‘Iconoclash’ of Civilizations: Missives from the Image Wars

Somewhere on the lower level of the Cloisters in New York is a small but striking 16th century stained-glass windowpane that depicts a robed monk casting a bound book into a burning pile of wood and manuscripts. A scroll, blown by the wind, not yet consumed, reaches out of the flames and displays a line from Sextus Propertius’s Elegies. “Olim gratus eram,” I was once acceptable. Since first coming across this pane, I’ve often wondered what the people who made it thought upon beholding it. Were they celebrating or mourning the scene depicted? Or perhaps it was something in between?


In a New Yorker essay after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Teju Cole invoked Menocchio, the 16th century miller who is the hero of Carlo Ginzburg’s groundbreaking micro-history, The Cheese and the Worms. Cole uses Menocchio to show that intolerance, iconoclastic intolerance, is definitional to the formation of The West; the anecdote serves to show that this intolerance has always been present and cannot be gotten rid of. Cole comes to the conclusion that:

The West is a variegated space, in which both freedom of thought and tightly regulated speech exist, and in which disavowals of deadly violence happen at the same time as clandestine torture. But, at moments when Western societies consider themselves under attack, the discourse is quickly dominated by an ahistorical fantasy of long-suffering serenity and fortitude in the face of provocation. Yet European and American history are so strongly marked by efforts to control speech that the persecution of rebellious thought must be considered among the foundational buttresses of these societies. Witch burnings, heresy trials, and the untiring work of the Inquisition shaped Europe, and these ideas extended into American history and took on American modes, from the breaking of slaves to the censuring of critics of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

This is obvious from the ending of Menocchio’s account: he, like the books in the stained glass from the same era at the Cloisters, is burned at the stake.

While the Inquisition-records Ginzburg uses contain much information, they do not tell us what Menocchio’s final words were, allowing us to imagine that they too were something like “olim gratus eram,” I was once acceptable.

What’s remarkable about Menocchio is not that he was burned as a heretic, but that it took the authorities so long to burn him. Multiple trials, dozens of negotiations, and pages upon pages were deemed necessary to condemn Menocchio to burning.


In April 1939, a World’s Fair was held in New York. A massive “Temple of Religion” was constructed to honor Religion with a capital “R.” It was in this Temple of Religion that the term “Judeo-Christian Tradition,” a term that could only be formulated in a 20th century American environment, was coined. (There, of course, was a Judeo-Christian tradition in Europe in 1939 and prior, but that was often a tradition that consisted of Christians killing or converting Judeos.)

A photograph from the Temple of Religion pavilion shows five white children, four girls and one boy, dressed in nicely ironed Old World clothing, smiling in the sun, posing with books.fair

A note attached to the photograph reads:

These young refugee children learn that books aren’t burned in America. The Picture was taken at the New York World’s Fair following a ceremony for refugees in the Temple of Religion. The Fair which will reopen May 11th has chosen Peace and Freedom as its theme in 1940.


Also at the 1939 World’s Fair, right across the parade-ground, was a full-scale replica of the Buddhist Potala Temple in Jehol, China. Here, a religion was presented that was too different from the ones that were gracefully consumed in the “universal” Temple of Religion. Less popular than the main attraction, the mock-temple featured a show with nude female models in order to draw more visitors. 



Religious images were also gathered the 1867 International Exposition in Paris. The program book, which contains a startling image of gods from all around the world torn from their context and rearranged in an awesome assemblage, tells us that we should “not believe that there was any bias in the choice of members of the universal Olympus; all classes were admitted: Dii majores, dii Minores and plebs divina; the Great Gods, the Small Gods and divine people.”

And truly, no editorial bias was chosen in constructing this tableau of colonial treasures: Shiva as Bhairava stands atop a Polynesian wooden statue; The Buddha as Siddhartha Gautama sits atop the Egyptian goddess Hathor. We are told that “the idols of ancient Mexico are represented by some debris and photographic reproductions.”

But there is, in fact, one bias exposed by the scene—there are no Christian images present. No Virgin Mary, no Son of God, no Saint John the divine. An inclusive assemblage functions to exclude.



In his recent book, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, the French Philosopher Bruno Latour bemoans The West’s dismissal of images, claiming the view is hypocritical and un-self-aware.

He meditates on Andrea Mantegna’s 15th century depiction of Saint Sebastian, now on display at the Louvre. The painting shows Sebastian standing above the rubble that is the remainder of smashed Roman gods, as he is put to death for his Christianity. Struck by arrows, Sebastian in turn strikes a pose, and slowly, from the feet up, becomes a new idol, a new image. It is in this space of constant destruction where construction is clouded (but present) and The Moderns live. Latour writes:

Antifetishism is the religion of Europeans, the one that explains their piety, the one thanks to which, whatever they may claim, they are impossible to secularize: they can decide on the weapon, the target, and the divinity to which they are going to sacrifice their victims, but they cannot escape the obligation to worship this cult, that of iconoclasm. This is the only subject on which there is perfect agreement among the most religious, the most scientific, and the most secular of persons. The anthropologist of the Moderns thus has to get used to living in a cloud of dust, since those whom she is studying always seem to live amid ruins: the ruins they have just toppled, the ruins of what they had put up in place of the ones they toppled, ruins that others, for the same reason, are preparing to destroy.

Over the past hundred or so years, this attitude has been one of the chief exports of The West, and as it exported this attitude to the rest of the world, it became further blind to its increased attachments to its own images. In his 2002 book, Iconoclash, Latour writes:

We knew (I knew!) we had never been modern, but now we are even less so: fragile, frail, threatened; that is, back to normal, back to the anxious and careful stage in which the “others” used to live before being “liberated” from their “absurd beliefs” by our courageous and ambitious modernization. Suddenly, we seem to cling with a new intensity to our idols, to our fetishes, to our “factishes,” to the extraordinarily fragile ways in which our hand can produce objects over which we have no command. We look at our institutions, our public spheres, our scientific objectivity, even our religious ways, everything we loved to hate before, with a somewhat renewed sympathy. Less cynicism, suddenly, less irony. A worshipping of images, a craving for carefully crafted mediators, what the Byzantine called “economy,” what used to simply be called civilization.

It is as if, by professing how much we hate all images, we in turn profess how much we really, in the end, love our images more than all others. By thinking that we’re free from images, we become even further bound to them. Saint Sebastian rolls his eyes.



A story is told of Paris in 1290 that the Chronicle of Jean de Thilrode relates thusly:

A certain Jew living in Paris had a Christian serving girl from whom he bought for ten pounds a consecrated Host. She her-self in truth presented it to her master, which done he placed the host on a table and had other Jews join him, saying, “Are not these Christians fools to believe in this Host?” Taking knives, styles and other instruments, they wished to destroy the Host which they were not able to do. At length a certain one among them took up a large knife, struck at the Host and it divided into three parts, and it bled continuously. At the sight of this miracle, many of the Jews converted. Then the Host was placed in a cauldron full of water that it might be boiled and destroyed. The Host however, through Divine Grace changed itself into flesh and blood. Having seen these miracles, John, the bearer of these facts, with his whole family was converted to the Catholic faith.

The miracle would prove popular and quickly spread throughout Europe. It was turned into an Italian mystery play entitled Un Miracolo del Corpo di Cristo, which in turn was the basis for a breathtaking series of paintings by Paolo Uccello, meant to adorn an altarpiece from the 15th century. The paintings follow the play scene-by-scene until the end, when, instead of being converted to good Catholics, the Jews, because of their mocking, are themselves burned at the stake.



In the 16th century, but far away from Menocchio and the “olim gratus eram” book-burning scene, the first Christian image from the so-called New World was produced, depicting a scene first found in Paul the Deacon’s 8th Century Life of Gregory the Great, where a Eucharist wafer turns into Jesus as the Man of Sorrows in front of the bewildered Pope.

The Nahua noble Diego de Alvarado Huanitzin fashioned this breathtaking version of the scene for Pope Paul III, combining the Aztec style of amanteca featherwork with the Catholic narrative. Jesus is surrounded by the Arma Christi, which serve as pictograms, stylized representations that convey the larger meaning of his suffering. To his right a Jew, a figure no Aztec person could have encountered, is shown spitting on Jesus.



If the Eucharist really is (hoc est!) the body of Christ, Catholics begin to feel uncomfortable when the wafer’s materiality expresses itself. In his De Corona, Tertullian writes, “We suffer anxiety if anything of the cup, or even of our bread, fall to the ground.”

At the Council of Trent, once again in our beloved 16th century, the Catholic hierarchy accepted a document known as De Defectibus in Celebratione Missarum Occurrentibus that details how to dispose of a defective Eucharist wafer properly. The document is notable not for its novelty, but for thorough systemization: it lays out forty different situations in which the bread and wine used in the Eucharist can become defective and how a priest can avoid “sin or scandal.” It creates a system that guards against all possibilities, even if they are only imagined possibilities including what exactly should happen to the Eucharist if the priest should die mid-consecration (without wondering why a dying priest should be officiating at a Mass).

An overarching schema is created for the disposal of holy matter, which is adapted for the various states the matter is found in. In general, as much holy matter as possible is to be consumed by the priest, who literally consumes it ad nauseum. A priest must drink wine with a fly in it and must eat the leftover visible pieces of the Eucharist that have been vomited unless it will further cause him to vomit. Still, provision is made for wine or bread that cannot be consumed, either because it will make the priest vomit or poison him. This leftover holy matter is absorbed or dissolved in a different substance (holy water, a cloth), which is then washed down the sacrarium of the church (after being burned if possible).

If wine falls on the altar cloth, a garment, or the carpet, they must be washed three times, and the holy water used in the washing meticulously collected and washed away in the sacrarium afterwards. If it falls on the wooden ground or table, the spot must be scraped and anything that could have possibly touched the Eucharist is burned. The attention to detail is absolute. In addressing broken holy matter, the priest is given no option but to slowly and systematically ensure that leftover material is entirely destroyed.

If a mistake were to occur, the very form of the Eucharist would have to be dealt with. No perceptible part is allowed to remain. The use of fire and water allows the materials that make up the Eucharist to disappear into substances that engulf its form. No scraps are allowed to remain to remind us of the physical nature of the wafer. These actions cannot be enacted publicly. It is up to the priest, and the priest alone, to gather the remains of the Eucharist and bring them behind closed doors to be dealt with.

Actions that would have been trayf if carried out by Jews are considered kosher when priests enact them. The Eucharist can be pulverized, burnt, and drowned at their hands and their hands alone, from within their system.


On December 9th, 2014, the US Senate Intelligence Committee released a summary of its report on the CIA’s torture and rendition program. The report revealed little new—the gruesome details it outlines were largely publically known already.

Detainees were water-boarded for days on end, placed in coffin-like boxes filled with insects, and subjected to force-feeding and freezing temperatures. (Among other things.) But until December, the U.S. government had not produced its own narrative, its own accounting of the torture. Like the priest disposing of the Eucharist, the Senate Select Committee convened behind closed doors, sifting through documents and photographs we are not allowed to see to produce a narrative that assumed some guilt, but which we are not allowed to question.

On July 30th, 2013, less than a year and a half before the Senate report, Private First Class Chelsea Manning was convicted and sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking information very similar to that in the Senate report. Only she did it outside of the government’s apparatus and provided no narrative, only raw images and words.


On January 7th, 2015, two men entered the editorial offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo and opened fire, killing twelve people. The magazine is famous for printing cartoons of the prophet Muhammad (among other religious figures) in sexual poses. A separate gunman, who claimed allegiance with the two gunmen on the run, took over a kosher grocery store and killed four Jews.

These events were widely cast as a part of a civilizational war. Jean-Luc Marion, the current holder of the traditionally ecclesiastical chair on the Académie française, recently wrote:

France is at war; we can no longer doubt that this is the case… [T]he danger posed by Islam is not new—it is familiar to France since the Seventeenth-Century. In fact, the history of France proves that such wars have already been waged and won. The recent history of Europe confirms that democracies eventually vanquish totalitarianism and fascism.

We cannot doubt the Europe views itself at war, and, as Marion notes, this is not a new war. But the wars go back further than the Seventeenth-Century, and more often than not totalitarianism and fascism came out on top.

In the days after the attack, 37 people in France were investigated for glorifying terrorism, a crime punishable by five years in prison and a fine of € 75,000 (seven years in prison and €100,000 if terrorism is glorified online.)


In the third story of the Decameron, a 14th century book our dear departed Menocchio is known to have read, an Italian Christian woman named Philomena tells a story about a Jew and a Muslim (here called a Saracen).

Saladin, a man described as one “whose valor was such that not only turned him from a nobody into Sultan of Babylon, but gained him many victories over kings Saracen and Christian,” has run out of money, and must turn to a Jew named Melchizedek to lend him some.

Melchizedek has a reputation for not lending his money out, so Saladin devises a plan by which he will get him to forfeit his money. In an attempt to get him to break the blasphemy and tolerance laws of the Ayyubid dynasty, Saladin asks Melchizedek, “which of the three religions, the Jewish, the Saracen, or the Christian” he considers to be the true one. The trick is all too obvious for the Jew, who sees that whatever he answers will rend him culpable of offending somebody. So he devises a parable through which to escape.

Melchizedek tells the story of a rich man who had, among his millions in treasure, one especially beautiful ring. The rich man wanted to ensure that the ring stayed in the family, so he declared that whomever he gave the ring to would be the heir of all his property. And so the ring passed down through the generations, serving as a marker of inheritance.

Eventually, the ring passed to a man who had three sons, “all three were handsome, good lads, and most obedient to their father, so he loved them all equally.” Unsure of what to do, the man had an expert blacksmith secretly make two more identical rings. When he died, each son was secretly given one of the rings, and they soon each made claims to the fortune and the honors that went with it.

They soon discovered that all three rings were identical and it was impossible to tell which was the original and which was merely an image of it. “And the question of which of the three was the true heir to their rather remained unresolved,” Melchizedek explained, “It still is.”

To finish his speech, Melchizedek says that it’s the same way with the three religions, “each one considers his inheritance, his religion and commandments the one to give him title to truth, but, as in the case of the rings, where the true title lies is still in dispute.” Saladin is so impressed with Melchizedek that he doesn’t have him arrested; Melchizedek is so impressed with Saladin that he lends him the money he needed. The Christians, listening to the story, are quite entertained.


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