Go figure


When a Mesopotamian artisan finished a statue of a deity, the craftsman underwent an arduous ritual before the object was deemed pure and could be moved from workshop to temple. The custom deemphasized the human creator by sinking his tools, cutting off his hands with a wooden knife, and commanding the artisan to declare that he did not create the god’s image.

Such anxiety about mortals depicting a higher power, while extreme, is not unique, according to the Smart Museum’s Idol Anxiety, which opened Tuesday. “Idols are worrisome objects,” suggest the exhibit notes. “From ancient times to the present day, theological traditions have reflected on idolatry and questioned the transcendence, significance, and power of objects.”

While the pious have sought to depict gods for nearly as long as they’ve worshiped them, problems arise when those representations fall outside cultural norms. When they did so, societies either deemed them idols or were forced to reconsider their standards. For instance, early Christianity’s prohibition against illustrating Christ led to the idea of acheiropoieta, literally non-handmade depictions alleged to have appeared miraculously, such as the Shroud of Turin. Later, Saint John Damascene argued that because Christ was seen in the flesh, it made the Second Commandment’s declaration, "Do not make an image or any likeness of what is in the heavens above," obsolete.

Idol Anxiety runs through November 2.


Image: Albrecht Dürer, Sudarium Displayed by Two Angels, 1513, Engraving on cream laid paper.

Image courtesy the Smart Museum.

April 9, 2008