Thursday, September 19, 2013


Milette Gaifman, Aniconism in Greek Antiquity. Oxford studies in ancient culture and representation. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. xviii, 357. ISBN 9780199645787. $185.00.

Reviewed by Daniel Barbu, University of Geneva (

Version at BMCR home site

"At a more remote period all the Greeks alike worshipped uncarved stones instead of images of the gods." This well-known statement by Pausanias, quoted in the opening chapter of Winckelmann's Geschichte der Kunst des Altertums (1764), is often still read as a witness to an evolutionary model of Greek art, which pictures an "aniconic phase" preceding the acme of religious art in the classical period. Milette Gaifman's book (originally a dissertation) invites us to revise our assumptions about Greek aniconism. Her meticulous study offers the first comprehensive survey of the phenomenon of aniconism in ancient Greece, and should prove of great interest not only to classicists and classical archaeologists but especiallyto any scholar concerned with religious art, representation of the divine, or ancient and modern theories on art and religion, because the notion of "aniconism" has been so pervasive in scholarly fields not directly concerned with the ancient Greek world.

The work, empirically well-documented and theoretically sharp, explores both the literary and material data pertaining to ancient Greek "aniconism." (For lack of space and competence, the present reviewer will not deal in detail with the archaeological evidence). The first part traces the genealogy of the term in modern scholarship, and scrutinizes the ways the notion was articulated, both in ancient and modern times, through notions of otherness and identity, and perceptions of the primitive and/or the barbarian (otherness in time and otherness in space). Its second part provides us with a series of case studies, investigating various material instances— rough rocks (e.g., the Paphian stone of Aphrodite; ch. 4) and empty thrones (e.g., the double rock-cut seat of Zeus and Hekate, at Chalke, which we see on the front cover of the book), standing stelai (chapter 5) and their depictions I on classical vases (chapter 6), pillars, e.g., Apollo's column, or agyeus, and the Spartan Dioskouroi's beams (chapter 7). Such objects, Gaifman suggests, should be considered a legitimate choice in representation, alongside the figural. "Aniconism," she argues, must be located "within the broader map of Greek art, religion, and visual culture," and assessed as a "visual statement on the nature of the divine" in its own right (p. 4). One of the strong points of Gaifman's study is to show how different strategies could coexist as integral parts of the same system of religious art. Greek visual culture was not bound by a binary opposition between the figural and the non-figural, the iconic and the aniconic, one being the norm and the other the anomaly.

In chapter 1 ("What is Greek Aniconism?"), Gaifman traces the first appearance of "aniconism" in scholarly debates to the writings of Johannes Adolph Overbeck (1826-1895). Building on Winckelmann's theory on the origins and evolution of Greek art, Overbeck described a distinct and primitive "aniconic phase" in the history of Greek art and religion: in this phase, the primordial Greeks worshipped "symbols" that signified divine presence.1 Only later did they turn to stones, or baetylia—a custom Overbeck (contrary to Winckelmann) considered to be of oriental origins—before "aniconism" eventually gave way to figural representation, culminating in the anthropomorphism of the classical period. Overbeck's "aniconism," argues Gaifman, was an intervention in the debate on the extraneous or indigenous character of Greek culture, a debate which reflected contemporary concerns about the foundations of German identity, mirrored in a discourse on classical antiquity. Nonetheless, the notion encountered success both outside Germany and outside the field of classical studies. By the turn of the century, "the idea of an aniconic age … had become a scholarly paradigm applicable to a variety of cultures and deployed for the interpretation of material finds from both inside and outside Greece" (p. 22), a paradigm that continued well into the 20th century. The concept was also eagerly adopted by scholars of the ancient Near East, early Buddhism, and particularly, Christian, Jewish, and Islamic art, where it has generated even more discussion than in classical scholarship.

As a generalized category, "aniconism" has now come to describe phenomena as diverse as the worship of non-figural objects (e.g., unwrought stones), symbols (e.g., the Dharma wheel, the cross), empty spaces, calligraphy, geometrical ornamentation, or the presumed overall absence of images and visual arts in a given culture (e.g., Judaism, or Islam).2 These other "aniconisms," argues Gaifman, are not always accordant, nor are they of much use for assessing ancient perceptions of the phenomenon. She equally criticizes oft-repeated phenomenological definitions of aniconic worship, as directed either to non-anthropomorphic objects or as lacking a dominant cultic image.3 Determining what can be described as the dominant cultic object in the Greek context is not always easy. The Greek vocabulary for cult statues, for instance, does not always differentiate between objects of worship and gifts to the gods, and many cults did not distinguish an object of worship from the altar. Equally, notions of "empty space aniconism," or "sacred emptiness," blur the limit between cases where a space is left entirely vacant, and cases, such as empty thrones (which still imply an anthropomorphic perception of the gods), where only the divinity itself is not represented. Thus, aniconism cannot simply be opposed to anthropomorphism. Gaifman details other examples (such as herms) that complicate the distinction between figurative and non-figurative images of the gods, reminding us that the "iconic" quality of any given object is primarily conventional. All in all, the approach proposed here considers the issue "bottom-up", surveying the empirical evidence, without necessarily being bound by a strict definition of the "aniconic." As there is a "spectrum of iconicity" in the ancient Greek world, Gaifman suggests, there is also a "spectrum of the aniconic", the sophistication of which "is not only compatible with, but also complementary to the great achievement of mimesis in art" (pp. 44-45).

Chapter 2 of the book ("Pausanias' Aniconica") surveys the fundamental literary construct of Greek aniconism, namely Pausanias' association of stone worship with the archaic Greek past. Gaifman suggests a more nuanced reading of Pausanias' work, less as straightforward testimony on Greek ritual practices, and more as the expression of an urbane discourse on Greek identity under Roman rule. 4 The main theme that frames Pausanias' oft-quoted statement in book 7 of the Periegesis, apropos the oracle of Hermes Agoraios at Pharai—that in the remote past, all Greeks worshiped unwrought stones (argoi lithoi) — does not pertain to the history of Greek religious art, but to the interference of Roman occupation with Greek customs ; Pharai itself had recently lost its political autonomy as well as its local cult images, which it had refashioned in an archaizing manner. Gaifman also discusses Pausanias' ambivalent usage of "agalma" to describe other instances of argoi lithoi, which, likewise, appear to be kept as relics of primordial times rather than actual objects of worship. His equation of an unwrought stone with an agalma (such as with the image of Eros at Thespiai) indicates that the latter word could bear a much wider range of meaning than it is usually ascribed, suggesting that the ancients themselves questioned the self- evidence of the relation between the divine and divine images.

In fact, "the relationship between an object of worship and the envisioned divinity was part of an ongoing ancient discourse on issues of artistic representation and religious ritual" (p. 81) — a discourse, outlined in chapter 3 ("Greek Views of Aniconism: The 'Primitive' Within"), in which "overarching themes" emerge across time. One such theme is the relation between the absence of divine representation and the primitive/the barbaric. In his famous digression on the religion of the Pelasgians, Herodotus (II. 52) reported how they had learned from the Egyptians the names and shapes of the gods. Whereas the Egyptians are said to be the first ones to have erected temples, altars, and statues for the deities (which function as markers of Greek identity, as Hartog has already noted5) the savage Scythians know none of these institutions. The Persians, however, worshipped the natural phenomena as gods, in the open sky, explicitly refusing any form of divine images ( Her. I. 131). Herodotus thus constructs an image of Persian religion in deliberate opposition to the Greek norm. Imageless worship thus implies a form of distance, both synchronic and diachronic. In the Cratylus ( 397d), Plato noted that "the earliest men in Greece believed only in those gods in whom many barbarians believe today—sun, moon, earth, stars, and sky." The earliest Romans, asserted the 1st century Roman theologian Varro (Fr. 18 Cardauns), made no images of the gods, invoking, in this respect, the example of the Jews. In the centuries that followed Herodotus, barbarian aniconism would become a topos of Greek ethnography, culminating in the widespread notion in the Roman Empire that litholatry was characteristic of the Near East.

Gaifman carefully evaluates this discourse against the backdrop of known evidence, concluding that we are in fact most often dealing with literary constructs, emphasizing and playing with the tension between past and present, us and them, Greeks and barbarians, or as she suggests, the primitive within and the primitive outside. Nonetheless, Greeks acknowledged that the phenomenon was also present among themselves. Regarding Herodotus, one could add that his Greek readers could certainly associate the Persian worship of the all-encompassing sky, under the name of Zeus, with known Greek practices such as the open- sky worship of Zeus on top of Mount Lykaion, in the heart of Arcadia—an instance of archaism par excellence in the eyes of ancient Greeks.6 Even Theophrastus' ironic description of the superstitious man anointing "shiny stones" whenever he sees one, and prostrating himself in front of it ( Char. 16.1-5), "suggests that some form of litholatry was part of the Athenian religious landscape of the fourth century BC." Texts such as Theophrastus', however, emphasized the liminal character of the phenomenon, associated with religious excess (deisidaimonia). The worship of stones discursively maps a "grey area" in Greek religious practice, allowing ancient authors to question social norms by highlighting, precisely, the "primitive within."

It is to this fundamental relation between liminality and aniconism that Gaifman returns in the conclusion to the book. "Aniconism" marks a border, or rather a threshold—be it in the literal sense, as delimiting space or signalling borders, allowing their very liminal character to be visually expressed, or from the perspective of ancient Greek historical consciousness, ethnic differentiation and the related construction and contestation of identities and social structures. With the age of mimesis, concludes Gaifman, aniconism became a more recognizable phenomenon that was to articulate complex notions of history, identity, and social norms through modes of divine representation. In these discussions, the "liminal became central," even before becoming a "cornerstone" of modern debates on the history of Greek art, which were themselves nothing but the continuation of an ancient and long-lasting discourse on the relation between art and religion.7


1.   Berichte über die Verhandlungen des königlich sächsischen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Leipzig philologisch-historische Klasse16 (1864), 121-72. The notion itself was derived from Clement of Alexandria, who coined the word aneikoniston to refer to the quality of God of being un-representable, a principal argument in Clement's anti-idolatrous polemic (Str. I 24.163.6; in fact the only instance of the word in ancient literature).
2.   See D. Freedberg, Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response, Chicago 1989, Chapter 4 ("The Myth of Aniconism").
3.   T. Mettinger, No Graven Image? Israelite Aniconism in Its Ancient Near Eastern Context, Stockholm 1995, thus distinguished between "empty space aniconism" and "material aniconism." See also B. Gladigow, "Anikonische Kulte," HrwG 1, Stuttgart 1988, 472-3. See also the critique by C. Uehlinger, "Israelite Aniconism in Context," Biblica 77.4 (1996) 540-49.
4.   In this respect, see also, recently, V. Pirenne-Delforge, Retour à la source. Pausanias et la religion grecque, Liège 2008.
5.   F. Hartog, Mirror of Herodotus: the Representation of the Other in the Writings of Herodotus, Berkeley 1988.
6.   See P. Borgeaud, The Cult of Pan in Ancient Greece, Chicago 1988.
7.   In that sense, see also A. A. Donohue, Xoana and the Origins of Greek Sculpture, Atlanta 1988, 177-94.

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