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Exploring Aniconism (1/2)

Panel Chair: Mikael Aktor | Monday, August 24, 1:30-3 p.m. | Venue

Anicionic objects together form a broad category of religious material sources – a category which in fact seems both too broad and incoherent. It includes clearly recognizable depictions of wheels, fish, phalli, unmanufactured objects and elements in the natural environment such as unwrought stones, trees, rivers and mountains, fashioned objects, such as stelai and logs, as well as empty spaces, such as vacant seats, and empty rooms. While all of these objects are described as ‘aniconic’, they differ dramatically in their religious agency and manner of mediating divine presence. Based on empirical data from different traditions this panel discusses aniconism from three perspectives: Classification (what are the criteria for distinguishing between different types of aniconic objects?), historiography (what are the historical relations between aniconic and iconic representations within single traditions or in general?) and mediality (how do the sensory properties of aniconic objects generate notions of ritual agency?).

Milette Gaifman

Aniconism: A Comparative Perspective

The modern term aniconism was coined in the 19th c. by the German archaeologist Johannes Adolph Overbeck, in the context of an account of the development of ancient Greek art (Overbeck, J. A., 'Über das Cultusobjekt bei den Griechen in seinen ältesten Gestaltungen', 1864). Since then, the word has come to be used in a wide range of scholarly fields and subfields, particularly in the History of Religion and History of Art. The examination of the variety of ways in which "aniconism" is being deployed reveals an inconsistent and often contradictory usage. The broad range of religious and visual phenomena that the term has come to describe shows that "aniocnism" demands close scrutiny from different points of views. A broad comparative perspective, may allow us to ascertain the significance of the word aniconism and its potential to be applied consistently across different scholarly fields.

Robert G. Bednarik

Aniconism and the origins of palaeoart

Contrary to the widely held belief that iconic palaeoart precedes aniconic during the early history of humans, palaeoart commences as non-iconic forms, and in most parts of the world then settled by hominins continues as such during the Pleistocene. The forms, development and global distribution of such palaeoart are presented within the framework of hominin evolution. Attention is given to the question of the continuation of aniconism after the introduction of iconicity and the apparent connection between the latter and youth. This coincides with the role of aniconism in the world of specific ethnographically studied peoples, such as the Aborigines of Australia and the Jarawas of the Andamans. The neuroscientific explanation of aniconism shows that it is cognitively more complex than iconic depiction. Based on these and other strands of evidence, a general hypothesis of the roles and significance of aniconism in the world’s pre-literate societies is developed.

Jay Johnston

Stone-Agency: Sense, Sight and Magical Efficacy

This paper will consider the materiality and mediality of sacred and 'magical' stones in Northern European vernacular belief practices (especially Gaelic traditions). In particular it will examine their attribution to specific deities and metaphysical beings, their role in healing rituals and in enabling humans to perceive metaphysical realms. The paper will focus — via methodologies and theories recently developed in both religious aesthetics and 'new materialism' — on the materiality and ontology of the objects, their associated visions and the 'relations' such stones are understood to have produced. As 'sites' of divine agency and efficacy the stones (including amulets and prehistoric flints) were imbued not only with spiritual agency, but also placed within an invisible network of relations that linked individuals, non-human animals, the landscape and the metaphysical realms. This panoply of relations will be demonstrated as to be crucial to the aesthetic logic guiding selection and 'attribution' to specific deities/spiritual beings.


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