The Icon and The Idol

The theme of the present reflection is, as the title implies, the Platonic eikon – eidolon opposition. First we will discuss briefly how the opposition was used by iconoclasts and iconodulists. Then we will try to study the most refined theory of the icon and the idol by a French philosopher and theologian Jean-Luc Marion.

Plato challenged imitating (mimesis) as insufficient in the world of eternal and invariable ideas. According to him all imitation implies creating idols, unnecessary duplication, a pretence of a pretence, copying that is doomed to artistic failure. When a severe dogmatic dispute started in Byzantium between iconoclasts and icon worshippers the eikon - eidolon opposition regained its relevance. The iconoclasts claimed that worshipping icons resulted in idolatry. Only the Second Council of Nicaea put an end to the conflict between the iconoclasts and iconodules by regulating the way of worshipping icons. Thus the Christian East was ultimately relieved from the iconoclastic influences of Judaism and Islam. The Council's theory of the icon as a hypostatic semblance and not a hypostatic presence dismisses any accusation of idolatry.

For the more pragmatic and less speculative West the Byzantine concept of a mystic picture as a representation of the Archetype was incomprehensible. As a result of a wrong interpretation by Pope's legates the resolutions of the Second Council of Nicaea were understood by Rome as an attempt at sanctioning "the worship of pictures" - idolatry. Thereafter the understanding of a picture as an icon was gradually forgotten. Medieval attempts at creating pictures "without paint" such as scarves or shrouds did not stop this process. The Renaissance ultimately buried the memory of holy images. The icon was not resurrected until the 20th century. Yet the first attempt to approach anew the opposition between the icon and the idol was made as late as the second half of the 20th century. One such attempt - the most penetrating in my opinion - is made by a French phenomenologist and theologian Jean-Luc Marion. His book “God Without Being” is an example of a great, respectful hermeneutic effort.

Marion, by continuing the theological thought of Urs von Balthasar, starts not only from Heidegger's starting point but engages - which is rare today - in a lively dialogue with the Gospel, the Ecclesiastes, St. Paul and the writings of the master of the apophatic theology - Pseudo-Dionysios the Aeropagite. According to Marion the icon and the idol represent beings that can, depending on the type and scope of worship they enjoy, interchange their positions. The status of an icon or idol can be attributed to the works "that are shaped in such a way that they do not restrain their visibility to themselves (as is the case with what we rightly call decorative art) but as such and thus remaining totally immanent in themselves signal another, not yet identified link." A work that makes a signal refers to a sphere that it constitutes for itself. This brings the notion of signum. Signa do not relate to icons or idols only. They refer to deity, too. Deity can be manifest only through what is visible. Various kinds of visibility imply various comprehensions of deity itself. It is "the way of perceiving that defines what can be visible or rather - at least in the negative sense - defines what in deity can under no circumstances be perceived."

Eidolon (eido, video) is from definition something that is visible, that can be seen and cognized by the very fact of being seen. An idol is therefore dependent on human perception. This relation is sufficient for the idol that thrives on human sightedness. This sight sanctions the idol. Human vision has the power of bringing to life and creating idols. The idol holds the vision. The vision ceases to transcend the visibility of things and stops on the deceptively colored surface of things. The greater its visibility the better the idol veils the unseen. Thus the idol as a veil over the invisible becomes something dazzlingly visible and - by reflecting the vision - sends it back to itself. The operation of the idol is similar to that of a mirror that shines under a look, fulfills it with the surplus of visibility and blinds. The idol, by filling the vision, conceals its reflecting nature and becomes an invisible mirror. "The result of the fact that the mirror remains invisible because the visible world blinds vision is that an idolater never deceives or is deceived - and just stays delighted."

The idol, as an invisible mirror, opens a spaceless land void of any landscape. This is why through and in the idol human sight experiences divinity at its lowest level. Marion claims that in our hard times of confused concepts and ideas no one can hide from the idol. Regardless of whether he is an atheist, an idolater or a pious man. The experience of the idol as divinity open to men can be captured by art. However to record divinity through artistic measures is to capture the divine radiance at its lowest level.

The word icon - eikon derives from eiko and means likeness, analogy. According to Marion "only icons offer open faces as they open the visible for the invisible and invite to transcend what they depict - not by looking but by worshipping." Such transcendence into the other side of the invisible mirror of the idol makes human sight submerge in the invisible sight with which the visible face of the icon turns towards us. In the icon the visible does not oppose the invisible. It is the degree of visibility of the face that deepens the visibility on an invisible intention. The measure of an icon is the depth of its face. It is how the icon unites the visible with the invisible.

Marion states that to define the idol as radiance emanating from a archetype to which it returns is to presuppose a given kind of aesthetics. On the other hand, the icon that "we define as a source without an archetype - a source that is infinite, that springs or flows from all the infinite depth of the icon", transcends all aesthetics.

In this respect, according to Marion, a painted wooden icon, though made by man, comes to us from another world. Icons should not be looked at but contemplated. And contemplation of the icon is about looking at the visible in a way that changes our perception of the icon's look at us. Now we can clearly see that the icon is an opposite of the idol. The icon calls to renounce all perception. The award for the renunciation is the unveiling of the icon. Hence the literary veiling and unveiling of sacral paintings on altars, which is undoubtedly the repetition of the call made by the icon to renounce all visibility. Our "glance becomes a mirror of something that it can perceive only when it is fully perceived by it; we become a visible mirror of an invisible glance that causes revolution in us according to its glory".

The face changes, too: "A visible idol is no longer an invisible mirror of our sight but our face is a visible mirror of the invisible". A changed face, radiant with glory that comes from the invisible world becomes a visible icon of the invisible. The visible face becomes the image of the invisible by accepting its intention, and to accept this intention is to refer from the visible to the invisible.

In light of Jean-Luc Marion's theory an idolatrous image is the end, the borderline, the last point discernible for human sight. The icon on the other hand is a transparent mirror that stands at the visible-invisible borderline and as a radiant mirror continually points to the infinity of the invisible sphere that lies behind it. As no one, according to Marion, can hide from the idol, let us, artists - as those who are exposed to its tenacity - sharpen our consciousness to its spectral presence. The idol is in a sense a shadow, a specter of the icon. The idol appropriates human glance whereas the icon calls and invites to cover the distance between the human glance and its depth. It should be pointed out that an idol, as a specter made of matter, has magnetic power of capturing and nourishing human, and in particular artistic sightedness. A glance limited only to appearances causes an image created by a painter to stop at the border of the visible. It is the image limited to the visible that captures human sightedness in appearances and prevents it from transcending the visible. Can there be therefore an image that overcomes the everlasting icon - idol opposition? Can we quote examples of attempts to create such works in the 20th century art? Are there such contemporary works that do not stop the look only at themselves but allow it to move towards the Indepictible? Undoubtedly there are such pictures by Rothko and some of the abstract paintings by Malewicz and Jerzy Nowosielski. It is not a coincidence that all the above artists come from the Byzantine sphere of radiance of the iconic art.

I hope that the abstract art, though partly iconoclastic, is not the last attempt to bring back the iconic content of a picture. Let's hope for the best, since - according to Marion: "The icon that deprives human sight of balance and throws it into an infinite abyss is such a divine bridgehead that even in times of greatest distress it can not be ruined by indifference. To give itself to the human glance the icon needs nothing except itself. Therefore it can demand its renunciation to be accepted". When the idolatrous and dying art of the West becomes extinct and the race after the new and the scandalous ceases to be the main reason to create, art typical of the era of the Holy Spirit shall emerge. This art shall involve some forms of sacral epiphany that are not known to us yet and that refer to the infinite depth of the iconic experience.

Cracow 2002

Władysław Podrazik