the beholder merges the reality of the represented with their representation. Sign and signified become so intellectually and emotionally fused for the beholder that he regards the image as the embodiment of what it depicts. That is, the depicted inheres, rather than just appears in the image.
Much has been made of the influence of Koranic dogma on the iconoclasts. By 651 Islamic invasions had subjugated the Christian territories of Syria, Mesopotamia and Egypt. Damascus as a major center of Orthodox theology fell to the Muslims nearly a full century before Emperor Leo III issued a series of decrees from 726-729 forbidding the display of icons in churches and public places throughout the weakened empire.
Protestant reformers of 16th-century northern Europe however, who had little direct experience with Islam, were seized by the same suspicion and determination to remove figurative sacred art. Many Protestants further claimed that pictorially representing Jesus’ mother, his disciples, martyrs, saints and angels fostered worship of their images as cultic mediators between God and man. Thus any veneration of saints was opposed, making their representations a double taboo. This left only the image of a naked cross as a badge of reductive purity. Washed of representations of the “express image of His person” as St. Paul calls God the Son, the familial gave way to the mechanical, the disengaged and disinterested deity of the Enlightenment.
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