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The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm [Hardcover]

Alain Besancon

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Book Description

9 May 2001
Philosophers and theologians have long engaged in intense debate and introspection over the representation of the deity, its possibilities and its proscriptions. "The Forbidden Image" traces the dual strains of 'iconophilia' and iconoclasm, the privileging and prohibition of religious images, over a span of two-and-a-half millennia in the West. Alain Besancon's work begins with a comprehensive examination of the status of the image in Greek, Judaic, Islamic, and Christian thought. The author then addresses arguments regarding the moral authority of the image in European Christianity from the medieval through the early modern periods. Besancon completes "The Forbidden Image" with an examination of how iconophilia and iconoclasm have been debated in the modern period.

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"Even the reader who has heard something of the Byzantine quarrels about images and their theological background will be surprised by a learned and convincing interpretation of the works of Mondrian, Kandinsky, and Malevich in terms of religiously inspired iconoclasm.... This is an immensely rich and powerful masterpiece." - Leszek Kolakowski, Times Literary Supplement"

About the Author

Alain Besancon is the director of studies at L'Ecole des hautes etudes en sciences sociales. A specialist in Russian politics and intellectual history, he has written a number of books, including Anatomie d'un spectre and Les origines intellectuelles du leninisme. Jane Marie Todd is a translator whose works include Largesse by Jean Starobinski and Conversations with Picasso by Brassai, both published by the University of Chicago Press.

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The plastic representation of the gods is a function of the conception that the commonwealth makes of gods. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Amazon.com: 3.8 out of 5 stars  4 reviews
24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Use it in Conjunction with Others- not for beginners 3 April 2004
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Besançon, director of studies at L'École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, is a leading expert in Russian politics and intellectual history. While not a theologian, nor a historian of dogma (he makes a few mistakes here), Besançon's analysis of the norms guiding the representation of the divine within the Hellenic, Roman, Jewish, Early Christian, early and late medieval eras as well as the Renaissance and Baroque periods, and a bit of the modern era, are quite thorough. Although he paints with broad strokes, there are plenty of details to keep the expert busy.

Besançon discusses in detail the notion from Plato that we are drawn to contemplate God in image, but yet there is no image that can depict the divine. This is the classical apophatic and cataphatic paradox within which the truth of Christianity, and many other religions, exist.

As to the rest of his themes, I can only say that I am most familiar with the Hellenic and Eastern Christian philosophies of art, and in this the author is generally acquainted, but not so expert as I would have thought at first glance. Read Quenot's book on Eastern Christian icons or those of Vladimir Lossky for a more substantial assessment and explanation.
22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Perils of Being a Graven Image 23 Mar 2001
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is a thorough and entertaining history of the critical fortunes of religious imagery. The author tells the long controversial story of the many debates surrounding the worship of images of gods and other notables in Western culture. Starting with the proscription against the Golden Calf and the Hebraic and Islamic laws against the 'graven image," Besancon tracks the history of this debate through Greek and Roman culture, the various phases of early and medieval Christianity, including the ways in with the Eastern and Roman Catholic churches have dealt differently with the problem. Besancon then tracks the status of the religious image through the Renaissance, and how it was perceived by Enlightenment philosophers. He ends with a discussion of how art came to be perceived in religious terms and how the artist came to be perceived as a kind of romantic god starting in the late nineteenth century. He ends with a discussion of the tense relationship between modernism and spirituality, dealing with the art of Kandinsky, Mondrian, and others.
The book is a little strange: one is always aware that Besancon has his own view of things--but it is a highly learned, far-ranging and charming view. Highly recommended.
6 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A college-level intellectual history of iconoclasm 19 May 2001
By Midwest Book Review - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Forbidden Image is a college-level intellectual history of iconoclasm which examines who the representation of the divine came to be a philosophical issue, with the idea of 'graven images' receiving different interpretation by different religions. Philosophy and theology blend in a comprehensive examination of how the status of the image has changed over the centuries.
12 of 28 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Book cover is misleading 7 Jan 2002
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
You definitely can't tell this book by its cover. Not only are the title and the cover's synopsis very misleading, but the picture you see on the front of the book has nothing to do with the book's subject matter.
I bought this book because it was recommended by The Economist in a book review when it was first released. It appeared to be an interesting discussion about how different religions have accepted or rejected images that were memorialized in print. In light of the Taliban's destruction of the Buddha statues, I was especially interested in this topic to enlighten me about how various cultures have viewed the representation of God, gods, people, animals, landscapes, etc. The Economist review and the book's cover led me to believe that this book would enlighten me in that regard. It didn't.
Be forewarned that this book is almost entirely about religious images and Christianity. There is some discussion in the beginning of the book about images of gods in ancient times (and what Plato and Aristotle thought about them), but most of the book is about the iconoclastic and iconophilic schools of Christian theology. (The discussion about iconoclasm in Judaism and Islam is limited to a few pages.) Hence, I would characterize this book under the heading philosophy, not art.
My only other comment pertains to the writing. Keep in mind that Besancon wrote this book in French, so you are reading a translation. I don't know if it's because of the writing in the original, the translation or the subject matter, but this is a very dry read. I will confess that I keep the book on the bedside table to provide soporific assistance. Calling itself an "Intellectual History" does not, to me, give a book license to be painfully boring.
While there are some interesting passages (such as the discussion about the Trinity in Christianity, which was helpful in explaining the concept of the Holy Spirit), I rate this book as two stars. I do this primarily because it was not what it purported to be. It would have been more aptly entitled, "The Depiction of the Divine in Christian Theology." And the cover picture should have been from a painting of a crucified Jesus. But then again, that probably wouldn't sell as many copies.
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