Joseph Leo Koerner, “The Reformation of the Image” (2008)

Joseph Leo Koerner, The Reformation of the Image (U Chicago, 2008)

Ostensibly, Koerner’s enormous book is “about” an altarpiece painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder for Martin Luther’s parish in Wittenberg (1547). But this book offers far, far more than a history of one painting. Koerner offers a thorough examination of how images changed during the Reformation, how what people thought about images and did with images changed during the Reformation, and how the Reformation happened in images. He begins by noting that art historians have given short shrift to Protestant painting during the Reformation. If Protestants appear at all in histories of this period, they do so as iconoclastic villains. Cranach, whose career straddled the crucial years of Luther’s reforms, is said to have “declined” in genius when making his Protestant paintings—their clear messages and inclusion of texts too didactic to be great art. Rather than join the chorus of detractors, Koerner follows his sources carefully. He not only discovers that Protestants made images as much as they destroyed them, but that the question of images stood at the center of the Reformation. Early Protestants made images to demonstrate the impotence of images; they made images to show the power of the word, the invisibility of the true church, and the transcendence of God. While some radical reformers wanted to abolish images altogether, Martin Luther realized that doing so actually acknowledged the power of images. After all, if images don’t pose a threat, there’s no reason to destroy them. Instead, Luther thought that images could become vehicles to show the power of the Word alone, to reveal the inadequacy of mediations of the Word. By creating images to convey these ideas, Koerner argues, Protestants actually helped to create a recognizably modern understanding of “art”—in particular, the “art” of art historians, who will write endlessly about the meaning of an image, simultaneously declaring that the best works do not convey obvious meanings.

There’s far too much in this book to treat in a short blog post—one reviewer calls it “biblical” in length. So take my comments for what they are and read the thing yourself: it’s worth the effort. Koerner sheds important light on the material processes by which “religious belief” took shape in the modern world. Iconoclastic Protestants radically “linguistified” the sacred, which was “formerly manifested objectively, in special elevated things, places, persons and institutions” (151-152). Where before the actions of the church and her officers held efficacy by divine right, individuals now had to believe, to reveal understanding of the saving Word. The site of sacred action moved from objects to the subjects, to “the language-based activity of understanding and being understood” (152). For Luther, the preacher reads the Word, which reveals the image of Christ crucified, which brings saving grace to the listener who understands (see image above). Even in the most extreme cases, such as Karlstadt’s iconoclasm, “belief” did not just play out on the level of minds and spirits. Things, images, buildings, practices, techniques of the body allowed “belief” to emerge.

By A.T. Coates

Paul Gutjahr, “An American Bible”

Paul Gutjahr, An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States, 1777-1880 (Stanford Press, 1999).

Review by A.T. Coates

Gutjahr’s groundbreaking work An American Bible examines the Bible’s history as an American book. That is, Gutjahr illuminates the Bible’s changing role in 19th-century American print culture by focusing on its qualities qua book—especially how its changing contents and packaging changed its role in American life. While once the good book stood at the center of American print culture, by the 1880s Americans had become a people of the good books. The mass-production of cheap scriptures, proliferating “accurate” translations, ornately illustrated commoditized Bibles, “life of Jesus” adaptations, and non-biblical school textbooks dislodged the Bible from its once-dominant position. The Bible’s cultural role changed as its material qualities as a book changed.

Chapter 2, which traces the history of Bible illustration, offers the most interesting arguments for students of visual or material culture. As the century progressed, publishers seemed to add more and more detailed illustrations to larger and larger Bibles. Commercial concerns mingled with sentimentalist education strategies, the Common Sense philosophical impulse to verify the Bible’s stories led publishers to include maps, charts, and detailed (even fanciful) pictures that would bring interpretive insight. Publishers claimed that their illustrations helped readers interpret the Bible more accurately, which brought the convenient side effect of higher sales.

 

Ways of Seeing: On the Role of Images in “Religious” Violence (repost)

Haven’t we seen this before? When the so-called “Danish Cartoon Controversy” sparked protests around the world in 2005, American media outlets spoke vaguely and often about how the image offended “Muslim beliefs.” Seven years later, and again a mocking image of Muhammad—this time a Youtube video called “Innocence of Muslims”—has received a lion’s share of the blame for a complex and varied series of protests around the world. News reports revel in the details of the film, almost always mentioning its “amateurish” production quality in the same breath as its “offensive” content. Tony Blair expressed this perspective in a BBC interview, saying the film was “wrong and offensive but also laughable as a piece of filmmaking.” According to Blair, the reaction to the video has been “absurd.” Other commentators have taken this position a step further, stating that living in the modern world means being offended sometimes, so anyone who got upset about the video should just get over it. Here we have a familiar view of Middle Eastern affairs: there’s the “modern” West on one side, “fundamentalist” Islam on the other (or “fundamentalism” West vs. “fundamentalism” East). While people are happy to blame the protests on a video that upset fundamentalists, practically no one bothers to examine how images work in the lives of the people who have protested. We’re left to ponder why anyone would take to the streets over a low-budget Youtube video. Like Tony Blair, we’re encouraged to view the response as “absurd.”

As someone who thinks seriously about how images work in religions, I’m not surprised that a video (or a cartoon) might contribute to protests or violence. This has nothing to do with the “nature” of Islam. Nor does it have anything to do with clashes between “fundamentalist” and “modern” worldviews. Rather, my statement stems from an acknowledgement that images play important roles in people’s lives—as many recent scholars of “material religion” have suggested. Even in supposedly “aniconic” traditions like Islam or Protestantism, images are far from trivial.

Images have power. Sometimes, we might best describe this as affective power: images can revolt us, arouse us, terrify us, and shock us. They provoke strong responses from our bodies. They can help us to remember lost loved ones or to imagine spiritual places. Images also have effective power: they can do things in the world. Our Lady of Guadalupe works miracles. Russian icons demand to be touched and kissed. The images a little boy saw while on an operating table proved to many evangelicals that Heaven is real. When considering images in religious contexts, we’re often looking at the places where Heaven and earth meet, where embodied individuals encounter supernatural powers. So it’s no wonder that many religious communities try to sequester, circumscribe, ignore, or control images. The wrong kinds of images can cause supernatural harm. Images can lure people away from a “proper” understanding of an abstract, distant, or indescribable deity precisely because they are so powerful.

Religiously offensive images don’t just insult people’s abstract beliefs. In an important article in Critical Inquiry, Saba Mahmood invoked Bourdieu’s concept of the habitus to describe how the Danish cartoons hurt many Muslims: “the offense the cartoons committed was not against a moral interdiction (thou shalt not make images of Muhammed) but against a structure of affect, a habitus, that feels wounded” (35.4, p. 849). According to Mahmood, Muhammad serves as an image of the ideal Muslim for many people. His moral conduct, speech, even his bodily habits are worthy of emulation in daily life. The (usually) mental image of his experience in the world shows pious Muslims what to do with their bodies and helps them to make sense of their own lives. By attacking their image of the Prophet, Mahmood contends, the cartoons didn’t just offend a legal principle like “blasphemy”—they hurt a whole way of experiencing the world.

Images also help to foster collective identities. When we belong to a community, we share ways of seeing certain images. For example, many Catholics can discern a genuine apparition of Mary on a tortilla, in a dream, or at a shrine. Knowing the difference between dark spots and a genuine appearance of Our Lady marks the boundary of the group. Communities that share ways of seeing also share ways of feeling about what they see. Many evangelicals wept together when they watched The Passion of the Christ because they saw Romans whipping their Jesus. In evangelical communities, Jesus serves as an image of ideal moral conduct (WWJD?) and friendship (“What a Friend We Have in Jesus…”). They wept when they saw that Jesus brutally beaten in Mel Gibson’s movie. Such shared emotions and experiences aren’t trivial. They help to hold communities together.

I don’t know if a Youtube video catalyzed this week’s protests. But it wouldn’t surprise me. If indeed the video did contribute to this week’s events, we can do far more than to dismiss people’s reactions as trivial or absurd, the product of “fundamentalist” reluctance to embrace the modern world. Before we make diagnoses about what role the images played in the protest, we need to develop robust understandings of how images work in the particular contexts where protests happened.

THIS IS A REPOST OF A PIECE I WROTE FOR RELIGION BULLETIN, 18 SEPT 2012. Check out the original post here: http://www.equinoxpub.com/blog/2012/09/ways-of-seeing-on-the-role-of-images-in-religious-violence/