Nature, Representation, Iconopathy

Iconopathy: the pathological state resulting from an excess of images. More generally, the corruption of aesthetic experience, brought on by an excess of imagery, or other pathenogenic factors.

Seems to have been invented by Cecil Roth, in Jewish Antecedents of Christian Art Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 16, No. 1/2 (1953), pp. 24-44, Published by: The Warburg Institute: “In fact, as has already been indicated, Jewish art has known alternate periods of iconopathy (if one may coin the term) and iconoclasm: of periods when the representation of the human figure was tolerated, and of periods when it was execrated. One of the ages when the latter tendency prevailed was demonstrably during the Moslem hegemony, especially in Medieval Spain, when Jewish art was driven to be decorative rather than representational.”

Or, in the context of his exhibition at Princeton in 2003, (the internet is a place of marvels) Emmanuel Moutafov mused:

“Last summer, I was sitting with a friend on a balcony overlooking the Rodope mountains, sipping cheap wine and admiring a dramatic sunset. The deeply red sun rays that were spreading over the green mountain range made me exclaim before I had time to think: “Look at the beauty of the sunset! How much it resembles a landscape by a German romantic painter.” My friend looked at me as if I had uttered the world’s greatest inanity: “How can you compare nature with one of its representations?” I could indeed, because our professional training indelibly affects our responses to the world. In the 19th century, the revived interest in Orthodox icons created the discourse of iconography; the idea behind iconography was to discover the semiotics of Orthodox religious representation and to organize its religious themes. Iconography turned icon itself into a text, derived from another text, a text which at some point leads an independent life of its own. Erwin Panofsky’s scholarship (iconology) transferred to a higher level the “textualization” of representation in and the semiotics of painting practice. The younger generation of art historians, as well as everybody who viewed natural objects through the geometric perspective rules of Italian Renaissance, are not used to perceiving the world, or nature as the original source of their inspiration. In other words, they prefer to handle a theme or subject that has already been filtered through somebody else’s eyes or perhaps to rely on certain elements integrated in the object of study that reflects a religious Weltanschauung. Thus, for the Byzantine scholar the icon is primarily a collection of symbols, texts and messages; by reading these messages, one begins to interpret the world. So we are faced with a paradox whereby we unconsciously view nature by attempting to follow the secure steps iconography has taken, and we arrive at what I would call iconopathy.”


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