Image and Presence
A Christological Reflection on Iconoclasm and Iconophilia
Natalie Carnes



Our Life with Images

Two armed gunment entered the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo early in 2015. Over the years, the magazine had published cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammed, and on that January day, the gunmen sought vengeance. They killed twelve and injured more.1 France, along with the rest of the world, was stunned.

As horrific as the clash was, it was not unfamiliar. It reminded many of the controversy that had swirled years earlier around the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. After the paper published cartoons of Muhammed, cartoonists there received death threats; journalists at other outlets debated reprinting the cartoons; and Muslims around the world fasted, prayed, and protested.2 The cartoon images spawned dramatic and dramatically clashing responses.

The charged controversies at Charlie Hebdo and Jyllands-Posten did not mark the climactic conclusion to two opposed views of images. They augured still more violence. Among the latest image attacks has been the massive destruction of art and images by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—images ISIS deems idols and art it calls “an erroneous form of creativity.”3

This brief litany of image crises originates in the headlines of the last few years. As a group, the stories sketch a picture of an unassimilated, image-breaking Islam threatening an image-making, image-celebrating Modern West.4 This picture often governs how each individual story is narrated.5 We, the enlightened Modern Westerners, laud the image (or at least protect it as free speech), while the image-intolerant Islamists refuse to open their views to critique. This has been our guiding picture for the image crises of our time. This is the picture that both captivates and deceives us.

The picture deceives in part because it homogenizes both Islam and the Modern West, eliding Islam with violent Islamists and the Modern West with a particular, secularized brand of modernity. The picture sustains this homogeneity by representing certain image attacks and eclipsing others. In particular, it obscures controversies in which Christians or Modern Westerners assume a more overtly iconoclastic role. In some cases, these episodes of iconoclasm mirror the type of iconoclasm practiced by the likes of ISIS. For example, in 2011, four self-professed Christians entered an exhibit displaying Andres Serrano’s photograph Piss Christ. Arriving with hammers, they threatened the guard, smashed the protective glass, and slashed the image.6 This was a case where an image deemed religiously offensive was physically destroyed, and in that way (though not in the scope of destruction), it is similar to the ISIS attacks.

Not all attacks on the image in the Modern West have been so straightforward. Over the years, lawmakers in France have sought to enforce the separation of church and state and diminish religious violence by legislating the circulation of religious symbols. They proscribed headscarves, yarmulkes, turbans, and crucifixes in public schools (2004). They outlawed wearing full face coverings in public (2010). They prohibited the display of large religious symbols by private day-care workers (2015).7 These image fighters did not come with hammers but with laws; they did not physically destroy an image but circumscribed its appearance in the world. It is a different kind of iconoclasm.

It might be that the Modern West has bred new strains of iconoclasm. It did, after all, give rise to the museum, which arguably attenuates images’ political force. Pivotal in this history was the transformation of the Louvre Palace into a museum for housing political and religious artifacts of the old regime as objects of formal value.8 Just so, the museum both protected images from physical harm and enshrined images as objects of specifically aesthetic admiration.9 Though the museum can be a powerful place of encounter and transformation, the Louvre of the late eighteenth century, like many art museums today, did not treat images as political or religious objects, even if it attended to their political and religious histories. Ironically, the result is that those attacking images as blasphemous or idolatrous—like the Christians vandalizing Piss Christ or the Islamists protesting cartoons of Muhammed—often take the claims of images more seriously than those protecting the images do. The image attackers damage an image because they disagree with it; museumgoers do not attack even when they disagree with an image, in part because they are not as impressed by the seriousness of the image’s claims. It is this strange dynamic of iconoclasm that inspired art historian Horst Bredekamp’s paradoxical observation, “The iconoclasts are the real iconophiles.”10

In mentioning Christian and Modern Western iconoclasm here, I am not equating it with the iconoclasm in the litany above. Ignoring an image’s claims is not the same as destroying it, nor is it congruent with harming image-makers and image protectors (though this is not to say that Christians and Modern Westerners have not destroyed images and harmed people as well). I cite these examples neither to absolve image violence nor to minimize cruelty on excuse of its ubiquity. Instead, I point out Christian and Modern Western iconoclasm to illustrate that Christianity and the Modern West are complicated and manifold regarding images—much more so than the distorted picture I first sketched. Within the traditions of Christianity and the Modern West, the image has been divisive. In the case of Christianity, the image even marks the divisions among its major ecclesial families.

For relations among Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox, the question of the image has been vexed. In the wake of the Byzantine iconoclastic controversy, the Orthodox privileged icons as sites of sacred revelation in a way the West has not fully embraced, and that has, in turn, left the Orthodox rather cold on Western image traditions. As for the Protestant-Catholic divide, Protestants’ exit from the Catholic Church was announced with acts of iconoclasm intended to symbolize and enact the purification of the church. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Protestant mobs shattered stained glass images of saints, tore down and mocked crosses and crucifixes, and vandalized paintings. Since then, Protestant churches have developed a range of positions on images, but a suspicion of the role of images in worship is generally a distinctively Protestant (and often anti-Catholic) impulse. More than other Christians, Protestants worry about the temptation to idolatry, about the subtlety of difference between image and idol. Catholics, meanwhile, remain as a group much more sanguine about images. Not only do images fill Catholic churches, but canon law even requires some of them—the empty cross, the crucifix, and the stations of the cross.

Even today, these various Christian churches do not agree on the role of images in their life together as the people of God. Differences persist in twentieth- and twenty-first-century theology. While Catholics like Hans Urs von Balthasar and Pope Benedict XVI have insisted on the indispensability of images to Christianity, Protestants like John Howard Yoder and Robert Jenson have called for continued iconoclasm as a form of fidelity to Christ.11 Meanwhile, those like Leonid Ouspensky and Paul Evdokimov in the Orthodox tradition have defended the importance of holy icons by opposing them to what they call Roman art.12 The image marks the distance of these ecclesial families from one another.

Here, then, is one reason the us-versus-them picture of images cannot be sustained. It presumes a more unified we in the Christian and post-Christian Modern West than exists. We who live in a world shaped by Christianity are much more plural than a simple opposition to “unassimilated” Islam implies. We include image worriers, image lovers, and icon venerators. We admit a range of practices and attitudes toward the image.

But there is a still more fundamental problem with this opposition, one centered on what an image is. The problem is not just that we both affirm and negate the image. The problem is also that the image negates itself. Negation is internal to how images mediate to us the presence of the imaged. To put the point more polemically, I claim that images possess an iconoclastic structure: From negation, presence.

Image and Likeness

What counts as an image? Or better: how does something become for us an image? To illustrate how I am using the term image—and ultimately defend my claim about the iconoclastic structure of imaging—I propose we imagine a small child who has recently mastered the art of holding tools for drawing. Our child picks up a yellow crayon and presses it against a piece of construction paper, running it back and forth across the paper’s rough surface, exploring the materiality of her medium and coating the sheet with the waxy residue of her efforts. As a wonder-driven experiment with new media, these yellow scribblings are not an image. They are a picture. They are not an image because they do not signify something to the child but simply mark her delight in making—for the moment. Soon an adult approaches the picture and begins interpreting it to the child. “What a lovely drawing! What is it? Have you made the sun?” The child observes the adult beaming her approval and agrees; she has made the sun. Now the picture has been negotiated in a new relationship, one that overlaps with but remains distinct from pictures. It has become for the child an image.

There are two aspects of this vignette that I want to highlight. First is the way the image is constituted in relation to a beholder. What is simply an object (yellow waxy residue) for one person or at one moment can become an image (of the sun) for another or at another moment. An object can become an image when a person’s relationship to it changes. And as an object can become an image, so can an image become an idol, spectacle, token, or illusion—all deteriorations of the image I will explore in the chapters that follow. The image is never safe from the threat of degradation, for identities like idol and image do not inhere in a thing; they name a relationship mediated by communities, institutions, histories, and desires. One person’s image is another person’s idol.

The second aspect I want to underline is the specific difference between a picture and an image.13 A picture becomes an image when it is an image of something. For, an image is first and foremost a type of sign, which a picture need not be. When a young child scribbles on a paper, her scribblings do not necessarily point beyond themselves. They are traces of the child’s work with certain materials. But an image does point beyond itself; it has a signified. Any child’s drawing is a picture, but as they grow, children learn to make images insofar as their pictures are of something. This is not to claim that pictures are failures or unrealized images. It may be the case that a work of great art, like the child’s scribblings, is also a picture rather than an image. I mean simply to distinguish these categories of images and pictures, which form a kind of Venn diagram. In one way, an image may be said to be a certain kind of picture: a picture that is also a sign. But as there are pictures that are not images, so also are there images that are not pictures, for images need not be visual.14

While often visual, images encompass a highly diverse set of phenomena, including sound images. For example, onomatopes like sizzle, slurp, beep, and hush are word-images. That is, they are signs twice over, for they signify both as words and as images signify. As words, they signify as groupings of letters taken to mean certain things. One could say, “I slurp my lemonade,” or “I drink with a loud, sucking sound my lemonade,” and the meaning in both cases is, at one level, interchangeable. Slurp means “drink with a loud sucking sound” because that is what we take that grouping of letters to denote. But slurp has another, more visceral level of signification. It sounds like the action it denotes, and in this way slurp signifies in the same way images do: by its likeness to the signified.

Likeness to the signified is the essential and distinctive feature of images, distinguishing them from all other species of signs, including words and symbols.15 It names at a broad level the relationship between image and imaged, and as a term, likeness accommodates considerable diversity. An image might bear, for example, the likeness of sound, as in onomatopes, or of a certain type of physical resemblance, as in most photographic portraits. Likeness of substance, person, and name have all been named by Byzantine image defenders (iconodules) in their efforts to distinguish image veneration from idol worship. Likeness is a capacious criterion for images.

For the Byzantine iconodules, likeness also signifies the presence an image bears. Each type of likeness corresponds to a distinct presence, and the type of presence an image bears justifies the attention or service given it. An icon is said to bear hypostatic presence (the presence of a person) because it is hypostatically like the imaged—so the ancient argument goes—and therefore worthy of veneration.16 Because the photographic portrait of my mother bears a likeness to her we name “physical resemblance,” her physical resemblance is present to me through the photograph. A presence of physical resemblance is much weaker than that of hypostasis, so while I treat my mother’s photograph with respect, I would not, say, prostrate myself before it.17 The various likenesses of an image correspond to the registers of presence it bears.

To claim the centrality of likeness to imaging raises the question of unlikeness. John of Damascus, the great seventh-century iconodule, describes an image as “a likeness and pattern and impression of something” that is, however, “certainly not like the archetype . . . in every respect.”18 Of course, an image cannot be like the archetype in every respect. If it were, it would be the archetype itself. It must be both like and unlike the archetype, for if likeness names the distinctive feature of imaging, unlikeness names the distinction between image and what John of Damascus calls archetype and others call prototype, signified, or imaged. Both likeness and unlikeness are essential to what an image is.19

For images, the structure of presence echoes the structure of likeness, which signals but does not exhaust this presence. As likeness appears in a stratum of unlikeness, so presence dawns in absence. In itself—in its own literal existence—the image is not this presence. The light-sensitive chemicals and glossy finish of the photograph, for example, are not the same as the presence of my mother. Her presence is other than these media. In mediating to me my mother’s presence, an image gives more than it is. It confers a presence beyond itself. It mediates, that is, presence-in-absence. Absence, then, names the condition for the possibility of imaging.20 The image presents what it is not, and in the presentation of the “is not,” the “is”—the literal image—recedes.21 This is the negation at the heart of imaging.

Here we come to iconoclasm. An image, to be an image, is broken open to mediate a presence beyond it. And this breakingness, this negation internal to the image, is homologous with certain iconoclasms external to an image. As many forms of external iconoclasm break images to insist that the images are not identical with divine presence, so the image negates its own literal existence so it can mediate a divine presence with which it is not identical. Many iconoclasts want to claim that the image does not circumscribe the divine, that the divine cannot be located in the image. But the image—when it is not functioning as an idol—also makes this claim in the way it negates itself to present the divine that it is not. When a person concerned about idolatry does not perceive that negation, she may respond with her own negation, an external iconoclasm.

Images need negation to be images. The negation at the heart of imaging is not an eradication nor an erasure. Neither is it a degradation of the image. It is a breaking open that leads to greater revelation. It is a way of saying images mediate presence-in-absence and likeness-in-unlikeness. When absence and unlikeness are elided, the image becomes an idol. This is a failure of negation, and without the negation, the image ceases to be an image.

The negation internal to the image becomes notably important in communities with a heightened anxiety about idolatry. In the Christian tradition, for example, many artworks dramatize the negation to accentuate the image’s distinction from the divine it presents. Horst Bredekamp argues that it was through artists exaggerating the internal negations of images that Christianity was able to tolerate a tradition of image-making. In the teeth of a command not to make images, artisans justified Christian image-making by expressing that prohibition in the image itself. These images, then, communicate the iconoclast’s critique. Bredekamp points to Niclaus Gerhaert van Leyden’s fifteenth-century statue known as the Dangolsheim Madonna, created during a time of image anxiety.22 In it, Mary looks down toward the Christ child, who holds the edge of Mary’s head covering across her neck so that it cuts off her head visually, the way an iconoclast might sever it materially. The Dangolsheim Madonna internalizes and expresses anxiety about images by anticipating the critique of the iconoclast and so discouraging idolatry. The statue thus reminds the beholder that it is just an image, that it can be destroyed and so should not be confused with the heavenly Madonna and child, who are beyond the reach of the iconoclast’s hammer. Just so the Dangolsheim Madonna works to render the negation of the image—the sense in which it “is not” what it images—highly legible. In attempting to stave off idolatry and external iconoclasm, it dramatizes the iconoclasm internal to the image. The negation of the image thus simultaneously chastens the image (it is not the imaged) and testifies to its power (it commands a dangerous authority).

Caroline Walker Bynum describes multiple medieval art pieces that work similarly. She describes, for example, Pietàs with a polished finish that “call attention . . . to the stuff of which they are made” to “underline the paradox of life and death, grief and triumph, they manifest.”23 Looking at one such Pietà, the viewer is reminded by its glossy shine that it is an image, and in remembering it is an image, the person observes a theological commitment to life in not-life. God in Christ came by what God is not. And in emphasizing that it is not identical to what it signifies, the Pietà suggests the power of what it signifies, the divinity that cannot be reduced even to the most precious materials of the world. For another example, Bynum points to a cradle for a Christ doll. Shaped like a cathedral, the architecture of the cradle “announces that it is in several senses a place for the God-man, complicating what ‘presence’ means in a way it would take paragraphs of words to explain.”24 The negation of the object as purely a cradle or only a cathedral suggests the complexity of divine presence, the way that God can be present by different means and in various ways.

Such negations, then, do not deny the possibility of the image but respect and underscore those possibilities, resonant with the way apophatic language opens up words. These negations name an internal iconoclasm (a breaking) that makes an image an image. And there can be external forms of iconoclasm similarly faithful to what an image is. Such iconoclasm attempts to recuperate an image that has become an idol, as an image. Not all—nor perhaps most—iconoclasm falls under this description, yet iconoclasm that does remains an important mode of fidelity to images. For all images, to the extent that they image, invite the gaze to open to a signified beyond them. Images like the Dangolsheim Madonna call attention to what all images do: by their likeness, they mediate what they are not. This is what I have called the iconoclastic structure of imaging, and it is surpassingly revealed—as I display in the chapters that follow—in Christ the Image.

The Language of Iconoclasm

It may raise the hackles of some readers to see iconoclasm discussed appreciatively. Such appreciation may sound like heresy revival or unnecessary provocation. After all, why use the term iconoclasm to describe the structure of imaging? Is it not like arguing for a quasi-divine God? Why not just write of a negation or, better still, stick to the language of recession and kenosis that phenomenologists use to describe a similar feature of imaging? In fact, why not take a cue from those phenomenologists who disavow iconoclasm all together?25 I cannot promise to soothe every reader’s anxiety about iconoclasm, but I can assure readers that I use the term advisedly. There are some historical and etymological reasons for feeling less squeamishness about the term, and some modern-constructive ones for embracing it. First the former.

Iconoclasm is not an ancient term, nor even a Greek one. It first appeared as the Latin word iconoclasmus, used by a sixteenth-century writer trying to describe the actions of a ninth-century bishop. In the late eighteenth century, iconoclasm appeared occasionally in English to describe actions of French revolutionaries and certain Protestant groups, but it was not until 1953 that it was first employed to describe the Byzantine image controversy—and it has spawned a vast literature in the decades since.26 The word iconoclast has a longer history. Its first recorded use is found in Greek in 720 (eikonoklastes), to rebuke a bishop, and it does have a place in the iconodules’ literature. But the term Byzantine contemporaries most often used to describe the image controversy was iconomachy, the image struggle, a term more literally fitting to the controversy, which did not involve breaking images so much as removing them and legislating against them.27

When I invoke iconoclasm, then, I do not mean to straightforwardly identify with the Byzantine iconomachs. I intend to capture a sense of “breaking” an image, but I want to draw from the wide spectrum of cultural associations with the term. Iconoclasm is a complex term today, in part because the images iconoclasm targets have diversified and changed over time, from material and concrete images to increasingly immaterial and abstract ones. James Simpson has traced this evolution in the Anglo-American tradition in his book Under the Hammer, where he argues for what he calls the dynamic of iconoclasm.28 Iconoclasm, as he displays, has an expansive appetite that moves from deposing images to exposing ideologies. The dynamic he traces sheds light on the use of the word today. Iconoclasm for most people names a wide set of practices, and I use it in keeping with that ordinary sense.29

As one example of the ordinary, capacious use of the word, iconoclast has become a sometimes laudatory term for someone who challenges entrenched beliefs or cultural institutions. Robert Mapplethorpe, for example, was an image-maker whose provocative photographs earned him the epithet iconoclast. And Pope Francis, when he washed what some considered the wrong feet on a Maundy Thursday—those of women, Muslims, and convicts rather than priests—was called by some an iconoclast.30 These contemporary uses of iconoclast insinuate the way that making and projecting images can also break other culturally valorized images. In this use of iconoclast, the acts of making and breaking images can be coeval, just as in the case of the museum, protecting and muffling them can be. It is in this sense of iconoclast that I have set up this book as one kind of iconoclastic project—liberating us from a picture of us versus them that has held us captive—even as I attempt to resist other kinds of iconoclasm, like reducing the significance of images to verbal explanation, a project that is iconoclastic because it attempts to unmask images as simply imprecise words.

The popular use of iconoclast is important not just because it helps identify the ambivalences of iconoclasm. The description of an iconoclast as a breaker of cultural images—a blasphemer—is additionally important because it resonates with Scriptural descriptions of Christ as a skandalon or stumbling block (1 Corinthians 1:23).31 These accusations of blasphemy leveled at Jesus by some of his contemporaries figure him as an iconoclast, in the modern sense that Mapplethorpe and Pope Francis are called iconoclasts. All three break cultural expectations and institutional mores. In some cases, iconoclastic breaking injures; in others, it renews. Distinguishing between the two is important, and I do not mean to claim all instances of iconoclasm as positive. Throughout this book, I will attempt to name and discern both iconoclasms of fidelity and iconoclasms of temptation. Retrieving iconoclasm in all its ambivalence lays the groundwork for making such distinctions, and for drawing lines of continuity between the way Jesus images the divine and the restorative forms of iconoclasm in our modern life with images.

There is another reason for using the language of iconoclasm. It helps to dissolve the us-versus-them narrative perpetuated against those we regard as our “others,” notably Islam. In the days following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, millions gathered in Paris both to mourn these horrific shootings and to rally in support of the magazine and those who had died there. The discussion that followed in the streets and newspapers spilled over into a conversation among University of Chicago professors, hosted by the Divinity School’s online forum Sightings.32 Phenomenologist Jean-Luc Marion inaugurated the conversation, expressing his outrage at the Charlie Hebdo shootings by interpreting them not only as murder but also as themselves a kind of iconoclasm. The shooters attacked more than an image or set of images, though. For Marion, they attacked the French tradition of satire. Though careful to criticize the possible oppressions of what he calls “French-style secularism,” Marion explains French society’s support of Charlie Hebdo in spite of the latter’s often offensive content by invoking the “fundamental and ancient trait of French society” to think and speak freely.33 Thus he builds to a call for Islam to open itself to critique, that by which “religions demonstrate their excellence” and “[test] . . . their religious validity.”34 In this line of thought, the attack on Charlie Hebdo was uncommonly vicious because it targeted both individual citizens and also an institution that was part of making France France. Iconoclasm is located here in the attacks on the culturally important institution of free critique.

What interests me about this response is not the harsh condemnation of the attackers. That sentiment is broadly shared, well beyond French nationals. What intrigues me is the strong us-versus-them opposition that comes across in the article. Marion does not narrate a fight in which certain Islamic attackers respond to particular images. He describes a contest between France and Islam. The cartoon images stand for a culture that is distinctively French, such that to attack the image-makers is to attack France. And the attackers stand for an unassimilated Islam—an Islam that has not opened itself to critique or tested its religious validity, as have other, properly assimilated religions. Thus the us versus them emerges: they are the iconoclasts who have not opened themselves to critique. We are the iconophiles who make, permit, and circulate images under the banner of free speech. And so, Marion announces: “France is at war.”

Two of Marion’s colleagues at the University of Chicago Divinity School responded to his article. Bruce Lincoln and Anthony Yu name as the iconoclasts, not the Islamic attackers, but the Charlie Hebdo writers and cartoonists who attacked a religious icon. In their article for Sightings, they do not endorse Charlie Hebdo’s iconoclasm, which falls short of “courageous” iconoclasm. It mocks the weak, they claim, not the powerful.35 It is one thing, they write by way of example, for Charlie Hebdo to mock the Pope; another to ridicule Muhammed. The iconoclasm of Charlie Hebdo amounts to “cheap bullying,” for the cartoonists attack the cultural icon of a marginalized group within France.36

In identifying the cartoonists as iconoclasts, Lincoln and Yu reframe the story around Charlie Hebdo. It is not just us (iconophiles) versus them (iconoclasts), for both writers and attackers operate out of iconoclastic impulses. And just as both are iconoclastic, so both are, contra Marion, critical. Lincoln and Yu point to Talal Asad as they claim critical self-reflection as internal to both Christianity and Islam—even as that tradition is differently expressed in each.37 The hope is not to equate the iconoclasm of the cartoonists and those who attacked them but to call us into the murkier work of distinguishing the two more subtly, identifying the darkness, integrity, viciousness, and hopefulness in each. By seeing the ways that iconoclasm is internal to both Christianity and the Modern West, we can cease from using the label as an easy way to distance others. We have to reckon with our own iconoclastic impulses and sort through what we want to affirm about others’ iconoclasm. For while Modern Westerners might laud the iconoclasm of Robert Mapplethorpe or Pope Francis, connections are not often drawn between their iconoclasm and the image crises of our times. We Modern Westerners hold them apart when we condemn the iconoclasm of Islamists.

In general, I admire Marion’s work on images. Readers of his work and of the phenomenologists he has influenced will notice vibrant affinities between my approach to images and theirs—for example, in the way that images open to an excess beyond themselves. What Marion and other phenomenologists describe as recession is like what I describe as negation. Several other similarities will be highlighted throughout this book. But the way I most starkly diverge with this tradition is over the language of iconoclasm.38

Marion condemns iconoclasm as the inverse of idolatry. If the problem of our image-saturated age is, for Marion, that images become disconnected from their prototypes, iconoclasm simply entrenches this “tyranny of the image” more completely.39 It reinforces the disconnection of images from the invisible, of icons from the face of God, by attempting to privilege the invisible and do away with images all together. Marion writes: “a number of religious movements have tended toward this radical response [that is, iconoclasm] . . . not only Islam or Judaism.”40 But iconoclasm is not, for him, the way of the church, which combats problematic forms of imaging with an iconic approach to images.41

I cannot help but wonder whether Marion’s insistence that iconoclasm opposes true imaging, that iconoclasm is something external to the church, that it is found in Islam and other places outside the church, also funds his us-versus-them narration of Charlie Hebdo. It seems, that is, to become a way of splitting the world into us and those who ought to become more like us. One reason for using the language of iconoclasm, for insisting on iconoclasm’s internality to proper imaging, then, is to resist the consolations such narratives offer.

Christ the Image

The approach of this book is to generate other, less consoling but perhaps more hopeful narratives of imaging. Rather than a problematic polarity of us (iconophiles) versus them (iconoclasts), I want to discern iconoclasms of fidelity and resist iconoclasms of temptation by reflecting on the ambivalences of Christ the Image. In this Image, the seemingly competing impulses of iconophilia, iconoclasm, and icon veneration are all affirmed, the differences separating the ecclesial families—on this one issue, at least—dissolved. Christ negates to reveal.

As the Son, Christ perfectly images the Father (John 14:9)—revealing the Father by saying Not my will but the Father’s. The Son, that is, reveals the Father by effacing himself. The Son accomplishes the Father’s will (John 5:36–38, 8:19, 28–9; Luke 22:42; Mark 14:36; Matthew 26:39, 42), establishes the Father’s kingdom (Luke 11:2; Matthew 6:10), glorifies the Father’s name (John 12:28, 17:1), and performs the Father’s works (John 5:36, 10:32) and word (John 14:23). Like the Dangolsheim Madonna, the Son recedes—minimizes or negates himself—to reveal the Father. The Son’s negation does not erase himself, for in effacing himself to reveal the Father, the Son ultimately reveals himself. When the Son says Not my will but the Father’s, he not only reveals the Father; he also reveals who he is as the Son and what that Sonship means. In effacing himself as the Son, Christ fulfills his Sonship, revealing Sonship as the obverse of Fatherhood.42

This way that the Son images the Father sustains, in the incarnation, a new form of imaging—a new way that humanity can image divinity. In Christ, humanity reveals divinity by expressing the divine life of God. That is, in Christ’s desires, possibilities, and telos, humanity expresses not only what it is (humanity) but also what it is not (very God). In Christ, humanity mediates a unique divine presence (one consubstantial with the Father), even though such presence is not circumscribed by Christ’s humanity. In revealing divinity, Christ also reveals himself as the most perfectly human one. Humanity is negated in Christ, ordered beyond itself to reveal very God, and in revealing very God, the very human is also revealed. For what could be more human than to reveal God? The end of the Genesis 1 creation story implies that humanity was created to do just that, to bear the distinctive image and likeness of the divine throughout the earth. Thus, in the incarnation, humanity is negated—opened beyond itself as “mere humanity”—to reveal divinity and ultimately to reveal true humanity.

This negation-revelation dynamic comes more specifically into the orbit of the image conversation when it is cast in terms of likeness and presence. The Son is like the Father in having the same substance as the Father. They are, in the traditional language, homoousios or consubstantial, and they are more like one another than any image on earth.43 But the Son is, importantly, not the Father. The Son is unlike the Father at the level of person, of hypostasis. Then, in another way, Christ (the God-human) is like the invisible God in that Christ is homoousios with the invisible God, but unlike the invisible God in that Christ is (also) visible. Or to put it in language redolent of the Council of Chalcedon: Christ is homoousios with Father with regard to his divinity, and homoousios with us with regard to his humanity. This “is” and “is not,” “likeness” and “unlikeness,” “presence” and “absence” that makes an image image is the negation at the heart of imaging, the negation that, in our life with images, translates into the centrality of iconoclasm to iconophilia.

This book probes that strange intertwining. Each chapter focuses on a creedal claim about Christ and a controversy or ambivalence around imaging to sketch the negations and presences of a Christological grammar of imaging. Woven with a textured account of our life with images, each chapter traces the way an image negates itself to give more than the image itself is. And in each of the chapters, Christ is the Image who limns the structure of imaging.

In Chapter 1, controversies around images of the nursing Mary—as well as images of art, pornography, and Muhammed—come into focus through the way Christ who was “born of the Virgin Mary” mediates desire.44 This chapter treats Christ’s arriving presence. Chapter 2 puts the image concerns of the Byzantine iconomachs together with those of Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor to consider the hybridity of the visible and invisible that characterizes and connects humanity, images, and the Christ who “came down from heaven and was made human.” It ponders Christ’s abiding presence. Chapter 3 traces several images and types of images—including paintings of the crucifixion, the photograph Piss Christ, the statue Cristo Negro, and the written lives of cruciform female mystics—together with Reformation iconoclasm, and illumines them through reflection on the broken Image who breaks false images, the Christ who “was crucified, suffered death, and was buried.” It explores Christ’s brokenness and breakingness, that is, Christ’s riven and riving presence. Pulling together sundry forms of resurrection images—icons, representations of “the least of these,” and images made without human hands—Chapter 4 reflects on the Christ who “rose again on the third day” to inaugurate a new relationship of the visible and the invisible. It meditates again on Christ’s abiding presence. Then the fifth and final chapter focuses on an image of waiting and failing to wait for divine presence—Sinai and the worship of the golden calf. It reflects on two families of modern iconoclasm, which I call the Baconian and the Wittgensteinian, while working through the claim that Christ “will come again in glory.” Revisiting the theme of desire, this chapter explicitly reflects on discerning iconoclasms of fidelity and iconoclasms of temptation in our life with images. It returns to Christ’s arriving presence. The chapters thus form a chiasm of presence: arriving, abiding, riven and riving, abiding, arriving.

Reflecting on Christ helps us to reflect better on images, for the Christological grammar of negation and presence is the grammar of imaging, even if certain kinds of images disclose that grammar more clearly than others. In this book, I trace the grammar of all imaging by traveling deep into Christological claims. At times that means focusing on sacred images or even a class of sacred images (like icons), and at times that means surveying other kinds of images to see how the structure works there, too.

There are, then, several levels of argument about images at work in this book. The first maintains that iconoclasm is generally intrinsic to iconophilia, as negation is to revelation and presence. The second identifies a peculiarly modern thorniness to the entanglement of iconoclasm and iconophilia, generated by the institutions and cultural forms that shape image relationships in modernity. The third articulates the intertwining of iconoclasm and iconophilia represented by Christ the Image that is determinative for the Christian imaging tradition and echoed at some level in all images. The book treats all three levels of argument, though it spends the most time elucidating the third, for it is this third level that helps to make sense of the other two. The hope is to provoke reexamination of the global images crises of our day by also stimulating reassessment about the role of images and the unity of the church.

By tracing the way the image itself has an iconoclastic structure, I hope to articulate the intimacy of iconophilia and iconoclasm in such a way as to promote a fresher politics of imaging. By identifying the way iconoclastic and iconophilic logics are at work in Christology, I want to dissolve some of the ecclesial differences over images and propose an ecumenical hope—one that affirms a Catholic love for images, a Protestant anxiety about them, and an Orthodox priority of the icon. In affirming the fundamental impulses of these different communions and demonstrating the way these impulses need not conflict with one another, I hope these Christological reflections on images, iconoclasms, and iconophilias might open up conversation that works toward the unity of Christian churches.

Distinguishing iconoclasms of fidelity from iconoclasms of temptation is a nebulous task. Often the two look almost identical. I hope this difficulty nudges Christians from different churches to view one another’s lives with images more sympathetically, to see both iconoclasms of fidelity and faithful images as aspiring to faithfulness to Christ the Image. In the end, I want to show strange depths to Christians’ and Modern Westerners’ lives with images. We are, perhaps, not exactly who we thought we were, and our complex identity cannot sustain an easy opposition with those who once seemed wholly other to us. I hope in the pages that follow to release us from the thrall of the distorted picture of ourselves as a monolith we can pit against others, by sketching several other pictures of the complexity of our life with images. A strong polemic about the iconoclastic structure of imaging energizes the chapters that follow, but it is one that I hope makes us strange and strangers kin in a way that prepares us for greater ecclesial unity and perhaps even goads us one faltering step toward earthly peace.

FIGURE 1. Lorenzo di Credi, 1459–1537, Madonna and the Nursing Christ Child. Pinacoteca, Vatican. Photo by Saliko. Public domain (Wikimedia).


1. An overview of the events surrounding the Charlie Hebdo attacks can be found on the BBC website (“Charlie Hebdo Attack”).

2. Anderson, “Cartoons of Prophet Met with Outrage.”

3. Ghorashi, “A Look at the Full Scope of ISIS’s Destruction.”

4. Modern West is a problematic and not entirely accurate term. To the extent it is located geographically, it denotes not “the West” but the North Atlantic region—Europe, the United States, and Canada, really. While it might suggest that the rest of the world is less “modern,” I mean only to name that many of the modernities prevalent in this region are not identical to the modernities prevalent in other regions. The phrase also obscures some of the modernities present in the North Atlantic region. Still, the term Modern West is important because it has formed cultural imaginations and because it has a literary history that has helped to create a certain people’s understanding. I mean Modern West to name a self-understanding registered in the literature and institutions of a people that have often claimed that term. Even as I use the term, I hope to indicate the complications and multitudes that the category masks.

5. Saba Mahmood (“Religious Reason and Secular Affect”) has written insightfully about these polarities of the free-speaking Modern West and the blasphemous others, with respect to the Danish cartoon controversy especially. Mahmood’s article is engaged at some length in Chapter 1.

6. Chrisafis, “Attack on ‘Blasphemous’ Art.” I return to this image and attacks on it in Chapter 3.

7. “The Islamic Veil Across Europe” outlines the state of the veil across Europe. This 2014 article does not have the latest laws and challenges—for example, the 2015 law in France—but it does give some sense of how France compares with other countries in Europe.

8. I explore the role of the museum further in Chapter 1 of my book Beauty: A Theological Engagement with Gregory of Nyssa. I further probe the iconoclasms rife in the Modern West in “Making, Breaking, Loving, and Hating Images.”

9. I speak here in generalities. There are also many movements within museums that try to respect the religious and political claims of the objects they protect. Children’s museums often lead the charge in this area. For example, the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis created “Sacred Journeys,” an exhibit in which religious objects are introduced by characters who represent the faithful in the same tradition as each object. They introduce children to the objects through narratives of their own religious life with each object. This exhibit aims explicitly at the transformation of the audience members, to make them more understanding, peaceful, and tolerant.

10. Wood, “Iconoclasts and Iconophiles.” In his recent book The Iconic Imagination, Douglas Hedley makes a similar point, quoting as an epigraph to his sixth chapter the renowned scholar of Neoplatonism A. H. Armstrong: “The true Neoplatonist is at once an idoloclast and an iconodule” (149). Hedley elaborates his point with the philosophy of Jean-Luc Marion, contrasting idols that “domesticate” God with icons that admit of the transcendent invisible; recognizing the latter requires recognizing the former. Hedley goes on to critique the strong opposition between the two, pointing to the transformation and incorporation of pagan idols into Christian worship, as well as the antecedents for the iconic tradition in Israel.

11. Here is a sampling of the works in which one finds such arguments about images: von Balthasar, You Have Words of Eternal Life; Ratzinger, Spirit of the Liturgy; Jenson, “Christ-Dogma and Christ-Image”; and Yoder, “Politics: Liberating Images of Christ.”

12. See, for example, Ouspensky, Theology of the Icon; and Evdokimov, Art of the Icon.

13. The distinction I draw between picture and image is purely stipulative. I use it to underscore that by image, I mean a type of sign. One might have good reason to use the words differently, interchangeably, even. Hans Belting, in “Iconic Presence,” an essay that previews a planned book of the same title, uses picture and image as synonyms, which certainly makes sense for one whose native language has one word (Bild) for both.

14. Though images can be auditory, it may be the case that images are more often visual than related to any other sense. I will most often use visual-metaphorical language to discuss them—beholders, for example—as many do, because the terminology we favor seems to register our greater familiarity with visual images.

15. Likeness is especially important in distinguishing images from symbols. The two can be confused because both are often visual, but symbols do not bear likeness qua their status as symbols. A red octagon symbolizes stopping and smoke axiomatically signifies fire, even though there is no likeness between these symbols and what they symbolize. To the extent that a symbol does bear some resemblance to what it signifies—as, for example, the woman on the door of a women-only restroom—it is also an image.

16. Theodore the Studite was the first to make this argument. It will be further explicated in Chapter 4.

17. This is why I will diverge in my account of images from Nicholas Wolterstorff’s approach in his intelligent article “Would You Stomp on a Picture of Your Mother? Would you Kiss an Icon?” Wolterstorff seeks an account of all images that will explain how we relate to them, and so he finds the Byzantine account wanting. But the Byzantine account, as expressed, for example, by Theodore the Studite, does not mean to be a one-size-fits-all account of images, precisely because internal to the account is a way of describing the different presences and likenesses found, for example, in photos of one’s mother and icons of Christ (or closer to Theodore, images of the emperor and icons of Christ).

18. John of Damascus, Three Treatises on Divine Images, 95.

19. Drawing on this same point by John of Damascus about likeness and unlikeness, Father Maximos Constas makes a similar point about the image, one that gives rise to the subtitle of his recent book The Art of Seeing: Paradox and Perception in Orthodox Iconography: “This is the great paradox of the icon, at once its weakness and its strength. As the ‘likeness’ of something else, icons bear certain formal points of resemblance to that which they portray. Yet the very word ‘likeness’ implies that their resemblance is not absolute, and so the Damascene says that they are also ‘unlike their prototypes.’ By definition then, every icon is both continuous and discontinuous with its source; both similar and dissimilar to that which it reflects” (25).

20. Hans Belting, in An Anthropology of Images, argues, in fact, that images are born in the ultimate absence of the loved one: death.

21. Also influenced by Michael Fried, Carolyn Walker Bynum finds a similar dynamic of negation in both the medieval art she studies and modern art: “Paint, wood, steel, and so forth present to us as if they were, for example, apples or the color red, but they are not, and thus they call attention to the ‘not-ness.’” (Bynum, Christian Materiality, n7).

22. Horst Bredekamp discussed the Dangolsheim Madonna from Strasbourg (1460/65) in a talk he gave to a SIAS workshop hosted by Wissenschaftskolleg on July 18, 2014. I anticipate the larger claims about images, art, and religion will be further substantiated in his forthcoming book that treats an eleventh-century Spanish church building.

23. Bynum, Christian Materiality, 62.

24. Bynum, Christian Materiality, 62.

25. See, for example, Marion, Crossing of the Visible, 58–9.

26. Brubaker, Inventing Byzantine Iconoclasm, 3–4, 120.

27. Bremmer, “Iconoclast, Iconoclastic, and Iconoclasm.”

28. Simpson, Under the Hammer.

29. I pointed out earlier such modern forms of iconoclasm as the museum, which make identifying contemporary iconoclasts a difficult and freighted task. Some acts of iconoclasm are also attempts to protect the image; others both destroy the image and respect its capacity to make claims. That is one argument for distinguishing forms of iconoclasm. There are others, just as there are additional complexities with the term iconoclasm in our modern world.

30. People both lauded and denounced Pope Francis as an iconoclast for his iconoclastic foot washing. For a more laudatory account, see Powell, “Pope Francis and the Beautiful Iconoclasm.”

31. All quotations from the Bible are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), unless otherwise indicated.

32. Links to the four articles comprising this conversation can be found on the University of Chicago’s Martin Marty Center website,

33. Marion, “After the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Massacre.”

34. Marion, “After the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Massacre.”

35. Lincoln and Yu, “Reply to Jean-Luc Marion.”

36. Lincoln and Yu (“Reply to Jean-Luc Marion”) write: “It is one thing for Charlie Hebdo to mock the Pope, and quite another to mock Muhammad. To poke fun at the icons revered by the powerful is a courageous act of iconoclasm; to ridicule those of the weak is cheap bullying, as it subjects people who already suffer abuse of multiple sorts to public humiliation, making sport of their (perceived) inability to defend the things they hold sacred.” This might sound as though they are contrasting the Charlie Hebdo cartoons with iconoclasm, but they go on to write, “We understand the need to rally in defense of liberté and we also understand that free speech includes forms of critical speech that may be cruel and offensive, such as iconoclasm, blasphemy, ridicule and derision. But one also has to realize that when those who enjoy the full benefits of citizenship use their liberté to mock others to whom basic rights are abridged or denied, something has gone badly amiss.”

37. The question of Islam’s relation to critique comes to the fore in Asad et al., Is Critique Secular?

38. It is worth noting that in some of Marion’s most virulent critiques, the French word he uses is iconomaque (see the chapter “Prototype and the Image” in Crossing of the Visible, 66–87). At other points, though, Marion criticizes iconoclasm (iconoclasme), especially in the chapter “Blind at Shiloh” in Crossing of the Visible, 46–65.

39. Marion, Crossing of the Visible, 58. Ironically, some have accused Marion himself of being an iconoclast (see, for example, Benson, Graven Ideologies, 222).

40. Marion, Crossing of the Visible, 58.

41. Marion, Crossing of the Visible, 59.

42. Janet Martin Soskice (Kindness of God) makes a point importantly complementary to this one about how the Son images the Father by negation, when she claims that any attempt to lay claim to the Father without the Son renders the Father an idol. She writes: “In Christian teaching it is because Jesus is ‘Son’ that God is ‘Father.’ Already in the New Testament the hierarchical understanding of Father and Son is rendered unstable by Jesus who says, ‘I and the Father are one.’ The force of this subversion will only be felt, in due course, in the out-workings of the doctrine of the Trinity, but in the meantime, suffice it to say that, within the religious dynamics of Christianity, only the Son can show us the Father. Without the Son ‘the Father’ is not God, but an idol” (83).

43. Sheryl Overmyer (“Three More Jigs in the Puzzle”) has a rich discussion of how image functions analogously in Thomas Aquinas’s work, with Image properly speaking of Christ and derivatively speaking of humanity. It is just such an analogical understanding of image that I hope to retrieve.

44. All of the creedal claims that follow are, in some form, in the Nicene or the Apostle’s Creed. Though they follow the former closely, I have taken minor liberties in arranging them. The recently official Catholic version (the English translation implemented in Advent 2011), for example, declares Christ was “Incarnate” of the Virgin Mary, but I have kept “born” as in the pre-2011 Nicene Creed (and in the Apostle’s Creed) so as not to confuse the interpretive foci of Chapters 1 and 2. The first centers on Christ coming to and from Mary, while the second treats the incarnation more broadly.