Friday, April 11, 2014

The Prohibition of the Image (my lecture at Cinema Orion + a panel discussion with Johan Bastubacka and Deniz Bedretdin)

Rothko Chapel
Kuvan kielto uskonnossa / The Prohibition of the Image (my lecture at Cinema Orion + panel discussion with Johan Bastubacka and Deniz Bedretdin).
    Lecture series Elokuva uskonnon peilinä / Cinema as a Mirror of Religion.
    HYY:n Elokuvaryhmä järjestää luentosarjan yhteistyössä Helsingin yliopiston uskontotieteen oppiaineen populaarikulttuurin tutkijapiirin ja KAVI:n kanssa elokuvateatteri Orionissa perjantaisin klo 14.30. / Arranged by the Film Society of the Student Union of the University of Helsinki together with the Study Group of Popular Culture at the discipline of Comparative Religion at the University of Helsinki, and KAVI (National Audiovisual Institute, Finland).
    Cinema Orion, Helsinki (Cinema as a Mirror of Religion), 11 April 2014.

My topics included:

1. The image ban, the invisible God, the birth of monotheism, the birth of the alphabet, the leap in abstraction in the human mind and culture, "the dawn of conscience" (J. H. Breasted).

2. The prohibition of the image in the Ten Commandments. Its different translations into Finnish in 1552, 1642, 1776, 1933/1938, and 1992. The Catechism. The terminology in different languages: Bilderverbot, aniconism. The Latin formulation in the Vulgata: non facies tibi sculptile neque omnem similitudinem quae est in caelo desuper et quae in terra deorsum nec eorum quae sunt in aquis sub terra. The Hebrew original: לא תעשה־לך פסל וכל־תמונה אשר בשמים ממעל ואשר בארץ מתחת ואשר במים מתחת .לארץ The keyword פסל (pesel) (psal lech) means a graven image. The image ban is discussed in several passages of the Torah / the Five Books of Moses and other ancient holy texts. The word for the image in Genesis, בְּצֶ֥לֶם (btzelem), refers to spiritual essence. (Thanks to rabbi Simon Livson for help with transcriptions and definitions).

3. Examples of the image ban and iconoclasm include: - The iconoclasm of the Jews during the Biblical era - The removal of the images from Kaaba, from around the Black Stone by the Muslims. - Episodes of iconoclasm in Hinduism. - In African cultures the Highest God is not represented figuratively. - The Australian aborigines have a prohibition of the image of the recently deceased during their voyage to the Dreaming. - Crusaders and missionaries have destroyed holy images everywhere around the world. - The vandalization of the giant Moai statues on Easter Island before the arrival of the Europeans in the 18th century. - The French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. - The destruction of the giant Buddha statues by the Taliban in Bamiyan in 2001. - The destruction of the Sufi shrines in Timbuktu in 2012. - In a more general sense, aniconism has been linked with abstract art, minimalism, and Finnish Design.

4. The image ban can be applied to - God - anything holy - legendary and historical figures - humans - anything living - everything. --- It can be limited to the presentation of - eyes - faces - genitals, etc.

5. The image ban is a characteristic of monotheism in its rejection of polytheistic idolatry. - The eldest known monotheistic high culture, that of Akhenaten, did not ban images but promoted instead a notable turn in the art of representation. - Tacitus claimed that ancient Germans had a prohibition of images of gods; yet images of gods of ancient Germans have been found. - In Judaism, Islam, and at times and also still in certain contemporary interpretations of Christianity the image ban has been observed. - Also in the Assyrian church and in Zoroastrianism.

6. Closely linked with this is the prohibition to pronounce God's name. 2. Moses 3:14: "And God saith unto Moses, `I AM THAT WHICH I AM;' He saith also, `Thus dost thou say to the sons of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.'" - יהויה JHWH, אֶהְיֶה Ehje, "I Am", or אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה, Ehje ašer ehje, "I Am That I Am”. - God has no image nor a name.

7. In Christianity a solution to the issue of the representation of God is Jesus as the incarnation of God the Son, the second of three persons of the Divine Trinity. For centuries there have been debates about the representation of Jesus. Meanwhile Christian visual art has developed into a treasure trove of world art, and icons have become an important issue for instance in the Eastern Christian traditions. There has been a debate on the definitions of the idol and the icon. Idolatry is banned; icon worship is fostered. - From the viewpoint of Judaism and Islam, the Holy Trinity is a compromise between polytheism and monotheism, between idolatry and the image ban.

8. Since the 3. century Christian churches have started to take positions on art. The interpretations have differed in the extreme, from interpretations of an absolute image ban to flourishing cultures of religious visual art. - In 380 Constitutiones Apostolorum required painters, whores, actors, and boxers to relinquish their craft as a condition of being admitted to the church. - But there was no consistent stand on the image ban. - A major division started in the 6. century: in Byzantium, images were rejected whereas the Pope and the patriarchates of the Arab countries favoured art. Many Byzantian artists fleed to Rome.

9. There were two grave waves of iconoclasm in the Byzantium in the 8. and the 9. centuries.

10. During the Reformation there were huge waves of destruction of images in the 16. century, known as Beeldenstorm or Bildersturm. Among the Protestants, Martin Luther took a conciliatory stand and saw much good in images bringing people closer to the faith, but Huldrych Zwingli and Jean Calvin renounced all visual representation.

11. In contemporary Christianity there are prominent revival movements, such as Laestadianism in the Nordic countries, who condemn certain areas of culture, including performing arts and moving images. Anabaptists, the Amish, the Mennonites, and Brethren in Christ observe the prohibition of the image. Amish dolls have no faces.

12. In the Quran there is no image ban. Highly significant was, however, the banishment of images from Mecca, and since the 8. century there is the tradition that man-created images have been banned, since God is the sole Creator. Some schools of thought emphasize that the image is inseparable from the unity of God. In 722 during Caliph Yazid II there was an iconoclasm. But the image ban has not been absolute, and it has not been observed in secular circumstances. Mostly there have been guidelines about figurative images in mosques and about the propriety of photographs in religious connections. - Nomadic Muslims were more strict in the image ban than Muslim farmers. - The purpose was to oppose idolatry and remove instruments of magic. - The viewpoint was that God is beyond form and image. Superstition and all figurative anthropomorphism was rejected. The religion was taught by word only. - Generally there are no figurative representations of living beings in holy spaces. - False generalizations about islam's image ban appear in Western media. There is a strong tradition of figurative art in Muslim art. Tolerance has been the general approach, and art of other religions has been admitted.

13. The image ban, society and the economic system. - Sigmund Freud (in Der Mann Moses) stated that the ban of the image and the name of God was a triumph of spirituality over sensuality, an epochal step in Menschwerdung, in the process of mankind becoming truly human. - Max Weber, the author of Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist der Kapitalismus (and an extensive body of work about society and religion) argued that the image ban is an essential aspect of intellectualism and rationalism, with fundamental consequences for the development of society, such as the triumph of Capitalism. - In Finland, there is still a prominent correlation between religious fundamentalism of the Protestant revival movements and economic success.

14. Related terms: the taboo.
15. Related terms: censorship.
16. Related terms: iconoclasm, and damnatio memoriae.

17. The holy and its presentation in the cinema. Religion has been a central theme in the cinema since the beginning, and there has been a wide span of means of expression, from the excess of Indian religious musicals to the ascetic reduction of Dreyer. - In early cinema, views from the Holy Land were taken by many production companies. - One of the earliest genres of the feature film in the 1890s was the Passion Play, then often as a record of the traditional Oberammergau performance. - There were artistically valuable films already during early cinema, made by some of the best talents of French cinema, such as La Vie et la passion de Jésus Christ (1903), composed of tableaux directed by Ferdinand Zecca. Also Sidney Olcott's From the Manger to the Cross (1912), shot on the Holy Land, belongs to the important early feature films. - From the late 1920s till the late 1950s there was a tradition in Hollywood films that Christ was not shown. In the Sermon on the Mount scenes in Ben-Hur, The Robe, and The Big Fisherman Christ is not shown, only the reactions on the faces of those who have heard him speak.

18. The holy and its presentation in the cinema: asceticism - the reticence to show. Paul Schrader has examined three artists who have taken the road of showing less in his book Transcendental Style in Film: Yasujiro Ozu (a secular director with a sense of Buddhist and Shintoist cultural tradition), Robert Bresson (a Roman Catholic-Jansenist atheist), and Carl Th. Dreyer (reflecting Protestantism, in La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc also Catholicism, and in Die Gezeichneten, Jewish life). - The great Frenchmen André Bazin, Henri Agel, and Amédée Ayfre have a comparable insight in presenting the holy in the cinema. - Divinity, the holy, is invisible. - By a devout focus on the everyday, by the way of reduction of everything inessential, the artist can lead us onto the path towards grasping better what exceeds the limits of our compehension.

19. The very opposite to the Ozu-Bresson-Dreyer approach is tonight's film The Ten Commandments (of 1956). Why this film? - The final turning-point of the film is the sequence where Moses descends from Mount Sinai with the Tablets of the Law and sees his people dancing around the Golden Calf. This is a dramatization of our theme of idolatry versus the invisible God. - This is also our Easter Film, as we celebrate Easter next week. - This film is a big Hollywood spectacle, but Cecil B. DeMille had an ecumenic approach in consulting Jewish, Christian, and Muslim experts to get it right. It was shot on location in Egypt. - We may smile at the wooden performance of Charlton Heston in the title role, but the film on the whole is marvellously cast, the people are of flesh and blood, and there are many unforgettable vignettes. There is a joy of storytelling and a passion for the subject-matter, since Cecil B. DeMille was both a true believer and a master of the spectacle. He has the full command on one of the greatest myths, but although the film is full of attractions, finally it is about the triumph of the spirit.

20. A remark on Catholic film directors. In the history of art, no other religious orientation has inspired as much great visual art as Roman Catholicism (we need only remember the Renaissance trio of Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raffaello). The same goes for the cinema. Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Henry King, Leo McCarey, Éric Rohmer, and Federico Fellini are all great Catholic directors, and Catholic themes and images are also essential for atheists such as Roberto Rossellini, Robert Bresson, and Luis Buñuel. The wild bird of Finnish cinema, Teuvo Tulio, was a Roman Catholic.

The panel discussion
There was an inspired panel discussion with Johan Bastubacka (a Christian) and Deniz Bedretdin (a Muslim) with many intelligent comments also from the audience. (Rabbi Simon Livson was not able to attend). Johan Bastubacka pointed out the two-dimensionality of the images in Orthodox art as a way of obeying the ban on the graven image. There was also the essential reminder than in the beginning of the Genesis men and women are created in the image of God.

Genesis 1:26-27 (King James)
26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

26 וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֔ים נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה אָדָ֛ם בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ כִּדְמוּתֵ֑נוּ וְיִרְדּוּ֩ בִדְגַ֨ת הַיָּ֜ם וּבְעֹ֣וף הַשָּׁמַ֗יִם וּבַבְּהֵמָה֙ וּבְכָל־הָאָ֔רֶץ וּבְכָל־הָרֶ֖מֶשׂ הָֽרֹמֵ֥שׂ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃
27 וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמֹ֔ו בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹתֹ֑ו זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם׃

I did not stay to see Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments this time, but I returned to watch the end: Moses hurls the tablets on the golden calf, and the sinners fall to a burning abyss. After thirty years of a punishing trek in the desert (korpivaellus in Finnish), the now frail Moses stays behind as the people of Israel finally crosses the River Jordan, to the land of freedom having escaped from the land of slavery. So it was written. So it shall be done.

Recommendations for further reading:
Paul Schrader: Transcendental Style in Film. Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1972
Mary Lea Bandy and Antonio Monda: The Hidden God. Film and Faith. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2003
Tomas Axelson och Ola Sigurdson: Film och religion. Livstolkning på vita duken. Örebro: Cordia, 2005
Jolyon Mitchell and S. Brent Plate: The Religion and Film Reader. New York and London: Routledge, 2007
John Lyden (ed.): The Routledge Companion to Religion and Film. London and New York: Routledge, 2009
Nacim Pak-Shiraz: Shi’i Islam in Iranian Cinema. Religion and Spirituality in Film. London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2011
"Bilderverbot": the German Wikipedia article with excellent links.

Grand speculations on the birth of monotheism:
James Henry Breasted: The Dawn of Conscience. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1933.
Thomas Mann: Joseph und seine Brüder I-IV. Frankfurt am Main (I-II), Stockholm (III-IV): S. Fischer Verlag, 1933-1943.
Sigmund Freud: Der Mann Moses und die monoteistische Religion. Amsterdam: De Lange, 1939.
Mika Waltari: Sinuhe egyptiläinen. Porvoo-Helsinki: WSOY, 1945.

The image (the word used in Genesis), put into the Google Translator:
image  בְּצֶ֥לֶם 
image תְמוּנָה, דְמוּת, תַדמִית, דְיוֹקָן, בָּבוּאָה, צֶלֶם
idol אֱלִיל, פֶּסֶל, צֶלֶם
likeness דְמוּת, דִמיוֹן, דְיוֹקָן, צֶלֶם, תְמוּנָה, דִמוּי
semblance מַראִית עַיִן, דִמיוֹן, צֶלֶם, מַרְאֶה הַחִצוֹנִי
form טוֹפֶס, צוּרָה, דְמוּת, תַבְנִית, דְפוּס, צֶלֶם

P.S. Kamel Daoud: "Wahhabism, a messianic radicalism that arose in the 18th century, hopes to restore a fantasized caliphate centered on a desert, a sacred book, and two holy sites, Mecca and Medina. Born in massacre and blood, it manifests itself in a surreal relationship with women, a prohibition against non-Muslims treading on sacred territory, and ferocious religious laws. That translates into an obsessive hatred of imagery and representation and therefore art, but also of the body, nakedness and freedom. Saudi Arabia is a Daesh that has made it." (The New York Times, 20 Nov 2015; International New York Times Weekend 21 Nov 2015)

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