The second commandment complicates representational art in the so-called Abrahamic religions because of the many ways it has been interpreted, including as a condemnation of graven images (specifically, images made to be worshipped), and—more radically—as a prohibition against the representation of any of God’s creatures.
Christian and Jewish artworks have often been willing to depict humans, animals, and plants from biblical narratives. And while there is a prevailing misconception that Islamic art is entirely aniconic, there are examples of Islamic figurative art from early in the religion’s history.
Crucially, none of these images was meant to be worshipped, for (despite their differences) the use of images as idols was a major concern in all of the religions in which they were made.
So what ramifications has the commandment had for artists in the Abrahamic traditions?
In Christianity, figurative images have been considered dangerous for many reasons, including the Incarnation. God made himself incarnate in Christ, who, since the Council of Nicaea (325 CE), was declared to have two natures, one divine and one human. Because Christ was divine, in depicting him, artists might have seemed (heretically) to be claiming that they were capable of capturing God in visual form; the visualization of God or God’s creations suggested the inscriptibility of a divine essence that is uncontainable. Conversely, iconophiles like St John of Damascus argued that by revealing himself in human form, God sanctioned the depiction of that human nature.
More prominent in Islam was an issue of hubris. Idols, as images of God meant to be worshipped, were clearly impermissible. But what of representations of people, plants, and animals? When considering these latter types of image the Hadith, or ‘Traditions of the Prophet’, stated that artists were unable to ‘breathe life’ into them. Only God can create. For artists to make figurative art would be too strive for a power too similar to God’s, and this was considered disrespectful to divine creation. So Islamic artists were careful not to represent perfectly that which had been made by the divine, and developed methods to abide by the commandment, such as disrupting or distorting figures (Schick 1998: 87).
Despite such concerns, the Byzantine and Islamic worlds continued to produce figurative art. For this reason, debates in Byzantium over the commandment recorded in Exodus 20 dominated the eighth and ninth centuries, and periods of official iconoclasm disrupted artistic production. While all figural imagery was subject to scrutiny, icons, like those incorporated within the British Museum’s Icon with the Triumph of Orthodoxy, were under the greatest suspicion.
As representations of holy figures, such icons were considered dangerous because they could be used idolatrously. They could misdirect veneration by encouraging the conflation of the physical object with the holy figure. Iconophiles who supported the use of sacred images in worship argued that icons were tools for worship that acted as a visual reminder of God or the saints, but were not the actual object of worship. Iconoclasts found this differentiation too subtle and encouraged the prohibition and destruction of icons.
When icons were permanently restored by the Orthodox Church in 843 CE, the newly empowered iconophiles commissioned art that championed their position. Manuscripts like the Chludov Psalter—produced less than a decade later—boast the victory of the iconophiles.
In the Islamic world, figurative imagery was largely relegated to the secular realm, but certainly did exist. In sacred contexts, aniconic (non-representational) motifs like arabesques were what typically decorated spaces and objects. Arabesques, ornamental designs comprising interconnected curving lines, often resembled writing. In sacred spaces like mosques, they tended to be based on the Qur’an and contained verses written out in elaborate calligraphic scripts in various mediums, including mosaic decoration.
Sidestepping the ban on representation, the words themselves became the art object from as early as the sixth century. They were written by human hands but they were spoken and created by God. The Word of God was used to beautify itself, restricting the true power of creation to God, and positioning the human artist as a scribe in service to the divine.
We see in these three works how artists in the Orthodox Christian and Islamic medieval worlds—inheriting the stern prohibition in Jewish Scripture— responded to a shared divine commandment. Marshalling stylistic conventions and theological arguments in support of motifs that could be both aniconic or iconic, each nevertheless sought to be faithful to the biblical prohibition against the misuse of graven images.
Cormack, Robin. 1985. Writing in Gold: Byzantine Society and its Icons (London: George Philip)
Flood, Finbarr Barry. 2016. ‘Idol-Breaking as Image-Making in the “Islamic State”’, Religion and Society: Advances in Research, 7: 116–38
Schick, Robert. 1998. ‘Archaeological Sources for the History of Palestine: Palestine in the Early Islamic Period: Luxuriant Legacy’, Near Eastern Archaeology, 61. 2: 74–108
4 “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; 5you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.