Aniconism is the prohibition of images in a religious cult and its practices. The way in which such a prohibition or restriction is interpreted, however, depends on a number of historical, social, religious, political, and cultural contexts. In some contexts aniconism is understood to include a restriction on any and all images, in material, literary, or any other possible form or medium. In other contexts the restrictive scope of aniconism is more limited, such as prohibiting, in all contexts, all anthropomorphic (human) or theriomorphic (animal) images of a deity or deities, be they religious or secular, public or private. In still other contexts the prohibition of divine images may be limited to particular spaces or places, such as public religious structures, whereas the use of such images in other contexts is accepted or at least tolerated by others in the community.

It is important to differentiate aniconism from the related notions of iconoclasm and iconophobia. Iconoclasm is the destruction of images and icons by breaking, defacing, desecrating, or otherwise damaging images, pictures, or other venerated material representations. Iconophobia is the fear of icons and other objects of veneration. Both iconoclasm and iconophobia are manifestations of particular understandings about aniconism and what such understandings demand of people. Aniconism itself, however, functions as part of the philosophical, theological, and thus theoretical underpinnings of iconoclasm and iconophobia. While iconoclasm and iconophobia imply an intentional, explicit, and therefore programmatic ban on images, more casual and conventional observances of aniconism may have occurred throughout history (so Mettinger [1995] with respect to certain points in the history of ancient Israel), although demonstrating this de facto aniconism is difficult.

Analysis of the Bible and aniconism necessarily involves assumptions and understandings of images, visuality, materiality, the possible types of media involved (including paintings, mosaics, stone, wood, metal, and literary forms), sight and perception (thus the presence of the body), and space, place, and time. It is for these reasons that an entry on aniconism is appropriate in an encyclopedia of the Bible and art, ironic as it might seem. Various philosophical and theological ideas and assumptions also are closely bound up with the notion of aniconism. Attention to how they play out in particular historical contexts, debates, and controversies makes possible a better understanding of the role and use of the Bible in history and art.

This discussion of the Bible and aniconism is textually focused, because it is in textual and literary materials that debates about aniconism occurred. The implications of those debates then were manifested in concrete actions of iconoclasm, iconophobia, or iconophilia. Debates about aniconism in cultures shaped by the Bible rely heavily on the biblical material, which is discussed in the first section below.

The Bible—and, since the nineteenth century C.E., archaeological evidence—figures in arguments both for and against aniconism. Following a brief discussion of the biblical materials, the next section examines different ways in which the image, representation, and materiality are understood and inform debates over aniconism. This section necessarily is concerned with philosophical and, to a more limited extent, theological issues and concerns that inform different understandings of aniconism debated throughout Western history.

The final section considers aniconism from the perspective of visual theory, which makes possible a change of perspective from what icons and images mean or represent to what it is they want, how they are embodied, and thus how they require and constitute individuals, groups, and communities. Attention will be given in each section to the ways in which identity—individual and communal, political and social, theological and religious—operates, because aniconism and how one interprets its meaning helps create and enact different types of identities.

Bible and Archaeological Evidence.

As Gaifman (2012) argues, aniconism is a term of modern scholarship, first appearing in nineteenth-century Germany in discussions of Greek art. From there it spread to other disciplines and cultures, not least of which is biblical studies, even though, as an analytical term of recent invention, it does not appear in the Bible. What is found in the Bible are discussions of idols, their prohibition and why people should avoid them (especially according to New Testament texts), their problematic nature for Israel and its cult, mockery of their materiality, and the contrast between such objects and Israel’s deity.

The biblical views and attitudes toward idols, and thus the aniconic understandings that motivate Israel’s anti-idolatry polemics, are most closely associated in the history of interpretation with the Second Commandment. This is true even after modern source criticism concluded that the textual formulation of the Second Commandment did not appear until relatively late in Israel’s history (in the exilic period [586–539 B.C.E.] or even later). But the Second Commandment is neither the first nor last aniconic word in the Bible. Other texts suggest both that aniconism was not universal throughout Israel’s history and that, when and where it motivated iconoclastic practices, they coexisted alongside idolatry and other iconic practices. Archaeological evidence supports this mixed picture of ancient practices (both iconic and aniconic).

The Second Commandment.

The Second Commandment is understood by ancient and modern scholars as the touchstone for the biblical prohibition on idols and images of the Deity.

"You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments." (Exod 20:4–6; cf. Deut 5:8–10 NRSV)

Two elements of the commandment are central to aniconism. First, no idol, that is, a carved or sculpted material object ( pesel), is to be made to represent Israel’s God. Second, all possible forms a person might use to represent Israel’s deity are proscribed. The comprehensive nature of this prescription is expressed in terms of Israelite and ancient Near Eastern cosmography: heaven, earth, and waters below the earth. No form in all of creation may serve to represent Israel’s deity.

Historically, interpreters of the Bible have used the Second Commandment as suited their needs, whether arguing for or against iconoclasm. Contemporary biblical scholars interpret it as a relatively late programmatic statement that translated into intentional and widespread prohibitions of images in Israel’s cultic sites and the systematic removal and destruction of any images from such sites (although it was not a total ban on any and all images in Israelite life). This programmatic aniconism may have been preceded by a de facto aniconism, that is, a widespread, established but informal, practice of avoiding making images of Israel’s deity (Mettinger), but this is debated. If the Second Commandment does reflect a programmatic iconoclasm in Israel’s history, something analogous to the Iconoclastic Controversy in the Byzantine Empire in the eighth and ninth centuries C.E., perhaps the period before the Second Commandment’s formulation was analogous to the period leading up to that controversy, in which both iconic and aniconic practices often existed side by side.

Other texts in the Pentateuch reflect the same suspicion toward idols and say even more about their materiality (Exod 20:4, 23; 34:17; Lev 19:4; 26:1; Deut 4:15–19, 23–25; 5:8; 27:15). For the pentateuchal writers, a philosophical objection to idols at least partly stemmed from the idols’ material forms and their being the product of human action. Not all idols or images, however, were fashioned by hand. Reference is made in Leviticus 26:1 to standing stones (maṣṣēbôt), which are unhewn stones located at cultic sites. According to Mettinger and others, these stones both designated cultic sites and functioned as aniconic symbols of the Deity. These, too, came to be proscribed in the biblical texts (e.g., 2 Kgs 18:4; 23:14; Ezek 26:11; Hos 10:2; 2 Chr 31:1).

Other biblical evidence.

Biblical texts outside the Pentateuch share the pentateuchal writers’ objection to the materiality of idols and their being the product of human hands. Second Isaiah (Isa 40–55), a work commonly dated to the exilic period (586–539 B.C.E.), undertakes a sharp critique of idols, mocking them as lifeless works of human hands and thus pointless objects of worship (Isa 40:19–20; 41:6–7; 42:17; 44:9–20; 45:20; 46:5–7; see similar statements in Jer 10:1–16; 51:17–18; Hab 2:18–19; Pss 115:3–8; 135:15–18). Yet it is precisely the idol of the bronze serpent that saves Israel when they are bitten by poisonous snakes in the wilderness (Num 21:4–9). This bronze serpent apparently makes its way to the First Temple in Jerusalem, where it resides until broken by the Judean religious reformer King Hezekiah (late eighth century B.C.E.; 2 Kgs 18:4). Hezekiah’s reforms also include the breaking of stone pillars and Asherah poles on the grounds they are idolatrous (2 Kgs 18:4). That objects can at one time be acceptable in Israelite cultic practices and then later become unacceptable indicates Israel went through both iconic and aniconic periods.

Other biblical texts demonstrate these same tensions, both in terms of the presence of idols and then those idols being prohibited. Again, the reasons for this objection are their materiality and being created by human hands. There are two different stories in the Hebrew Bible about golden calves being cast as divine images: Aaron fashions the golden calf at Mt. Sinai (Exod 32), while King Jeroboam of Israel (late tenth century B.C.E.) casts golden calves for the northern cult (1 Kgs 12:25–30). Precisely what these calves represent is uncertain, but what Aaron and Jeroboam consider legitimate iconography is anathema to others (Moses and the author of 1 Kings; cf. Exod 32; 1 Kgs 12:30). In Judges, Gideon makes an ephod that functions as an object of worship (Judg 8:24–27), while Micah casts a silver idol, ephod, and teraphim (Judg 17–18). The northern eighth-century prophet Hosea engages in anti-idol polemics (Hos 2:10; 4:17; 8:4–6; 10:5–6; 13:2; 14:4), primarily against the image of the calf in Samaria, even if scholars think these passages are a late redactional layer. In the sixth century, Ezekiel decries the way idols defile the people (Ezek 22:3–4). Part of the critique of idols is the ritual purifications required for them to function correctly in the cult (known in Mesopotamia as the mouth-washing ritual, or mıs pî).

The New Testament makes reference to idols, idolaters, and idolatry primarily as things to be avoided in favor of following the teachings of Jesus (Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25; Rom 2:22; 1 Cor 5:11; 6:9; 8:4; 10:7, 14, 19–20; 12:2; 2 Cor 16:6; Gal 5:20–21; Eph 5:5; Col 3:5; 1 Thess 1:0; 1 Pet 4:3; 1 John 5:21; Rev 9:20). The ways in which later Christian writers interpret the issue of aniconism is discussed below.

Archaeological evidence.

The material evidence resulting from archaeological discoveries throughout the Near East has had a direct impact on scholarly debates over aniconism and the Bible. Especially since the 1980s, scholars have reviewed and assessed the archaeological record—which includes statues, statuettes, terracotta figurines, seals, ivories, cult stands, and standing stones at cultic sites—for what it might say about Israelite cultic practices and the presence or absence of divine images in it (Keel and Uehlinger, 1998; Lewis, 1998; Mettinger, 1995; Shroer, 1987).

A lively debate now exists as to whether or not there was a cult image in the First Temple. Some, including Niehr (1997) and Uehlinger, cite a combination of figural material evidence (statuettes, seals, etc.) from Israel and elsewhere, nonbiblical evidence (e.g., the Nimrud Prism of Sargon II, King of Assyria [722–705 B.C.E.]), and inferences from biblical texts to argue for the presence and use of a cult image for Israel’s God. Others argue against the use of cult images of Israel’s deity, citing both the absence of any material evidence that indisputably represents Yahweh and the very absence of the Deity in what was represented in the cult (what Mettinger terms “empty-space aniconism”). The absence of indisputable archaeological evidence of a cult image of Yahweh, however, renders as speculative arguments in favor of the use of such an image at any point in Israel’s cultic history.

Image, Materiality, and Representation.

Operating both within the biblical texts and debates about aniconism are a series of assumptions about images, their material, physical manifestation(s), and what it is they represent. Iconic and aniconic debates sometimes foreground, other times obscure, these assumptions. As Belting (2011) argues, issues of materiality generally go unrecognized (and without debate) until those opposed to the use of images (iconoclasts) draw attention to them. As a result, debates about the image itself tend to recede. Conversely, when focus is placed on the image itself, questions of materiality tend to recede.

Assumptions about the image and its materiality are closely linked to one another, so that each infers or presumes the other. But this is not to suggest these issues are the same. Questions about the relationship between the image and material manifestations of it—whether or not the essence of the image is represented in its material form, whether such essence even is operative in the form, and other such questions and distinctions—characterize aniconistic debates throughout history.

Understandings and explanations of images and their material manifestations and forms in turn lead to questions of representation, including what manifestations of images mean, point to, signify, or symbolize. For example, what is visible or invisible in an image representing God, whom the biblical texts state is without form, and what is involved in seeing that image? In the Iconoclastic Controversy of the eighth and ninth centuries C.E., how the empire and church, king and patriarch, groups and individuals answered this question and understood these relationships identified one as iconoclast or iconophile. Questions of the image, its material form, and what it represented thus were deeply political and cut to the heart of the identity of different people and groups. Politics and identity were no less at issue in the Reformation, when the removal and abolishment of images in churches by various Protestant groups was at least partly targeted toward the institutional power behind those images (Belting, 1994).


The question “What is an image?” is difficult to answer, particularly given the multiplication of ways in which “image” is used in contemporary parlance, scholarly or otherwise. Furthermore, not only does this question concern what is meant or implied by “image,” it also involves questions concerning the nature of what is being represented by the image, what is the relationship of the image to the medium or physical form of the image, what is the relationship of the image to vision and what is being envisioned, and therefore what is presupposed about the interaction of an image and the person whose seeing of the image (literally or figuratively) is a necessary condition of aniconism.

The question has been answered and examined in a number of ways. In this entry it is considered separately from representation in order to consider image as depiction. Representation is discussed separately in order to make possible a consideration of the symbolic aspects of the image.

Biblical understandings.

The Second Commandment prohibits making of idols of the Deity in the form of anything in heaven, on earth, or in the waters below the earth. The idol, pesel, is the material object, while the form, tĕmûnâ, is the appearance or shape of the Deity (Schroer, 1987). The prohibition’s concern may not be with either an anthropomorphic or theriomorphic depiction of the Deity’s body. Evidence from other ancient Near Eastern cultures and the biblical injunctions on standing stones (masṣṣēbôt; e.g., Lev 26:1; Deut 7:5; 16:22) indicates the form of a deity was less important iconographically than a deity’s characteristic emblems or symbols (Curtis, 1992). Concern over various symbols or emblems being associated with Israel’s deity is one way to interpret the prohibition on idols in Deuteronomy 4:15–19. Israel “saw no form [tĕmûnâ] when the LORD spoke to you” (4:15) and therefore is not to create or promote a symbol in place of the Deity’s form. The issue appears to be with establishing a pictorial form for the Deity, whether anthropomorphic, theriomorphic, or otherwise.

Notably the concern for not depicting the Deity’s form did not extend to the biblical texts themselves. Verbal images and metaphors are employed by various biblical writers to describe the Deity (in his call vision, Ezekiel speaks of seeing “something that seemed like a human form” [Ezek 1:26], while Moses sees God’s backside [Exod 33:18–22]). In other words, creating mental or cognitive images of the Deity are permitted, even promoted, in the texts themselves (see also Assmann, 2011). Indeed, the various textual assertions that Israel did not see a form for the Deity at Mt. Sinai (e.g., Deut 4:15) or anywhere else in the wilderness encourage the creation of mental images of the Deity.

It also is worth noting that the biblical text itself became an object of veneration, as evidenced by statements stressing the importance of the text itself (e.g., Deuteronomy’s repeated assertion nothing was to be added or taken away from the Torah; Deut 4:2; 12:32 [MT 13:1]), and by later rabbinic guidelines for how a Torah is to be produced (specifically the care with which scribes copy the Hebrew text and the various rules and procedures they must follow creating a Torah for ritual use; see especially the seventh- or eighth-century Gaonic tractate Soperim in the Babylonian Talmud).

Greek, Jewish, and Christian understandings.

In the writings of Homer (eighth or seventh century B.C.E.) in ancient Greece, the image, eidōlon, lacks material substance but is a clearly articulated, accurate replica of the person whose image it is (Barasch). Plato (ca. 428–348 B.C.E.) expanded the Homeric understanding of images to include reflections in water and mirrors, arguing in the Timaeus that the image is real but has an existence that is derived. Divine images, therefore, are inevitably superficial and lead to error (Besançon, 2000). Others, however, argued that the gods could not be depicted by images because the gods were imageless, that is, without a visible form (e.g., Xenophanes of Colophon, ca. 570–475 B.C.E.). Despite differences in historical, social, and cultural contexts, image is understood to refer to the depiction of the Deity and whether or not the Deity can be reproduced in a material object.

Rabbinic Judaism accepted the biblical view on images, or at least interpreted them to mean that it was not possible to depict God visually, since God does not have a human form. As stated in the (Hebrew) Bible, God is incapable of being depicted in material forms such as icons or idols (Bland, 2000). In early Christian thinking, Clement of Alexandria (d. ca. 215 C.E.) eschewed graphic depictions of God in favor of mental or conceptual images, since depictions were made out of dead matter. Origen of Alexandria (d. ca. 254 C.E.) could not conceive why anyone would think an image could represent accurately a deity (Pelikan, 1974).

In Late Antiquity, the question of the image changed as the Bible and theology informed the discussion. The first ecumenical council, called by the emperor Constantine (ca. 272–337 C.E.), was the Council of Nicea (now in Turkey) in 325. This Council established the church’s position on the nature of Jesus Christ’s relationship to God the Father in the Trinity: the two were of one substance (homoousios). For the question of the image, the Council of Nicea led scholars in Late Antiquity to view Christ as the Image of the Father. Thus Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in North Africa (354–430 C.E.), warned that images (depictions), paintings, mosaics, and bas-reliefs could become idols for Christians and replace the true and perfect Image, Jesus Christ.

The understanding of “what is an image” therefore changes under the influence of Christian theological developments. The ancient Greek understandings that the image is an accurate reproduction of the person depicted is altered and reshaped by theological concepts, such as the relationship between Jesus Christ and God the Father, to give the question of the image a distinctly Christian stamp.

Medieval understandings: Christian, Islamic, Jewish.

The use of images in Christian practice gradually increased between the Late Antique and early medieval periods, even in the face of some opposition. Understandings of the image present in early Christianity and Late Antiquity continued through this period and were aided by arguments such as those of Pope Gregory the Great (504–604 C.E.), who argued that images serve a pedagogical function, teaching the illiterate about God. The Iconoclastic Controversy, which erupted in the Byzantine Empire in the eighth and ninth centuries C.E., changed everything. The iconoclastic position, initiated by the emperors Leo III (ca. 683–741 C.E.), and his son Constantine V (718–775 C.E.), viewed images to be mere copies of their originals rather than accurate depictions, making them little more than lifeless idols and thus condemned by the Bible. There was, in short, no essential connection between the image and the original.

The iconophile position, represented most clearly by the writings of Theodore of Studios (759–826 C.E.), John of Damascus (The Fountain of Knowledge) (ca. 675–ca. 749 C.E.), and the patriarch Nicephorus (748–829 C.E.), viewed images as mirrors of the originals. They function as icons, not idols. This understanding suggests accuracy in the depiction as well as the depiction being distinct from the original. Additionally, the iconophiles developed a hierarchy of images that ranged from Christ being the Image of the Father because of the same essence (homoousias) down to commemorations of deeds from the past in memorials (Pelikan).

The controversy was not finally settled until Empress Theodora (ca. 815–867 C.E.), regent during the minority of her son Michael III (840–867 C.E.), convened a synod to accept the canons of the Second Council of Nicaea (787 C.E.). As a result of this Council’s actions in favor of the iconophiles and their understanding of images as mirrors of the originals, icons and their veneration were restored in Christian churches and worship, an act celebrated in the Christian Feast of Orthodoxy.

Debates in later centuries—in both the western Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church—about what the image depicts largely are informed by the philosophical and theological views emerging out of the Iconoclastic Controversy. When aniconistic struggles appear during the Reformation period (sixteenth century C.E.), one of the most prominent voices on the topic is that of John Calvin (1509–1564) in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Rejecting the decisions of the Second Council of Nicaea, Calvin argues images are not able accurately to depict the divine (Besançon, 2000). His position was little changed from that of Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. 260–ca. 340 C.E.), who argued it is impossible to depict Christ. Because God teaches through the words of scripture, Calvin argued for stripping churches of all images (Besançon, 2000).

In Islam, the use of anthropomorphic or theriomorphic images in religious contexts was rejected. According to Grabar (1987), Islamic understandings of images—as being closely related to that which they depicted—were shaped by the larger Christian world and use of images prevalent at the time. The idea that an image somehow is identical with what it depicts was deemed evil, and Islam rejected this Christian understanding. It also rejected the larger symbolic system associated with Christian images, which allowed particular visual features or characteristics, such as two large keys in the hand or on the belt of St. Peter (who is given the keys of the kingdom of heaven by Jesus; Matt 16:19), to convey meaning. Images of persons and animals were eliminated from Muslim religious sites in favor of calligraphy (of verses of the Qur’an), geometric patterns, and mosaic representations.

The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides (Moshe ben Maimon, or Rambam, 1138–1204 C.E.) provided one of the most complete and intellectually rigorous refutations of idols, icons, and other religious imagery. Maimonides rejected images found on idols on the grounds they were substitutions for God that, over time, devolved into fetishes that led people away from God. Pictures were similarly problematic, since they cannot capture the reality of God.

Maimonides also considered texts, with their metaphorical language for God, something to be rejected on the grounds that such metaphors could not accurately depict God—a view that placed him at odds with the biblical texts themselves. In his philosophical work The Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides takes up a rabbinic expression, “The Torah speaks in the language of the people” (Sipre; Num 112), and argues that, while the Torah speaks of God in language and metaphors people can understand, it is not the correct metaphysical language appropriate to God (Halbertal and Margalit, 1992).

Thus, to return to the question posed at the beginning of this section, “What is an image?,” Maimonides would argue that textual metaphors are images, providing people with a way of understanding God even if that understanding is not entirely accurate (in philosophical terms). As an image, it is separate and distinct from that which it represents, but it leads people astray because they tend to take such metaphors literally.


A crucially important element in aniconism is the materiality and material form of the images being prohibited. As noted above, Belting (2011) argues that the materiality of images tends to escape notice until those opposed to images attack them. When this happens, issues pertaining to the image itself tend to diminish. What is ironic about this situation is that, by focusing on material forms, attempts to prohibit images and what they represent are likely to fail because they cannot seize and abolish the very object of their efforts, that is, the mental image in the mind of the viewer.

The various writers of the Hebrew Bible understood the materiality of idols to include wood, precious metals, clay fashioned into terracotta figurines, and stones (both carved and unhewn). In later periods the use of such materials continued, a situation that presumably made aniconic arguments easier, since such materials for idols were explicitly prescribed by the biblical texts. The ancient Greeks used materials including painted pottery, terracotta, stone (especially marble), bronze, and wood. In the early Christian and Late Antique periods, painting, mosaics, frescoes, catacomb walls, sarcophagi, and glass were among the materials used. Maimonides extends the idea of what constitutes materiality to include texts, for the images created by words in texts create images in the minds of their listeners or readers as a result of the metaphors used of God.

Notwithstanding the biblical concerns with materiality (as in the Second Commandment or Isa 44:9–20), the physical reality of the objects and materials used to depict images of God constitutes part of their effect. Whether or not materiality, as Belting (2011) argues, is an issue for iconophile or iconoclast, such materiality must not be overlooked or ignored, since it interacts with the individual who sees and views the image of God signified by and on it. Materiality is what gives the image a physical form and reality, and it is with this material reality that the viewer interacts. The physical encounter with the material object may occur from a range of different visual angles, in variations of light and darkness, by walking around it, perhaps while inhaling incense or other smells and listening to the words of a liturgy, hymn, sermon, reading, street noise, or silence. The full range of human sensory experience comes to bear in the encounter with the material object. Such would be the case even in instances where the image is textual and the viewer’s encounter with it is either by silent reading or in readings and recitations of the text, where the image is encountered aurally.


Closely related to the issue of images in debates about aniconism is what an image is supposed to represent, that is, what it symbolizes, points to, or signals. Representation, in other words, involves interpretation, on both individual and communal levels. In art historical terms it is the question of what an image means or communicates. An image may be understood as a true depiction of that to which it refers, but what does that depiction represent?

In his 1996 painting The Holy Virgin Mary, Chris Ofili employed oil paint and other materials, including elephant dung and cutouts of female genitalia from pornographic magazines. The painting was defaced while on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York in 1999 by Dennis Heiner, a Roman Catholic, who spread white paint across the painting because he regarded it as blasphemous (Mitchell, 2005). Presumably the blasphemous nature of the painting is not due to its being a painting of the Virgin Mary but rather to the materials used in the image and what those materials represent. Also, as Michael Kimmelman (1999) noted, the title of the painting played a role in its controversy; he notes that a title such as “My Friend Mildred” likely would have changed the painting’s meaning and thereby removed the controversy it caused.

Because representation involves the symbolism of idols and icons, at issue are the socially constructed meanings, significations, and associations individuals make with those objects. These meanings caused various debates throughout history, such as how true is a depiction of a deity (its verisimilitude) and whether or not the form or materiality of the image is appropriate and correct. But representation also involves an encounter between the material object and the viewer, which results in acts of visualization generated by the use of bodily senses. Sight is the most common sense used in this encounter, but the other senses, like touch, also are used.

The interaction between an individual and idol generates a mental image or images in the mind of the observer (Belting, 2011). That mental image is where the representational value of the idol or icon begins and develops. It is where political and identity issues become personal, as individuals interpret what they have seen and the images they subsequently create, which become meaningful by means of the individual’s other values, commitments, ideas, and beliefs. It is where much of the social power of images is found and remains, even after the material object is destroyed. The image of the burning World Trade Center towers, for example, remains for many who saw the video images broadcast on 11 September 2001. Even though the towers were destroyed that day, the (mental) images remain, representations of the day’s events.

Instability in what representations mean.

When aniconic ideas are put into practice (iconoclasm), it is the mental images or representations that are the target, even if it is the material images where actions and energies against idols and icons are expressed. These mental images appear to be the target of the Second Commandment’s restrictions on images having any form in heaven, earth, or the waters below the earth, notwithstanding Deuteronomy 4:15 and other biblical texts that name the materiality of idols. The inclusive nature of the Commandment suggests the viewer’s mental images of the Deity are its target.

Halbertal and Margalit (1992) use the work of C. S. Peirce to argue the reason the Second Commandment prohibits images is that the similarity between the symbol and what it symbolizes is insufficient; too much of a gap exists between the two. A substitution error may occur, in which the viewer confuses the symbol and its meaning. Rather than being a representation of God, it is understood to be God. In the twelfth century C.E., Maimonides considered the possibility of a substitution error to be practically inevitable with any image of God. Images are intermediaries for God, and over time believers transition in their thinking and practice from interpreting their worship of the intermediaries as a way of respecting God to worshipping the intermediaries as God.

A similar argument was made earlier, during the Iconoclastic Controversy, by Leo III and Constantine V, who viewed icons as inaccurate depictions of their originals. Because not identical in essence with their originals, icons were substitutes and therefore idols to be banned. Their opponents in the Controversy, Theodore of Studios, John of Damascus, and the patriarch Nicephorus, did not see the gap in meaning between symbol and symbolized as too great. Rather, icons are visible objects, perceived with the eyes and vision, that make possible the worship of the spiritual, invisible, true God.

The substitution error assumes both a stable image and a stable representation or interpretation of that image. The stability of both forms the basis for the prohibition of images, whether that of the Second Commandment or Maimonides. But equally possible is that images are prohibited because the representations generated by those images are so difficult to control.

From an aniconistic perspective, images suffer from a surfeit of meaning. The calves King Jeroboam of Israel set up at Bethel and Dan (1 Kgs 12:28–30) and the one made by Aaron at Mt. Sinai (Exod 32:1–6), for example, represent the Deity by employing iconographic symbols of power, fertility, and iconography associated with the Canaanite deities El and Baal. What is not clear is whether the calves are images of the Deity, as if visual similes, or if they represent animals on which the Deity stands, as in some iconography of the Mesopotamian storm-god Adad (see the stele from the Ishtar Temple at Arslan Tash in the Louvre Museum, Paris, depicting Adad standing on a bull). Any or all of these meanings are represented by the calves.

A similar problem may explain the standing stones, maṣṣēbôt, prohibited by some biblical texts. As unhewn stones—that is, stones not intentionally shaped, carved, sculpted, or otherwise manipulated in their form beyond standing them on end—the very lack of an image would seem to conform to the commandment. But that lack itself may be the issue, because too many representations were possible. The absence of an image or other manipulation on the stones may have rendered them blank canvases upon which viewers could create seemingly unlimited mental images.

These examples indicate one of the problems of idols and icons: they are polyvalent, in that the question of what they represent or symbolize cannot be strictly prescribed or circumscribed. The mental image generated by the idol in the mind of the viewer may have echoes or resonances with images beyond those intended by the idol’s producer. The socially constructed nature of images make those echoes possible, because these other echoes are part of the cultural repertoire of meanings and representations for idols. An image of the Deity cannot prescribe the surplus of meaning it creates, leaving the representation unstable, as those meanings remain a continual possibility. The prohibition, then, may target this instability of meaning and the implications it has for understanding the Deity.


Halbertal and Margalit (1992) cite a second Peircian category of representation, metonymy, to argue there is no philosophical objection to such representations in the biblical tradition. The cherubim in Solomon’s temple (1 Kgs 6:23–28), for example, are a metonymic representation of God rather than an image of the Deity. What is represented, argued Halbertal and Margalit, is not an image of God but something closely associated with the Deity and thus cannot lead to an error in representation of God.

George (2012) argues that the tabernacle narratives in Exodus function in this manner, since the tabernacle was the Deity’s dwelling place among Israel during its wilderness journey. The lengthy and detailed biblical narratives of the tabernacle’s instructions (Exod 25–31) and construction (Exod 35–40) function metonymically, allowing extended focus and consideration of the Deity’s dwelling, if not the Deity.

The biblical allowance of such representations may be due to their avoiding substitution errors, as Halbertal and Margalit argue, but their claim that it suggests the Second Commandment’s aim was avoiding inappropriate representations is debatable, since representations have a surplus of meaning.

“Conventional” representations.

The third Peircian category Halbertal and Margalit (1992) cite is conventional representation, by which they mean various linguistic representations, such as metaphor. As argued above, the Second Commandment does not prohibit literary or textual images of the Deity, and this linguistic tolerance largely is observed in other historical periods and cultural contexts. Philosophically, however, what difference is there between a verbal picture and one with another material form, such as an idol? Both types of image create representations for the viewer, reader, or listener.

Halbertal and Margalit argue that a linguistic image has no material form—it is not a material object—that can become an idol. Yet as van der Toorn (1997a) argues, the Torah may have become precisely this, a venerated object because of its metonymic connection with the Deity as the Word of God. Maimonides was aware of such a possibility and thus viewed linguistic images as equally prohibited by the Second Commandment (Halbertal and Margalit, 1992).

Aniconism and Visual Studies.

The philosophical and theological issues surrounding images, materiality, and representation assume the presence and interaction of a viewer and an object. Historically the focus of concern has been on what idols mean or represent, the accuracy of their images as depictions, the immediacy to the Deity provided the viewer by the image, and other such questions. Consequently the discussion has taken up metaphysical questions (Does the image depict the right deity?), practical issues (Does it lead to right worship?), orthodoxy (Does it lead to right belief and philosophical understanding?), orthopraxis (Does it involve right worship and ethics?), and correct representation (Does it incorporate right form[s], right media, etc.?). In recent years, however, work in visual theory raises questions of what images want, how they place demands on viewers and shape viewers’ interpretations (Mitchell, 2005), and how the representations they create transform viewers into walking images and vessels of images (Belting, 2011), presenting new issues for studying aniconism.

Mitchell (1986) argues that a number of meanings inhere to the notion of image, including that an image is a likeness, representation, or imitation of an object or person and has other connotations reflecting the intellectual discipline or discourse in which the term is used. In certain respects, Mitchell’s observation about disciplinary perspective summarizes the history of aniconism with respect to the Bible and art, since different cultures and locations have shaped the ways in which arguments about aniconism were articulated.

The concern in visual studies draws attention once again to individuals and communities as they experience and interpret representations of the Deity. How do they create, develop, and carry images within themselves? It is in the creation and development of images specific to each individual, group, or community that the surplus of meanings for images is realized. Visual studies may echo historical arguments about substitution and whether or not an individual creates the correct image and representation in her or his mind. Mitchell, for example, is well aware of these historical arguments, and they provide a vantage point for him from which to analyze contemporary debates and discussions of images of various sorts, from paintings to video and digital pictures.

Even in the early twenty-first century, debates about images, what is permitted, what is restricted, their form, what they depict, their materiality, and the ways in which they come to have social significance and create meanings—all of which are concerns of aniconism—continue.




  • Assmann, Jan. “What’s Wrong with Images??” In Idol Anxiety, edited by Josh Ellenbogen and Aaron Tugendhaft, pp. 19–31. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2011.
  • Barasch, Moshe. Icon: Studies in the History of an Idea. New York: New York University Press, 1992.
  • Belting, Hans. Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Age of Art. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. Authoritative work on the application and interpretation of the icon in early Christianity up through the medieval period.
  • Belting, Hans. An Anthropology of Images: Picture, Medium, Body. Translated by Thomas Dunlap. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2011.
  • Berlejung, Angelika. “Aniconism. I. Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.” In Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception, Vol. 1, edited by Hans-Josef Klauck and Dale C. Allison Jr., pp. 1210–1215. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2009.
  • Besançon, Alain. The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm. Translated by Jane Marie Todd. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
  • Bland, Kalman P. The Artless Jew: Medieval and Modern Affirmations and Denials of the Visual. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000. Important work refuting modern claims there is no history of art among Jews.
  • Cameron, Euan. The European Reformation. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • Curtis, Edward M. “Idol, Idolatry.” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary, edited by David Noel Freedman, Vol. 3, pp. 376–381. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
  • Gaifman, Milette. “What Is Greek Aniconism??” In Aniconism in Greek Antiquity. Oxford Studies in Ancient Culture & Representation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Provides a succinct history of the emergence of the term “aniconism” from a history of religions perspective.
  • George, Mark K. “Israelite Aniconism and the Visualization of the Tabernacle.” Journal of Religion & Society Supplement Series 8 (2012): 40–54.
  • Grabar, Oleg. The Formation of Islamic Art. Rev. and exp. ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987. Authoritative volume on art in Islam.
  • Halbertal, Moshe, and Avishai Margalit. Idolatry. Translated by Naomi Goldblum. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992. Authoritative work on Idolatry, especially in the Jewish tradition.
  • Keel, Othmar, and Christoph Uehlinger. Gods, Godesses, and Images of God in Ancient Israel. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998. Influential study of iconography of ancient Israel and surrounding cultures.
  • Kimmelman, Michael. “Critic’s Notebook: A Madonna’s Many Meanings in the Art World.” New York Times, 5 October 1999.
  • Lewis, Theodore. “Divine Images and Aniconism in Ancient Israel.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 118, no. 1 (1998): 36–53.
  • Mettinger, Tryggve N. D. No Graven Image? Israelite Aniconism in Its Ancient Near Eastern Context. Coniectanea Biblica Old Testament Series 42. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1995. Argues for aniconism in Israel’s cultic practices from an early period.
  • Mitchell, W. J. T. Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. Important for reconceptualizing the relationship between visual images and the written text.
  • Mitchell, W. J. T. What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. Important work in visual studies on ways in which images shape a viewer’s responses.
  • Niehr, Herbert. “In Search of YHWH’s Cult Statue in the First Temple.” In The Image and the Book: Iconic Cults, Aniconism, and the Rise of Book religion in Israel and the Ancient Near East, edited by Karel van der Toorn, pp. 73–95. Contributions to Biblical Exegesis and Theology 21. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 1997.
  • Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine: Vol. 2, The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600–1700). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974. An exceptionally thorough discussion of the philosophical and theological issues involved in the Iconoclastic Controversy.
  • Schroer, Silvia. In Israel gab es Bilder: Nachrichten von darstellender Kunst im Alten Testament. Orbis biblicus et orientalis 74. Freiburg, Switzerland: Universitätsverlag, 1987.
  • Uehlinger, Christoph. “Anthropomorphic Cult Statuary in Iron Age Palestine and the Search for Yahweh’s Cult Images.” In The Image and the Book: Iconic Cults, Aniconism, and the Rise of Book Religion in Israel and the Ancient Near East, edited by Karel van der Toorn, pp. 97–155. Contributions to Biblical Exegesis and Theology 21. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 1997.
  • Van der Toorn, Karel. “The Iconic Book: Analogies between the Babylonian Cult of Images and the Veneration of the Torah.” In The Image and the Book: Iconic Cults, Aniconism, and the Rise of Book Religion in Israel and the Ancient Near East, pp. 229–248. Contributions to Biblical Exegesis and Theology 21. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 1997a. Argues that the Torah functions as a (substitute) divine image for ancient Israel.
  • Van der Toorn, Karel, ed. The Image and the Book: Iconic Cults, Aniconism, and the Rise of Book Religion in Israel and the Ancient Near East. Contributions to Biblical Exegesis and Theology 21. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 1997b. Collection of essays addressing the historical background of ancient Israel’s ban on images in cultic contexts.

Further Reading

  • Berlejung, Angelika. Die Theologie der Bilder: Herstellung und Einweihung von Kultbildern in Mesopotamien und die alttestamentliche Bilderproblematik. Orbis biblicus et orientalis 162. Freiburg, Switzerland: Universitätsverlag, 1998.
  • Latour, Bruno, Peter Weibel, and Zentrum für Kinst und Medientechnologie Karlsruhe, eds. Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion, and Art. Karlsruhe, Germany: ZKM Center for Art and Media, 2002. Important collection of essays about iconoclasm, images, and representation written to accompany an exhibition of the same name.
  • Mondzain, Marie-José. Image, Icon, Economy: The Byzantine Origins of the Contemporary Imaginary. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2005. Insightful argument about the influence of the image in contemporary life is shaped by the debates and solutions of the Iconoclastic Controversy.
  • Pezzoli-Olgiati, Daria, and Christopher Rowland, eds. Approaches to the Visual in Religion. Research in Contemporary Religion 10. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011. A collection of essays focused on methodologies for analyzing images and their role(s) in religions.

Mark K. George