Delving into Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire I was struck by the intensity of controversy over images in the early church. Used to the ornately decorated European cathedral, we can forget the asceticism of the early church (to be repeated by the early Protestants). Painted or sculptured images of God, Christ, Mary or the saints, or depictions of the dramas of Christianity were forbidden and seen as succumbing to the heathen superstition and idolatry of tribal peoples. The cross was the only image allowed. A similar banning of imagery occurs in Islam. And there is a point to this. Not having a photographic image of Christ or Mary or the disciples or Mohamed, how does one paint a true likeness? It is necessarily made up and subjective.
But there was a counter argument: that such images were necessary to attract the more primitive and the simple minded folk. As well, images of Christ, Mary, saints and martyrs held huge emotional power, for example before battles when life might be lost. The depiction of the dead and the sacred does serve a real human need, with suspension of disbelief easily achieved.
My thoughts turned to the contemporary world and the cacophony of images and their association with the gods of commerce and consumerism. After looking after a couple of children for a month, I was glad to see the end of the endless supply of kids’ films, many of which are over the top in terms of stimulation. I’ve long wanted a ban on tourists taking photos. The emotional power of the commercial image has returned us to the idolising of the fetish. And without the mediation of the natural working world of the peasant.
In turn I wondered whether, in order to tackle the climate crisis, we need to return to a spiritual aesthetic asceticism, this time in order to acknowledge and respect the power and complexity of the natural systems; that a crucifixion has taken place which shouldn’t be imaged, but told as a simple story: we were gifted a planet and we crucified it. A single image could become the visual descriptor, together with testaments and songs.
Perhaps that degree of focus is required?