Iconography and the Abrahamic Religions

By Luna Arawi (Art History major, AUB)

During a visit to “AHIS 207-Early Islamic Art and Architecture,” Dr. Rico Franses (Associate Professor of Art History, AUB) spoke on the question of iconography and its continuity within early Christian, Judaic, and Islamic traditions. He contextualized and explained the major art themes occurring in the three religions, and their relationship to questions of iconographic representation. Dr. Franses explained how before the emergence of Christianity in the Roman Empire, Paganism was the dominant religion of Rome and Jerusalem, a territory annexed by the Empire. The practices of this belief system included the reverence of idols and statues, visits to temples, and offering and sacrifices for Greco-Roman gods and goddesses. However, with the rise of Judaism and its associated Ten Commandments, Pagan practices were called into question by this new religion’s converts. Most significantly, the Second Commandment explicitly banned the production of images, which was preceded by the ban on worshiping any deity other than the Abrahamic God.

With the emergence of Christianity, which adopted Judaic traditions including the tenets of the Ten Commandments, early Christian communities continued the ban on the creation of figural imagery in liturgical practice, due to the fear that this practice would lead to icon and idol worship.

However, early Christians begun using images within catacombs, such those of Santa Priscilla in Rome, as a means of representing certain scenes or stories from the Judaic Old Testament (Fig.1). This was done in order to demonstrate how certain Biblical events, which had taken place during the rise of Christianity, were in fact a repetition of occurrences from the Old Testament and would transpire once again in the future. Thus, it became a common practice to depict certain scenes illustrating events from the Old Testament in the catacombs of early Christian communities that represented themes of salvation, resurrection, and eternal life through Christ. In particular, the use of figural imagery was a way to better explain how those who died as Christians would receive their salvation much in the same way that the individuals of the Old Testament, depicted in the illustrated Biblical scenes, had received their own. By the time that Christianity became the Roman (or Byzantine) Empire’s official religion under Theodosius I (r. 379-395 CE), iconography and the use of figural representation became more prevalent and accepted in this religion’s liturgy.

Figure 1. Fresco painting in an early Christian catacomb depicting “Three Hebrew Youths in the Fiery Furnace” an event from the Old Testament. Early 3rd Century CE. Catacombs of St. Priscilla, Rome.

With the rise of Islam in southern Arabia in the seventh century, and its subsequent conquests to the east and west throughout the eighth century, the power of the Byzantine Empire receded. Nevertheless, the art and architecture of the early Islamic community was inspired by that of Byzantine-period Christianity. The Umayyad Dome of the Rock (Fig. 2), built between 691-692 CE in Jerusalem, and The Great Mosque of Damascus, built between 706-714/15 CE, serve as important visual representations of this then-new religion and its power.[1] Both buildings were inspired by earlier Byzantine structures, materials, and modes of production, and were produced by Christian craftsmen. Likely informed by earlier Judeo-Christian prohibitions against figural imagery, it is thought that Byzantine mosaicists were instructed not to use any kind of figural representations, whether human or fauna, but rather to focus only on landscapes since these mosaics were situated in a religious context.

Figure 2. Interior of the Dome of the Rock showing mosaics along the walls of the ambulatories, built in 691-692 CE, Jerusalem.

Thus, from early on, it seems that early Islamic communities took their cues from the Judaic Second Commandment and the practices of earlier Christian societies through an avoidance of figural imagery within religious settings and practices. However, this has led to a general misconception about the nature of Islamic art: that it is a purely aniconic visual tradition. Historical evidence shows that this is not true, as many scholars on the subject have explained. In fact, figural art features frequently in Islamic art history where such representations appear in a diversity of media, such as sculptures, illustrated books, and engraved coins, even in early Umayyad art from the eighth century. Nonetheless, unlike their eventual role in Christianity, this type of imagery was not depicted in places of worship, rather its usage remained limited to mostly secular contexts.

[1] Silvia Naef, “Is Islam ‘Iconophobic’? The Attitude of Religion and Culture toward Figurative Images in Islamic Lands,” Hadith al-Dar 26 (2008): 40.

(edited by Nare Sahakyan and Hala Auji)

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