Picturing the Transcendent: Iconography
Iconic pictures stand for and symbolize sacred themes and qualities that are not directly sensible to sight. While the term icon derives from the Greek eikōn and may arguably be applied most fittingly to the religious art of Byzantine Christianity, it has taken on a broader significance, coming to mean an image that embodies the spirit or meaning of a community, a person, or an event. Thus, the Austrian artist who illustrated a Latin missal at the end of the 13th century depicts the cross at Golgotha not as mere timbers or an expression of imperial authority, but as a tree of life, conveying Christ’s crucifixion as a beginning rather than an end. Armenian scribes who copied sacred texts in the 14th and 17th centuries collaborated with illuminators who depicted each evangelist at the beginning of their Gospel.
While imprisoned in the Tower of London before his trial for treason in 1535, Sir Thomas More spent many hours consulting his illustrated Book of Hours. That he spent as much time contemplating the book’s illustrations as its words is suggested by the prayer which he wrote across nineteen pages. “A Godly Meditation” commences on a page illustrating the birth of Christ and concludes on a page depicting Christ carrying his cross to Calvary. As Louis Martz, professor of English and director of the Beinecke Library, observed, “More’s prayer wreathes itself around the group [of illustrations], suggesting, by the position of its verses, its central theme – the imitation of Christ’s life as the greatest spiritual exercise in which the true Christian can engage.”
The embodiment of spiritual or cultural values in a particular image is not limited to Christianity. For the Mexica people of Meso-America, the image of an eagle devouring a serpent atop a nopal cactus called to mind the guidance of Huitzilopochtli, the deity who told them that such a sign would mark their permanent home, Tenochtitlan. On the frontispiece of the Codex Mendoza the eagle adorns a map of the city.
The Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest built an elegant and powerful system of totemic and spiritual art upon a system of simple forms. In 1883, Haida artist Johnny Kit-Elswa drew a dozen figures representing the spiritual and mythic worlds of his community. Hooyeh or Raven, a central figure in Haida tales of spiritual growth and moral conflict, embodies the best and worst in people. For Haida, his image would immediately call to mind the values they embraced and the vices they resisted.
The power of symbolic images to arouse emotion and devotion extends beyond religion. The first abolitionist society in England was formed in 1783, but it can be argued that the turning point in the campaign against slavery was the publication in 1789 of Description of a Slave Ship . The outline of a ship, filled to capacity with the black bodies of captive Africans, made manifest a human tragedy that had till then been represented primarily by dry statistics. Between March and July of 1789, more than 10,000 copies of the broadside were printed in London and Philadelphia. The nascent abolition movement had discovered an image that expressed its cause better than words.
In an ironic age, artists do not hesitate to employ the power of icons to stir contradictory emotions and undermine complacency. In 1967, David Plowden photographed the Statue of Liberty not against a beautiful clear sky from the foot of Manhattan or outlined against the skyscrapers of New York City from the middle of the harbor, but rather from rubble-strewn Caven Point Road in Jersey City. As the cover for Plowden’s The Hand of Man on America (1971), the picture alerted readers to Plowden’s anger that the country was ignoring its values and neglecting its heritage.
In Golden Valley, North Dakota (1971), Plowden links two of the most enduring symbols of American prosperity, the railroad and the grain elevator, to express his conviction that all Americans depend upon the country’s rural heartland. The railroad track that runs past the grain elevators and extends beyond the picture’s frame reminds viewers, wherever they live, of their connection to the farmers of the Great Plains.
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