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the life of Jesus of Nazareth for the hospice at the Antonite Monastery in Colmar

Religious Attitudes Toward Art

The aniconic attitude defines the image as a symbolic or allusive presentation of sacred reality, exemplified in nonrepresentational images to facilitate contemplation, devotion, and worship, as evidenced in the elegant calligraphy of illuminated Islamic manuscripts or the Śiva liṅga. Taken to its extreme, the aniconic religious attitude verges on total abstraction and thereby the complete absence of forms. The iconoclastic attitude rejects totally images and imagery in any media, style, or form, as exemplified in the otherwise imageless environment of Jewish synagogues and many Protestant churches. Taken to its extreme, the iconoclastic attitude is violent destruction of all images and imagery, sacred and secular.

Although these three religious attitudes toward art can be delineated, it is rare in the history of any religious tradition to operate without some variation in its attitude(s). As with all theories and constructs in art and religion, there is a coexistence of multiple religious attitudes toward images either in a historic process of evolution or simultaneously so that patterns develop: iconic to iconoclastic to iconic; iconic to iconoclastic; iconic to aniconic; aniconic to iconoclastic; or aniconic to iconic. Buddhism is one of several world religions that has had these three religious attitudes toward art in its history. Initially aniconic, Hinduism slowly assimilated image into worship and devotional practice, eventually establishing a complex religious iconography composed of representational and symbolic elements. The operative principle is that as each world religion evolves, its fundamental attitude toward art is similarly transformed. Certain religions such as Christianity and Buddhism have espoused a variety of attitudes toward image. Earliest Buddhist teaching was aniconic, while Zen Buddhism is iconoclastic. However, contacts with other cultures, including Hellenism, and expansion into other geographic regions caused Buddhism’s initial aniconicism to evolve into a bifurcation of the iconic and iconoclastic religious attitudes. This Buddhist dichotomy is illustrated in the use of iconic and aniconic forms in those maṇḍalas that are ceremonially created and then ritually destroyed. Further, a fundamental ambiguity exists within several world religions as the hierarchy affirms the proscriptions or prescriptions pronounced in written texts, dogmas, or creeds, while the praxis of the collective of believers venerates an unconsecrated but nonetheless miraculous image.