As the command forbidding graven images is given to Moses at the top of Sinai, it is at the same time broken at the mountain’s base by God’s people, who make and worship a golden calf. Seeing the people break the command, Moses angrily smashes the stone tablet on which it is written. The moment is remembered in both the Jewish and Christian traditions as the paradigmatic scene of idolatry.
How did Christianity, a tradition with such a strong prohibition regarding images, go on to integrate them into worship? One answer, given by German picture theorist Horst Bredekamp (2010), is that the Christian image-makers did not leave that anxiety behind, but took it with them, expressing it in the images themselves. The images, in other words, communicate a prohibition against worshipping images. They warn and even attempt to guard against the threat of idolatry.
Of the three objects, Nicolas Poussin’s painting Adoration of the Calf (1633–34) betrays the anxiety about images most obviously. Having absorbed and redirected the anxieties about images in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, Poussin’s painting is a piece of visual irony. It warns of the dangers of idolatry by foregrounding the bright, large, and captivating idol and idol-worshippers. He renders divine presence, by contrast, in the shadowy margins of the canvas, where Moses comes down the mountain in darkness. Poussin’s Moses does not gleam and shine with an obvious and glorious divine presence, for divine presence, in this image, must be sought, pursued, and discerned. By drawing the viewer’s eye to the idol rather than the divine presence, Poussin’s image exposes to the viewer her own propensity to idolatry, as if to rehabilitate her as a beholder of the divine.
But this is quite different than the Moses shining (‘horned’, as the Vulgate has it) in glory, in the illuminated manuscript by William de Brailes centuries earlier (c.1250). The contrasts with Poussin’s image are striking. In de Brailes’s illustration, first, the calf’s presence is diminished. Second, greater visual prominence is given to Moses. Third, gold suffuses the background rather than the idol. While this image, too, exhibits worry about the viewer confusing an idol with divine presence, it performs its corrective, its ‘therapy’, differently than Poussin’s painting. The gold stretches out across all creation, rather than marking only the calf, which pales in comparison, thus reminding the viewer where true glory does and does not lie. De Brailes’s illustration draws the viewer’s eye, not to expose its vulnerability to idolatry but to keep it safe from temptation. Further securing the eye from danger, an inscription interprets the illustration at the bottom of the page. The image here extends, rather than displaces, the power of the word. Thus the illustration follows the dominant justification for images in medieval Western Christianity: that images work in tandem with words.
Francis Picabia’s painting (1941–42) differs from the others in two important respects. First, where de Brailes’s and Poussin’s depictions work by suggesting a difference between worshippers in these images and the beholders of these images, which buffer the beholders from idolatry’s snares, Picabia’s painting implicates the beholder in the position of the worshippers. We can see only the arms of the worshippers, as if we are placed among the throng.
Second, Picabia’s painting contrasts with the other two in that it presents a type of idolatry that comes by way of neglecting sight, or attending to it poorly. Picabia’s calf figures a literally brutish political power. The danger for the worshippers is not that they will be ensnared by sight. They are, after all, only hands and arms in the painting. The danger is that they—that we—will not look closely enough, past the trappings of governance, to realize that they adore a leader who also does not see, does not understand. The danger in Picabia’s interpretation of the calf is an idolatry born not of sight, but of wilfully not seeing.
Together these images raise a complex set of questions about idols and sight. Poussin and de Brailes press us to ask: when are images faithful to the divine, and when do they tempt us to betray the divine, making idols when we should wait for the divine presence descending to us? When does a gaze want wrongly to see, to master by sight the divinity it should wait for in darkness? Picabia’s painting adds to these, provoking us to ask: when is a gaze wrongly blind to what it worships? Can we be so captivated by tyrants and power that we fail to see what is happening right in front of our eyes?
Carnes, Natalie. 2017. Image and Presence: A Christological Reflection on Iconoclasm and Iconophilia (Stanford: Stanford University Press)
Bredekamp, Horst. 2010. Theorie des Bildakts (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag AG)
32 When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron, and said to him, “Up, make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2And Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3So all the people took off the rings of gold which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4And he received the gold at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made a molten calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 5When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” 6And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.
7 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go down; for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves; 8they have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them; they have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ ” 9And the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people; 10now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; but of you I will make a great nation.”
11 But Moses besought the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does thy wrath burn hot against thy people, whom thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them forth, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people. 13Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou didst swear by thine own self, and didst say to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.’ ” 14And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people.
15 And Moses turned, and went down from the mountain with the two tables of the testimony in his hands, tables that were written on both sides; on the one side and on the other were they written. 16And the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tables. 17When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a noise of war in the camp.” 18But he said, “It is not the sound of shouting for victory, or the sound of the cry of defeat, but the sound of singing that I hear.” 19And as soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tables out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. 20And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it with fire, and ground it to powder, and scattered it upon the water, and made the people of Israel drink it.