On Representation: Icon and Allegory

On Representation: Icon and Allegory

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).


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  1. A critique of the economy of representation such as this is indispensable, I believe, to understanding the critique of mimetic art in Plato’s Republic. Without discerning the alternative economy (albeit it is not truly correct to think of it as an ‘economy’ at all, I suspect) of theophany, presentation and encounter that you open up here, we fall into the trap of thinking that Plato offers us only the dualism of form and participant, the so-called ‘two worlds ontology’, when this economy of participation is nothing other than the representational economy writ large. And so Plato would be criticizing mimesis at the same time that he tells us there is nothing but mimesis in the cosmos. Instead, I believe that Plato sees the issue of mimetic art as a decisive political and psychical problem precisely because he believes that here the crisis of the formal as such can be experienced, just as the constitution of the State was taken up because the problematics of justice in the soul could be read more easily in its ‘large letters’ (Rep. 368d). And just as political and psychical justice are inextricable, so too is the struggle of artistic practice (not only in the visual arts) inseparable from soteriology, from the soul’s struggle to carry the flame of the divine encounter into the world.

    Might we say that the economy of representation/mimesis by no means applies merely to what we call, in the everyday sense, ‘representational’ art, but extends far beyond these boundaries? That there is ‘non-representational’ art, so-called, in the economy of representation, as happens, for example, when the aniconic idol is presented in the museum? And further, that the ‘representational’ (anthropomorphic) icon, which despite its formal characteristics, does not belong initially to the economy of representation, is similarly appropriated into that economy in the museum setting?

    • Julian

      Agreed, Edward. I think that the museum setting exerts a strong tendency to reinforce the economy of representation. It is most naturally achieved with representational art, which to the modern eye (and this is, I suspect, almost purely a modern tendency) appears to be able to be understood completely without context. Thus the reproductions of Hellenistic Period sculpture are presented in a way that suggests to the viewer that they are exactly as they appear, and can be understood completely without context. The human form is the human form, and that is all that is visible to us in the museum setting. The sculpture is reduced to its formal qualities. I am thinking, in particular, of the Hall of Architecture at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, where Greek and Roman reproductions are tightly packed amidst fragments of architecture, scraps of friezes, and broken pediments. We see a heap of antiquity, jumbled and reduced to its simplest form.

      I think that the exchange you describe with the aniconic representation can be seen as well with abstract art in general. The works by Donald Judd or Frank Stella become conflated with the persons of the artist, and we speak of a “Judd” or a “Stella” as though the man and the image were interchangeable. Further, modern abstract work is often deliberately contrived to stand as a “pure experience” not requiring a greater context. In this case, then the economics of representation can easily take hold, because the most pervasive context in our culture is the economic context. The “pure experience” of the abstract work is immediately brought in to a network of exchange and equivalence as a value, often derived from the person of the artist with whom the work is equivocated, is established. The aniconic image becomes an object of pure value, since it represents no “thing” it represents only the potential exchange.

      We may say, following Wilde, after all, that art is perfectly useless, but we need to recognize that this only applies to a very narrow slice of art, from the Modern Era.

  2. “[T]he icon is not, in itself, the body of the God.”

    Except that in the lived experience of the majority of the ancient Greeks, the divine being was seen as very much present in, even constituted by, the material image.

    A number of scholars have drawn attention to this point; for example, Verity Platt states in Facing the Gods: Epiphany and Representation in Graeco-Roman Art, Literature and Religion, “Each visual detail selected by the artist and/or patron actively negotiates the relationship between god and human in ways that play a dynamic role in the construction of religious experience. An awareness of this process did not necessarily lessen the numinosity of the images thereby created. Greek viewer-worshipers were fully aware, for instance, of the materiality of cult statues (the use of wood, stone, ivory or precious metals was actually of paramount importance), but they were rarely impious enough to think them ‘just’ statues” (49). And further: “[I]t is significant that the term hedos, or ‘seat’ is applied to many Greek cult images, including the Athena Polias and the archaic image of Artemis at Brauron. Hedos is used for a variety of iconographic types and does not necessarily imply that the statue is in a seated pose; rather, whereas agalma and xoanon evoke the artefactual, created nature of sacred images (as do terms such as hidruma and kolossos), hedos refers to their function as ‘vessels’ or ‘receptacles’ of divine presence, periodically–and always potentially–activated by deity. The hedos makes concrete the idea that sacred images operate as a kind of frame; they provide a physical object to act as a ‘container’ for divinity, and even the form the god might take” (104).

    Henk Versnel tackles this as well in his excellent Coping with Gods: Wayward Readings in Greek Theology. In The Complete Greek Temples, Tony Spawforth writes, “Like true idols (that is, animate images), the statues of the Greek gods could come alive…. In the eye of the believer they could sweat, shed tears and bleed, and walk off their pedestals. Bellowings were heard from inside temples. The educated Plutarch (c. AD 100) conceded that statues ‘may emit a noise like a moan or a groan’, but drew he drew the line at talking statues: others, clearly, did not” (78).

    In fact, the main thrust towards increasing naturalistic representation is to blur the line dividing the human artist’s skill and the actual, physical presence of the deity–is this Herakles standing before me, or a representation of Him? The creative tension, or cognitive dissonance, between these two perceptions of the image–image as human creation, image as divine embodiment–provided an entire line of thought that extended from the ancient Greeks into the Roman philosophy and especially the Second Sophistic authors like Plutarch.

    Also, that aniconic images retained their cultic potency alongside the increasingly naturalistic cult statues does not diminish the significance of either mode of representation, nor necessarily point to an always-abstract, Ideal conception of Divinity. Rather, it speaks of the ancient Hellenes’ ability to smoothly juggle multiple meanings and multiple conceptions of (divine) reality.

    • Julian

      I don’t disagree with anything you have said here, nor do I believe that you contradict my point in the above essay. An icon can be both sacred and a representation. Indeed, its nature as a gateway to encounter a God demands care and specificity in its manufacture. The power of the Gods to present themselves through the icon, to encounter us through it, speaks to my point.

      The concern, however, is to what extent the icon composes the body of the God. For all of the sacredness of the icon, were it broken it would not imply that the God was likewise fractured. Just as the destruction of a portrait does not destroy its sitter, so too do the Gods maintain presences distinct from our representations of them. Further, the ability of the Gods to manipulate or animate our representations of them does not necessarily imply that they are composed of our representations. A child may manipulate a doll, but this does not imply that the doll composes the body of the child. Statues of the Virgin Mary weep various substances across the world to this day, but we do not say that the Virgin Mary is any singular one of those weeping statues, nor is she composed of them all. Whatever her embodiment, it appears to be such that she can, when she desires, manipulate representations of her.

      It was not my desire to privilege aniconic or naturalistic representations, merely to point out that the Ancient Greeks maintained a much more diverse conception of the Gods than we moderns generally understand. I myself said that representations are “a means of orienting toward the Gods that places them along of continuum of familiarity and mystery.”

  3. I was just wondering what ever happened to you, Julian Betkowski. You’ve vanished from most most of your online presence. I always appreciated your voice in the world of Pagan blogging. You are gone from Patheos, Polytheist.com, The Wild Hunt, and even your own blog. Your Google+ profile seems dormant.