The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm

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Philosophers and theologians have long engaged in intense debate and introspection over the representation of the deity, its possibilities and its proscriptions. The Forbidden Image traces the dual strains of “iconophilia” and iconoclasm, the privileging and prohibition of religious images, over a span of two and a half millennia in the West.

Alain Besançon’s work begins with a comprehensive examination of the status of the image in Greek, Judaic, Islamic, and Christian thought. The author then addresses arguments regarding the moral authority of the image in European Christianity from the medieval through the early modern periods. Besançon completes The Forbidden Image with an examination of how iconophilia and iconoclasm have been debated in the modern period.

“Even the reader who has heard something of the Byzantine quarrels about images and their theological background will be surprised by a learned and convincing interpretation of the works of Mondrian, Kandinsky, and Malevich in terms of religiously inspired iconoclasm. . . . This is an immensely rich and powerful masterpiece.”—Leszek Kolakowski, Times Literary Supplement


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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
As French scholar Besan on makes clear in this wide-ranging study, the commandment that forbids images of the divine was addressed to a culture filled with them. The tension between iconoclasm and incarnation, between Plato's forms and their imperfect physical copies, between the sublime in art and mere picture-thinking--this tension in its various guises drives this account of 2500 years of the "forbidden image." From Plato and the biblical tradition, through the iconoclastic controversy of eighth-century Byzantium and the Calvinist wing of the Reformation, to the ambivalent state of the divine image or the sublime in modern nonrepresentational art, we follow the path of the image's defenders and detractors. The greatest strength of the book is its incredible breadth, bringing together philosophy, theology, and art history. Its greatest weakness is its focus on intellectual history at the expense of the social and cultural factors that made these intellectual conflicts compelling for their participants. A masterly work nonetheless.--Steve Young, Montclair State Univ., NJ Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
From The Critics
Forbidden Image is a college-level intellectual history of iconoclasm which examines who the representation of the divine came to be a philosophical issue, with the idea of 'graven images' receiving different interpretation by different religions. Philosophy and theology blend in a comprehensive examination of how the status of the image has changed over the centuries.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226044149
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 4/1/2009
  • Pages: 448
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Alain Besançon is the director of studies at L'École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. A specialist in Russian politics and intellectual history, he has written a number of books, including Anatomie d'un spectre and Les origines intellectuelles du léninisme.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
Pt. 1 Iconoclasm: The Ancient Cycle 11
Ch. 1 The Philosophical Critique of the Image 13
Ch. 2 The Biblical Prohibition 63
Ch. 3 The Image in Dispute 109
Pt. 2 Pax Romana of the Image 147
Ch. 4 The Middle Ages 149
Ch. 5 The Renaissance and the Baroque Period 165
Pt. 3 Iconoclasm: The Modern Cycle 183
Ch. 6 The New Theology of the Image 185
Ch. 7 The New Theology at Work 227
Ch. 8 The Russian Revolution 319
Conclusion 378
Notes 383
Index 409
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