It is a fairly common misrepresentation of the Ancient Greek understanding of the Gods to claim that they were thought to be completely anthropomorphic in body and mind. Indeed, depending on the context, the Ancient Greeks had a wide variety of representations at their disposal, as Zaidman and Pantel (1992) describe in Religion in the Ancient Greek City:
The Greeks employed a large number of different words for representation of the divine: xoanon, bretas, andrias, palladion, agalma, kolossos, eikon and eidolon, among others. This variety corresponds to the multiplicity of the divine in figural form. (p. 215-216)
We are simply most aware of the stately Hellenistic Period sculpture that has come to represent the entirety of Greek civilization, and so it is easier to reduce what was in fact a quite complex and varied culture to only the most dramatic examples of its plastic arts.
We may be most familiar with the naturalistic, anthropomorphic statues that decorate our museums in marble originals and plaster reproductions, but these representations do not constitute the total picture. Zaidman and Pantel (1992) continue:
The bretas and xoanon, for example, were virtually aniconic, making no attempt at likeness. They were thought of as having dropped out of the sky, like the xoanon of Athene Polias eventually housed in the Erekthion on the Athenian Akropolis (p. 216)
Many of these aniconic representations served vital functions, and would have been quite familiar to the Ancient Greek populace, as they were used in processions, ritually dressed and bathed, and employed for various cultic purposes (Zaidman & Pantel, 1992, p. 216).
There is a further misrepresentation that occasionally pops up, suggesting that the Ancient Greeks, in an inversion of the evolution of religion narrative that is often employed to support modern monotheism, eventually progressed from a fully abstract understanding of Divine Beings and forces to a completely anthropomorphized conception. As anyone who is basically familiar with the works of Homer can attest, though, this is simply not the case:
It is false to claim that there was a development from aniconic representation to naturalism. For in Homer the gods were already completely anthropomorphized, whereas in the Classical era, some three centuries later, pillars and stones could perform a very potent symbolic function and constitute the living heart of rituals. (Zaidman & Pantel, 1992, p. 218)
It was during the Archaic Period, after all, as well, that the production of kouroi, stylized statues of youths, abounded, “Some of these sculptures were funerary in function, being placed over the tomb of a dead man or youth; others were votive, dedicated to a god in a sanctuary” (p. 216). This form had a variety of uses, and so demonstrates the plasticity of Ancient Greek representational ideas: the same sort of sculpture could be used as a grave marker, a votive offering, and even as a dedication honoring some heroic act. However, “They were in no way likenesses of either the deceased or the dedicator, or of the recipient deity. Modelled in the form of a human body, they represented rather attributes and values of the divine” (p. 216).
We can see, then, that for the Ancient Greeks, the simple image of a man was not necessarily understood to directly portray the God that it stood in for:
The fact that the Greeks sculpted such statues of their gods does not imply a belief that the gods were in every respect human; what the Greeks did believe was that the beauty, youth or perfect proportion of a real human body evoked qualities of the divine. (Zaidman & Pantel, 1992, p. 217)
Representations of the Gods can be understood as a sort of allegory, a means of orienting toward the Gods that places them along of continuum of familiarity and mystery. The representation is not the being-in-itself, it simply serves to direct the viewer toward an encounter:
The special characteristic of all religious representation is to endow the divinity being figured with a presence without obscuring the fact that it is not actually there. The cultic image must at the same time be thoroughly material – it can be touched, moved, manipulated – and yet leave no doubt that it stands for something which is not actually present. (p. 215)
We do great harm when we lift the icon out of its greater context, and consider it as an object devoid of history and use. As Zaidman and Pantel (1992) observe, “It is clearly impossible, for example, to study a statue in isolated abstraction from ritual use to which it was put” (p. 228). By doing so, we strip away the mystery of the representation, and reduce it to mere thing, taking the surface appearance of the object for the totality of its function. The icon is an icon by virtue not of its form, but of its usage and religious contextualization. The representative power of the icon does not constitute the totality of its significance.
The icon persists as a representation of only the leanest qualities of the God. Just as the portrait requires our willingness to enter into it, so too the icon requires our own willingness to seek through it an encounter. As Sargent created in Madame X a beguiling emptiness into which we flow, so too the icon provides us with a vacuous space to draw us into Divine relation.
Thus, whomever is represented in the figure of the icon is not simply present in the icon itself, but alluded to, just as a portrait presents us not with the person, but with the opportunity for encounter. As Martin Buber (1996) describes, “It is in encounter that the creation reveals its formhood; it does not pour itself into the senses that are waiting but deigns to meet those that are reaching out” (p. 77). Representations of the Divine invite us to reach out toward the Gods, to meet them in encounter, facilitated by the greater context of the religious practice that encloses us.
In order to make sense of the Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth, one needs to have an understanding of the political situation that enclosed the production and usage of the image. So too does the icon rely on its religious surroundings in order to truly speak of the Divinity toward which it points. The language of the icon is learned through the practice of religion. To those who do not gaze upon the icon seeking encounter, only the thing will manifest, no matter how beautiful the object itself, nothing of the God will emerge before their gaze. “Whoever says You does not have something; he has nothing. But he stands in relation” (Buber, 1996, p. 55). Unless encounter is sought through the icon, it remains inert before our gaze.
The icon performs allegorically, perhaps informing us about some characteristics of the divine being, or associating certain qualities with divinity in general, but ultimately stands as distinct from the being toward whom it points. “Whether one speaks of God as He or It, this is never more than allegory. But when we say You to him, the unbroken truth of the world has been made word by mortal sense” (Buber, 1996, p. 147-148). The icon provokes us to recognize the You of the Deity, to stand in relation, and not to take the presence before our eyes as a complete presentation of the God.
The logic of representation, of the equation of the simulacra with the original, which is already fractured by the portrait, is completely undone by the icon, which always points to a being that dwells solely within the realm of pure presentation. Understanding the icon as a broken representation, we can say that it leads us toward encounter with a God in the realm of pure presentation, where the God emerges, becomes real in our lives. The icon, like the portrait, is an autonomous and separate creation from the original being after which it is patterned. A portrait is not understood as composing the body of the person whose features it mimics. In the same way, the icon is not, in itself, the body of the God.
The icon is a deliberately contrived gateway to encounter, however it cannot be exchanged with the encounter, or the being, the You that drifts behind it. There is no law of equivalence that can penetrate the realm of pure presentation. Just as the portrait cannot be equated to the person, its representative power will always fail, so too the icon can in no way be equated to the God. Encounter with the God, though facilitated by the icon, cannot be reduced to icon, or represented in the icon. So too the God eludes representation, abiding within pure presentation, where representation cannot penetrate.
We enter into relation to Gods, and this act is beyond representation, beyond mediation. We appear under the gaze of the Gods, and they, reflexively, appear under ours. This relation is completely exclusive, unique, and unrepeatable. There can be no equivalence or exchange, no substitution of representation for the pure presentation we encounter. Speaking You to the Gods, we place ourselves into a relation that sets both ourselves and the Gods beyond representation, and recognizes within both terms the irreducibility of pure presentation.
Buber, M. (1996). I and Thou. (W. Kaufman, trans.) New York: Touchstone. (Original work published 1970)
Zaidman, L. B., & Pantel, P. S. (1992) Religion in the Ancient Greek City. (P. Cartledge, Trans.). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. (original work published 1989).