Image and Presence

A Christological Reflection on Iconoclasm and Iconophilia

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Natalie Carnes
  • Stanford, CA: 
    Stanford University Press
    , December
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The concept explored in Natalie Carnes’s Image and Presence is both controversial and illuminating. She claims that the different reactions to religious imagery we call iconoclasm and iconophilia both participate in the same complex realities of imaging and, perhaps surprisingly, depend upon each other for their full significance. She argues that images themselves have an iconoclastic structure in that any image is both the likeness and unlikeness of the thing it images. Carnes thus explores the deeply dialectical nature of imaging that places presence and absence in meaningful tension with one another: “Negation is internal to how images mediate to us the presence of the imaged … From negation, presence” (4). Such a dialectical interplay represents for her a “christological grammar of imaging” (14). In the same way that the Chalcedonian definition seeks to reconcile the full divinity and full humanity of Christ, Carnes understands this dialectical tension to be generative in the case of images too. She explains that “this ‘is’ and ‘is not,’ ‘likeness’ and ‘unlikeness,’ ‘presence’ and ‘absence’ that makes an image image is the negation at the heart of imaging, the negation that, in our life with images, translates into the centrality of iconoclasm to iconophilia” (14). Her method for testing this comparison, then, involves pursuing specific examples of how religious images might reveal more through their own self-negation. 

Carnes constructs a chiastic survey of images and their presence that moves through: arriving, abiding, riven and riving, abiding, arriving. Her first example takes up the curious case of the disappearance of the Maria lactans form and the role it could play in confirming Christ’s own dependence and desire, especially amid a visual landscape seemingly obsessed with the pornographic depiction of breasts. Next, Carnes explores the invisible presence of Christ with Mary in so many Annunciation images as a further development of her claim about the necessity of iconoclasm. Here, she distinguishes more fully the difference between an “iconoclasm of fidelity” and an “iconoclasm of temptation” and how the former seeks to remain “faithful to Christ the Image, who renders God visible without reducing God to that visibility” (59). At the chiastic turn, Carnes plumbs the depths of crucifixion imagery and how the absence of God in these horrific images of torture and suffering actually reveals God’s presence and in turn invites viewers into Christ’s own iconoclasm—“his breaking of brokenness” (119). Next she notes the paradox of resurrection imaging given the strange fact that “before the resurrection, people failed to know Jesus as God; now his close friend [Mary Magdalene] fails to know him as Jesus” (123). Thus, the inability to represent the risen Christ with images forces the tradition to look for him elsewhere, perhaps especially in the “least of these.” Lastly, Carnes returns to the image of the Golden Calf for the way in which the evolution of this image from a potent idol to an apophatic symbol can refine her notions regarding an “iconoclasm of fidelity” that protects the presence of the invisible in anticipation of its parousia. In her brief but immensely perceptive conclusion, she brings to the fore one of the subtle implications running beneath the surface: namely, that Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox share more in their approach to images than they might admit, since iconophilia depends on iconoclasm, and vice versa. 

Carnes endeavors to achieve a great deal with this thoughtful and ambitious study, and there is more than enough here to celebrate with critical appreciation. Three aspects deserve specific mention. First, her study demonstrates a concerted effort toward removing divides between what constitutes valuable imagery for religious studies. In the same chapter where she discusses historic works from Renaissance masters, she also accounts for a recent cover image of Playboy magazine that alludes to the Virgin Mary. She acknowledges this reality by continually referring to “our life with images” as an indicator that we operate in a visual landscape inundated with all kinds of rich and dynamic imagery. In this way, she helpfully introduces a broader horizon for engaging imagery and visual culture with a keen eye to emergent theological import. 

Second, despite the potentially contentious topic, Carnes makes peace her aim. Among the major branches of historic Christianity, she accounts for the difficult, if not intractable, differences between these traditions, even as she argues for their mutual interest in the engagement of imagery from a renewed theological perspective. Thus Carnes develops an approach to religious imagery that does justice finally to the richly interdependent ways these image traditions have developed and sustain themselves. So, we find Paul Evdokimov, an Orthodox theologian, and Pope Benedict XVI conversing here and advocating for remarkably similar positions. It becomes clear, however, that Protestants have much to learn in this dialogue between traditions and would do well to emulate the careful listening of this author. 

Third, to the degree that some may want to avoid the probing questions and dangerous connections made here, it will likely only serve to highlight the immense power of images in our own day. As Carnes’s study makes clear, the need for fresh theologies of veneration is more desperate than ever. The image retains all its power today and perhaps more in light of the many forms it takes. This book provides much more than a caution for our image-obsessed age. It is, more importantly, a challenging and profound theology of the image that invites readers to dispense with the simplistic labels used to describe these traditions as flatly pro or con and instead recall that all churches share an earnest anticipation of where divine presence might be revealed afresh.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Taylor Worley is Associate Professor of Faith and Culture at Trinity International University.

Date of Review: 
September 17, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Natalie Carnes is Associate Professor of Theology at Baylor University.


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