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)