Representations of the Divine have always been socially contentious

In the book Representations and Contradictions (1997), Jack Goody addresses the contentiousness of religious representations in different societies, or in the same society at different points in time. Representations of the divine have proven to be a lightning rod for people of different ideologies and has thus been linked to much destruction and violence over the millennia, including the twenty-first century.

Aniconic and Aniconism

The words aniconic and aniconism were first used by Johannes Adolph Overbeck, a well-known classical archaeologist from Germany, in an article he published in 1864 (Gaifman 2017).

The two words were derived from the Greek word eikon (image), with the prefix ‘an,’ that changes the meaning of the word to ‘without image’.

Overbeck defined anikonisch (aniconic) as bildlos (the German word for imageless), and anikonismus (aniconism) as Bildlosigkeit (the German word for imagelessness) (Gaifman 2017).

It is also interesting to note that the word eikon is also the root of the words iconophobia (hatred or fear of images, especially if religious) and iconoclasm, which means ‘image destroyer’ (Merriam Webster Dictionary).

‘Greece, like Egypt and Mesopotamia before, gives its gods a figure. Then, at the very time when Greek religious art established itself, developed and approached its perfection, an equally religious element of Hellenism, philosophy, began to reflect upon this representation, weighing its agreement and disagreement with the civil notion of the divine and the received forms of its representation. And so there opened up, beginning with philosophy, a cycle which would in future be characterised as “iconoclast.”’

Besançon cited in Goody 1997 p. 29 – 30


Overbeck posited that during this iconophobic period, the Greeks had not created any representations of the divine because they viewed divinity as something totally separate from the human realm, and thus impossible to depict anthropomorphically.

Instead, they used other symbols such as trees, pillars or rocks to symbolise the power and presence of the divine, as opposed to divinity itself (Gaifman 2017).

Some interesting examples of such aniconic depictions of the divine can be found in the temple of Aphrodite in Paphos.

Tacitus, a Roman historian, wrote that in the shrine ‘“simulacrum deae non effigie humana” (‘the image of the goddess was not in human form’)’ (Gaifman 2017 p. 339).

Instead, the presence of Aphrodite was signified through a conical stone monument, as shown in a Cypriot coin dating to the reign of Emperor Vespasian (see image below – Gaifman 2017 p. 339).

Representations of the divine

Goody (1997 p. 30) expands on the argument above by positing that focusing on Greece and linking the rise of iconoclasm to the emergence of Greek philosophy is somewhat myopic. He points out that by then iconophobia had already taken root in other cultures, for example in Africa, albeit in a less formalised fashion.

He explains that the absence of iconography in any culture is often linked to objections to mimesis, the imitative representation in art and literature of the real world.

Many societies, especially if monotheistic, forbade pictorial images of God because of the possibility it would be ‘a mistaken or inappropriate representation’ (Goody 1997 p. 10).

In their view, God had created the world, so any attempt to create him (in image form) was blasphemous.

Representations of the Divine in Judaism

In fact, in Judaic tradition, picturing the divine was forbidden, as per the commandment in the Old Testament – ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any 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’ (Goody 1997 p. 10).

Interestingly, the wording of the commandment does not apply solely to depictions of divinity, but to all creation.

Representations of the Divine in Islam

The same applies to Islam, where any representation of living creatures, and even more so of the divine, was rejected, albeit with some notable exceptions, particularly in Africa (Goody 1997 p. 41).

‘The matter of representations of God had already been settled in Islam in the lifetime of the Prophet: the inconceivable was beyond encompassing by any artistic repertoire’ (King, 1985 p. 286). Goody (1997) also cites an Islamic fable where a beautiful garden that is seen as a representation of Paradise had to be destroyed. As a result, Islamic art, particularly of the religious kind, is abstract and symbolic, as opposed to being figurative. For example, architectural features such as elaborately decorated archways or floral motifs are commonly used in mosques and shrines, with the intention of conveying the presence of the divine.”

Goody 1997 p. 40

Case Study – Iran

An excellent case study that starkly illustrates the difference between aniconic and iconic cultures, and the regrettable destruction wrought by iconclasts can be found in Iran.

Shenkar (2017) compares the aniconic tribes of Western Iran to the iconic tribes in the East, who portrayed their gods in human form.

He links the difference in attitudes to representations of the divine to the presence of the Greeks (during the time when they were not aniconic) and the anthropomorphic statues of their gods which they installed in the East, which influenced the perceptions of tribes in the region regarding the acceptability of portraying gods in anthropomorphic form.

Unfortunately, however, the history of Iran does not only illustrate the influence of iconic cultures, but also the destruction wrought by iconoclastic invaders.

The destruction wrought by iconoclasts

During the Arab conquests of the region that now comprises Iran, Afghanistan, and the modern Republics of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan (7th–8th centuries), the invading Muslim armies destroyed a myriad of statues, temples and other historical works of art (Shenkar 2017).

This destructive zeal began with the Umayyad Caliphate (661–750 AD) but was continued under the Abbasid Caliphs.

The iconoclastic fervour of the Arab armies during this period caused a tsunami of destruction of art and architecture (King, 1985).

Goody also mentions the Mongols, whose destructiveness was so great that it has sometimes been described as an act of cultural genocide.

He refers to the defacement of statues and friezes in the Hindu temple of the Maharana of Mewar, where the marauding Mongols broke off the trunks of statues of elephants and knocked off the noses from statues depicting Hindu gods (Goody 1997 p. 40).

Representations of the Divine in Christianity

Early Christianity was also aniconic in relation to portrayals of the divine (Goody 1997 p. 42).

One of the first Christian theologians to write about ‘the essential impossibility of representing the divine’ (Gaifman 2017 p. 337) was Titus Flavius Clemens (c. 150 – c. 215 AD), who defined any such attempts as being idolatrous.

Hence, for early Christians, any depiction of God was inherently sacrilegious. This is why sculpture disappeared in the first few centuries of Christianity in Europe, effectively bringing to a shuddering halt the artistic legacy of the Greeks and the Romans in the region (Goody 1997 p. 43). It was only in the 4th century that the position of early Christianity on sculpture began to soften.

However, iconoclasm continued to plague Christianity for hundreds of years. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Calvinists in Western Europe removed all representations of the divine from churches.

The more puritanical amongst them were of an even more iconoclastic bent, and they extended their destruction beyond the divine and into the secular, creating ‘a cultural desert’ (Goody 1997 p. 44).

Goody cites a story about the destruction wrought by the dean of the Norman cathedral in Durham in 1553, who –

‘had all the carvings defaced, and got rid of all brasses, especially those with any imagery on them. The holy water stoups and memorial stones were put to use in his kitchen and stables. To him they were monuments of idolatry, which had not only to be removed but also downgraded, lest any superstitious reverence should still cling to them. His wife burned the famous Banner of St Cuthbert on “her fire, in notable contempt and disgrace of all ancient and goodly reliques.” Priceless works of art were destroyed at the Whittinghams’ hands.’

Stranks cited in Goody 1997 p. 45

Representations of the Divine in Buddhism, Jain and Hindu societies

Religious imagery was also a source of contention in Buddhist, Jain and Hindu societies.

Hīnayāna Buddhists, for example, have been credited with the defacement of Roman coins found in Southern India.

The Jains had iconoclastic sects that were virulently opposed towards any depictions of the divine, including the existence of temples, branding any such representations as idolatry.

The Hindus, on the other hand, ascribed any attempt to represent divinity as pandering to the ignorant and a hindrance to true understanding of the divine.

Iconoclasm in the Post-Modern World

In today’s increasingly globalised world, representations of the divine are more prominent than ever before, sometimes leading to social unrest because of differing views on what is, or is not, acceptable.

One of the best-known contemporary examples of violence directly related to a clash of ideologies relating to depictions of the divine is the mass shooting of Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris on the 7th of January 2015, which left twelve people dead and several more injured.

The perpetrators were Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, who claimed to have been sent by Al-Qaeda to avenge the Prophet Mohammed after the satirical magazine published cartoons of the prophet.

Over the following two days, another terrorist attack claimed the lives of an additional five people, including a policewoman.

The perpetrator was Amedy Coulibaly, who claimed to be acting on behalf of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) (Petrikowski, 2022).

Five years later, on the 16th October 2020, a primary school teacher called Samuel Paty was beheaded by Abdoullakh Abouyedovich Anzorov after a student in his class claimed that he had shown them the Charlie Hebdo cartoons depicting Prophet Mohammed (BBC 2021).

A contemporary example of the destructive forces of iconoclasm, on the other hand, is the aftermath of the occupation of Palmyra (Syria) by ISIL in May 2015.

The ancient complex of temples and shrines in the city, foremost amongst which was the Temple of Baal Shamen, had been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980.

In August 2015, ISIL published photos showing their soldiers using dynamite to obliterate these historical sites, in an act of destruction symbolic of ‘cleansing the world, creating a tabula rasa and starting afresh’ (Goody 1997 p. 71).

Cases such as the ones described above have lent fuel to the fire of the “clash of civilisations” argument first made by Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington in 1993 (Haugerud, 2016).

In fact, after the 2015 terrorist attacks the phrase popped up regularly in the media, alongside ‘narratives about naturalized and supposedly irreconcilable differences between “the West” and Islam’ (Haugerud 2016 p. 587).

The debate became so polarised that several anthropologists, including John Bowen, Didier Fassin, Alma Gottlieb, Bruce Kapferer, Fiona Murphy, Kevin Karpiak, and Alessandro Zagato, felt the need to speak up and counter the narrative, framing the incident within ‘its wider political, economic, cultural, and historical contexts’ (Haugerud, 2016 p. 588).

The resulting anthropological debate encompassed concepts such as colonialism and its aftermath, the power imbalance in French society and the marginalisation and ‘othering’ of Muslims (particularly in the banlieues), the ban on the hijab, and humour theory (Haugerud 2016). In other words, the images of the Prophet Mohammed were just the spark that ignited a conflagration fuelled by racial injustice, societal exclusion, poverty and institutionalised injustice.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, the examples mentioned in this essay have shown that attempts to represent the divine have polarised societies for millenia. This has led to social unrest, the wanton destruction of art and culture, extreme violence and even the loss of life. It is therefore clear that depictions of the divine have been imbued with much power, the effects of which we are feeling to this day.


BBC Newsroom (2021) “Samuel Paty: French schoolgirl admits lying about murdered teacher.”

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Palmyra”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 22 Feb. 2019, Accessed 1 May 2022.

Gaifman, M. (2017) “Aniconism: Definitions, Examples and Comparative perspectives.” Religion, vol. 47, no. 3, pp. 335-352.

Goody, J. (1997) Representations and Contradictions: Ambivalence Towards Images, Theatre, Fiction, Relics, and Sexuality. Blackwell Publishers.

Haugerud, A. (2016) “Public Anthropology in 2015: Charlie Hebdo, Black Lives Matter, Migrants, and More.” American Anthropologist 118.3: 585-601. Web

King, G.R.D. (1985) “Islam, Iconoclasm, and the Declaration of Doctrine.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, vol. 48, no. 2, pp. 267-277.

Petrikowski, N. P. (2022) “Charlie Hebdo shooting”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1 Jan. 2022, Accessed 1 May 2022.

Shenkar, M. (2017) “The Great Iranian divide: Between Aniconic West and Anthropomorphic East”, Religion (London.1971), vol. 47, no. 3, pp. 378-398.

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