Iconic And Aniconic
Although in the West we are used to images, the art of the sacred need not be composed of pictures that portray any specific aspect of the visible world. The division between those who believe that the sacred can be portrayed through images and those who claim it cannot lies at the root of the two opposing theories of sacred art: the iconic, which portrays images of the divine; and the aniconic, which suggests the presence of the divine through non-figurative motifs. Aniconic art lends itself more readily to contemplation than does figurative depiction. Aniconic elements reflect the structure of the unseen rather than the outer world of things, while representational art depicts the outer appearance of real things and the imaginary appearance of transcendent things. Aniconic art allows the viewer to behold a deeper reality than ever can an image. This kind of art should not be considered abstract, however, for it is based upon the transcendent principles of mattred, while abstraction is often without any spiritual content whatsoever. The aniconic allows us to contemplate the realities that lie beyond the visible world of image; by not objectivizing the unseen, it avoids the possibility of devaluing or trivializing spiritual elements while allowing human beings to enter the world of the unseen. It prevents the inner ideal from being distorted into an external object of worship, thereby ensuring that nothing comes between the human being and the unseen realm of the divine.
It is clear that aniconism was the guiding principle of ancient Celtic Paganism. In the fourth century bce, the Celtic general Brennos captured the Greek shrine of Delphi. According to Diodorus Siculus: 'When he encountered only images of stone and wood, he laughed at them, to think that men, believing that the gods had human form, should erect their images in wood and stone.' Only later, under Roman influence, did the Celts portray their goddesses and gods in human form. According to medieval Welsh bardic writings, the ancient British sages taught that even the name of the Absolute should never be spoken. They held that it is blasphemous to utter the name of God, and also unnecessary, because the whole world is already a manifestation of the divine. This idea was current among many people in the British Isles until quite recently. In 1690, the East Anglian philosopher Sir Thomas Browne wrote in his Christian Morals: 'To thoughtful obscrva-tors the whole world is a phylactery, and every thing we see is an item of the wisdom, power and goodness of God.' Around the same period, the Welsh Bards stated: 'It is considered presumptuous to utter this name in the hearing of any man in the world. Nevertheless, every thing calls him inwardly by this name — the sea and land, earth and air, all the visibles and invisibles of the world, whether on the earth or in the sky — all the worlds of all the celestials and the terrestrials — every intellectual being and existence ' Similarly, it is likely that the early Celtic Christians believed that to depict God literally in an image was as unnecessary as it was blasphemous.
Charges that those who make images are practising image worship — idolatry - were made first by Jews and Muslims against Pagans and Christians and later by Protestant Christians against Catholic members of the same religion. The principle of aniconism is best known as the underlying principle of Judaic and Islamic law, but has sometimes been present in Christianity as well. Most notably, aniconism was enforced in the religious art of the Orthodox Eastern Empire during the iconoclastic period (730-843), when religious images were destroyed in the pursuit of piety. Even in the West at this time, iconoclasm was admired, when Bishop Claudius of Turin ordered crosses to be destroyed as idolatrous, and forbade all pilgrimages to the shrines of saints. In Christianity, however, unlike in Islam, aniconism did not last.
After a period of violent conflict between those who wanted images and those who opposed them, an ecumenical council of the Eastern Orthodox Church finally decided to end iconoclasm, and reasserted the use of images in sacred art. 'God himself is outside all possible description or representation,' asserted the council's priests, 'but since the divine word took human nature upon itself, which it reintegrated into its original form by infusing it with divine beauty, God can and must be venerated through the human image of Christ.' This declaration was made in the form of a prayer to Our Lady, for it was through her that the divine form took upon human substance, bringing it from the otherworld into the realm of the human senses.
Although Dungal of Pavia, an Irish monk living in Italy, was one of the objectors to the iconoclasm of Bishop Claudius, it appears that the Celtic church was affected by iconoclasm. Celtic art has always had a strong non-figurative element, and often Celtic artists preferred to continue their pre-Christian love for symbolic patterns rather than making any realistic representation of divine beings. Thus the symbolic forms of crosses were erected in preference to the literalistic representations of Christ's crucifixion. Later, even when the material world was represented, it was in a stylized form, avoiding naturalism. The zoomorphic interlace and plant-forms of Celtic Crosses are so highly stylized that they cannot be mistaken for the real thing. This stylization helps to prevent the worshipper from concentrating on nothing but particulars, thereby remaining unaware of the deep roots of all being.
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