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Image and Likeness

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The foundation of what we call Western art, the point of origin which is also the support of its ultimate development and decline, lies in the type of act which founds more than an artistic trend and explains at the same time why this and any art is inseparable from the society, culture, indeed civilization that it embodies and preserves, whether Buddhist, Egyptian, Hellenistic or Christian as here. What has proven to be the fertility of Western art derives from the fact that this act was not limited to an ethical command such as is common to all civilisations and which has always been cradled by a religion [1]. In Christianity something more was given than the rules of how to be good, call it a mystery or a logical impossibility, which ensured that humanity never had and perhaps never will again have experience of such sublimity [2]. For not only was one enjoined to act in His name, one was also provided with His likeness or image to imitate, one which was, after all, our very own, our simplest humanity. Thus did the Incarnation open up the possibility of a visual narrative together with its ethical justification denied to the older brother Judaism.

The divisions this introduced, between representations of divinity and humanity, and again between text and image, not to mention originals and copies have, until more or less a century ago, provided the weft and woof for the tapestry of Western art [3], regardless of the patterns introduced by the absorption of other cultures, starting with the Greeks, with highly developed cults of images.

Ad imaginem… (Genesis I, 26.)

It is as fruitless here to go into the power or indeed the nature of images, their physiology, psychology or philosophy, as it is necessary to have some definition of those images wrought by our artists we call pictures and to remember that it is pictures rather than images that have always provoked the periodic and predictable outbursts of iconoclasm, even in non-monotheistic cultures, that punctuate the history of art. In some civilisations certain pictures, reduced to, literally, a banner, have been used as much as the sword in the never-ending human endeavour to occupy the one place on earth, in each of its inhabitants, reserved for truth.

For a picture is indeed an image, - a "representation" [4], if one wants to include the auditory as well as the visual, - with very particular claims: whatever its subject, an aspect of hell or of heaven, it is always given to someone else to see, again irrespective of whether this audience is God [5], one man [6] or as many people as possible [7], the point being that what is said is entirely affected by whom it is said to, the second point being that art needs interpretation since no picture, even the most "objectively" medical, as a staged representation, is free from the desire of the artist as producer. Interpretation is needed to uncover what the artist or ymagier hoped we might see. During the middle ages this was as true of natural images, like dreams, which, being pages in God's book, were a link to His desire, as it was of any images made by them who were made in His image specifically in order to divine the grand design of their own salvation.

In the end, image and picture have this in common: our need to defend against both or either of them, the real pain of excessive stimulation and the subjective discomfort of the demands made by truth. The former is evident in the near universality in most cultures of some ritual to conjure the effects of an "evil eye". The latter is perhaps the main reason why most of us seek, not art, but something that lies between image and picture called decoration. similitudinem nostram

The very act of allowing the idea of likeness, brought with it attempts to limit the differences, differentiations, indeed splits it provoked, if only because "likeness" extends along a chain of associations which, given the nature of language itself, is potentially endless, and hence endlessly divisive in its turn. This control was not only natural, as it is equivalent to giving meaning, and perhaps even easy, as the only likeness in play at first was that of Christ, but also vital because the other side of that basic chaining function of language called metonymy [8] is the poetic or picture making activity that gave it its name: denoting the whole by means of a part. It is not the same thing to venerate a cross while thinking of one's saviour as it is to capture, carry in procession, even pray to, the picture of a saint as if it were a living body.

If the theological fears concerning improper veneration accorded to pictures that might become idols which dominated the iconoclastic debates [9], and which the West escaped [10], did not find a natural limit in this metonymic activity of language itself, they might certainly have been calmed by the other activity isolated by Jakobson which gives us sense proper: metaphoric function, in which one term substitutes for another, Christ's death for our sins. Unfortunately, it is a misunderstanding of this function which is at the heart of an even greater rift, between the real presence of, and the symbolic reference to, the body of Christ in Catholic and Protestant rites respectively.

What the "likeness" of Christ's body might have been, found formulation early on in two elegant solutions, both, like Christ's message itself, having the structure of paradox. These are the idea of a "true likeness" and, conversely, the likeness of something that has no natural image, of something invisible. And here the fact that the origin of these concerns as of almost everything in Western art came from the East is less important than what was made of them there.

Thus, firstly, the paradox of a True image, in the face of Plato's condemnation of pictures as copies of copies, which as image of Truth, redeems an image from its inherent falsehood, the Truth here being, of course, Christ, and through which a mere likeness of a likeness (a painting of an image of the invisible Father) could stand in for the true face of Christ, especially as its origin, the "original", lay in what was not made by human hands [11] but by direct impression or direct testimony, the cloth imprint that was the Mandylion and St Luke's portait of the Virgin respectively. For a long time in the West, the True likeness or vera icon was the anagrammatic Veronica held in the Vatican, mentioned by Dante [12], and lost during the sack of Rome by Lutheran Germans in 1527, perhaps not coincidentally, of which now only the frame survives. This precursor of the Turin shroud shows the overwhelming desire to put a face to Christ.

Thus also, the "likeness" of the Word [13], ie. the paradox of an image of Logos, of Christ as Word, which was at the source of the care lavished on the writing and illumination of, at first the Gospels (for Gregory the Great, the only text which was allowed to be sung), and later all Biblical and secular texts, which in turn are the source for Western painting as we know it today.

Omnis scriptura divinitus inspirata is the adage attributed to St Augustine which best captures the concerns of those who took seriously their functions as shepherds of the souls whose life depended on the Book [14]. In the truly dark ages of the 6th century, when it came so very close to being cut altogether, this flow of ink in the scriptoria of the insular monks on the confines of the then known world was perhaps the last lifeline of Western history itself.

Both these solutions were a way of getting round the central problem, which is not itself a paradox, of how anyone can make a likeness of something that he is himself the likeness of [15], and this was possible because of the Incarnation in a way which was forbidden under the OT where it would be presumptuous to say the least to make a likeness of Him in whose likeness we were made. It was the astonishing feat of Christ's reversal, in which God presents Himself in the image of man while saying "who has seen me has seen the Father" [16]. Since the Renaissance tentatively, and since the Revolution irrevocably, we have looped this loop in the opposite direction by divinising the image of man himself, of man's body [17] reconstructed from a Classical Greek model as microcosm.


However, both these solutions to the challenges posed by the concept of Incarnation could not prevent a third solution from emerging as the most resilient and enduring, the one that stays in the register of what is called "fascination". This basic effect of an image on the animal eye which is captured by it was provided by the image of the body as such, first living then dead, with the added level of mystery of where the life was that this dead body had supposedly found again and promised us we would find too. This is the consequence of "The Word made flesh" the first moment of which has provided perhaps the best-loved ymage of all medieval art: the Annunciation [18].

For if early Christian pictures were still bound to the Word, whether metonymically, taking the first two letters of His name [19] and drawing a fish [20], or, after the 5th century, metaphorically by drawing a lamb, object of sacrifice as well as a key in the Book of Revelation, the first truly pictorial likeness of a likeness or ymage, regardless of medium, was the Crucifixion.

In the ongoing debate of the role of the Crucifixion in Western art J. Elkins recently put forward the argument that it constitutes the ultimate (body) image, insofar as any image always refers to the body anyway [21]. The 'natural' or spontaneous image, and therefore also any picture made from it, however abstract, is ultimately an image of the body, or parts of it, and of those parts, the face is paramount, corresponding to our earliest impressions/perceptions as newly living beings.

What has not yet been explored in this central role of the Crucifixion is that it "embodies" the difference, indeed the ambiguity, the borderline, the shadow zone in which floats the key question of any "body" confronted with another, which is whether it is alive or dead, capable of enjoyment or not. Here the prodding lance of Longinus is not that different from a bear's paw on a hedgehog.

Generally, up to the 12th century, pictures of the crucifixion were joyous affairs insofar as Christ was alive, eyes open, fully clothed, and triumphant on His cross. This was wholly in keeping with the concept of Incarnation, and with Christianity itself, that His suffering was exchanged for our happiness, as it is still today with the Gospels which show the Christ whose withering irony puts even Socrates to shame for what he is, a Lord and Master. Thereafter we find a greater division between pictures of Christ in Majesty, already back in Heaven, and Christ dying on His cross. And with the latter come to the fore, first His suffering and nakedness - crown of thorns, the intense anguish of Mary at His side, gradual shortening of loincloth, - and finally His all-too-human death. One can gauge the importance of this shift from the fact that, as late as 1054, the papal legate in Constantinople could adduce precisely this Greek habit of depicting a dead man on the Cross as one more reason for promoting the schism between Eastern and Western Church still with us today.

The trend of ymagiers towards greater realism, understood as naturalistic attention to surface detail rather than fidelity to the truth of the spirit, seems to have gone hand in hand with an emphasis on the suffering body on the one hand, Christ's above all, but ours too (depictions of hell), and an imaginarisation of the message on the other, in which the symbolic/metaphoric exchange of Christ's ransom got lost in favour of identifications, more or less morbid and delusional, with His passion. These are the differences, in understanding His message, between doing as He did, doing as He said, or doing things in His memory, according to His wishes.

It was a trend in which a Suger, too, played a pivotal part, since this pioneer of the Incarnation stressed the crucified rather than the triumphant Christ at St Denis, all in the resplendent stained glass he loved so much - while at the same time championing the role of Mary, another Eastern import. Yet his Christ was a mortal man oriented towards the light, towards the Truth made visible in and symbolised by light, and his Son of man was above all the Redeemer.

When this trend towards humanising Christ in the Incarnation, which was soon extended to angels, crossed the rise of Mary, promoted to mother of all created beings, including angels, the result was an astonishing infantilisation: the triumph of a cuddly baby Jesus and cohorts of putti everywhere.

Power and Presence

It was a trend with happy consequences too, for if the divine body became increasingly naked and dead, we find, in stark contrast, that everybody else, - Mary, Evangelists, Saints and Apostles, Prelates and princes, and soon, burghers and peasants, - was being presented to our view in ever more voluminous swirls of drapery that ended up, like Christianity itself, defying gravity. And if Christ had his eyes shut, the faces of the world became ever more varied and the likenesses more penetrating.

Whether dampfold or billowing, in organ tubes or v-folds, cascading or broken, in stone, oak or goldleaf, there is no art in the world that has put so much artistry in rendering the colour, texture and movement of cloth as medieval art. It remains one of its crowning achievements, whether this drapery is formulaic or reveals an understanding of the body underneath, whether it negates it in favour of its symbolic purpose or reveals its presence. The other achievement being the rendering of the face, which was already alive when the body was still tied to a columnar function, and which escaped the strictures on variation from the original imposed on Byzantine picture making. Nor can one forget the skill in decoration [22], present in all cultures insofar as it provides relief for the gaze from the demands the image of the body always makes while shielding one from the questions pictures ask of us. This demand for the harmless pleasure of decoration which does not care about originals or copies is of course especially great today, when the body images that pervade every public and private space present it in its most demanding form: the invitation to enjoy; while art uses every tactic, including the pornographic, to impinge on our consciousness.

In the end, however, what sets some late medieval work apart from its already contemporary "renaissance" counterpart, besides its ever greater mass production according to old formulas, is not so much the artistic techniques as the aims of the artists (their patrons) which conditioned their use. For beyond the difference between images which have purely symbolic value and those that aim to capture something real, there is the difference between those which strive towards the truthfulness of the real and three-dimensional image that approximates to our perceptions by incorporating the laws of nature regardless of subject matter and those that aim to shock or produce a specific emotion in the viewer. The former culminates in Sluter's Moses fountain, while the latter is generally responsible for the tastelessness of all "religious" art, and specifically for the proliferation of the near obscenity that is Christ as man of sorrows [23] showing His wound, at a time in the mid 14th century when a Ludolph of Saxony could harp on His suffering and the cruelty of His tormentors in his widely disseminated Life of Christ.

Here we are already beyond the truly defining characteristic of what qualifies as a medieval image [24]: the fact that from its earliest appearance, East as West, the Christian picture did not endeavour to "represent" but to "make present", precisely the divine in the human, the past in the present, the invisible in the visible (Suger again), the corollary of which is that our art-historical obsession of tracing influence, of seeing one artist present in another, is less interesting than responding to the power of the "darstellung" [25] of a medieval picture.


When Charlemagne and the Western Church sanctioned, or rather failed to prohibit, the making of ymages for private devotional use, it opened itself to their influence as well. Frightening or exciting, in dreams or in life, images are never neutral, and it is only the picture that can pacify. As Dante already pointed out [26] Christ did not promise us anything other than peace. The greatest medieval ymages present a serenity that has lost none of its power and value regardless of its precise meaning. Admitting that it is easier to see that the daring of Dante's vision is beyond our comprehension, or that the inclusiveness of Chaucer's humanity is beyond the scope of any sociology, than it is to divine the meaning of a single romanesque capital, does not dispense us from making decisions of value with respect to our heritage, if only because its conservation depends on it.

The difficulty with judgment, which finds its ultimate expression in the notion of "good taste" so offensive to those who lack it, is that if there is a link between image and "mood" (our unarticulated response) then it applies to ymages too, especially those embodying the values of that civilization itself. Contemplating a crucifix no longer necessarily pacifies our turbulent minds. Indeed, one could ask the question of why whole (recent) generations cannot bear to look at one. Is there perhaps a link between the routine accusations of "repression" in regimes of religious educational institutions, which, certainly in the 20th century, only succeeded in putting many of its subjects off "religion" for life, and the evident sentimentality of Catholic image making so evident since the 19th century?

In other words, if a more or less systematic theological thought informed the art of the Middle Ages as is clear from the sculpture programmes of cathedrals and picture cycles in stained glass and manuscript illumination, does this mean the reverse is also true? If bad art does not necessarily imply poor theology, it certainly betrays its failure of transmission. Is it coincidence that 12th century art, its narrative cycles, has a rational power resonating with Anselm's credo ut intelligam , or that a certain 14th century art incarnates a focus on emotional effects exclusively when the separate ways of faith and reason had been articulated? [27] This is not the same as asking, for example, whether it is coincidence that between 1350 and 1450 the greatest masters in the depiction of drapery, Bondol, Beauneveu, van Eyck, Sluter, van der Weyden all came from regions which had made their fortune in the cloth trade, since we are dealing with a civilisation [28] in which writing still had the authority to marshall and direct the power of ymages. The Book was still the ultimate reference however implicit or remote.

If it is true that the vitality of a civilization is reflected in its art, and therefore, in the case of a Europe defined by Christendom, in the manner in which the Church transmitted its message/story to the faithful, then one could conclude that after the glory of the baroque which was also the theological pride of the counterreformation, this particular spirit took a last bow with the whirlwind of a Tiepolo before being snuffed out in the French revolution along with most medieval art.

Similarly, if bad pictures like bad dreams can affect our moods adversely, it is clear that the value of great art lies in the opposite effect, that it is the ultimate "antidepressant" and hence can produce feelings of gratitude that are in no way different from the veneration that is still today accorded the ymage of an efficacious saint, the necessary conditions being firstly that it is original, like the body part preserved in the saint's reliquary, and secondly that it is for real, that is, delivers what it promises, like the said efficaceous saint.

As the value of this art which never knew itself as such depended on its function, and as this was itself often economic, albeit in the primal sense of an offering, - paying off a debt to God, saving one's soul by giving the choicest material and the finest labour, - it is not surprising that images made with such love attracted such hate and that objects made with the gold of personal sacrifice ("good works" first of all in material sense) paid the ultimate sacrifice in the holocausts of iconoclasm, which were themselves but sacrifices to a sterner God. Ironically, the French revolution, unlike the English, German and Dutch Reformations, was aimed at a monarchic absolutism which owed more to oriental than medieval models and which was close to undoing the one crucial legacy of the Middle Ages which grounds our present liberty, the separation between church and state.

Now that the Christianity that carried Western civilisation so far is itself disappearing from the history it initiated, so that soon Christ may come to seem as baffling a god as any of the animist masks returning to fill His absence, now that is nearly complete our misrecognition of the debt owed to it by the present secular "humanism" which dethroned it, and which may become, why not?, simianism, since anything at all we call human is divine and all that is not divine we share with our cousins, now that religiosity in its worst sense, the fundamentalism that Freud called illusion, makes new recruits, now therefore, when, seemingly triumphant, we no longer know which ymage to fashion our identity on, it seems all the more important to combat that third fundamental passion we are left with after love and hate, namely ignorance [29], and forge new links with a past which is receding ever faster from view.

[1] first criterion of a civilisation, rather than a society or a culture however moral and artistic, is a body of laws rooted in an ethic, itself supported by a belief that it is universal and hence divine. To top
[2] descent of heaven on earth.
[3] in the reverse manner of Penelope's, insofar as the figuration done in the daylight of devotion was undone in the night of revolution
[4] what Freud called a "vorstellung"
[5] Sculpture on cathedral spires
[6] intaglio of a d'Este studiolo
[7] most bad art
[8] R. Jakobson
[9] resolved Nicea 787
[10] Synod of Paris 824
[11] acheiropoieton
[12] Par xxxi, 103-8
[13] Athanasius on Incarnation, Book 3, ch 12
[14] the second criterion of civilisation being that the habit of writing engendered by the codification of laws create the possibility of history
[15] Honorius Augustodunensis "every creature is the shadow of the Truth and the Life"
[16] John XIV, 9
[17] Leonardo da Vinci sent into space
[18] no 9
[19] Chi Rho
[20] the Greek word sharing the letters of his name
[21] 1999
[22] no 8, no 12
[23] Imago pietatis
[24] Le Goff and Schmitt p. 501
[25] Freud's term, opposed to the "vorstellung", ie, presentation rather than representation
[26] De Monarchia
[27] Occam
[28] the 3rd criterion of which is its ability to chart the effects on the face of world its writing has. This control of time and space, calendar and conquest based on Incarnation has given us BC and AD for example.
[29] of the fact that identity is given by a past, itself located by history, whose turning points are often preserved in the images of art
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